Parents Win Fight with School Board in Virginia

From the Editor: Readers may remember that in the Winter/Spring, 1997, issue of Future Reflections, we carried an article titled "Virginia Parents Battle Teacher Shortage." At that time parents were pressing the Hampton school district in Virginia to hire more teachers of the blind and visually impaired students. Parents, at that point, had won a partial victory—the board had agreed to hire a second teacher. That was in December, 1996. The following article was published in August, 1997--more than six months later. As this article makes clear, Hampton, Virginia, school officials now seem to understand that their past struggles to provide only the barest minimum of services to blind students enrolled in city schools have done incalculable harm to youngsters who were already facing heavy odds against their success.

Once again we see the damage done by imposing the failure model on the education of blind children. Waiting for the child to fail using one set of supports before permitting more useful ones to be tried virtually insures that the student's self-confidence will evaporate a little more with every poor grade or uncompleted assignment.

Hampton parents, with help from the parents division of the NFB of Virginia and its active President Vicki Messick, forced school officials to change things for the future and correct past mistakes as far as possible.

Here is the story by Sandra Tan as it appeared in the August 7, 1997, Daily Press.

Hampton to Hire Third Staffer for Blind

Schools to Offer Makeup Services

Theresa Brooks sat in her car as the rain turned the cold February night colder. She had just left a school board meeting to speak on behalf of her visually impaired daughter, but no one seemed to hear. Her husband had died several months earlier and could lend no comfort. So she prayed.

"Lord, I'm tired. I feel like I'm all alone. What I said, did it go into people's hearts? Is anybody listening?"

Someone finally listened. Brooks's daughter and other visually impaired students in Hampton City Schools will be getting more help.

"I don't know what did it," said Vicki Messick, president of Parents of Blind Children, a local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. "It could be God; a lot of people have been praying."

After more than nine months of complaints and lawsuit threats, Hampton City Schools' administrators agreed to make up for some incomplete and incorrect special education guidelines that parents say robbed their children of adequate instruction for years.

Since November, parents have complained that their children were illegally denied preschool instruction because of their age, that unqualified administrators were making decisions about their children's schooling, that the number of school vision specialists was grossly inadequate, and that the guidelines used to determine a student's right to services were too narrow.

Most of all, parents complained that school administrators didn't seem to care whether they were doing the right thing for a group of children that make up less than two-tenths percent of Hampton's overall student population. These complaints were finally addressed in meetings with parents and parent advocates over the last two weeks.

Given a pending suit filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights and more protests brought before the local school board, school officials have now promised to hire more specialists and offer make-up services to children whose parents have said were wrongly denied instruction.

"A lot of parents had threatened to go to due process hearings, basically take them to court," Messick said. "I have no desire to go to court. If we can make progress another way, so be it."

Superintendent Billy Cannaday conceded that the school system could have done a better job of addressing these parents' complaints from the start. Instead of wasting time arguing about who was technically correct according to state and federal regulations, the school system should have taken a closer look at the potential harm being done to visually impaired children, he said.

"We only looked at the letter of the regulations, not the intent of the regulations, which is to serve children," he said. "When it came down to doing what's best for students, it became a much easier issue to resolve."

As part of the solution, the Hampton City School Board voted Wednesday to hire a third vision impairment specialist to help work with about thirty-five children. Last year the school system had only one specialist working with more than twenty-five children. In December of 1996, the board approved another position, but the second specialist was not actually hired until last month. In addition to increasing staff size, the school system has agreed to offer more than 600 hours of make-up services* to children who received inadequate vision instruction in their earlier years.

Cannaday said some personnel changes will also be made to insure that such students are never overlooked or shortchanged again. Money will be reallocated to meet the agreements reached with parents, Cannaday said, but that the amount will not stress the existing budget approved by City Council.

Parents and advocates praised the school administrators and board members for their actions but still wondered at the time it took for those actions to come about.

"I'm very happy that they finally, finally are giving the services that Christina needed and deserved," said Brooks, in regard to her fifteen-year-old daughter, a tenth grader at Bethe High School, "I thank God, I really do." Christina, an albino with severely impaired vision, received no school vision assistance until she nearly failed the second grade, Brooks said.

Brooks's daughter will receive 345 hours of make-up tutorial and counseling services. "Even though they're the educators, we're both on the same team," Brooks said. "It's a partnership, raising a child."

*Editor's note: What the author calls "make-up services" is called "compensatory education services" by the courts. Children who were either denied appropriate special education services (services which they needed, but which were never put on an IEP), or who never received all or some of the special education services listed on their IEP's (this is often common with orientation and mobility services), may be able to negotiate for compensatory hours of services. In some rare cases, parents have negotiated to receive cash, technology equipment, or other goods and materials in lieu of hours of teaching services. For more information contact:

National Organization of Parents

of Blind Children

Barbara Cheadle, President

1800 Johnson Street

Baltimore, Maryland 21230

phone: (410) 659-9314.

E-mail: [barcheadle@aol.com]