Tulare parent’s lawsuit seeks justice for disabled son

Farrah McWilliams — mother of 5-year-old Jackson, an autistic student enrolled in the Tulare City School District (TCSD) — supposes that she’d get more satisfaction from talking to the bricks in the school building walls than she’s gotten from the TCSD’s administrators during her years-long legal battle to secure the education her son is guaranteed under state and federal law.

 

District-Wide Neglect of Special-Needs Students

Other parents, McWilliams claims, have met the same refusal to budge when challenging the district regarding their children’s education plans, and she says the failure to provide adequate education to special-needs students is both institution-wide and appears to be an unwritten district policy.

“It is absolutely a shit show,” said McWilliams.

While her own difficulties with the TCSD only became acute during the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, McWilliams says the district’s policy of “warehousing” special-needs students — including her 5-year-old autistic son Jackson — in classrooms that isolate them from the rest of the district’s “neurotypical” students is not only illegal, it’s making those children’s problems even worse.

That’s why McWilliams and her husband Joe Martins filed suit seeking $20,000 in compensation to reimburse them for the cost of tuition to a private school in Fresno, where McWilliams says they were forced to place Jackson when the TCSD repeatedly refused to meet his educational needs as spelled out in his individual education plan (IEP), a legally-binding document listing what services the TCSD must provide Jackson for his diagnosed conditions.

 

District Spends $250K to Save $20K

So far, McWilliams said, the district has spent in excess of a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars fighting her, an amount equal to a dozen times more than the amount she’s requesting for tuition reimbursement, gas costs and attorneys fees.

“The school district has spent over $250,000, and it will be more,” she said. “It absolutely will be more, because we appealed it.”

TCSD Superintendent Brian Hollingshead failed to respond to a request for comment on his district’s decision to expend such an apparently disproportionate amount fighting the case. His silence, McWilliams says, is typical of the treatment she’s received.

She tells of once spending half an hour pleading her case to him via the telephone while he sat silently on the other end of the line, refusing to comment or answer questions, a tactic he allegedly stated would be in play before agreeing to take McWilliam’s call. At the end of the 30 minutes, which McWilliams says was only granted in the face of threats to contact the local press, the TCSD superintendent thanked her and hung up. She never received any additional response.

 

Family Needs Its Money Back

McWilliams’ previous pleas with the TCSD — she was seeking various therapies and other measures needed to provide what therapists had agreed amount to the best education available for Jackson — had all been denied. Now, with her son suffering even more as the world adjusted to COVID-19, McWilliams placed her son with a behaviorist whom she says has made a world of difference in improving her son’s moment-to-moment behavior.

The school district refused to compensate her for that expense, and that repayment, as well as guarantees the district will continue to meet its legal obligations to Jackson, is why the current suit is now awaiting adjudication in federal court.

“I wasn’t asking them to pay for the behavioralist. I just asked them to pay for the school placement,” McWilliams said. “We asked for $20,000, plus attorney’s fees.”

In making an example of her son’s case, McWilliams is also trying to force the district to change its approach to teaching children with disabilities and developmental delays.

 

‘I Believe In This’

Because the suit filed in her son’s name only seeks to recover money the family has already spent to close the gap between what the law says he’s entitled to versus what the TCSD is willing — or unwilling — to provide, McWilliams says that proves she’s only trying to advocate for her son and other children the TCSD has failed.

“I believe in this,” she said.

McWilliams offered this example of her commitment to this confrontation: her out-of-balance, up-front expenditure for the cost of litigation versus what she expects to gain if she and Jackson win.

“The suit’s for $20,000, but I have to give a $25,000 retainer (to her private attorney) out of my pocket,” she said.

The goal in suing TCSD is to force them to provide her son the support he needs to realize his potential as fully as possible. State and federal law have established this level of support as a legal requirement for local school districts. Additionally, any monetary damage to the district — beyond compensating McWilliams for money already spent — that might eventually be levied against the district would go to the cost of paying for Jackson’s education, so the district has little to lose in that regard, at least if the $250,000 spent fighting McWilliams and her son in court is ignored.

“It’s never for money,” Jackson’ mother, who now advocates for others in similar situations in various Valley school districts. “It’s always for education. They (school districts) have to pay for services.”

She and her husband, and other parents of disabled children, are not seeking special treatment or anything beyond the best quality education all students are entitled to receive when they are in confrontation with their children’s schools. McWilliams says they only want what’s right.

“I’m not entitled to the best,” she said. “I’m entitled to what’s appropriate.”

