For Kate Shea, facing her school’s special education arbitration process was “the story of two children.”
One of his sons came to the Goffstown School District with an autism diagnosis, confirmed by a neuropsychological investigation paid for by Shea. Through advocacy, she helped him receive speech and occupational therapy from the school district, allowing him to regulate his behavior and emotions in school.
Shea’s second oldest child — and her other children — have been denied similar services by the school district, Shea says, a decision she says is inconsistent and unfair. Without the extra support, these students struggled. Eventually, Shea decided to pull them out and enroll them in the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, an online public charter school.
This result is partly the result of the reluctance of some school administrators to provide services that can be costly, according to Shea. And other parents Shea knows in the state have also had similar experiences of denial. Shea has helped form “an informal group of moms,” bringing together families who have struggled to get the services they feel are appropriate for their children.
“Parents keep a notebook with: ‘Who do I call next? What should I do next?’ Because this kid is sinking, he’s struggling, he’s also getting depressed at an age where he shouldn’t be depressed,” Shea said.
A new law will allow the state to become more involved in the issue. Senate Bill 381, signed into law on July 1, creates a new independent agency to help oversee how schools provide special education services to students and to provide a point of contact for parents navigating the process. .
The new advocate will look at how schools go about creating an Individualized Education Program (IEP) — the plan that determines the services the school will provide. Public schools are required under the Persons with Disabilities Education Act to provide “free and appropriate” education to students with disabilities; IEPs are the mechanism by which parents and administrators agree to these services.
New Hampshire’s new official will be “the advocate, coordinator, and point of contact for parents, guardians, and guardians of students with disabilities,” the law states.
Who will be New Hampshire’s top special education advocate — and what their responsibilities will look like — has yet to be determined.
The new office has faced opposition from the state’s Office of the Child’s Advocate and disability rights group ABLE NH, who argue that the office has too broad a mandate, that ‘it will waste state resources and that the responsibility for oversight of IEPs should rest with the current Children’s Advocate.
But parents of disabled children say they are delighted with this new position.
“There are single points of failure,” Shea said, speaking of the situations that frustrated some parents. “And if we can have someone there at those single points of failure early on, that means the kid gets what they need. This is usually a small amount of help and service. We talk 30 minutes a week of this or 30 of that.
Other parents who attended the signing ceremony say they were similarly angered by the school district’s decision-making regarding IEPs. Patricia Eno, who showed up with her son Samuel, said the lack of services provided to her son caused him to become depressed and miss classes.
Samuel is on the autism spectrum. In elementary and middle school, he received support to help him navigate his classes. But after Samuel entered Salem High School as a freshman, Eno found herself seeking occupational therapy and tutoring outside of the school district due to a lack of necessary services provided by the school. She is currently suing the Salem School District in Rockingham County Superior Court over a claim that the district failed to reimburse her for private lessons that should have been included in her son’s IEP.
Samuel says the lack of support caused his grades to drop precipitously, falling into the D and F range.
“I had a meltdown where I was just not going to school for months straight,” he said. “And it didn’t change anything at all either because they didn’t give me anything.”
Gov. Chris Sununu said he hoped the bill would create a counterweight to schools.
“We have an amazing system,” Sununu said at the bill signing ceremony in Concord. “We have wonderful public schools. We have wonderful special education teachers. We just have to make sure the system is balanced and in the rare cases where there is an imbalance there is a defender on the other side.
Sununu said he decided to sign the bill in part thanks to the advocacy of his wife, Valerie, a former special education teacher. After quitting her teaching job, she became the parents’ advocate, the governor said.
“It opened my eyes long before I entered the political realm to what parents really have to go through,” Sununu said.
The governor said he envisions the special education advocate “working hand-in-hand” with the state’s Office of the Children’s Advocate.
But that office opposed the creation of the special education advocate, arguing during the legislative process that it would duplicate work the children’s advocate was already doing.
How the new office handles work will likely be defined by who takes office first.
In a statement last Thursday, the governor’s office said Sununu would conduct a “rigorous application and vetting process” to find a candidate to nominate. The office plans to release details on how to apply this week, the office said. The chosen candidate will then have to be approved by the Executive Council, which will hold a public hearing.
State Sen. John Reagan said the new attorney would help thwart the potential for school districts to deter some families from receiving all the services they want for their children. This reluctance is often driven by a shortage of special education staff and a desire to keep district budgets manageable, Reagan argued.
“With this, we’ll have someone who will actually be an advocate, actually be a voice for parents to help them make sure their kids aren’t left out of a normal life,” said Reagan, a Republican from Deerfield.
Representative Glenn Cordelli, a Republican from Tuftonboro who supported the bill, said he expects an “influx” of cases once the office is created. “There’s a lot of pent-up frustration in the system,” he said.
But Cordelli said he did not expect the attorney to act as a pro bono attorney for the families’ cases. Instead, he said, the advocate would provide guidance to parents while holding school districts accountable through reports and case studies, similar to the Office of the Children’s Advocate.
Cordelli said the office would ideally conduct district-by-district investigations, which would allow it to issue specific recommendations based on that district’s policy rather than broader guidance. But he said reports generated by the office could help the Legislative Assembly make broader changes.
“We can certainly look at what the attorney finds in the next two years,” he said.
For Shea, the law is the culmination of months of advocacy with her group of mothers. In addition to supporting each other, the group has also banded together to lobby for legislation. They lobbied for House Bill 1513, which extended the age of eligibility for students with disabilities by one year, allowing the Department of Education to reimburse schools until the student’s 22nd birthday . Sununu signed this bill in June. They also spoke out in favor of the position of advocate for special education.
The group is politically diverse, but united in their frustration. “We probably all vote in different ways,” Shea said. “But we all discovered that we had a common problem between us, which was with our children.”
This story was originally posted by New Hampshire Bulletin.