When Terri Bollech’s son Jason was 4 years old, she began to suspect that something was wrong. He had trouble responding when called and didn’t seem to be speaking right. She took him to the Washington Hearing and Speech Society, which confirmed that he had a language and speech disablility and told Bollech that the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) provided screening and educational services for free.

Terri and Jason went to the DCPS testing center in search of answers. Examiners quickly concluded Jason wasn’t disabled, and that was that. No mention of appeal, no mention of preschool services, nothing. Jason continued to have problems. The Bollechs stuck with Washington Hearing and Speech and enrolled Jason in private schools that specialize in learning disabilities. In 1994, when Jason was a junior in high school, he was diagnosed as having further learning disabilties. The Bollechs were having a hard time getting him the services they felt he needed—and an especially hard time paying for them. That was when Terri learned that DCPS was supposed to provide Jason with all the necessary testing and educational programs from day one.

Jason’s case is not an isolated one. DCPS’s special-ed program is supposed to be doing a lot of things it isn’t doing, and now the federal government has taken notice: The Department of Education this year withheld funds from the program and continues to monitor its every move.

Ask any DCPS bureaucrat what the schools do for disabled kids, and you’ll get a snappy answer: Child Find. That’s the name for the District’s attempt to comply with a federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975—that requires school systems everywhere to identify and educate children with disabilities, even children too young for school and children enrolled in private schools.

Child Find exists almost exclusively on paper: According to a DCPS funding plan for 1996-1998, Child Find’s activities are decided in the monthly meetings of a committee consisting of representatives from nine city agencies and private schools. But tracking down committee members or minutes of the committee’s meetings is a lot like investigating covert intelligence operations.

Terri Bollech had her first head-on collision with the DCPS stonewall in an Oct. 8 meeting with Michael Snipes, the schools’ interim special-education director. Snipes was unavailable for comment on this story, but Bollech says Snipes couldn’t give her the names of any of the committee members. When asked about the school system’s identification efforts, Snipes, who has only held his position since August, responded that principals and school staff were responsible for locating and identifying children who may have a disability within the classroom. He didn’t mention Child Find.

In early October, Bollech went through the entire committee list in search of a voice that could speak authoritatively about the program. She found that only a couple of people at the agencies had even heard of Child Find. None of them had a representative for the committee. Bollech requested copies of the committee’s minutes in a letter to Snipes. She hasn’t heard back.

Perhaps the District’s failings in diagnosing disabilities would be understandable if the program required armies of manpower and truckloads of funding. But that’s just not the case. “We spend very little on our Child Find, since we don’t have to hire special staff,” says Teri Sumey, director of special education for a Virginia school system.

Sumey’s school system is smaller than D.C.’s, but a look at the procedures Virginia schools have to follow shows that the program could be almost as cheap in the city. Child Find broadcasts public service announcements through local media outlets and sends notices home with kids advising parents that disability screening is available. In addition, the schools make sure that day-care centers and preschools are apprised of the program.

The District’s Child Find program has no leadership, let alone an awareness campaign.

“Of course they haven’t told us about anything!” says the principal of a D.C. private school. As a result, daycare centers and preschools have no idea about the kinds of special education programs DCPS is supposed to provide. And pediatricians say they are familiar with the federal programs offered by the schools only because of the training they got in their medical residencies, not through any efforts DCPS has made.

For the few who know about the program, finding someone in DCPS to register children for disability screenings amounts to a classic whirl on the District bureaucracy merry-go-round. The phone number advertised on the Child Find poster fetches a busy signal or a fax tone, depending on your luck. And special-education numbers in the phone book get you nowhere.

Once children finally make it into one of DCPS’s special-education programs, they’re in good hands, says Bollech. The problem lies squarely in identification and placement. “The schools aren’t letting parents into the identifying circle. [Parents] aren’t told they can request testing,” she says. “Teachers are supposed to spot the kids, which is fine, but what about young kids who aren’t in the programs yet? Or parents who suspect problems that teachers are missing?”

Dr. Lynn Campbell, head of George Washington Hospital’s pediatric clinic, says kids in DCPS run special risks. “I always know that if I see a child from Maryland or Virginia [that she suspects has a disability] that an evaluation will be done in a timely manner and that the proper implementation of a plan will occur. When I see a child from D.C., I always have my doubts,” says Campbell. And Sister Owen, principal of Holy Name School on West Virginia Avenue NE, says she is working with several children who have recently come from D.C. public schools but have learning disabilities. She wants to know why they weren’t evaluated earlier. And when she refers kids for screening to DCPS, tests take up to a year—even though DCPS rules stipulate a 30-day deadline for identification and placement.

Things have gotten so bad that the feds have come knocking. According to Dr. Thomas Hehir, special-education director at the U.S. Department of Education, DCPS’s Child Find is plagued by “a number of deep-seated problems. We certainly will be working with D.C. in the hopes that they will be targeting their efforts toward [those problems].” Hehir says the “problems” prompted Education to delay releasing federal funds to assist DCPS’s Child Find program, the only program in the country accorded such treatment by the feds. It wasn’t until after a meeting between Hehir and DCPS Superintendent Franklin Smith on Oct. 18 that Education cut the funds loose.

Money, as usual, is at the root of the crisis. Special education is staggeringly expensive: Tuition at a boarding school for severely emotionally disturbed children, for example, can cost up to $30,000 a year, and by law DCPS has to pick up the bill. On average, special education costs twice as much as standard education. By essentially eliminating Child Find, DCPS had been able to keep young disabled students from eating up its budget. Until, that is, those kids grow old enough to attend school, by which time their disability has worsened and their behavior has become more erratic.

After years of investigation and frustration, Bollech knows exactly what special-ed services DCPS is obligated to provide her children. The experience has come in handy because Bollech has a daughter with special needs in the system now. But Bollech has also paid a dear price: Jason, who is now in college, stumbled through 12 years of primary education at a high emotional and financial cost to Bollech. She’s now suing DCPS for damages. —Kathy Jones