 

The Ol’ Bait-and-Switch

Jackson’s educational experience with the TCSD began just before COVID-19 struck in March of 2020, and trouble started then, McWilliams says. Jackson, who had yet to begin speaking, was 3.

“They wanted to shove my son into a special-education classroom, and I said, ‘No you’re not going to segregate him with a bunch of other special-education students,’” she said. “‘You’re not going to warehouse them.’”

Isolating children with special needs is prohibited by federal law, yet the TCSD placed Jackson in a preschool classroom the district’s staff described to McWilliams as a “special day class” that mixed special-needs students and neurotypical students in a 50-50 blend. In reality, those students in the program who had not been diagnosed with a learning disability were considered at-risk of having one by the district, McWilliams said.

“There was not one child in my child’s classroom, and there were eight, who had words,” she said. “Zero. None.”

 

Precursor Lawsuit

It was that unexplained foot-dragging behavior on the district’s part that led McWilliams to make her first court challenge against the TCSD in October 2019. That case settled before it went to trial, and McWilliams is constrained by the settlement agreement from discussing its particulars. She can say her son was granted 46 hours of compensatory education funded by the TCSD to make up for the instruction it failed to provide Jackson, though not everything she sought was granted.

The second suit, the one currently awaiting adjudication in the United States District Court Eastern District of California, stems from a new incident of TCSD’s treatment of Jackson, a treatment McWilliams says was already present in the district’s educational approach, but was brought to starker relief by the pandemic response.

Not long after TCSD schools closed to avoid spreading the coronavirus and before she originally sought legal relief, McWilliams said she noticed other students at her son’s school were getting packets of work intended to provide education in the absence of in-person instruction, and she asked school officials for similar work for her son. After a week of not responding, the district provided similar work for Jackson to use with McWilliams’ help, but the results were not just ineffective; they were damaging.

“I am trained in applied behavior analysis (ABA), so I’m able to support my child with his behavior challenges,” McWilliams said. “I tried with fidelity to support him through these packets. It just wasn’t working at all.”

 

Self-Instruction Led to Self-Harm

With a legal decision in 2019 telling the TCSD to provide Jackson with an adequate educational experience, including various forms of therapy, McWilliams thought the battle to get her son the instruction and support she felt he needed was at a close. She was wrong, and COVID-19 was the culprit.

Starting in March 2020, the TCSD moved Jackson from in-person therapy sessions to online sessions. The results were disastrous, as Jackson’s worst behaviors were triggered by the virtual therapy sessions.

“The first thing my son did was injure himself,” McWilliams said. “He’d throw himself to the ground. He’d elope, run to the back of the house and lock himself in the bedroom.”

The misbehavior was witnessed by district-employed therapists, yet when McWilliams asked the district for help she got nothing, she says. She even brought district officials a letter from her son’s doctor at Stanford University Medical Center, and cited COVID-19-era guidelines from the California Department of Education in her requests for help.

“They just refused to consider,” McWilliams said. “Their own therapist saw my son do this. It was a really bad experience.”

It was so bad she’s taking the TCSD to court to make it right.

 

McWilliams: Behavior Is ‘District-Wide’

This kind of refusal to listen is the norm for the TCSD, McWilliams says, and Jackson is not the only child being neglected.

“This is a district-wide failure of them not providing appropriate education for children with special needs,” Jackson’s mother said. “It is a disaster. There is zero accountability for nothing here.”

Going to court is a last resort, she said, and the only effective way to get the district to reconsider its behavior and attitude.

“They do this to every single family. These districts are just simply horrible,” McWilliams said. “If you’re not a parent who pushes back, your child gets nothing. They don’t even get the basic four opportunities (that must be included in each child’s  IEP). They give them zero.”

That so many others are having the same experience has motivated McWilliams to advocate in their cases too, using expertise from her fight to help them. The deeper motivation, however, is to save students from substandard instruction that will worsen their entire future lives.

“Right now I have a family I’m attending meetings with. The son is in eighth grade,” she said. “He has severe dyslexia and reads at a second-grade level, and the district, the psychological evaluation they do year after year is eight pages. He’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine.

McWilliams didn’t agree and forced the issue, yet it may be too late.

“Now, I’ve got a 54-page report,” she said. “But he’s in eighth grade, he’s got dyslexia and can’t read.”

 

The Right Approach Actually Works

Despite being caught in the middle of a legal fight that continues for reasons known only to the leadership of the TCSD, Jackson’s symptoms have improved. McWilliams gives the credit to the instruction her son received while attending a Fresno specialty school that provides care for difficult cases among the general population of special-needs students.

For the first time, Jackson spoke.

