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Who Loses in Battle Over Boy's Special Education?

By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
          I spent part of last week in an Albuquerque Public Schools conference room, an unassuming battleground on which the district clashed with the latest set of parents who dared to criticize the way their child is being taught.
        You could almost hear the taxpayer dollars being ripped from the classroom coffers to feed the bottomless craw of APS legal counsel for this due process hearing, the first step on the way to a big bucks lawsuit.
        Rather than negotiate, APS had chosen to litigate over a disagreement on how and how much education to provide a special needs child.
        The child in this case is Tommy, diagnosed at age 3 with autism in the summer of 2007.
        His mother, Sandra Chavez-Williamson, an educated woman with a background in speech and hearing sciences and the law, immersed herself in learning all she could about the neurological disorder, knowing that the window of opportunity for meaningful early intervention was small and immediate.
        "I was determined to give him everything I could," she said. "You have no idea how much research I've done."
        In fall 2007, she and her paleontologist husband, Thomas Williamson, enrolled their son in preschool at Valle Vista Elementary, the first of at least four APS schools the family eventually dealt with.
        Soon after, the battle began.
        "It was a power struggle from Day One," Samantha Adams, legal counsel for APS, said during opening arguments before hearing officer Jane Yohalem, a Santa Fe attorney.
        Adams contended that Chavez-Williamson was micromanaging and manipulative and impossible to please no matter how hard the district had tried. She was a woman obsessed, calling her son's teachers and APS staff, no matter the time, for a full accounting of his day or to push her latest ideas on what might work for him and what wouldn't.
        Chavez-Williamson had demanded too much from the system, rejected the advice of educators with years of experience, Adams said. She had "shopped" for different schools and teachers (an apparent APS no-no), then pulled him from those schools when his needs were not being met to her satisfaction.
        "It was a constant barrage," Mary Johnell Hale, APS developmental preschool program liaison, testified. "I love Sandra and her family, but she was consumed with getting ready to prepare Tommy for kindergarten."
        But Tommy's parents contend that APS had forced their hand, failing to train its staff adequately on autism techniques, provide needed services or conduct observation and testing in a timely manner.
        To supplement APS's shortcomings, the family was forced to seek services outside the school, including a costly semester at a private preschool.
        Chavez-Williamson spent hours in her son's classroom, attempting to train APS staff or provide training from experts for APS staff. The family also paid for the services of an educational assistant supervised by Albuquerque psychologist Dr. Brian Lopez.
        Their attorney Gail Stewart compared APS's ability to deal with teaching its students with autism to making a salad when all that is available in the house is peanut butter and bread.
        An estimated 500 children with variations of autism are enrolled in APS. But "APS does not have the infrastructure and training in place to deal with these children's needs," Stewart said.
        Legally, what it boiled down to was that APS had violated Tommy's civil right to a "free appropriate public education," regardless of the nature or severity of his disability, the Williamsons contend.
        This January, the Williamsons say they were forced to withdraw Tommy from school "in order to avoid continuing harassment by APS," which included attempts to sic police and the state Children, Youth and Families Department on them, court documents filed in the case state.
        The harassment also included portraying Chavez-Williamson as something less appealing than a concerned mother, she said.
        "It's intimidating," Chavez-Williamson said. "But I'm fighting for my son. This matters."
        And so, to war.
        It could take weeks before Yohalem decides who is right and who is wrong and what is to become of Tommy's education — at which point either side can appeal the decision to the courts.
        That means it could be many years and many thousands of dollars more before a resolution is achieved in the case.
        By then, the window of opportunity for Tommy could be closed, and the money that might have gone to improve APS's special education programs for kids like Tommy spent on things having little to do with education or children.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. You can reach Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.
       

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