During the entire time Stella Mae Smith's son attended Tucson Unified School District schools—from elementary through high school—diagnosing his disability and getting the services he needed was a challenge.
Smith and her son Carter were among the 14 families who filed complaints last year with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. They received help from former TUSD school psychologist Rose Hamway, whose own OCR complaint accusing TUSD of retaliation was settled for $180,000 in August. (See "Preponderance of Evidence," Sept. 13.)
The complaints by the 14 families resulted in a resolution signed last year by TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone. However, after Hamway settled with TUSD, some families came forward and said their issues were never resolved, and that they hoped the OCR would consider intervening again. Kathy Winslow Richmond and her son Brian said they recently heard from OCR officials who wanted to know why they felt their complaint was never resolved. (See "Finding Hope," Sept. 27.)
The Tucson Weekly contacted other families regarding their complaints. Some declined interviews, worried that publicity could prevent their children from being treated fairly.
Smith said she can understand why some families are concerned about speaking out. But her son is now out of TUSD, and is majoring in astronomy and physics at the UA, so Smith said she can be vocal.
"This continues to be upsetting to me. That's why I feel it's important to continue to tell our story," Smith said. "We have overcome, and he has overcome, and he is on his track to be successful. Well, what's happened to all these other kids? What happens to the kids who don't have the parents with the tenaciousness or personality to figure out what their children need?"
Despite her tenacity, Smith said she wasn't always able to get the services her son needed. In fact, she said, most of her requests and items on his individualized education plan (IEP) were ignored. An IEP is a special-education legal document based on a student's diagnosis that outlines needed services and education goals.
Smith said her son was able to graduate from University High School because she did much of the work that TUSD special-education representatives were supposed to do, and because of extra help from her son's teachers, who were steadfast in working with him despite his disabilities.
Carter was considered gifted at an early age and was in the TUSD Gifted and Talented Education, or GATE, program. However, Carter later encountered serious challenges, and she sought out a diagnosis using private resources, because the district refused to look at his challenges in school.
He was finally diagnosed with ADHD as well as dysgraphia and dyslexia.
For her son to succeed, Smith has had to record all of his textbooks and written lessons throughout high school—even though books on tape were listed on his IEP as a service the district would provide. He was also supposed to be provided with someone to take notes for him during class.
What motivated Smith the most to file her complaint with the OCR was the district's lack of transitional services on his IEP to help him prepare for college.
"The only item listed on his IEP for a transitional program was that they didn't take him out of class," Smith said. "That's not a transitional program."
As part of her complaint, Smith made a list of 33 transitional services that could have been offered to help her son prepare for college during his senior year. The list includes tutoring services, self-advocacy training, and disability scholarships. What would have been particularly helpful, Smith said, was information on the UA's Disability Resource Center and the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center, which provide specific services to students with learning disabilities and attention diagnoses.
"There is a process in TUSD for kids with disabilities that includes an assessment that has to be done ahead of time and filed with the college they are attending ahead of time. It has to be reviewed so they can make recommendations for services, not wait for classes to start their freshman year," Smith said.
Services for students with disabilities at the UA can cost up to $5,000 a year, Smith said. There is financial assistance available, but because Smith and her son weren't told about these services through a transition plan with TUSD, they didn't know about them until he started college. He could have also applied for help in getting a new computer—something he needs, because there are software updates that can help him with his disabilities.
"We found out he could have received those things through a special program, but he needed a recommendation. We would have done that, of course, if we'd known about it," Smith said.
Looking back at Carter's high school years, Smith—a single mother and a now-retired professor at the UA College of Education—said she's amazed the two of them got through it. Smith said she would request books on tape at every IEP meeting. Those books never came, Smith said, so she would work with teachers to get his textbooks and all other written materials—and she'd record them herself.
The Weekly contacted the OCR for comment regarding the 14 families, but no one responded as of press time.
The last time the Weekly heard from an OCR representative was shortly after officials acknowledged the office was investigating a set of different discrimination complaints that have nothing to do with special education. An OCR representative confirmed that one investigation alleges that TUSD representatives discriminated against Latinos at board meetings. Another investigation involved why representatives prevented the annual Cesar Chavez march from starting at Pueblo High School.
Carter said he's fine with discussing his disabilities in public, because he wants people to look at disabilities differently—and he wants TUSD to change.
"In special education, you are made to feel that certain differences are OK, and certain differences are not," Carter said. "But in my experience, I realized that I learn differently, but my disabilities don't make me less human."
Carter had high praise for his teachers at University High. "They saw my energy, and love for learning and passion, and fueled it," he said.
"But TUSD special ed," he said, "looked at me, and the only message I can get from everything that they did was, 'We recognize you are different. We recognize it is someone's job to help you with these differences, to help teach you and help you grow. But we don't think it's our job, and if it is, we don't care enough to do it. Good luck.'"
Mari Herreras is the mother of a special-education student in TUSD.