—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Anne Arundel County, Md. – The parents of an Anne Arundel County public school middle schooler say their school system denied their daughter, Lilli Davis, an evaluation designed to detect dyslexia, electing instead to take the family to court to fight testing her which cost the district $30,754, more than ten times the amount needed to evaluate the teenager for the learning disability.
The Davis family, who received educational services for their daughter in three previous out of state school systems, has been fighting with Anne Arundel schools since roughly 2014, in an effort to receive services already determined are needed for the eighth grader who has been diagnosed with other genetic disorders, including autism.
The military family cannot afford private services and is fighting for educational services available to them through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which would help their teenager with reading, writing and phonics, and would change the quality Lilli’s life and her ability to function in school to her highest potential.
The problem is, however, that in order to receive those services at a public school, Lilli must first be identified with the disability through an evaluation. Yet, Anne Arundel public schools chose to file a due process case against the teenager, instead — a court case which challenged the family’s request for the evaluation.
Although the district tested Lilli for some challenges, officials who felt further services were not needed would not evaluate the teenager for dyslexia.
Concerned about Lilli’s stalled development, the Davis’ paid for the $3,000 evaluation themselves. But the school system, according to Sarah Davis, Lilli’s mother, is now refusing to acknowledge the results of that evaluation that has determined Lilli is, indeed, dyslexic.
Columbia Maryland’s Neuro-Behavioral Associates, the psychology practice which evaluated Lilli, is among the top practices in the state that specializes in identifying learning challenges in children.
However, Davis says, the school system has not acknowledged the results; and since it will not, officials are not adding services to Lilli’s Individualized Education Plan – or IEP.
It’s valuable time, Mrs. Davis says, that is slipping by. “…each year, a piece of our child’s future will be stolen yet again, as we wait and hope and pray that our child gets the type of education that children without disabilities enjoy,” she said in a video recording.
In the YouTube video posted on Wednesday, Davis vented her frustrations in tears, “I am a disabled Air Force veteran and 20 year spouse to an active duty military member. Our family knows what it means to serve. We know what it means not to have enough money to feed our children and to rely on government assistance to put food in our children’s mouths.” But, Davis said, “Nowhere have we fought harder than for our rights of our children with disabilities to receive a quality education.”
Despite Lilli’s challenges, the teenager has shared her family’s fighting spirit. In January, Lilli testified in front Maryland’s House of Delegates to advocate for the passage of House Bill 910, which, if passed, would require local school boards to ensure that specified students are screened to identify if the student is at risk for reading difficulties.
Lilli said in support of the bill, “I have dyslexia. Anne Arundel County has never identified me or granted me interventions for my dyslexia. When my parents asked for interventions and evaluations, and they (the school system) filed the due process on me, I attended the due process hearing and the school told the judge that they did not need to evaluate me for my dyslexia. Please support the HB 910 to help kids like me with supports for dyslexia,” she said.
The family took to YouTube more than once to communicate Lilli’s frustrating journey. Using cards to communicate her frustrations, with the help of her mother, Lilli described what it is like living with her disabilities.
Lilli said through the cards, “I have many labels… I am not defined by my labels. I am a teenager who loves to learn and dream. I want to go to China, study genetics and environmental sciences. I want the world to be a better place. I want to be a mom. Learning for me is hard work. I have to work harder than other kids and I do every day,” she said.
The family has given The Baltimore Post permission to publish details about Lilli’s challenges.
The Davis family had been stationed in three states prior to coming to Anne Arundel County in 2013 where Lilli, who was diagnosed with multiple challenges in infancy, joined Anne Arundel schools as a third grader.
But while the school system provided Lilli with an IEP, within a year of the plan’s implementation, Lilli’s mother knew the services were not working.
Now, four years after realizing the IEP wasn’t sufficient for Lilli, the teenager is writing at the same fourth grade level at which she was assessed when she came to Anne Arundel County in the 2013-2014 school year. In turn, the family pushed for an evaluation to determine if Lilli was dyslexic.
