Free legal seminar packed with angry BISD parents
Families with special needs children are often posed with great challenges. For some families, those challenges often involve preparing for the unexpected. What if a hurricane comes to Beaumont again? How will I pay for medications? Where do I go when a teacher mistreats my child? Who will take care of my child when I’m gone?
To answer these questions and many others, the Jefferson County Young Lawyers Association — with the help of a grant from the Jefferson County Bar Association Foundation — held a free legal seminar Thursday, April 24, for parents of children with special needs.
The seminar at the Shorkey Educational and Rehabilitation Center on Eighth Street quickly filled to capacity with angry and concerned parents.
Many of those who attended weren’t happy with BISD’s treatment of their special needs children and wanted to know their legal options. Others were simply seeking information about estate planning for their aging, disabled child.
“He’s quite a bit older than some of the other kids,” Sharon Filipich said of her 22-year-old son, Jeffrey.
As a young adult with cerebral palsy, Jeffrey is a tall, smiling man who’s wheelchair bound. He said little during a short interview, but looked on as his mother explained quietly why they were there: “To see what my options are.” Knowing the cost of hiring an attorney, Sharon said the free seminar was important to her and her son.
“All of this is costly in and of itself,” she said.
Craig Tahaney, a board member with the Young Lawyers Association who helped chair the event, said some parents are taken by misinformation.
“Any time you’re in the community and hear things about what someone should or shouldn’t do, I think it’s appropriate to have someone in the legal field who has expertise in that area,” Tahaney said. “Give them exactly the nuts and bolts, the procedures of how you go about ensuring your child receives a sound education and your child is taken care of in the event that you pass on.”
Much of the legal recourse for aging parents with special needs children involves financial planning in the event that one or both parents become unable to care for their child.
For instance, if parents want to leave money to their special needs child and don’t want that gift to disqualify the child from any governmental funding, Taney said there are “special needs trusts” that an attorney can help set up.
Frank Messina, president of the Young Lawyers Association, said his team wasn’t expecting such a large turnout and pointed out that many parents were there to vent their frustrations with BISD. Attorney Dorene Philpot was also on hand to speak about Due Process Hearings — a de facto lawsuit against a school district overseen by a TEA hearing officer. Philpot took questions from one parent who said her special needs child was locked out of the classroom and told to eat his lunch in the hallway. Others with similar stories were seeking advice on when to file for a Due Process Hearing.
Due Process Hearings
BISD lost at least two Due Process hearings in 2013, according to TEA’s website, and granted the parents of those special needs children occupational therapy and speech services that were supposed to be provided by BISD but weren’t. In fact, once Thursday’s seminar turned to issues of Due Process Hearings, a woman who had been sitting quietly taking notes quickly exited the packed room about 10 minutes into the seminar.
Many were familiar with the woman who, according to parents on social media and at the event, said was one Diana Bailey Clayton with BISD’s special education program.
The program has been under scrutiny as of late. BISD’s Special Education Director Susan Barefield announced her retirement late Wednesday afternoon, April 30. Her resignation comes some two months after TEA Commissioner Michael Williams appointed Fred Shafer as a monitor for the program, effectively replacing Barefield.
It seems Barefield is getting out just in time as at least one special education vendor has come forward to The Examiner with allegations of retaliation against her for cooperating with an investigation into an assault against a special needs student.
In an e-mail, Jennifer Ford, director of In Home Services of SETX, a behavioral training and consulting firm, said she signed a contract in January with BISD to provide in-home behavior assessments, individualized education plans (IEPs), progress reports and teacher support through the 2014 school year.
But one month later, in February, Ford said a subcontractor working for her company witnessed “an alleged physical attack” on a special needs child at Pietzsch-MacArthur Elementary and CPS, school officials and parents of the child were notified.
Since her cooperation with the investigation, Ford said district officials told parents that her company is not qualified, is no longer a vendor for the district, has breached her contract and has hired subcontractors with criminals backgrounds.
Ford said BISD’s allegations are untrue, and she’s being unfairly targeted by administrators.
“All of these statements are false, and I believe it is a direct retaliatory process due to the fact that my subcontractor reported alleged physical attacks against the student,” Ford said in an e-mail.
A representative of BISD’s special education program did not immediately return calls for comment.
“In Home Services has been removed from continuing several open cases within the district, denied referrals of previously requested cases and denied new cases, even though a current vendor status is open and a valid contract is in place,” Ford said.
In a statement, the child’s mother, Courtney Thibodeaux, said her child was indeed abused and BISD did nothing.
“My daughter has been abused, denied service and her IEP was never followed. I have reached out to the district and the Superintendant but they failed to listen,” Thibodeaux said. “They were more interested in shutting me up than providing my child with a proper education.”
Messina said many were weighing their legal options regarding mistreatment of their children, but didn’t necessarily have the money to hire an attorney to represent them in a Due Process Hearing.
“That’s a massive issue,” Messina said. “This (seminar) is just a great avenue for them to receive free legal advice. I think that’s why we had 91 people show up, which I think is a great turnout.”
Barbara Baron, a Beaumont attorney who’s special needs child is slated to graduate from Texas State University in May, said the Shorkey Center was crucial to her son’s education.
“There was a lot that I didn’t know and here I was, not only a lawyer, but a teacher, and I had no clue about what was going on,” Baron said. “That’s why Shorkey was very helpful. Obviously I had the means to get the help and advocate for my child, but others don’t have that.”
Baron said parents just want what’s best for their special needs child.
“You heard and felt the frustration,” Baron said of Thursday’s seminar. “When you sit down and talk to some of those parents, they literally get tears in their eyes because everybody wants their child to do well, and when you have a special needs child, you want that child to do as well as they are able to to meet their full ability.”
As the BISD’s director of special education exits the stage, Baron said a gap in leadership isn’t good for Beaumont’s special needs kids.
“It would be nice to be able to keep people in positions as long as we can because it helps teachers, it helps parents, it helps everybody,” Baron said. “It’s difficult when these positions turn over because these parents want stability and they want consistency.”
Jennifer Johnson contributed to this report.