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Terri Bollech first noticed that her son Jason had learning problems when he was four years old. Afier a few years and a few assessments, it was determined that Jason was disabled and needed a special educational program, and the Bollecha enrolled him in private schools. By 1994, Jason ‘Nab a junior in high school and the Bollechs were having a hard time getting him the services they felt he needed. That was when Terri Bollech found out that the DC Public School System was supposed to provide Jason with all the necessary testing and educational programs from the first time his parents suspected -there w-as a problem. And that’s when Terri Bollech became a woman with a —-mission: getting the DC schools to just follow the law.
She discovered that under IDEA, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1975, school systems must identify and then appropriately educate all children with disabilities from birth through 21 years of age. But in DC, Bollech says, “The schools aren’t letting parents into the identifying circle. They aren’t told they can request testing. 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?” The answer to Bollech’s questions is supposed to be the Child Find program, mandated by IDEA and paid for by federal funds – a program that Bollech is convinced doesn’t exist.
She has some pretty strong evidence. According to the funding plan submitted by the DC Schools to the U.S. Department of Education for 1996-1998, a committee made up of representatives from nine different city agencies (including, for some reason, the DC Department of Corrections) and from the private and parochial schools meets monthly to coordinate Child Find. Bollech went down the list, trying to find someone to talk to about what the committee and Child Find were up to. After being passed on from one person to another, only a couple of people at a couple of agencies had even heard of the DC Child Find program; none of them had a representative for the committee. Bollech requested copies of the committee’s minutes in a letter sent to Michael Snipes, Interim Director of the Special Education Branch of the DC Public Schools on October
11. So far, she hasn’t heard anything.
Bollech’s request was based on a meeting she had with Snipes on October 8. In that meeting, Bollech says, Snipes, who has only held his position since August, couldn’t give her the names of any of the committee members. When asked about the school system’s identification efforts, he told Bollech that principals and school staff were responsible for locating and identifying children who may have a disability within the classroom and didn’t mention Child Find. Snipes said the school system doesn’t have a coordinator for pre-school special education. As for the younger kids, Snipes flourished a poster that he says is on display in several DC schools, and gave Bollech a phone number for Child Find Hotline, which parents can call if they think their child has a disability. The poster still has Sharon Pratt Kelley’s name on it. The Hotline is a voice mail box that is perpetually full.
What makes all this so surprising is not that it’s Federal law for the District to have a Child Find program, but that it just doesn’t take that much money or work for a school system to make a good-faith Child Find effort. Teri Sumey is the director of special education for Virginia school system. She says the money for Child Find isn’t specifically designated in the state grant (that originated with the U.S. Department of Education) her schools receive, but it can legitimately come from general state and federal special education fluids. Besides, “We spend very little on our Child Find, since we don’t have to hire special staff,” Sumey says. As for the work? She says that all the schools there have to follow a Child Find template that the state gives them. They send notices home with the kids advising parents that screening is available and send public service announcements about Child Find to local media outlets. They also contact all the local d—-aycare centers and pre-schools to tell them of the services provided by the public —-school system. Poiters and fliers go to doctors’ offices, social services offices, and the local health department. They even contact all the private schools, including schools, saying that if they suspect a child has a disability, to call the Specia-l Education department and it’s staff will provide the proper evaluation and follow up program for free. After a couple of months, the PR blitz winds down. And, not counting the extra clerical work of processing applications for special education that result from Child Find, that’s pretty much it. After all, the screeners and evaluation team are already in the schools’ employ, working with the kids already enrolled.
