Parents fight for girl’s right to learn — (The Press-Herald)

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The Press-Herald

Monday, August 9, 2004

By GREGORY D. KESICH, Portland Press Herald Writer

In fourth grade, she earned high marks, although her teacher noted that she looked sad all the time.

In fifth grade, she stopped playing with her classmates and was treated for depression.

By sixth grade, she quit doing her school work and tried to kill herself. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that affects social function.

Despite her steady decline, the girl known in court records as “L.I.” was denied special education services last year. School officials and a state hearing officer say her disability did not prevent her from learning.

The girl’s family has filed a civil rights suit in federal court, claiming that School Administrative District 55 failed to recognize the unique challenges of Asperger’s. They argue that students with the lifelong neurological disorder can excel academically, but still be crippled by their inability to perform in social situations, and often need special services to do well in school.

“To me, a wide net of eligibility should have swept her in,” said the family’s lawyer, Richard O’Meara. “The theory of it is, if you provide these services now, she won’t be a drain on society later.”

School officials recognize that L.I. is disabled, but argue that not all people with disabilities are entitled to special education resources.

Until her last months in school, she completed her homework, behaved in class, did well on tests and finished projects, wrote Lynne A. Williams, the hearing officer who upheld the school’s refusal to pay the girl’s tuition at a private school.

“The question at the heart of this dispute (is) . . . whether a school department is required to address social and emotional needs when there are no academic needs,” Williams wrote.

Asperger’s was first identified in 1944, but it did not become a recognized diagnosis until a decade ago. Since its symptoms are not always apparent, it is difficult to know how many children are affected with it in Maine. Experts estimate that there are 1.5 million children and adults with the disability nationally.

A child with the condition is at the center of another pending lawsuit, in which the parents of a 9-year-old home-schooled student with Asperger’s sued after being denied use of a school playground in Falmouth.

Children with Asperger’s syndrome have trouble understanding the social world. They do not understand verbal cues or facial expressions, and are often unable to socialize with others and to use imagination.

It is frequently associated with high intelligence, and children with Asperger’s often do well in the early years of school only to run into trouble later as social situations become more complex, according to Elizabeth Ives Field, a Bangor-based consultant who works with 20 Maine school districts.

The girl known as L.I. was successful in the early grades at Cornish Elementary School, even though she sometimes seemed inflexible and shy to teachers. But in fourth grade, her mood began to decline dramatically.

According to court papers, she developed a “heightened and oftentimes unreasonable” sensitivity to injustice, and withdrew from her teacher and classmates.

Teasing from other children made her even more alienated. A school counselor wrote that she had “concerns for her mental health” and said it was growing more difficult to “meet her needs within this environment.”

The girl repeatedly asked to be taught at home, but her parents continued to work with the school. Last fall, at the start of her sixth-grade year, she stopped doing class work and her mother noticed self-inflicted scratches on her arms. On Oct. 1, she attempted suicide by overdosing on her depression medication and other drugs.

Her parents kept her home for the next two months, then independently sent her to a nearby private school for one class period a day. The experiment was successful, and by the end of the year she was going four days a week.

The parents requested that she be eligible for special education services, and asked the district to pay her $950-per-month tuition at the private school. The district denied those services but said she was entitled to accommodations for people with disabilities under the federal Rehabilitation Act. They proposed close supervision combined with therapy and access to “gifted and talented” programs at her local school.

L.I.’s parents said they would not be able to persuade their daughter to participate in that program. A two-day appeal hearing began on May 26 and the school’s position was upheld.

James McDevitt, special education director for SAD 55, would not comment on the case specifically, but said the process for determining special education status is proscribed by state and federal law. He said schools consider emotional and social problems when making their decisions, but not every student with a disability is in a special program.

“We have children with a wide spectrum of vision difficulties,” he said as an example. “We have students who are blind, but they don’t necessarily require special education.”

But Field says she works with many children with Asperger’s who do receive special education services in Maine, even though they score well on IQ and other tests. She says this case could set a bad precedent for hundreds of families if the district’s decision is upheld.

“I would be very concerned if this (interpretation) becomes the law,” Field said. “There would be a whole lot of people who need it who would not get services.”

Staff Writer Gregory D. Kesich can be contacted at 791-6336 or at: gkesich@pressherald.com

Copyright  2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.