“He heard his peer models talking. He was learning how to talk from them,” McWilliams said. “This is why the federal law states (districts must) educate at the highest level next to their friends.”

And “friends” is the right term to describe the students Jackson now found himself working and playing alongside.

“Do you think they want to be apart, separate from them (neurotypical students)?” McWilliams said.

Jackson was no longer alone during his all-to-brief time at the specialty school. He was connecting more fully with the world round him.

“Jackson had a best friend,” McWilliams said.

28 thoughts on “Tulare parent’s lawsuit seeks justice for disabled son

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  1. ORDER DENYING APPLICATION OF FARRAH MCWILLIAMS FOR APPOINTMENT AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR J.M., A MINOR, WITHOUT PREJUDICE.
    She can’t even fill out paperwork right. Anyone saying “S**t” show in a newspaper article isn’t professional.

      • A citizen with an opinion. A US voter. Someone who knows speaking in absolutes is a huge flaw in logic

    • Chad, I encourage you to get your facts correct, prior to making comments, such as above.

      Here is the accurate information, that was granted appointing Farrah McWilliams guardian ad litem. Feel free to read it.

      https://casetext.com/case/jm-v-tulare-city-sch-dist-3

      In addition, I encourage you to educate yourself on the federal and state laws surrounding special education. We NEVER ask for BEST, we just ask for what’s appropriate. Children with special needs deserve the very same opportunities that general education students get, we don’t ask for school districts to cater to us.

      Thank you for your comments and taking the time to read the article.

      • The SAME? That’s why it’s called special needs. At what point does your request seem unreasonable? In a time of a pandemic you are crying about your child going virtual therapy sessions. First off that therapy sessions seem unreasonable. What general education is accompanied by regular therapy sessions? I bet only one percent of parents request this. During a pandemic no child met with an instructor in person! Please tell me what city your attorney is out of? Funny you state CA law but you need to sue in civil court

    • We actually moved states because TCSD didn’t know how to handle children on the spectrum. My son with placed in the SDC class and struggled so much. Tulare County needs more resources especially with so many recently and uptick of diagnosed.

    • One hundred percent. This mom has taken advantage of so many different systems. Look her up. Now she is taking Tulare taxpayers’ money.

  2. Here’s the real issue as I read it. Federal law, based on PL94-142 requires that the disabled child be placed in the “least restrictive” environment. Then later we have the Americans with Disabilities act, (ADA). In short, that legislation is based on “reasonable accommodation. I would guess that the district bares some responsibility, especially if they cannot provide the assistance that has been deemed necessary. Neither side is entirely right, imho.

    • Yes, but during the pandemic with no in person learning what is reasonable. Weren’t dentist offices shut down during the pandemic?

    • What if the district is doing a good job and a parent just wants private school tuition paid for? Not saying she is doing that but some parents claim things to push for things they can’t afford. Stealing taxpayers’ money. Again, not saying she is doing that, but it’s a question

  3. So then, Chad, you are ok with the disabled being shut out of life for your convenience? Seems to me a guy by the name of Hitler held the same views.

    Have a nice weekend.

    • I never said that. Keep putting words in citizens mouths lol. I’m saying it’s not county financial responsibility to cater to these children because the parents demand it. In America we have a judicial system and I guarantee you that the US Supreme Court would not side with these parents claiming requirements during a pandemic.

  4. Chad, you most certainly must be a school district employee. You are NOT deserving of any of our efforts or conversation, so I will not be replying to your ignorance.

    Good Day too you!

    • I’m far from a school employee. I work construction. When was your child vaccinated for Covid? What city does your attorney work out of?

    • Farrah, you most certainly must love wasting tax payers’ money. And exploiting your son. Look into her past, guys.
      Farrah, look at yourself in the mirror and reevaluate where your energy should be spent. Very unGodly

  5. The lady exposed herself! This all started at peak of coronavirus in March 2020! Vaccines for adults weren’t available until 2021! No mention of a pandemic and California officially being in emergency status. These laws changes during an emergency pandemic. Why would Valley Voice post this story without addressing this. This claim holds no water. The school isn’t responsible for funding your private tutoring. The need to add that your child has dyslexia is pointless. Keep up the bulldozer parenting. Are you going to be around when he is adult trying to get a job? Are you going to sue every potential employer? An 8th grader with a second grade reading level doesn’t have much chance of getting a job.

