'Nobody at that district cared': York County parents share struggles seeking special education
Seventeen-year-old Desiree Ryer wears noise-canceling headphones to manage the sensory issues she deals with because of her ADHD.
While in eighth grade at Dallastown Area Middle School, she wore the headphones in a science class during a lesson that had students scratching against rock sugar. Without them, she said, the sounds would have sent her into sensory overload.
Desiree did not expect her teacher to yell at her for it.
She continued having issues with some of her middle school teachers, and eventually her teachers in high school. According to her mother, Michelle Ryer, the issues stemmed from a lack of understanding of what support Desiree needed because of her diagnosed ADHD and dyslexia.
“It was more stress than a middle schooler should go through,” Desiree said.
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Eventually, things got bad enough that Desiree transferred to Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School in Harrisburg, where she is now a junior and doing well. But Desiree isn’t the only student who has faced obstacles in getting proper special education in York County.
The York Dispatch heard from 20 families — representing 11 different public school districts in the county — all of whom have struggled to get the resources they needed for their special needs students. Many resorted to extreme measures to get help, such as transferring their students to a different school or seeking support from advocacy groups or legal counsel.
Although the specifics of each case differed, a majority of parents shared a common complaint about their districts.
“Nobody at that district cared,” said former Red Lion parent Kayla Seymour.
Jessica Boll, an advocate who works with special needs families for The Arc of York County, said school districts actually care a lot. In reality, she said, many schools are overwhelmed and doing their best within their limitations.
District reaction is consistent: Most of the districts in question declined to answer questions for this story on the basis that it pertained to individual students. Instead, seven districts sent written statements — all of which were near word-for-word copies of each other.
“Our school district is committed to providing services that meet the needs of all of our students. We work collaboratively with our families, faculty, and staff in this endeavor and in the development of plans and practices we may implement in support of student learning,” said officials from Central York, Dallastown, Dover, Red Lion, South Eastern, Spring Grove and York City.
Parents spoke of a wide range of problems, from their district not allocating enough funding for proper materials, to their child getting harassed and assaulted by other students and district officials ignoring it until the parent pushed for action.
Though their experiences differ, they all seem to boil down to three main issues: Lack of training, lack of resources and a lack of communication.
The disabilities represented among the parents’ testimonies varied, but many of the students fell into one of two extremes: Either they were high functioning enough that their district didn’t provide them the proper support for their needs, or their needs were so severe that their district didn’t know how to handle them.
Several parents said their district wasn’t able to provide for the specific needs of their students. According to Boll, this should not be true, because those details should be outlined in the student’s Individualized Education Program, commonly referred to as an IEP.
Boll said most local school districts are good at following IEPs, but several parents disagreed. At least seven said they encountered issues with their IEP, with the most common complaint being that their district did not follow their child’s plan.
Beyond the administration, sometimes the lack of knowledge extends to the educators themselves. Ronisha Glover, a former special education teacher for Central York who now works in the York City School District, said she did not receive any formal training in special education before working in either district.
Benefit to students and staff: Glover is currently in school to increase her credentials in special education, but she said many of the other staff she’s worked with also are not trained. She said better training would benefit not only students, but the teachers themselves, so they can better handle students that could cause harm to themselves or others.
Without proper training, several parents have had to take on the responsibility of educating their children. Glover is helping her 21-year-old son, who has dyslexia and ADD, study to get his diploma.
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Annie Janmohamed has not worked in months because she is busy caring for her 6-year-old son, who has epilepsy and autism. While technically a student at Fishing Creek Elementary in the West Shore School District, Janmohamed said there was one point this school year when she was lucky to have her son in school for one full day per week.
Because of his epilepsy, Janmohamed said, her son often has partial seizures multiple times a day. She said they can be hard to recognize but are usually characterized by him staring into space or making repetitive motions.
Although it is not necessary for him to be sent home each time he has a partial seizure, which Janmohamed said is outlined in his IEP, the school would send him home anyway. She said the staff were neither comfortable nor equipped to handle him during his episodes.
Recently, she said the staff have gotten better at keeping her son in school through his partial seizures, but that was only after a “heated conversation” a few weeks ago in which Janmohamed suggested transferring him to a different school. She said district staff seemed offended when she mentioned this option.
“You want the best for your kid, even if you have to wound some pride to get there,” she said.
LIU assistance: In contrast with the public school districts, multiple parents praised the help they received through Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, which collaborates with local school districts to provide special education to more than 14,000 students across York, Adams and Franklin counties.
Though a few parents had complaints about the LIU, most of the parents who worked with them said the programs provided what their districts could not. A big part of that was because the LIU’s programs were more specific and it had staff trained to handle those specific needs.
