Charles P. Conroy

The tragedy and triumph of T.A.

By Charles P. Conroy
June 25, 2009
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FROM HIS kindergarten days, T.A. exhibited attention deficits and difficulty completing his schoolwork. As might be expected, the problems were magnified with the greater demands of high school. His parents eventually sought out a specialist who diagnosed attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, along with memory and learning problems, and recommended a more structured environment. All along, officials in the Oregon public school district where he lived maintained that T.A.’s problems did not compromise his educational performance because there was no “sufficiently significant adverse impact.’’ Consequently, T.A. never received services from the school district. His parents unilaterally placed him in a private program and then sought reimbursement for those services.

On Monday, the US Supreme Court issued a special-education decision, Forest Grove School District v. T.A, that had been closely tracked in many sectors of American education. Those who compulsively need to keep score might conclude that private schools for children with special needs had “won.’’ They would be wrong. The true winners were children with what one might call hidden disabilities - social, emotional, and learning needs that are often less apparent than some visual, auditory, ambulatory, or intellectual challenges.

The court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal law regarding special education, requires districts to reimburse families for private services when schools fail to provide a free, appropriate education - as long as the placement is appropriate, and even if the child in question did not previously receive special-education services through the public schools. That might appear to be a windfall for private schools - including my own - that serve children with special needs.

But the reality is different. Many parents are reluctant to use out-of-district programs rather than school programs in their hometown. The up-front costs of private programs are also out of the reach of most parents. I expect no stampede to private programs for both those reasons.

Additionally, public school districts have made great progress in recent years in tailoring the offerings in their schools to children with special needs. The districts that have had the foresight and commitment to do that will see negligible change in the number of children placed out-of-district, simply because a crucial precept in special education is placing students in the “least restrictive environment.’’ If a high-quality in-district program meets a child’s needs, it’s difficult to argue against it.

The Forest Grove decision can serve as a motivator for public and private schools to re-commit to serving them and to improve the programs they already offer. So the real winners in this decision are children with ADHD, bipolar disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, and other challenges that compromise their ability to progress in school.

Whether the Supreme Court decision will have positive effects for private schools for children with disabilities - and a negative impact on public schools that struggle to fund special-needs services - will start to become clear in the days to come. But what is evident now is the obvious benefit for kids like T.A. This boy went to school from kindergarten into high school apparently struggling. The school district responded to his disability with inaction, inertia, and, ultimately, defensiveness and opposition to his receiving services when and where he needed them. He never got what he needed until he was a junior in high school. These days, that’s unusual. It’s also unfortunate.

Because of the court decision, parents can now advocate for their special-needs children - and take a financial risk to obtain appropriate services for them - with the knowledge that the courts will support their good-faith efforts. The children will get the schooling they need and that to which they are entitled.

T.A.’s school career might have been largely lost. That’s the tragedy. Since last Monday, there will be fewer T.A.s. That’s the triumph.

Charles P. Conroy, Ed.D., is executive director of Perkins School in Lancaster.

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