Parent of special needs kid clashes with school

Cynthia Branch of Lawrenceville, like many other metro Atlanta parents of special needs students, had back-to-school anxiety over how her kid would adjust to a new teacher unfamiliar with his disabilities or educational plan. But her methods for keeping track of her son's progress ran afoul of school administrators.

Gwinnett Schools police issued a criminal trespass notice warning Branch not to set foot inside Mason Elementary without the principal's permission.

"We work hard to encourage parent involvement and to show parents respect as we work together to serve students," said Sloan Roach, Gwinnett County Schools spokesperson. "That said, we also expect parents to show respect ... there is a fine line between advocating for your child and disrupting a school."

Roach said for two years, Branch has failed to follow visitation policy and has been disrespectful in her communication with staff, often intimidating them. But when students overheard her rant, school officials had had enough. 

Branch says she follows the rules and makes no excuses for vigorously advocating for her son Carrington, who has been diagnosed with nine neurological-related disabilities and can only write his name using initials. The 10-year-old had brain surgery as an infant and struggles to read because some letters appear backward and upside down. Branch says she took classes to advocate for Carrington and asserting rights that can put parents at odds with their school.

“He is a very loving little boy who learns totally different from everybody else,’’ she said. “He can’t read things laying flat; you have got to bring things up so he can see them. If he is in a very noisy environment, he is not going to hear you. If someone doesn’t understand how complex he is, he will never progress.”

Special education parents can go through a rough period of adjustment as they learn to adapt to new teachers.

“You can be perceived as being pushy,” said Sharon Capers, who serves on a Gwinnett advisory committee for special education.

A spokesperson for advocacy manual author Pete Wright, who co-wrote  "Wrightslaw," however, said restrictions like trespass notices are tactics schools sometimes use to stifle parents.

Administrators say they must enforce rules.

Capers said a Gwinnett mom who fought for services had her emails to the teacher banned because she sent too many. She was told to email the principal. “Everything had to be filtered,” Capers said.

Under federal law, children with disabilities are entitled to an appropriate public education, though the latest compliance report by the National Council on Disability in 2000 shows that all states had delivery issues.

Georgia has 177,070 special needs students. They receive special services and an Individualized Educational Plan or IEP, crafted by educators and parents, setting annual goals and strategies. Parents also get a team of experts at their disposal for meetings. By law, schools must follow IEPs.

That is what Branch, who has a civil rights complaint pending against Gwinnett Schools, wants. She transferred Carrington to five schools in six years because programs for him moved. Branch says that her son has rare disabilities that impair his vision and hearing. Carrington moved to Mason hoping to get a teacher trained in Orton Gillingham, a researched-based reading program, but she said the teacher didn't return in August.

"That was very disheartening," she said. "Carrington is now facing middle school and can only read 45 words consistently."

Branch also complained that Carrington's one-on-one math instruction was being held in the cafeteria during breakfast.  She monitored a session with her tape recorder.  "He has central auditory processing disorder and tries to process noise around him," she said. "He is not going to learn anything in there."

Gwinnett officials said Mason's principal attempted to meet weekly with Branch and advised her that tape recorders in class violate student privacy: “ The school was forced to take action due to this parent's continued failure to comply with building access procedures."

Branch, however, keeps her check-in slips as part the "paper trail" Wrightslaw trained her to have.  She says advocates sometimes face retaliation.

As more special needs parents clash with schools, the number of state hearings on complaints has increased  from 40 in 2007 to 52 in 2009. .

Rachael Barron of Atlanta, who has a son with cerebral palsy, was among those with complaints. Instead of hammering Atlanta Public Schools, she sought the ruling of a state administrative law judge. She says she recently won the case. "It's OK to disagree, but you need to be respectful and firm."

Parent to Parent of Georgia trains special needs parents and schools to work amicably. Some metro districts also offer advocacy etiquette. Atlanta Public Schools has a workshop on understanding  individualized education plans.

“A lot of times, parents don’t think they have options,” said Susan Brown, Parent to Parent's regional coordinator. “That can make them very emotional when they consider the fact that[their child's [educational plan] is not being met. We really try to help them to gain control over their emotions so they can communicate better. .”

Tips Box:

Parent to Parent of Georgia has several training sessions scheduled in October to help parents learn more about advocacy and special education law. They encourage parents to follow school rules and suggest these tips to improve communication with school officials in meetings:

- Be prepared. Know in advance the important points to discuss and questions to ask.

- Listen. Listening will help you gather information about your child and help you understand other viewpoints.

- State your issues clearly.Communicate in an honest and direct manner.

- Ask questions.Comments and questions should be directed to the person who can best address or answer them.

- Be confident. A parent never has to feel guilty or embarrassed asking questions or assertively pursuing the

appropriate services for the child. It is your role and your right.

- Work together. Remember that neither you nor the professionals have all the answers. Work as a team to find solutions.

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