Several parents mentioned that their districts have recently pulled out of their LIU partnerships in favor of starting their own special education programs, which they believe to be a way to increase funding for their district.
Seymour’s family moved to the South Eastern School District last year to get her autistic son out of Red Lion Area School District. Prior to the move, she said, she fought with the district for three years to get him the resources he needed. She said these problems began after the district stopped offering LIU services.
“We moved to get him someplace better,” she said.
Initially, Seymour wanted to enroll in South Eastern’s LIU program but quickly learned that she couldn’t because the district did not have enough space for him. Currently, her son is enrolled in Spring Forge Intermediate’s LIU program and is doing well, although he has to travel more than an hour there and back each day, she said.
South Eastern Superintendent Nathan Van Deusen said the Pennsylvania Department of Education caps class sizes at eight students for autistic support classrooms, including classes with the LIU.
Too-large classrooms were a common complaint among parents. Although most special education classrooms across the county are smaller than general education classes, several parents said they were still too big for their student’s needs.
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Increasing class sizes could be a symptom of a statewide educator shortage that has existed in Pennsylvania for at least the past five years. Districts are scrambling to fill even the most basic roles, like bus drivers and substitutes.
A lack of funding is an issue for most public school districts across the U.S, but some parents said they suspect their districts are not properly allocating the funds they do have to support special education.
Trying to help: Dallastown parent Samantha Dorm said her son’s special education program lacks resources, and she has tried to help alleviate the problem.
Dorm said she told the board about a grant the district could apply for to get better resources for their special needs students, but the directors decided not to apply. The reasoning they gave Dorm was that she was “singularly focused” on helping her own son, and they had other students to consider, she said.
Lack of funding is a key contributor in why districts aren't providing proper resources, according to Margie Wakelin, senior attorney with the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.
Although funding is not a legal justification for denying special needs services, Wakelin described it as "the elephant in the room," and said many districts use other excuses to disguise the fact that lack of funding is the true reason why they can't provide what a family is requesting.
Increasing special education funding is a key feature of Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed 2022-23 state budget, which includes nearly $2 billion in additional education spending. Of that figure, $200 million would contribute to special education funding.
If approved in full, that would more than double the amount of special education funding that Wolf's administration has secured over the last seven years, according to his budget brief.
"We need that so schools have what they need," Wakelin said.
Above everything else, the most common complaint, mentioned by nearly every parent, was that their district failed to properly communicate with them.
From not notifying parents when something has changed about their child’s education, to ignoring complaints and requests, most of the 20 parents who came forward had something to say about the lack of communication from their district.
This was yet another area where the LIU was an improvement over public school districts. Most parents who worked with the LIU said the increased communication was one of their favorite changes to their district’s program. Not only do LIU staff respond quickly when parents reach out to them, but they also initiate communication more frequently than districts did.
“The communication alone pays for itself,” Seymour said.
Needs to go both ways: Boll agreed that communication can be improved but said that it goes both ways. Many parents lack knowledge about state standards districts must meet and aren’t in the classroom to see how particular lesson plans are being implemented. She said both district officials and parents could do better at listening to one another.
“You are a team working together for your child,” Boll said.
Wakelin suggested that districts emphasize strong communication skills when hiring new case managers for IEPs.
"Parents need to be considered equal team members," Wakelin said.
Several parents also said their districts did not communicate with them about other resources they could seek outside of their district. Multiple parents said they had no idea other resources even existed, and if they did, they would have sought out help much sooner than they did.
This was the case for one anonymous Spring Grove parent. She had been struggling to get her daughter’s IEP updated to fit her needs until she connected with an advocate with the PEAL Center, a statewide advocacy group for children and young adults with special needs.
Through PEAL, she was able to secure an independent education evaluation for her daughter that found her the right IEP for her cognitive learning disability.
Resources: Parents can contact the PEAL Center by visiting their website pealcenter.org, or by calling 866-950-1040 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Arc of York County works with hundreds of local families each month, and welcomes more to seek them out. Parents can contact them on their website thearcofyorkcounty.org, or by calling 717-846-6589 or emailing email@example.com.
Now at Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School, Desiree is thriving, and part of that is because the school communicates with her family. Desiree's mother said she no longer has to email the school every week. Instead, the school takes an active role in letting her know what is going on.
"It's been a relief," Michelle Ryer said.
Partially because the charter school is smaller, with only about 200 students, the teachers are more determined to keep up with students who are struggling, Desiree said. She said one teacher spent three lunch periods helping her learn chemistry equations, even though that teacher didn't teach chemistry.
In contrast with Dallastown, which Desiree felt did the "absolute minimum," she said she feels as if her charter school teachers genuinely care about her progress.
"Our students matter just as much as an honors student," Ryer said.
— Reach Erin Bamer at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ErinBamer.