Contrast that effort to D.C.’s. Five day care centers were picked at random from the phone book and contacted for this story, ranging in size from the YWCA Child Development Centers to the Tiny Tot Day Nursery, Inc. Some of the providers were familiar with Child Find from working in Maryland or Virginia, but only Dr. Pranoti Mohanty, director of the Anthony Bowen Child Care Center has gotten any training in spotting disabilities from the city – and that was from the Department of Human Services. “I’m sure I’ll get good help from the public schools when I bang on their door, but I haven’t had time and they haven’t come to me,” she says, even though the whole point of Child Find is for the schools to come to her. Similarly, The DC Public School system hasn’t been in contact with any of half-a-dozen private and parochial schools (“Of course they haven’t told us about anything!” one principal said.) 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 the school systems have made. In other words, don’t expect to pick up a flier touting the wonders of DC’s Special Education programs next time you take your kids in to get their shots.
So the DC Public School System isn’t proselytizing in an effort to round up all the disabled kids in town. A determined parent should be able to access the help she needs, right? Not necessarily. Here’s a realistic scenario, based on information now available to the general public. Your pediatrician says she suspects your kid has a disability, like attention deficit disorder or some kind of speech/language problem, and recommends you call the DC Public Schools, since they do free screenings. It’s been a while since the schools contacted her, but here’s a poster with the Child Find phone number on it (as well as Sharon Pratt Kelley’s name). You call that number (724-2141) – and keep calling, and keep calling. Usually, you get a busy signal. When you finally get through, it’s a fax machine. You turn to the blue pages. You find “Child Find Special Education” under the District of Columbia-Schools-Public in the phone book (727-8300). You call that number. This time, the phone is answered, but by “Systems Support.” You ask about Child Find. They’ve never heard of it. Going down the list, you call ‘”Special Education SEA.” “Employment Services” answers, not special education. You call “Special Programs.” All you get is an operator saying the number’s been disconnected. By now you’re fed up and want to know who’s in charge of the damn thing so you can give them what for. You call the Superintendent of Schools. The secretary who answers the phone doesn’t have a name, but says to call 724-4800- You call that, and get voice mall, where you can leave your name and information about your kid. Except for one thing: it’s full. And it stays full every time you call.
This could just be another example of DC at it’s most inefficient, but there are hints that something worse might be going on. The implication is that even older kids ar———en’t getting class-room evaluations or the necessary programs. Dr. Lynn Campbell, the -head of George Washington Hospital’s pediatric clinic, says, -“I will always know that if I see a child from Maryland or Virginia [that she suspects has a disability] that an evaluation will be don-e- in a timely manner and that the proper implementation of a plan will occur. When I see a child from DC, I always have my doubts.” And Sister Owen, principal of Holy Name School on West Virginia Avenue, Northeast, says she’s working with several children who have recently come from the public schools but seem to have learning disabilities. She wants to know why they weren’t evaluated earlier. Even though the public schools haven’t contacted her about Child Find, she does refer kids whom she feels have problems to the DC Public Schools for testing, but, she says, that could take up to a year. According to DCPS, “The time requirements for assessment and placement of students shall [be] 20 days for identification and assessment and 30 days for placement.”
Terri Bollech knows it’s only supposed to take fifty days for a kid to get placed in the right program. Now that Jason is in college, she knows the right doors to bang on to get the help her elementary school age daughter needs She also knows that if her daughter doesn’t get an appropriate Individual Education Program, she can take the case to a due process hearing. All of that has left her optimistic about her daughter’s education. But Bollech also knows by now that the lawyers’ phone numbers DC Public Schools provides for those who want to appeal are all wrong, or no longer applicable. She’ shad officials literally laugh in her face and – she thinks – outright lie when she asked about Child Find. She thinks the infamous Child Find voice mail is an outrage, especially since there’s no other option for non-English speakers or for callers with their own disabilities. And all of that may be why she’s working so hard to get Child Find overhauled – and why she’s taken the DC Public Schools to court.
Eric:This is doe process I went through, trying to find out who’s head or Child Find and to talk to somebody about what Child Find’s up to. Actually I left out a step, when I called another Special Ed number in the phone book, and was told “Ginnie Jones would know,” but that she was in a meeting.