I have been a legal advocate for individuals with disabilities since 1985, but until 2000 I had little experience with special education. I learned about special education while working as an advocate for my son, Sam, and soon realized the enormous disparities in the system on the basis of class and race. I hope that looking at those disparities will open up a discussion of ways we can better work together as a community of parents, teachers, and advocates on behalf of students with disabilities.
In 2008, a parent I will call Marilyn filed a due process complaint against the St. Bernard-Elmwood Place City School District in Hamilton County, Ohio, on behalf of her son, Kevin, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).1 Even though Marilyn received no legal help, she managed to navigate the special education system not merely to file a complaint but to request an expedited hearing.
The school district had identified Kevin as being emotionally disturbed and having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when he was in the 6th grade. Kevin had been taking medication to help moderate his behavior and reduce his symptoms, but he had stopped taking it for a period of time when his mother could not afford it. He also had a behavioral intervention plan to help him maintain appropriate behavior in the classroom. When the school district suspended and then expelled Kevin for violating school policies in 8th grade, his mother filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Education to pressure the school to recognize that his misbehavior was a result of his disability. If the complaint could not be resolved amicably, a hearing officer would render a decision after a hearing.