WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation: HCS failing its special needs students

Feds Investigating Huntsville City Schools

Posted: Feb. 15, 2018 9:31 PM
Updated: Feb. 16, 2018 8:16 AM

Many parents have complained to WAAY 31 about having to fight the Huntsville school district to get proper educations for their special needs students.

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It’s the focus of a months-long WAAY 31 I-Team Investigation.

As our investigation continues, this week we uncovered the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has also been actively investigating the Huntsville School Board.

As of February 2nd, Huntsville’s BOE had more of those cases than any other school district in Alabama.

For months, WAAY 31 has been investigating the challenges parents face.

In October of last year, we requested information from most every school district in our viewing area. We asked for information about Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, along with other information about Special Ed programs and related complaints. From the responses we received, we noted no real problems. All we've gotten from the Huntsville school district, though, is failure to deliver. That’s despite emails, phone calls and face-to-face requests.

Acey. Finn. Carter. Price.

Now nine, we caught up with the quadruplets jumping on their backyard trampoline.

Finn and Acey are typically developing children. "We have two of the boys that are on the Autism spectrum," Benjy Crim told WAAY 31.

Price is a special needs student because he’s Autistic and suffers with ADHD.

But, it’s Carter -- "Carter was diagnosed at 2 years old, Crim said" -- who's most at-risk of falling behind in the classroom.

"Carter is more significantly impacted,” he told us. “He's minimally verbal. He uses a speech generating voice output device to learn to use his words.”

Sometimes, even noise from the world around him can rock Carter's world.

"He's the one suffering,” Crim said. “You know, Carter gets one shot at his education.”

Crim complains the Huntsville City Board of Education is failing to fully follow the federal law IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It mandates a free appropriate public education to children with disabilities.

"Our kids with exceptionalities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education,” Crim told us. “Appropriate, I believe, is the key word there."

IDEA requires public schools to provide or pay for the necessary benefits and services for that appropriate education.

“It's just troubling that here in Huntsville City Schools, the parent has no meaningful input and might as well just be spectators because that's the way they're treated."

The law makes it clear: parents are supposed to be a key part of mapping out their child's education.

Crim thinks Huntsville is coming up short.

"The outcome of the IEP, the placement, for example, is predetermined,” Crim said. “So, the decisions are made downtown before we even sit down at the table."

An IEP is short for Individualized Education Program.

"One thing that I've noticed with this district over time is that we seem to forget the most significant letter in IEP,” he told us. “Individualized is the key."

The entire Crim clan loves Goldsmith Schiffman Elementary and the teachers there. They’re not the problem. “These special educators have a heart – they’ve answered a very special calling,” Crim told us.

Last school year, Crim says Carter thrived in a so-called regular classroom. “He had the opportunity for most of the day to learn to model the behaviors of his typically developing peers."

But this academic year, Carter’s school day has changed. "It's a variety kids with just various disabilities," Crim explained. He says the district corralled Carter and other kids with special needs into a self-contained unit.

"So, his least restrictive environment was taken from him that he had last year,” he said. “That's huge. That's really important. That's critical for him."

Crim insists the school district is just plain wrong.

"The Huntsville City School system has decided that if you choose to put your child, or if you have to put your child on extended standards, then they automatically go into this self-contained unit which is absurd,” he said. “And it's not consistent with the federal statute."

Failing to agree to an IEP for the 2017-18 school year, the district was supposed to stick to the program from the previous year.

"This is what you call the stay-put provision,” Crim explained. “The district agreed to the stay-put provision which means Carter would have stayed put in his last agreed upon placement which would have been the same exact IEP as last year. Well, they have completely ignored that."

Crim describes his fight for what’s legally due Carter as Hell on earth.

The family has suffered through unreturned phone calls and emails to the superintendent, cancelled meetings, IEP meetings that go nowhere, unproductive mediation, complaining to the state, even resorting to hiring a lawyer.

Carter's parents recently had their rightful due process hearing. That went nowhere. So now, it's up to a judge to hear Carter's case in an administrative hearing.

Crim says he'd be lost without his attorney. “But, It shouldn't have to be a fight,” he added. “We ought to be able to get these services without employing the services of an attorney."

Some parents reach out to special education advocates.

"They're typically in a situation where they're frustrated with the school system or their child is not learning or making the progress that they should be making," Carol Woodard told WAAY 31.

Woodard owns Hope 2 Joy Advocacy based in Madison.

"The biggest thing parents feel is that they're not being heard or that they're being bullied," she told us.

Woodard works to back up moms and dads and make sure school districts include those parents while developing their child's IEP.

“The critical piece is the parents are part of that team,” Woodard emphasized.

Instead of a team member, school districts can often make parents feel sidelined.

"The decision's already been made based on the resources that they have available,” she told us. “And it's not individualized the way it's supposed to be."

Woodard points out the law is intended to put power in parents' hands. "The sad thing is that the system doesn't work as it should. And we're trying to fix that and make a difference."

Back to what one parent sees firsthand, this disgusted dad thinks he's pinpointed the problem. "Every bit of it comes from those people sitting behind their desks downtown in the Merts Center,” Crim told WAAY 31.

The Annie C. Merts Center is home base for Huntsville's Board of Education. Crim says it's time people inside the Board of Ed put special needs students first.

"We need to not be stuck on stupid,” Crim told us. “We need to get away from this mindset of we do this because this is the way we've always done it. You've got a director who's been sitting in that office for at least ten years. And I'm seeing no changes."

The Crims aren’t alone. Some parents tell us they pack up and move so their students can attend school in other districts.

Again, the Huntsville School Board stonewalled WAAY 31 in denying us information to provide to the public.

One of the questions we asked is how much the district spends on fighting special education and IEP cases. The Huntsville School Board pays Lanier, Ford, Shaver & Payne for its attorney services.

WAAY 31 is working to report to you how big of a legal tab Huntsville City Schools is running. We’ll do it with or without the school board's help.

Benjy Crim pushing his son Carter on the family's backyard swingset.

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