New Florida law a boon to parents of special needs students

August 6, 2013 

Under a new law that went into effect last month, the state of Florida empowers parents of special needs students in dealing with school districts over their children's education. One provision provides clarity in a Manatee County issue that spurred a lengthy court battle.

With an overall enrollment of 46,402 students in the Manatee County school district, 7,615 are in the Exceptional Student Education program.

In the most far-reaching aspect of the new law, all those parents of ESE students gain clout in negotiations with the district over a student's so-called "individual education plan," a document that spells out learning goals and district assistance. These discussion sometimes become contentious over differing opinions. Parents can now bring an advocate or other adult witness to the meetings -- and the law requires a signed document certifying parents were not discouraged from doing so.

Plus, districts cannot schedule IEP's at the last minute, a common complaint, but must provide notice 10 days in advance.

Other provisions in Senate Bill 1108 -- Exceptional Student Education -- also favor parents. Written parental consent is mandated for changes in a student's IED, placement on a special diploma track, and transfer to a special education center.

Yet another stipulation gives parents the option to send their child's private speech, physical or behavior therapist into the student's school while classes are in session -- a particularly meaningful provision in Manatee County.

Parents of an 11-year-old diagnosed with Asperger's, a high functioning form of autism, sued the Manatee County school district in 2008 after administrators refused to allow a private psychologist to evaluate the child in the classroom. District officials claimed "a private vendor in the classroom would be disruptive" -- never mind a parents' fundamental right to help their special needs child.

At the time, we opined that the district's intransigent position in this case was based on a faulty legal opinion. An administrative law judge found in favor of the parents, but the district appealed in a costly mistake. The school board finally settled the lawsuit in 2011, paying the family $55,000.

Now the law clearly favors parents. Administrators can no longer bar the classroom door to private therapists. But districts will need to ensure instructional disruption is minimized.

Whether the new law alters the tenor of annual individual education plan meetings -- parents can be intimidated by a phalanx of district therapists and administrators sitting around the table -- at least family advocates and other supporters can now join the discussion.

Manatee ESE overhaul

As the newly appointed director of Exceptional Student Education, Wylen Herring-Cayasso steps into a position with a formidable task at hand. In mid-June, deputy superintendent of instruction Diana Greene described the ESE program as "broken here." During the same meeting with principals at Braden River High, Superintendent Rick Mills echoed that remark: "Diana and I agree that there needs to be ESE overhaul."

Under the previous administration, the district suffered ESE fines for inadequate, incomplete or missing individual education plans for special needs students. Poor organization and incorrect paperwork also mar the ESE program.

The new district leadership isn't looking back to assign blame but forging ahead with the new school year fast approaching.

Welcome to Manatee County, Ms. Herring-Cayasso. Big challenges await.

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