Parents fight for child's education

March 6, 2009 1:53:55 PM PST
Parents in New York are trying to get their autistic child the educational services they say they're legally entitled to. The power of one state official is increasingly being called into question. One out of 150 children is autistic. So what happens when professionals say that your child needs a certain level of care and the school district doesn't want to provide it? One case raises wider issues about the role of a state official who has singular power over appeals.

Five-year-old Sophia Kealey can now repeat words and phrases, and her instructors at the Manhattan Children's Center say she's improved dramatically in the six months she's attended the private school for autistic children who receive one-to-one instruction, one staff to every student.

"She needs one-to-one, or she'd be lost," principal Abigail Szoszun-Weiss said. "Plain and simple. Plain and simple."

Sophia's parents had to fight to get her into the school because in spite of the report by an independent, world-renowned doctor that Sophia tested at a 2-year-old learning level and needed one-on-one services, the New York City Board of Education wanted to place her in a Queens public school trailer, where the ratio is six students to one instructor.

"I went to see the school, saw that it would just be impossible for her to function in a meaningful way and learn in a meaningful way, mother Patty Kealey said. "I was petrified for her future."

Only one public school in New York City provides one-on-one instruction for autistic children. And it's in such demand that Sophia had no hope of getting in. The private Manhattan Children's Center did have an opening, but there's no way her parents could afford the $97,000 a year tuition. Her father, Tim, is a wine distributor, and Patty is unemployed.

"Some people might think this school is a luxury," Patty said. "This isn't a luxury. That's not what this is about. It isn't a fancy-schmancy private school. This is a school that is giving her what she needs."

"It's very frustrating when parents see that other kids are getting what they need, that their child needs and they can't get," the family's attorney, Gary Mayerson, said. "It's like being frozen out of the medicine cabinet when you know that there is medicine in there that your kid needs."

The Kealey's attorney sued. There was a three-day trial at the city's Board of Education headquarters in Brooklyn before an impartial hearing officer.

"He said that you failed to offer a free and appropriate public education," Mayerson said. "The parent's program is appropriate, and I find that the city of New York should pay for that program."

"The fact is, we won our case," Patty said. "We're not looking for a bailout, we're just looking for what's fair and what's just and what's right for our child."

The city appealed to something called the Office of State Review in Albany. One man, Paul Kelly, has the sole authority to rule in favor of districts or parents, and increasingly parents are complaining he is denying their children the educational services they are legally entitled to.

Kelly: "I'm going to have to refer you to the press office."
Eyewitness News Reporter Sarah Wallace: " Well, do you have anything to say?"
Kelly: "I'm going to have to refer you to the press office, Sarah."
Wallace: "That's all you can say?"
Kelly: "Yes."

We approached Kelly after his employer, the State Board of Education, refused to make him available for an interview, after he recently ruled against the Kealey family.

"When I found out that he had done it, it was almost like getting the diagnosis all over again," Tim said. "To be in the mindset that we've won, that we can move on with our lives, and then have somebody just throw it all away, it's absolutely devastating."

Wallace: "Do you stand by your decisions?"
Kelly: "Yes, I do. I stand by my decision."

Kelly ruled in favor of local school districts in 80 percent of the cases in 2006-2007, according to an analysis by an independent hearing officer. The Kealeys are now preparing to appeal to federal court. The school is agreeing to defer Sophia's tuition for now.

"The idea that she might just get lost in the system as a throwaway because she has special needs and because those cost money, it's unconscionable," Tim Kealey said.

"Don't stop fighting, don't stop fighting for your child," Patty said. "Because if this doesn't get taken care of and caught early on, you're looking at a real problem when they get older."

A spokesman for the state Board of Education said that appeal rulings are always decided by applying the law to the facts presented and that any suggestion otherwise is wholly without merit. --- WEB PRODUCED BY: Daniela Royes


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