Maryland Parents Face Losing Battle in Struggle Against Schools
Would you rack up $50,000 in legal fees for a court battle you are almost certain to lose? That was the difficult decision one Anne Arundel County family was forced to make in fighting for their daughter’s education.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” says Sarah Davis, a mother who’s spent the past year battling Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “People don't know that our kids with disabilities are being discriminated against in this way.”
Last fall, Lilli Davis was struggling class. The District tested the 13-year-old for learning disabilities and provided some resources. The Davises wanted a second outside opinion, but the school system didn’t want to pay it.
“I think it's pretty awful,” says Wayne Steedman, a special education attorney representing the Davis family. “It's hard for school people to be put in this position where they have to frankly lie to parents because they're not allowed to tell them the truth. The truth is your child needs this, but we can't afford it. It's not in our budget.”
Instead of paying for that second opinion, the District filed a due process complaint and took the Davises to court.
“This is why it's so challenging for parents in our position, because there really isn't a recourse to advocate for our kids,” says Davis.
Project Baltimore analyzed six years of due process hearings statewide. Since 2012, we found, there have been 87 cases filed against parents. Those parents lost 77 of the cases, meaning school systems win 89 percent of the time.
“Most parents are going to say those odds are just too bad. I'm not going to spend all that money and take that risk,” says Steedman.
A risk, that so far, has added up to $50,000 in legal fees for the Davis family, all for a case they are almost certain to lose.
Up until the early 90s, these due process hearings were heard by a three-person panel with people trained in disability law. But in 1993, the Maryland Legislature moved them to one administrative law judge. Overnight, Steedman says, parents went from winning half the cases to winning 10 percent.
“The law didn't change. Nothing changed but who was adjudicating the hearing, who was running the hearing,” says Steedman.
Under federal law, parents are guaranteed an impartial due process hearing. But if families are losing about 90 percent of cases, does that sound impartial?
In an email, the Maryland State Department of Education told Fox45, the system is working because most of these cases are settled before ever going to a hearing. But Steedman says parents give in because they know they’ll lose in court.
“I think the way the Office of Administrative Hearings handles this, is the biggest obstacle to children getting the services that they need in schools. Something needs to be done,” says Steedman.
He believes the system should return to that three-person panel, so families can have a chance. By the way, like the other 90 percent of parents, the Davises lost in court.
“I want things to be different for Lilli,” says Davis. “I want things to be different for my younger daughter, and I want things to be different for the other children who are experiencing these kinds of struggles. Our kids deserve better.”
Steedman said the reason for the 1993 change in law is that state school systems pressured the legislature because they were only winning half the cases.