Proposed Delaware law addresses services for special needs children in schools

Are children with special needs getting the appropriate services when they attend school?  Proposed legislation in Delaware would address what is sometimes a tense, emotional standoff between parents and school administrators.

While schools are required to address the concerns of parents, it is ultimately up to school districts to determine whether to make accommodations.  Parents often must file formal appeals and hire medical professionals as expert witnesses, sometimes paying thousands of dollars out of their own pockets.

“It’s intimidating because it requires you to butt heads with the people who take care of your kid every day,” Lt. Gov. Matt Denn said.  “It’s incredibly complicated because the law and procedures surrounding special education appeals are hard even for many lawyers to understand – much less parents trying to advocate for their kids.”

State Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown, plans to introduce legislation this week that would allow parents who successfully challenge denials of services to their children with special needs to be reimbursed for costs related to their appeals.  Parents had such a right under federal law until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned it in 2006, deciding that other federal courts had been misreading the law.

The outcome, Johnson said, is a process that works against parents who do not have the financial ability to fully advocate for their children.

“This legislation is going to be something that brings us one step closer to making sure that the playing field is leveled,” Johnson said.

The current practice disproportionately impacts low-income families, according to Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council Senior Administrator Pat Maichle.  She added that such parents are already under stress and time pressures dealing with raising a child who requires special services.

“It’s just one more burden put on them, to figure out how to pay these bills,” Maichle said.

The law has the backing of such organizations as Autism Delaware, the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Exceptional Children, the Developmental Disabilities Council and the Parent Information Center of Delaware.

State Senator Harris McDowell (D.-Wilmington) is the chief sponsor of the measure in the Senate.  The bill may be acted upon in a legislative committee this week.  Supporters hope it will be enacted by the end of the legislative session June 30th.

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