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Voluntary Deployment to Afghanistan: The Cost of an Appropriate Education

Picture of Sam and GraceWhen our son, Sam, was diagnosed with Autism, we were living in Germany. Believing we would get better services for him at home, we quickly requested a compassionate reassignment back to the States. I thought it would be easier to navigate the challenges of Autism back home.

I was, at first, grateful to the public school for accepting Sam into special education. He was three and already had enormous needs. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that Sam had been placed in a cookie cutter program. When I pushed for an individualized program, school administrators pushed back. I learned very quickly that not accepting a cookie cutter approach would require a fight. My husband and I prepared for battle. 

We did our research and learned what it would take for us to disagree with the school’s program.  We found out that Due Process could be a costly venture – emotionally, financially and time-wise. This course of action is not affordable for many people, but especially not for many military families. A fellow parent and good friend advised me to hire a COPAA special education advocate.  We found a tenacious professional who taught us how to advocate for Sam and eventually for our daughter Grace, who had started to encounter challenges at five-months old. When I met our advocate, she encouraged me to learn about the Individual Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  My advocated helped me understand that the IDEA existed to help secure appropriate services for our children, but it was up to us, the parents, to enforce the law. 

If you've ever had a family member deployed, you understand the major impact the long absence of that family member has on your life. In spite of the emotional cost we knew my husband's deployment would have on me and our children, we made the decision for him to voluntarily deploy to Afghanistan for nine months to financially support the cost of securing appropriate special education services.  

A deployment affects every aspect of family life, marriage, children and the person deployed.  It is something only other military families can truly understand. I didn't like the idea of my husband deploying -- in fact we both hated it -- but the more we thought about it, the more we realized it would be the only way we could afford the impending Due Process case. So off he went to defend the freedom all Americans enjoy, in order for us to afford to defend our children's civil right to a free and appropriate public education. 

While my husband was away, I was completely overwhelmed by caring for our two children. In addition to being mom and dad, I was finishing a Master's degree in Public Health at night and trying to unpack boxes from the recent move. I found sanctuary in joining our local Special Education Parent Teacher Organization.  There I also found much needed support from other parents.  

picture of family members in front of fire truckMy husband's deployment afforded us the ability to challenge the school district and to disagree with them over my son’s program.  We unilaterally placed him in a private special education school that met his unique needs. However, this required that I provide him transportation. So off we went, every school day -- Sam, Grace and myself – for a four-hour, round trip car ride. We did a lot of driving and a lot of singing. The singing, surprisingly, ended up being quite therapeutic for me.  At the end of the day, after I put the kids to bed, I would read special education law books or comb the internet to learn everything I could about the IDEA. The seed of advocacy was planted. 

My husband being away took its toll. The children traded bedtime hugs for an occasional video chat. Grace spent four hours a day in a car instead of being a little girl playing. I worried for my husband’s safety. I hoped we made the right choice, and everything would turn out as we planned. I prayed a lot.

When my husband left for his tour, Sam wasn’t making eye contact, was oblivious to most people, and only muttering sounds. Grace was newly diagnosed with Autism. When my husband returned home, Sam first saw his father and ran to him with open arms, eyes laser focused, and said, “Hi Daddy” with a huge infectious smile.  My husband fell to his knees with a tear in his eye and knew right then it was all worth it.  It made the loneliness and sacrifice of deployment melt away.

I feel a strong moral obligation to advocate for families where school districts fail to do so. When I ultimately decided to become a professional special education advocate, I knew I needed to do it right and get the best training. I enrolled in the COPAA Special Education Advocate Training (SEAT) program. The COPAA training is priceless. The people who teach the program are empowering, and the knowledge I gained is incomparable to any other training out there. 

I am now the president of our local Special Education Parent Teacher Organization and a member of a working group attempting to address issues in the transitioning of the adult special needs population with our State's Department of Developmental Services. 

I only recently got around to opening all of those unopened boxes from our move.  I was thrilled to attend my first COPAA conference in March. I am interning with our special education advocate and will join her advocacy practice after my internship is complete. The seed has sprouted and continues to grow.

Thankfully, Sam is making great gains. There are still appropriate services we are seeking for Grace, and we know there are battles to come, but this time, we are better prepared for them, and we are armed with knowledge and experience.

If you are a military family and have a child for whom you are trying to secure appropriate special education services, I wish you strength on the home front and in your service.

From our military family to yours,

Audra Mae Talbot


Editors Note: IEP meetings are the primary venue for parental participation. Many issues have stifled parent ability to be full partners in the process and must be corrected. Often a parent's only recourse is to file due process.  The reason it is so expensive (which it should not be) is threefold: 1) Since the Supreme Court's Schaffer  v. Weast (2005) decision parents are at a substantial disadvantage and since placing the burden of proof on the school districts is important to simply keep the playing field level. 2) With the burden of proof, and without
the ability to recover their expert witness fees ( as the result of Arlington Central School District v. Murphy(2006), few parents are able to afford to exercise constitutional, IDEA and 504 rights to challenge denial of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Parents and their counsel must present admissible evidence about educational methodology, complex behavioral supports, medical issues, and other technical subjects. Only qualified expert witnesses can present this technical testimony and such testimony can easily cost many thousands of dollars, money that few parents have. Finally, 3)  the IDEA creates extensive procedural safeguards to promote compliance, including the right to attorney's fees to parents who prevail in cases alleging the denial of an appropriate education. In Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. v. West Va. Dep't of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598 (2001), the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff whose case is the catalyst for a voluntary change that provides the relief sought or who settles is not a "prevailing party” for purposes of civil rights attorney's fees provisions. Consequently, a District may force the parents to incur substantial legal fees to secure their child's educational rights only to avoid liability for those fees by later settling or simply providing the relief sought.

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