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These military families say public schools aren’t supporting their special-needs kids

Supporting children with special needs can introduce additional worries and demands on any family. For military families, that stress is compounded by a lifestyle involving repeated moves and varying levels of services and capabilities within schools. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza reports from Virginia Beach, Virginia, with one family's story of struggling to find support in school.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Navigating a school system can be challenging for any parent with a child who has special needs, but, for military families, that stress is compounded by their lifestyle of repeated moves and attending different schools that offer varying levels of services.

    In her second report focusing on military kids, special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza, with our partner Education Week, reports from Virginia Beach, Virginia, where a third of children in need of special education services can fall through the cracks.

    It's part of our education series, Making the Grade.

  • Cassidy Norman:

    Have a good day.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    After years of military moves, Navy Captain Cassidy Norman was posted to Virginia Beach.

  • Cassidy Norman:

    Bye-bye.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    The Normans had lived here before, and their daughter loved her former school; 14-year-old Marisa has several disabilities, including cerebral palsy, severe anxiety, poor eyesight and hearing.

  • Cassidy Norman:

    So, her disabilities are all compounded in the classroom. It's difficult for her to listen and learn and write all at the same time.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Marisa needs one-on-one help and therapies, but she has normal intelligence, which means, with patience and educational accommodations, she can learn just like any of her classmates.

    Virginia Beach is surrounded by bases and the economy is closely tied to the military. Its schools have several programs to support military kids. But several service members say the district is not meeting the needs of their children with disabilities.

    Eileen Huck with the National Military Family Association says obtaining special education services is a significant challenge for service members nationwide.

  • Eileen Huck:

    So often, I hear from families who had things set at their previous location, and then they had to move, and then they feel as though they're starting from scratch.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    The military does consider a child's medical and educational needs during assignments.

  • Eileen Huck:

    But there is less attention paid to the special education services, because federal law says that all school districts are required to provide a free and appropriate public education.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    All children with special needs in every public school district are entitled to an evaluation and individualized plan, detailing the supports they will receive.

    But when Marisa returned to the Virginia Beach district, her parents noticed right away something was wrong.

  • Cassidy Norman:

    We weren't getting progress reports. They kept taking away services and goals from her and from her education plan.

  • Michelle Norman:

    It was very frustrating.

  • Cassidy Norman:

    And, at the same time, they would give her honor roll and student of the month every once in a while, but all of this time, she was stagnating, and in some areas regressing.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Cassidy was away on training, and was then deployed to the Middle East. Still, he would call into meetings about Marisa, which he said school officials often postponed or canceled. More than a year passed, and nothing significant changed. The Normans moved Marisa to a private school. They also hired a lawyer.

  • Michelle Norman:

    And I was so depressed. I wasn't myself. I was crying all the time. I had to go see a therapist. And Cass was so worried about me, he had to send the base chaplain to come — come speak to me.

  • Cassidy Norman:

    During this case, I was responsible for the health and welfare for 3,000 sailors, plus 2,000 additional deployers on our ship. And even though that was stressful, it was more stressful for me to think about my daughter, who wasn't being taken care of by the public school here.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Aaron Spence is superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

  • Aaron Spence:

    Well, I want to be clear we actually do a great job with our special education program in Virginia Beach. And, on rare occasion, we have some disagreements and differences with our families. Fortunately, we have a great system for working through that.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Some military families here disagree.

    Bryn Bennett, Adriana Rodriguez and Sydney Jillson all have children with special needs.

  • Bryn Bennett:

    A few weeks after my husband left for deployment, my son was having some sort of breakdown in the classroom. They couldn't get him to calm down.

    And I got there, and they had the chairs kind of lined up. It was almost like he was a caged animal.

  • Sydney Jillson:

    To watch the people that I know are supposed to be on his side, the ones that are supposed to be helping him, and to see them pushing his buttons and upsetting him to such lengths was upsetting.

  • Adriana Rodriguez:

    They didn't listen to a word we had to say. They didn't listen to a word his doctors had to say. They didn't offer any supports.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    The district wouldn't comment on any of the cases, saying it would be "inappropriate because we remain in litigation and due process with many of these families."

    But in a written statement, a spokesperson said: "The school district is committed to providing the best learning environment possible for all children. We have nationally recognized partnerships with our local installations and are acknowledged as a premier provider of services in the military community."

    But in one complaint, which included military families, investigators found Virginia Beach schools were offering only the bare minimum in services, which translated into a deficient education.

    Advocate Eileen Huck says there are school districts that just wait it out.

  • Eileen Huck:

    It's unfortunate, but I think it's sometimes true, that school districts will be hesitant to provide a new service or a new resource to a family that they know is going to be moving out of the district in a year or two.

  • Man:

    We're not activists. We're not looking for a fight. We're looking for a good community.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    It is rare for a family to file a formal complaint, and even more rare for them to win.

    But a Virginia Department of Education investigation found the school district had not provided the minimum education required by law for Marisa. The school district appealed. The Normans won again in federal court, and Virginia Beach was ordered to pay for her private school.

    Marisa had to repeat a grade in her new school, but now she's doing well.

  • Capt. Cassidy Norman:

    She plays on the volleyball team.

  • Michelle Norman:

    She's making friends. She's learning.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Providing special education services can be expensive for school districts, but, as the Normans say, it's federal law. They say Virginia Beach schools have already spent more than $300,000 just on their case. The Normans say they hear from many other military families.

  • Cassidy Norman:

    And very few, if any, are able to afford a lawyer. It's been depressing to see all the families that cannot fight the fight that we are fighting, and all the families that have given up or that are afraid of retribution and will not speak out.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Virginia Beach School District recently stopped paying for Marisa's private school, and is appealing the verdict, which means another long court case that Michelle will have to deal with on her own, because Cassidy Norman has just received transfer orders for a 15-month posting on a ship based in Italy.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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