By Hal Walter
I’ve followed with keen interest a case in which parents sued Colorado’s Douglas County School District to pay tuition after pulling their autistic son from the public system and placing him in a $70,000-per-year private school for special-needs kids.
The parents claimed the district did not provide adequate education for their child, who had a history of head-banging, disrobing and running away from the school.
After a long and convoluted legal battle that wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court and then was remanded back to federal district court, a judge recently ruled in the parents’ favor. The decision has been hailed as a victory for parents and children living with disabilities.
My autistic son Harrison has some pretty outrageous behaviors at school too, but you may find it surprising that I completely disagree with this ruling, or the notion that it is any sort of victory for neurodiverse students or their classmates.
The boy in the lawsuit – known to the court system and media as “Endrew F.” is expected to attend the private school until he’s 21 – about a decade. The judge also awarded legal and court fees and other costs. The total sum is expected to be more than $1 million.
By comparison Colorado spends on average about $9,000 per student per year for pubic education. And, by the way, tuition at the University of Colorado is about $60,000 per year.
The experience of these parents must have been quite different than what we’ve had here in Custer County. Harrison has been somewhat of a community project as the first publicly autistic student to go through our not-so-well-funded rural school system. From very early on the faculty has gone out of their way to provide Harrison a special experience, starting with early preschool at three years of age, in-school therapies (physical, occupational, psychological and speech), really great one-on-one teacher’s aides, academic accommodations, and opportunities like track and cross-country, guitar lessons, music programs, after-school dances and other activities. The school makes accommodations to include him in as much of the curriculum as possible. They’ve also shown extreme compassion and patience when things go awry with his behavior, as they so often do.
We are truly fortunate, but isn’t this what education is all about?
It’s my view that school should be a learning opportunity that goes beyond academics both for Harrison and his neurotypical classmates. These students who know him and interact with him daily will likely grow up to have autistic people in their lives, and right now Harrison is their only teacher in this subject.
What sort of message would it send to Harrison and to his neurotypical classmates, to send him to a “special school” for the “disabled?” It’s really not a good message for anyone, including society at large.
To the point that it does not disrupt the other kids’ learning, I favor trying to keep Harrison in a regular school environment. I’ve felt this inclusion to be necessary from the very beginning and even more so now.
We have had our own experience with special schools for autism. One summer we sent him to Soaring Eagles School for Autism (paying out of our own pocket). He came back squawking like bird. The next summer we sent him there and he came back striking out at adults. I believe he picked up both of these behaviors from other autistic kids there.
I would rather have him model after neurotypical kids. So we simply did not send him back to Soaring Eagles, and I sought out and negotiated other options, such as his attending day camps and kids clubs for neurotypical kids.
Setting such a standard for school districts is unfair and expensive, and the legal precedent has dangerous far-reaching ramifications nationwide. With one in 68 kids now diagnosed with autism, the financial burden of sending them all to expensive private schools at taxpayer expense is staggering, probably unnecessary, and without any proven or tested efficacy.
Maybe the judge should have compromised and said okay, here’s $10K per year to go toward the private school, but to pay for it all is a disaster in the making for school systems just now learning to cope with the rising tide of autism.
Recently Harrison was suspended from school for misbehaviors that began in band class, one of the mainstream classes he remains in. He became extremely upset and ended up in the principal’s office in a total meltdown. I was called to bring him home but he was in a rage and would not leave.
This episode was extremely intense and at one point I had to leave the principal’s office to regain my composure as I was overwhelmed by the emotion of this incident. After some negotiation – and a great deal of patience and time from the staff – we were able to convince Harrison to leave peacefully and go home. Our principal Jack accompanied us out to the car and helped with getting him settled safely in the back seat.
After Harrison was buckled up, Jack stuck his head in the car and said: “I want you to know we all love you here and we look forward to you coming back to school.”
That right there was worth more than $1 million in private schooling.
Hal Walter is the author of Endurance and Selected Essays on Autism, Neurodiversity, and Deep Sport, available at The Book Haven in Salida.
2 thoughts on “At What Cost?”
I completely agree. Our children need to learn empathy. I’m sure everyone at the school has learned so much from Harrison and your interaction with him. They are lucky to have that experience!
Thank you Karin. Appreciate your insight and encouragement!
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