Communication Breakdown

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Disagreements between parents and school districts over special education are not unique to Boulder, Cohen says. She knows of 27 disputes in the Jefferson County School District -- which is three times the size of the Boulder Valley School District -- that had to be resolved in due process hearings last year. In a due-process hearing, a hearing officer -- usually a lawyer agreed on by both sides -- listens to the evidence and decides in favor of one party. "But in most of the districts, you can find someone to talk to if you go up the ladder," Cohen says. "That's become increasingly harder in the last few years in Boulder."

Before a new director was named to oversee the special-education department of the Littleton Public School District last year, the schools there were not nearly as open to parents, according to Cohen. Now, she says, parents are having a much easier time resolving disagreements with special-education teachers. "All special-education advocates in the area feel that when there's a problem, they can go to [Littleton Public Schools Special Education Director] Lucinda Hundley, and she'll get things done. That doesn't mean parents never have problems, but Lucinda makes an absolute effort to help," Cohen says, adding that special-education administrators in the Jefferson County and Cherry Creek school districts are also open to working with families.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 500 children and young adults in America have some form of autism. That means that between 3,800 and 7,600 children and young adults in Colorado are autistic, according to Carol Meredith, executive director of The Arc of Arapahoe and Douglas Counties (formerly known as the Association for Retarded Citizens). That estimate, Meredith says, represents a 120-percent increase in the number of kids who have been identified as autistic over a recent four-year period. No one knows exactly why there are more autistic children in Colorado these days -- it could be due to the state's population boom, or it could be that diagnoses are better now -- but the increase is posing a challenge to educators statewide.

Approximately 27,000 students attend schools in the Boulder Valley School District, which spans eastward from the mountain town of Nederland to bustling Broomfield. More than 3,400 students in the district have special needs; 36 of those children are considered autistic.

Cohen says the Joneses' case was "one of the first I'd ever seen where the school-district people came in and defined themselves as the experts. But when we asked for their resumés and the credentials they had to prove their expertise, they refused to supply them. They refused to look at the research we brought them, and they refused to look at the data on Jack's progress. They admitted at the third IEP meeting that they hadn't looked at it. I had called other districts that were offering ABA and asked their special-education directors how they were providing ABA without breaking their budgets. I got lots of information and handed the district those names and numbers, and no one ever called them.

"When they proposed what they wanted to do, I asked them what their rationale was, and they wouldn't cite any research. Over and over again, they said, 'It's our professional opinion.' Well, I have a master's degree in special education, and I have a professional opinion, too. And when I'm asked why I support something, I can tell you."

In March 1998, after several months of bickering over educational approaches, the two sides sat down with a mediator. Still, they could not agree. When school officials arranged for their fourth and final IEP meeting, they told John Jones that they would be accompanied by legal counsel. Jones was prepared to be accompanied by his. At the April 1, 1998, meeting, Jones and the district agreed to disagree; the next step would be a due-process hearing in which both sides would collect affidavits from special-education experts to present to a hearing officer.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon