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Families vs. Schools: The High-Stakes Battle over Special Ed Services

Parents take legal action against San Francisco school district over federally mandated support

Autism 03

In October, after months of anxiety, Caroline Barwick and her husband, Russell Huerta, celebrated the arrival of their son Sebastian’s third birthday.

It was the day the San Francisco Unified School District became legally responsible for addressing Sebastian’s severe autism.

Barwick and Huerta met with school clinicians to discuss their son’s education and treatment. But the meeting did not go as they had hoped — the district offered Sebastian fewer than half of the therapeutic services recommended by three private doctors and did not offer a choice of schools.

“You’re reeling from what’s already been a tragic diagnosis,” Barwick said, “then it’s almost like you’re slapped across the face.”

The couple took legal action against the district. Last week, an administrative law judge criticized the district for its handling of the case and ordered it to reimburse Sebastian’s parents for about $55,000 they spent on his therapy and education during the dispute.

Barwick and Huerta are part of a growing number of parents of special-needs children who are battling the school district over federally mandated support. The stakes are high. The district is facing a $25 million budget shortfall, and the types of intensive services in dispute can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars per child.

There is not always agreement on what constitutes appropriate treatment. Disputes between the district and parents are initially addressed in Individualized Education Program meetings, and sometimes in hearings involving lawyers.

Thirteen legal actions — called requests for due process — were filed against the district in the first three quarters of this fiscal year. There were just five during the same period last year. Some families and lawyers believe the district is taking a more aggressive approach toward special-needs cases to hold down costs.

“In a perfect world with unlimited resources we could provide every single family everything they want,” Maribel S. Medina, the district’s head legal counsel, said in an interview.

More than 6,000 students with physical, emotional or developmental disabilities attend San Francisco public schools. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed by Congress in 1990, requires school districts to provide those children from age 3 with a “free and appropriate education.”

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