Some parents of children with disabilities in South Carolina are having trouble navigating special needs services in school districts across the state.
While these services look different for every child, many parents express similar concerns about access to Individual Education Programs, or IEPs, that help meet the needs of their students. Others say it takes years to see the necessary improvements in their child’s school experience.
According to the SC Department of Education, nearly 100,000 students with disabilities between the ages of 6 and 21 are currently enrolled in public schools across the state.
And thousands of those students are using IEPs, which include personalized goals and learning objectives developed by a team of teachers, parents, and representatives from local educational organizations.
Such was the case for Susan Cafferty, a Lexington mother of four whose 15-year-old daughter, Maggie, suffers from a degenerative neuromuscular disease. The condition makes it difficult to work in class in traditional forms, such as filling out spreadsheets and PDF documents.
“School is the only thing (Maggie) can attend like any other kid,” Cafferty said. “I think that’s why I cling to it.”
School District 1 in Lexington County, where Maggie attends school, suggests parents who think their child needs a more rigorous education to first call a meeting to discuss any potential adjustments to school goals. a student or other parts of the IEP.
Maggie has suffered since birth from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
She is an eighth grader and has so far exceeded her projected life expectancy of 14 years. She also exceeded many of the learning objectives and courses that are part of her IEP.
Maggie needs a ventilator at least 15 hours a day, is non-verbal and confined to a bed or wheelchair most of the day.
“Maggie is extremely smart,” said Linda Pooley, Maggie’s homeschooler for more than two years. “We just have to figure out what we need to show her to see what she accomplishes.”
Pooley has been an in-state special education instructor for 38 years and said she has had great success working with Maggie since middle school, but notes more can be done to support her educationally.
“I have to think outside the box and go find other things that will help her because I know how smart she is and how she can do (the job),” Pooley added.
Over the past year, Cafferty said her daughter has become irritable and disinterested in the work teachers and instructors provide, often pushing work aside and refusing to complete homework.
“There are kids who are served very well in some of these programs,” Cafferty said. “But when you’re like my child and you don’t fit perfectly into that set, there’s a resistance to creativity.”
On several occasions, Cafferty said the instructors keep sending Maggie the same worksheets over and over. She remembers learning to count coins and tell the time for at least two years.
Dr. Nicole Adams, director of special services for School District 1 in Lexington County, told The Post and Courier that non-verbal students often use alternative augmented communication devices that affect their ability to communicate with members of their team. IEP.
“This group of students has a convergence of multiple needs across multiple domains, which makes determining needs complex,” Adams said.
Since meeting Maggie’s IEP team, LCSD1 has provided Cafferty and her daughter with an alternative program, IXL Learning, which allows Maggie to complete her classroom work using her touch pad. The program reads the questions aloud and allows him to choose the best answer using his tablet.
According to Cafferty, she’s already noticing increased engagement with the class material and she seems to be moving along pretty quickly. But it took a long time to get the accommodation.
“I’ve been asking for this for years,” Cafferty said.
Another parent, Elizabeth Murray, told the Post and Courier that she has been fighting for the Berkeley County School District to take her son’s autism diagnosis seriously since he was diagnosed in 2019. Until now she has applied for an IEP for her son twice but the district has yet to grant one.
“Academically he’s perfect,” Murray said. “It hurt us trying to get him an IEP because the school district was looking at his academic performance instead of his behavioral needs.”
William struggles to cope when overstimulated, mostly by loud sounds and classmates who sometimes break the rules. He has also been known to disrupt class when overwhelmed. On a few occasions he became aggressive with other students and instructors.
“As he gets older, it becomes more and more dangerous for him and other students,” Murray said. “That’s why we fought so hard for them to take his autism seriously.”
According to Murray, BCSD has agreed to conduct another behavioral assessment this year.
“It took three years in the making,” Murray said.
The Berkeley County School District did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
A group effort
According to officials from the Family Resource Center for Disabilities and Special Needs, a nonprofit group, parents are major players in any IEP team.
Beverly McCarty, executive director of FRC, said it’s important for parents to know that a school cannot use “lack of resources or funding” to prevent a child from receiving the necessary services agreed to by the team. IEP.
“If the team decides they need it, they have to find the money to deliver it,” McCarty said.
But according to Cafferty, it’s easy to feel at odds with other IEP team members, especially if needs have gone unmet for years.
Cafferty also considers herself privileged, having worked in the Lexington School District for 29 years. Yet she still endured many battles for the betterment of her daughter’s education.
“In almost every meeting in his entire school career, there have been tears,” Cafferty said.
But for parents in different circumstances, perhaps working more than one job, or unaware of the resources available to families with special needs, the results could be much worse.
“I think about how difficult this journey has been for us to get what our child needs, and then I think about the parents who are less equipped,” Cafferty said.
There is support for parents of disabled children under the Disability and Education Act. The law requires every state to have at least one community parent resource center that can help families understand their rights and responsibilities.
South Carolina has two community resource centers for parents, Family Connection in Columbia and FRC in the Lowcountry.
“All students are general education students first, and the purpose of an IEP is to provide access to the general curriculum for all students,” said Rebecca Davis, director of the office of Special Education Services. from the SC Department of Education.
“We hope they will have better and better access to the general education curriculum, and there may be a time when they don’t need as much support,” Davis added.
Parents can go to www.parentcenterhub.org/find-your-center/ to find a community parent resource center near you.