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Special education at CMSD: Becoming an advocate


Isabelle Altman



The day Qua Austin's daughter started kindergarten at Union Academy, the "girly girl" with big red bow on her head couldn't have been more excited. 


"She was this bubbly, big-eyed kid in this little red hot wheelchair," Austin remembered fondly. 


Born in 1984, Austin's daughter had been diagnosed with spina bifida, a condition in which the spine does not form properly. Austin said she had alerted the Columbus Municipal School District her child had special education needs before she started school, but that no IEP -- or individualized education plan -- had been set up to determine what services or accommodations the child would need to receive the free and appropriate education she was entitled to under federal law. Without an IEP, a student cannot be put in a special education classroom, Austin said.  


In the case of Austin's daughter, she had no mental or academic disability that would keep her from being able to learn in a regular classroom with typically developing students -- she simply sat in a wheelchair instead of a classroom chair. So Austin was shocked when she arrived after school to pick her up and found the child sitting alone in the corner of the self-contained SPED classroom. 


"I was horrified," Austin said. "I was in tears. ... They robbed her of her first day experience in school." 


That day began "a battle" with CMSD, Austin said -- a battle she's seen other parents fight over the years as she works with them to advocate for all SPED students. This year, a Columbus resident filed a systemic complaint against the district, alleging the district was not providing services appropriately for SPED students.  


Austin has worked on a volunteer basis with up to half a dozen parents every year, has directed them to professional advocacy centers and sat in on IEP meetings. She said the last few years, since Superintendent Philip Hickman came to the administration, have been the worst she's ever seen. 


"CMSD is looking for ways not to serve," Austin said. 




Knowing the law 


Leslie Junkin is a Lowndes County resident who for 14 years has been a professional advocate with Mississippi Parent Training and Information Center. Her job is to work with parents of SPED students, teaching them IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) laws that mandate schools all over the country provide whatever services and accommodations those students need to be best educated. 


The services students may need are unique -- one may need to be in a self-contained classroom while another simply needs special equipment like Austin's daughter. Some may need speech therapy, while others need occupational, physical or music therapies. 


To get many of these services for their children, parents must attend IEP meetings with the child's teachers, therapists and school administrators -- called an IEP committee -- and look at evaluations and data to decide what services the child will get. 


It's a frustrating endeavor for parents, particularly those who don't understand IDEA laws, Junkin said. 


"Our children with disabilities are the only students who have to earn the right to an education," she said. "Because any other child is going to automatically receive an education. Often our children are under-educated or not challenged, because people assume, based on the diagnosis, that they can't learn." 


Junkin compared going into IEP meetings to going before a jury. 


"It's almost like you have to prove your child's worth it," she said. 


She suggested parents take an advocate with them -- if not a professional who understands the law, then a friend or family member. Even if that person just takes notes, it's good for the parent to have someone there to support them. 


As an advocate, Junkin has sat through IEP meetings all over the state. There are districts who work extremely well with parents, and even more qualified, caring teachers who "give everything they have to the kids." Good districts include Lee County and Tupelo, she said. She also likes Lowndes County School District, though admits she's biased toward them because that is where her daughter, who has Downs Syndrome, attended and graduated. 


Administrators in those districts attempt to reach out to parents, letting them know about services the district can provide, and having collaborative discussions in IEP meetings.  


Junkin told parents to understand they wouldn't get everything they wanted even in districts with good SPED departments -- administrators look at data to determine if a child is reaching goals and don't necessarily agree with parents on what constitutes improvement. For example, she said, a parent may feel a service is benefiting a child who can now write the letter B, but IEP committee want the child to write the entire alphabet. 


Both Junkin and Austin said CMSD doesn't work well with parents, who have reported having an adversarial relationship with district administrators even while they approve wholeheartedly of most individual teachers. 


One parent Austin worked with called her earlier this year and said, "This is overwhelming." 


"I said, 'Yeah, you have to address it like a job,'" Austin said.




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