Victory for LucAugust 3, 2012
On Saturday Heather Boyum came bounding up to me, excited. She was speaking a mile a minute…. about her kids racing, a boy with autism who was racing…. her words weren’t even fast enough to keep up with her thoughts. The energy radiated and man I mean radiated from her. After the conversation was over and she was walking away she turned around and pointed at me. “Good luck on Wednesday.” She said “You got this.” And I smiled.
Wednesday morning I sat in a Tim Horton’s downtown waiting to meet with my lawyer before our mediation meeting. I was having a difficult time holding back the tears for so many reasons. For what happened. For the unfairness of this whole situation. For the words that Heather spoke to me which honestly….. I have repeated that very conversation over and over to myself. Combine that with this very long education battle, and I wasn’t my normal self.
“You got this.” I kept repeating to myself. I can’t tell you how her words gave me strength.
This day, although formally begun in February…… began three years ago when Luc was emergency placed into Boces. It was the end of 2009. It was a crisis moment. To be honest the play by-play of this entire ordeal requires more energy than I have right now to explain…. I need some time to recover.
But I can tell you this. If you believe in something with your entire heart and entire soul…. then you have to fight for it. You can’t threaten, you can’t scream, you can’t allow your even keel to tip. You have to understand your situation. In this case its special education law. You must remain factual. You must assemble a good team and you must have good data.
You have to know how to argue without yelling. You have to know how to accept the answer no without wigging out, shake their hand and then keep pressing on despite that word no.
You have to quietly and cordially fight for all the right reasons. Not because it is your opinion….. because it’s the right thing on all levels.
For what it’s worth I do believe that special education committees and teachers in their respective districts believe that they are doing the right thing. And I do believe that most of the time they are doing the right thing. I can’t say ours was doing the wrong thing….. they really believed their options for placement were correct, which in the end they decided was the Norman Howard School.
It was the placement he had from kindergarten through second grade (when we had an end of the school year emergent placement in BOCES) that they had been wrong on. Their admittance to that was what helped our future. Some of you remember the daily struggle of those days. While I would not go back to them for the world , today we have something good from them.
We have placement in a unique private school where he belongs. I can’t wait to share some of the experiences he will endure as he goes there. I feel like after all he has been through….. that he deserves this. Back in march he was accepted and it was a matter of convincing the district to agree…. which they very openly did in the end. I can tell you that a BOCES program is twenty thousand dollars MORE than the Norman Howard School.
We accomplished this through obtaining the best special education lawyer in Rochester. The best money I have ever spent. Our case was ultimately decided in mediation which we did at the Center for Dispute Settlement downtown Rochester. It was a fantastic process. You meet with your party accompanied by your attorney if you have them (you don’t need one to go there), and the conversation is encouraged and moderated by a neutral moderator. It allowed us to have the most open and honest discussion with our district that we have ever had. If this conversation had happened in April we would have never ended up here. Instead of eighteen CSE people it was just two of us and two of them. So much better.
Mediation services are paid for by the state, so there is no cost for school districts and / or parents. I would highly recommend it.
We were prepared to take our case all the way to an impartial hearing…. yet we didn’t need to go that route. I believe that is because mediation when done right can be really…. really effective.
It was the first time the district even looked at the Norman Howard program. Before it was just no. Nope…. sorry. Their second option was a BOCES placement within the district. There was a 6-1-1 classroom in our home middle school…. it just didn’t quite fit. There was a 12-1-1 classroom in another school district that may have fit. The biggest issue with that was that we’d go from a school with 220 kids to one with 800. Luc demonstrated great success in a small restrictive environment. The erroneous placement through the second grade put him in an education hole. He’s very behind.
Together we determined that for at least the next three years we might be able to bridge that academic gap in a restrictive environment that is more academically challenging. BOCES runs through 12th grade. We have nothing but LOVE for what Boces I is all about. They took a child who was broken and helped him develop skills to be successful. He outgrew that placement and is ready for more academic challenge. He went there with a behavior plan and a 1-1 aide. In six months both of those were dropped. They met him at his level and they brought him forward.
Our best shot at bridging that academic gap that began in kindergarten is a restrictive (I hate that word… how about small) setting where he has the opportunity to have the help he needs. Norman Howard has so many amazing programs. They work life skills, and academics. They don’t teach handwriting they teach keyboarding. They bring the kids through an equestrian program teaching them skills they won’t learn in a classroom per se. This entire school is set up to educate the kid like ours… who is just left of center.
When the agreement was signed I felt like we had worked together for the first time. I communicated to them how special education families feel. We feel railroaded. In April they just said NO. Wednesday they sat down and examined the program. Asked questions. They opened up.
It wasn’t really that we won…. it wasn’t like someone made a judgement in our favor. We came together and agreed. We set it up so that our CSE contact will be assessing and evaluating his progress quarterly. We will meet with them quarterly as well. We are delighted to have that kind of focus and attention placed on him.
My advice to parents who find themselves in these situations:
1. You have to stay calm. Screaming, yelling, threatening…. it just doesn’t work. In any situation it doesn’t work. Nothing positive ever comes from an emotionally escalated situation.
2. You have to stay factual: The facts in our situation were well documented. On both ours and the district’s side. None of this was based on opinion. The situation that led Luc to be emergently placed was well documented. Stick to the facts in your case.
3. Find an attorney: This is where it gets sticky. We are a middle class family who was able to afford the retainer for our lawyer. If I was a single mother making 30K a year I would have been up a creek. There is free council, yet that wait list is very long. If that’s your situation get in touch with the Advocacy Center and get on whatever waiting list you have to. Our attorney was able to articulate and advocate for Luc much better than I was.
4. You have to be patient: I knew this day was coming three years ago. I saved every piece of documentation and those pieces I did not have I paid for the copies from the district. I think it was 10 cents a page.
5. You have to be in it for the long haul: This was not a fast process. This is not a 5K, it’s an Ironman. You have to be prepared to wait weeks and months with an ache in the pit of your stomach. There will be days when you feel confident and days when you feel like this will never end.
To be honest yesterday morning I felt like I was standing on the starting line of a race that I knew I could win. My preparation had been good. I slept well, I had a good breakfast. I knew that if I played the race plan right that we would agree that this is the best placement for Luc right now. Some days even with all of that preparation you don’t win the race but you know you gave it your best shot. Other days you lead wire to wire.
We led wire to wire. I had a good feeling when their attorney didn’t show up. I had a good feeling when I saw they printed out the highlighted the literature for Norman Howard. It showed me that they actually read it.
Luc came bounding off the bus…. as I was sitting on the front porch. He called out….. “Where am I going to school?” This poor kid has been a trooper. I handed him a piece of paper that read…… Congratulations …. you are going to the Norman Howard School! He screamed, jumped, we hugged the biggest hug ever.
And he said THANK YOU MOM. Which brought me to my knees.
As a parent you don’t do things for your kids to get something in return…. you do it because you are their parent. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.
I can’t tell you how many times I thought about that last interaction with Heather. “You got this.” She said…. so confidently. Many people assured me that and her words came to represent the many people who have listened, supported, referred, researched….. this was a big effort and we are so grateful for the help of so many.
Here’s to you Luc……. on the experience of a lifetime. And a dress code (new… it will be actually put in place in 2013)…. YES!