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.”
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.