In September, Lilli’s parents requested that Anne Arundel Schools fund eight Independent Educational Evaluations – or IEEs – in various areas of need, stating that the school system had “not assessed/evaluated Lilli in all areas of suspected disability to identify her need for special education and related services.”
In documents provided by the family to The Baltimore Post, the school system cited Lilli’s good grades and said it had a very clear understanding of Lilli’s learning needs and appropriate strategies to use with her. Lilli’s parents disagreed, however.
And so does Lilli.
Continuing her message through cards, Lilli said, “Sometimes I feel sad because I have to work so hard to read, write and even say my words. I wish I had more time to play and be a teenager. I have good teachers, but sometimes they do not understand how to help me… They just don’t understand!!”
Although documents show that the family tried to avoid litigation through requesting mediation and a settlement to pay the $3,000 evaluation bill, the school system chose to take the family to an administrative law judge which sided with the district. Mrs. Davis was shocked to see the cost the district paid in litigation to avoid evaluating her daughter for needed services.
Mrs. Davis and her daughter will be continuing this battle in court. Lilli’s father will be deployed to the Middle East soon, leaving his wife and children to continue the battle without him. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the family with legal fees.
Bob Mosier, the school system’s chief communications officer, who made himself available to The Baltimore Post, said that due to privacy rights he would be unable to comment specifically on the case, which leaves the system in a difficult position.
Mr. Mosier provided Mrs. Davis with a summation of the legal costs on Thursday, which she requested through a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request, for costs associated with the due process case involving her daughter. But, Mr. Mosier told The Post, “By privacy laws, we cannot discuss specifics of individual cases.” He said, “There are times when that inability to discuss those matters hurts us in terms of providing a complete picture.”
Because the school system is bound by laws which protect a child’s right to privacy, the school system’s inability to comment on this matter should not be viewed as a lack of concern about the issue.
Out of 82,777 Anne Arundel public school students, 9,209 have been identified as requiring special education services. The system’s general per pupil cost is $14,233 for Fiscal Year 2018. The cost per pupil for special education students is $18,267, but is a Fiscal Year 2017 calculation, as the system says it is still evaluating students who may be in that category and will require services.
The cost per pupil fluctuates and is an average based on the amount of students, as well as an average cost for combined students’ special education services.
There is currently bipartisan support in Maryland for legislation being considered in the General Assembly which would help with screenings that would catch disabilities such as dyslexia in early childhood.
Support for the bill is not just in the legislature, but also among organizations including the Montgomery County Board of Education, the Maryland State Education Association and the Maryland National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others.
The cross-filed bills aim to require schools to screen and intervene early.
Maryland House Bill 910, the Reading Difficulties, Screening and Interventions legislation passed on March 16, with amendments. Senator Joan Conway sponsored the companion bill, Senate Bill 548, which has been set aside with consideration of the amendments.
If passed, the law would require, “beginning with the 2019-2020 school year, each local school board to ensure that specified students are screened to identify if the student is at risk for reading difficulties. If the screening results indicate that the student is at risk of reading difficulties, the local board must determine whether the student needs reading instruction intervention; provide the intervention, as appropriate; and provide a notification letter to the student’s parent as specified.”
Lilli’s mom, Sarah, who started officially advocating for other children in 2016, says it’s what all students deserve.
“We are so grateful when we have the opportunity to be a voice to change the way people think about kids with disabilities,” she said. “Our kids deserve the same chance that everybody else gets, but it’s not the culture that we live in and that is just a tremendous sadness.”
When asked how it feels to be advocating, not just for herself, but for her peers who struggle with disabilities and are not being heard, Lilli told The Baltimore Post, “Most of the time people don’t actually listen to what I have to say. For people with disabilities like me, it’s hard when people don’t listen and just ignore that there are problems,” she said. “It feels good to speak up, to speak up for other people.”