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Communication Breakdown

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Stu Stuller, an attorney representing the BVSD, says the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act prevents him and school district officials from commenting on any of these claims or any other aspect of the case.

The special-education director, assistant director and coordinator who worked on Jones's case all have resigned in the last year and have been replaced by new administrators. But Scott Schwartz, the special-education consultant who helped evaluate programs for Jack, is still with the district. "There are two sides to every story," he stresses. "Clearly, someone's coming at you with an agenda. There are many different methodologies for children with autism, and they generally have the same success rate. There is nothing inherently wrong with discrete trial training if it's done in a developmentally appropriate manner and if skills can generalize."

By that, Schwartz means that Jones's brand of ABA can work well when a child is seated at a desk working one-on-one with a tutor, but that the skills a child learns in such a setting don't always translate into the real world. For instance, he says, if a child is taught how to make change during a tutoring session but can't call on those skills once he's at a cash register, the lesson doesn't mean much. "ABA is very seductive," Schwartz warns, "but it's clearly challenged in academia."

Nationwide, says Yael Cohen, a lot of school districts now offer ABA, but they usually do so only after a parent has sued. Locally, ABA is fairly new, but schools in Durango and Colorado Springs recently approved ABA services. The Jefferson County School District, however, is doing more than any metro-area district in providing ABA to autistic students. Kay Cessna, executive director of interventions for Jeffco schools, says there is a network of parents committed to ABA who are finding each other on the Internet. The increasing demand for ABA, coupled with the growing number of autistic kids in Colorado, prompted the district to come up with a teaching model for autistic kids two years ago. The district chose four teachers to receive intensive training on several of the teaching techniques and to talk to several local experts before coming up with their own teaching method.

"We now have a program that combines the best elements of several programs but has a heavy component of ABA," Cessna says. "There is a growing faction of parents across the country and the state who want ABA, and there have been a lot of lawsuits against school districts for this. So we wanted to get in front of the curve."

The Cherry Creek School District, which is overwhelmed with parents seeking its services, uses TEACCH, a very structured method of teaching that relies on visual aids. "With ABA, you're sitting across from a kid at a table. But what is the kid going to do when he gets up from the table? TEACCH teaches kids how to transition from place to place," says Dixie Periman, a learning coordinator in Cherry Creek's special-education department. Cards with words or pictures are used to show the child what will happen next -- like the picture Jones shows Jack when it's time to brush his teeth -- and the child adheres to a rigid schedule so he will remain focused and not get confused.

"With TEACCH, kids apply what they learn at their desk to other environments. They're learning without being led around by the hand so that they can become independent," Periman says. But just because Cherry Creek uses the TEACCH method as its foundation doesn't mean it refuses to allow parents to also use ABA or other programs that have worked for their child. "If someone moves into our district and is using ABA, we say, 'Great, let's add to it some methods that we've found to be effective,'" says Periman, who knows of Jack's case from working with John Jones on an autism task force. "We certainly don't say the word 'no' a lot in our district. Not that we haven't had due-process cases, but most disputes get resolved in mediation. I think Boulder got into trouble by saying no."

The impartial hearing officer assigned to Jones's case dismissed it without hearing the evidence, basing her decision on a former case in which an administrative law judge found that the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act doesn't require school districts to provide special education services to kids who are home-schooled. Jones appealed the dismissal and won. But before the case could be heard again, the school district settled.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon