From Disability Scoop:
"Special Education Often An Uphill Battle For Military Families"
When Navy Capt. Cassidy Norman was assigned executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, he and his wife, Michelle, were relieved. His career path was taking them back to Virginia Beach — where they’d lived before and knew to be a good fit for their daughter with severe disabilities. The Normans were the quintessential military officer family. Cass served in combat and climbed the ranks paying his dues. He and Michelle had learned to balance the demands of family and a military that would take him away from home for months. Even their daughter Marisa’s needs were being managed. But the leadership had changed at Marisa’s school since they’d last been there, and with Cass away training, Michelle struggled alone against school officials to create an education plan that the Normans believed would give Marisa the tools she needed to learn. They believed the school minimized Marisa’s significant disabilities and declared her fine when she was flailing — assertions a hearing officer later substantiated. When he was home, Cass would call in or ditch his uniform to attend meetings as often as he could, not wanting to use his office inappropriately. But they soon concluded that they were in a battle — with their daughter’s future hanging in the balance. The situation surprised them. They believed that public educators would want to work with them, but instead it seemed they were digging in their heels. Virginia Beach is a city whose economy is inextricably tied to the largest Navy hub in the world and, with exceptional medical and military services, it is considered one of the premier locations for families of children with special needs. The school district serves 10,000 children with disabilities, boasting of “the best transition programs in the country” for military kids and enjoying hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to educate its military-connected students. The Normans believed that system was failing their child, but when it came to fighting it, the Navy could only offer them educational materials and quietly advise them on Marisa’s rights to a “free and appropriate public education.” “It was stressful — more stressful than me being in combat, going to nuclear propulsion school or being away from the family,” Cass said. “And that was just on his side,” Michelle said. The strain of having a child with special needs is hard on families, but it’s particularly tough when families move a lot and must navigate a new school and the complexities of special education law in a new state every few years — the norm for military families. Add to that the difficulties of one spouse being away frequently for their job — and often trying not to make waves because it could detract from his or her career — and military families can get pulled to a breaking point. “The strain on marriages is particularly intense,” said Suzanne Vogel, who, after raising a child with special needs in the SEAL community, co-founded the charity SEALkids Inc. that offers free tutoring, advocacy and therapies to children of Navy SEALS who are struggling in school. “It’s extraordinary circumstances for sustained periods,” she said. “There has got to be a better solution when someone fails a child.” The Exceptional Family Member Program — the main program for families with special needs — offers tools for military families caring for a relative with a disability to help navigate new locales and the medical and educational services available, and to better understand special education law. Each branch runs its EFMP differently and offers varied levels of support. The Marine Corps, for example, has two special education lawyers for its force. But most parents who must fight the school system are often on their own, something families say needs to change. The Normans had to hire an advocate to come to meetings and serve as their guide to the intricacies of the laws governing special education. They had the means to pay or borrow money to put their daughter in a private school where she had to repeat fifth grade but is now flourishing, and to hire a special education lawyer when they concluded it was the only way to force the district to do what they believed was the right thing. It wasn’t lost on them that they were the lucky ones. If the executive officer of an aircraft carrier can fall through the cracks — anyone could. “A lot of families can’t fight this fight at all because they don’t have the resources,” Cass said. “I have a leadership role in the Navy as an officer. I certainly feel obliged to help out others who may not have had the opportunity I’ve had — who might not get what they need.” Special education falls under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but compliance falls to schools in local districts, overseen by the state. Each state, meanwhile, applies IDEA differently, placing not only students in special education but their parents on a steep learning trajectory. Parents of children with more severe special needs arrive in a school district with an individualized education program, or IEP, for their child negotiated at their old school. It’s detailed and lays out the tools the student needs to learn. But under the law, a new school in a new state can re-evaluate the student, leaving the parents to renegotiate their child’s education. For military families with children with special needs, that challenge gets repeated every few years. “That’s our lives, moving from school district to school district, and you never know,” said Jeremy Hilton, a former Navy officer who has moved five times with his family for his wife’s Air Force career despite their daughter Kate’s disabilities. Hilton took on an Alabama school district that was denying the services his daughter received in her prior school. He spoke with two special education lawyers. One wanted a huge retainer. The other told him not to waste his time and money. Spend it instead on extra therapies for your child, he told Hilton. In some states, delays in starting the process of evaluation and meetings can mean the child falls behind. If a family wants to file due process, it must reckon with the time that would take, said Kassandra Levay, a professional advocate for families of those with special needs in San Antonio. “Most families are not in place long enough to file due process and be there for a resolution,” she said. When her Air Force husband deployed shortly after their family moved to a new station — one of four moves in six years — Sarah Davis was left to navigate with their five kids, four of whom have special needs. Davis has lupus and kidney disease, but when she said she asked the EFMP for respite help on days when she was ill, they suggested she reach out to the community or neighbors she didn’t yet know. Instead, she let the kids play in the basement to make sure they wouldn’t wander off and laid on the stairs throwing up in a bucket. “I really think the military could play a larger role in … creating an EFMP system where you have services in place when you arrive at a new location,” she said. “We’ve had the opportunity to see what it means to be a special needs family at all ranks, the very basic challenges of struggling with the system, having to relearn and renavigate with every move. And when we run into a roadblock, having nothing we can do about it.” Quantifying the number of military-connected children with disabilities in public education is tricky. The Defense Department says it has 120,000 families enrolled in its EFMPs, but it does not break down how many children are involved or how many eligible families are not enrolled. In 2009, the Pentagon said 90,000 families were enrolled in the program, but estimated that there were 130,000 eligible families that were not enrolled, according to The Washington Post. One role of the EFMP is to offer medical screening to ensure that the service member is assigned to a location that offers adequate services. The military focuses less on the education piece because all schools are required to comply with special education law. The program also offers family support. There is a directory of special education services broken down by school district and training and webinars for parents on the intricacies of special education. But each branch runs its EFMP differently, and all have limitations. In 2010, Congress approved an Office of Special Needs to oversee the EFMPs and streamline the branches. The goal was to improve support and identify gaps in services. The job has proven complex. At a briefing last month, director Ed Tyner said efforts are under way to create a centralized database for EFMPs. Local EFMPs sometimes work with school liaison officers if they hear about problems. But the program’s role is limited when things go wrong in the school. “DOD really doesn’t have a jurisdiction over a public school,” Tyner said. “We don’t have a way to really look at or monitor state-run public schools with special ed programs.” That’s where military families can fall through the cracks, particularly because they are hesitant to rock the boat, said Amy Courtney, an advocate in Virginia Beach who helped the Normans. “Military families don’t want to make enemies of the school system,” Courtney said. Parents come in trusting that educators are on the same page and everyone is looking out for their child. When they realize that’s not happening, it often comes as a shock. In a recent survey by the Collaborative for Student Success, 35 percent of participating service members said their child’s educational opportunities were significant in deciding whether to stay in the military, and 40 percent said they would decline a career-advancing job to keep their child in high-performing schools. In 2013, then-Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno warned elected officials that if they want to keep military bases in their communities, they needed to start paying attention to their schools. In short, for military parents, their child’s education matters. For parents of a child with special needs, that concern is overarching, said Vickie O’Brien, the Marine Corps’ East Coast special education lawyer. When a family has to fight the system, the stress can be overwhelming. “You watch a Marine who has been to war cry because their child can’t go to school because the teacher is not a good fit and is yelling at their kid in class,” O’Brien said. “How does a person stay in the military and do all those things it requires if their family is in crisis?”
^ This is an issue that the majority of people would not know about or even understand. I am a military brat and moved around the country and the world. I wasn't disabled and yet it was still challenging at times. I can only imagine the added pressure of having to constantly fight with school districts to actually do what they are legally-required to do (accommodate the education of the disabled) only to "win" and have the military move you and have to start the fight all over again. The military may have programs and laws on the books, but they don't always see the light of day in practice. After decades of dealing with the military myself as well as having family members currently serving I know the US Military main focus is to getting the job (whatever they are told to do) done. Soldiers usually have to pay for required equipment, etc. (including replacing a bloody uniform after they have been wounded) themselves. Military spouses are usually left to fend for themselves with only a token show of support. Military brats are at the bottom and usually have nothing to keep them occupied when not in school. Add being disabled to all of this and it is an even bigger struggle. A lot more needs to be done for the military in general. A lot more needs to be done to aid the soldiers, their spouses and their children. With all of this: a lot more needs to be done to aid the disabled within the military. The old excuses and loop-holes of the past need to be done away with and the US Military and the Federal Government needs to step-up and take care of those that they expect to protect them without question. ^