  6. I have glanced at Farrah and Chads opinions. First of all Chad until you have had to raise or give BIRTH to a child with a learning disability You don’t say what you think is best for these types of children with a learning disability. They have disability that only makes them learn in a different way when you and I. Looking and just catching things that stick out your last comment I can tell you know nothing about this type of disability. these children can work and maybe do a better job then you can in some areas. OH AND YOUR COMMENT ABOUT A SHIT SHOW?? Farrah doesn’t sugar coat anything if you have any type of knowledge as a parent. She calling it like it is and WILL tell you before you get in a PISSING MATCH with parents of learning disabilities make sure you have worn there shoes. moral of my comment to you Mr. Chad : You know what? if you haven’t been in her shoes or any parents shoes that has a child that learns differently then you and ME then don’t act like they fricken fit you!!!.

    • Farrah Does sugar coat a lot of stuff I know this personally have known this woman for a long time Look in to her past, She’s all about the mighty dollar. I feel sorry for her son yes he deserves to learn no doubt about that but it’s not what Farrah is about it can be proven what she’s about maybe the school district should reach out to the right people! The parents who she is helping may need to stop and do their homework on her before moving forward with her

  7. FYI I have my facts straight so please no need to tell me to get facts straight and Chad your a smart person you got this figured out

  8. I only feel sorry for the son. But I don’t feel sorry for her. She has done wrong to many. Do your research.

  9. There are several things that this article does not touch on or even discuss that are really important to understand a case like this. Because ASD is indeed a spectrum, meaning a range of capabilities and disabilities, it is important to know where each student needs are. Some students need a higher level of support, which comes from specialized academic instruction. General Education classes may not have the supports and resources in place for a special education student to receive their appropriate education as identified under the law.

    LRE, lease restricted environment isn’t explained as outline in law in this article. I think the term “warehousing” is unfair, as it implies that rather than providing a safe, appropriate placement for a student, with trained teachers and aide supports, all special needs kids are taken to a room and forgotten about. It is as important to understand placement options and goals for each individual student as it is to understand a general education class and what it does and doesn’t offer students with special needs of any kind.

    This article does not share the family’s educational goals for their son that shares his present levels of capabilities nor does it discuss the family’s goals for future educational placement, which can include mainstreaming. Where is the student placed now? How does that private school support their son? Is the school a specialized school with all student types or is it designed to educated ASD students and other learning disabilities? What makes that school unique? How is this student able to access education differently at this school? Are the parents intending to keep their son privately placed and is seeking the district to reimburse them for the cost of that school placement year over year or are parents seeking to have the District offer an appropriate placement to support their son’s needs with the resources the District has in place?

    I would encourage this news outlet to provide further information about the greater picture of this case specifically including an explanation of FAPE under educational law, what special education classes, teachers, training is done in this District, and seek to share information that supports this case in totality so that the public can gain greater understanding not just of this case, but of Special Education overall.

    Special Education is an important part of education to understand. Sadly there is a negative stigma associated with the term Special Education. Stigma aside, as parents, teachers, educators, the greater public, understanding Special Education and the rights of students is both individual and systemic. Improvements need to happen. Better training and resources need to happen. Special Education must evolve as we know more about the types of learners our children are.

    Not all programs fit for each child. Not all resources are available to children who need them and it’s important to understand how to change that. Parents and educators passionate about children need to work together to continue to improve education. Period.

    • Well said. This news outlet likes to give voice to one side. Also not one mention of coronavirus pandemic in this article.

  10. I don’t know if these parents will prevail but regardless of the outcome it never hurts a community to delve into the weeds and actually see how school classrooms are normally operating on a daily basis. This case will be decided in the courts based on the merits one way or the other as it should be. In the meantime I feel that teachers who work with Spec Ed students, no matter the grade level, might want to do a personal review inside their own classrooms to see if they are making the grade in educational delivery to their students no matter what their learning curve is, which I might add is highly challenging to say the least because of classroom sizes, having an aide who may or may not have special training in working with Spec Ed students and one highly overworked underpaid teacher who may or may not have proper training to be working specifically with Spec Ed students, who come with different levels of emotional and physical needs. And let’s not forget the other students in the class as well. They too bring their own baggage and issues into classrooms as well; not every student has an easy time learning. The ratio of one teacher and one aide inside a classroom being pulled in so many different directions is not easy (especially when it comes to class size numbers) and I will bet my bottom dollar that there are days when there is not much learning being accomplished for some students no matter their learning curve.

  11. Our granddaughter lives in San Bernardino County in California. She is 11yrs old and has Autism and many other elements. She has eloped from her special ed’s school on Many occasions and now the school principal is telling the child and parents that the parents can be arrested if she continues eloping. My question here is who is Legally Responsible for our granddaughter once she is on school campus and can her Parents be held Responsible and Arrested for her elopement? Thanks in advance.

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