Saturday, September 10, 2005

Autism and education -- a lawsuit raises some interesting questions

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:44 PM |  

This is one of those stories that raises more questions than it answers, but is a great illustration of the road we head down when government assumes responsibility for managing so much of our individual lives. It’s the story a Denver family suing the local school district for failure to educate their autistic son.
DENVER — It doesn’t matter whether an autistic student’s teachers set appropriate goals for him to achieve, argued Jack Robinson, an attorney representing Jeff and Julie Perkins of Berthoud, at a Friday hearing.

What matters is Luke Perkins, 10, cannot meaningfully progress toward any of those goals in a public school. His teachers should have recognized this and recommended he attend a 24-hour residential school, Robinson said.

Because the Thompson School District did not make that decision, his parents did. Now, they are entitled under federal law to receive reimbursement for his schooling costs, Robinson argued.
Let’s stop here and look at some of the themes that are developing. On the one hand, you have public schools that whenever the subject of vouchers is raised, make the claim that public schools take everyone -- even in this case a child with severe autism. You have parents that trusted that system to not just take their child, but actually “educate” him. Was either side being realistic?
Stu Stuller, an attorney representing the district, argued the district met its obligations to Luke by giving him the opportunity to attend school and by designing a plan to meet his educational needs.

“The dispute is, the Perkinses wanted more,” Stuller said to state administrative judge Michelle Norcross.
Is the school district right? Is it only obligated to provide “the opportunity to attend school.” Is that what public school advocates mean when they say the "take everybody"? In the less severe situation of a “normal” child from a low-income family -- Is the school system meeting her needs when it provides a building, some books and a teacher, or does the system actually have an obligation to teach the kid something?
Both sides argued their positions before the judge in a disagreement over whether the school district should pay $130,000 annually for Luke to attend the Boston Higashi School, which educates children with autism.

Luke has attended the school since January 2004, with his parents paying all the costs.

On July 8, a hearing officer with the Colorado Department of Education ruled Luke needs 24-hour residential education and ordered the district to pay for it.

The district appealed to the Colorado Office of Administrative Hearings, which reviews decisions made by state officials.

After the 31/2-hour hearing, Norcross said she would try to make her decision on the appeal within 30 days.
These ought to be a sobering set of paragraphs. The current CDC estimate is that 1 out of 166 live births produces a child with autism. Not all cases are as severe as the child in this story, and many autistic children grow into autistic adults that are more than capable of taking care of themselves and leading lives well within the accepted criteria of “normal.” Nonetheless, $130,000 annually is a big number. It doesn’t include the costs to care for this child when he turns 18 and essentially becomes a ward of the state.

One out 166. Where is the money going to come from to educate and take care of these individuals -- especially if as a growing body of evidence indicates, there might be a connection between mandatory vaccination (with vaccines containing a mercury-based preservative thimerosal)? How are schools going to deal with these kids?
At the heart of the case — in the judge’s words — is deciding where the responsibility of a school should end in making sure children can apply what they have learned.
Another question -- will this decision apply only to children with recognized disabilities? If a “normal” child graduates from high school and can’t balance a checkbook or read a job application, is that the responsibility of the school? Or did the public system meet its obligation by simply “taking everybody”?

At the earlier Department of Education hearing, experts testified that Luke needs to attend a 24-hour residential school in order to learn. In a regular school, he would quickly lose any minimal skills he gained, Robinson said.

“For Luke to be taught, behavior has to be so ingrained they become his default behaviors,” he said. “Only a 24-hour program could provide the consistent instruction necessary.”

He noted Luke is the only student at the Boston school whose expenses are not paid by a school district.

Stuller, however, argued the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires a school district only to give a child the opportunity to learn, so the child receives some educational benefit from schooling.

“It does not require that it maximize potential or that it provide the best education,” he said.

By ruling against the school district, the hearing officer “is making schools responsible for guaranteeing progress in a setting where they have no authority,” he said.
Here are more questions. Expert testimony indicates that the school system did not have a staff that properly diagnosed the child’s needs but it took him anyway. The counter argument from the district is that it was complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But what of the child?

This is a prime example of the system taking precedent over the individual child. The school’s defense is we take everybody/we provide as required. Actually learning is inconsequential and certainly not a binding part of any obligation to students and parents.

In the school systems defense, it is obligated by federal mandate to take on a task it is totally unequipped to do. In the end, everybody suffers, but the rallying cry is still “We take everybody."

A final note. This is one of those lawsuits that rips at the heart. There aren’t a lot of parents, no matter how much they love their kids, that can afford $130,000 a year for school. I’m sure this doesn’t begin to approach the amount spent on other medical treatment for this child. But at the same time, why is their the expectation that government should step in and pick up the tab?

One could make the argument that dollars spent now save dollars that will need to be spent later in the child’s life, but that begs the question. Why is government the first source of help rather than family, friends, community groups and charities?

There’s more questions than answers in this story, but what should be overtly evident is that taking refuge in current systems and increasing dependence on government is not the answer.