Written By: Michelle Norman of Partners in PROMISE
My name is Michelle Norman and I am a proud Navy Spouse of 25 years. My husband Cassidy currently commands the forward-deployed USS Mount Whitney. We have moved 10 times and have spent over three years geographically separated, as we were not able to move overseas with him due to our EFMP status.
Our lives changed drastically in 2003 when my daughter Marisa was born prematurely at 27 weeks, weighing 2 lbs. 3 oz. She lived in the NICU for 8 months and has 21 diagnosed disabilities. Providing opportunities for Marisa, including those required by federal law, has taken an incredible toll on us, both emotionally and financially.
In 2014, at the age of 11, Marisa entered Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) with an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP. In the first 30 days, goals and services established by her previous school were removed. The school continued this pattern of minimizing Marisa’s disabilities and telling us that everything was “fine.” While hearing that Marisa was transitioning well in her new school environment should have made us feel comforted, we knew our daughter was actually regressing. Our concerns were discounted.
This is common for many EFMP families, to be “gaslighted,” being made to feel like our parental intuition was based on emotions, not fact. When we pushed back, meetings became hostile, not collaborative, and worse, the school district was not allowing her access to the education as outlined in her IEP. Imagine how hard this was for Marisa. She regressed socially and academically, failing all benchmark testing.
To make matters worse, Cassidy was out-of-state for 22 months. Meanwhile, school officials kept asking when we would receive military orders, following the same pattern of school districts “waiting us out” that military families all across the US have experienced.
Stressed and exhausted, I called the EFMP case manager. She told me that her role did not allow her to advocate for families. Similarly, the Parent Liaison couldn’t help, the School Liaison Officer couldn’t help, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) couldn’t help, and the JAG couldn’t help. I later discovered that only the Marine Corps has attorneys for their EFMP families.
It became clear to our family that this is a far-reaching problem. When we know a school is breaking the law by not implementing an appropriate IEP, how do we hold a school accountable? While webinars and Military OneSource resources are wonderful tools, pointing parents to their legal rights, they do not hold any weight in an IEP meeting. We observed that when parents spoke out publicly, they – and their children – suffered from reprisal from the school district.
We knew we needed to try to do the right thing, not just for us but for others who do not have a voice. We borrowed money, hired a special education attorney, and placed Marisa in a private school, a decision that improved her life significantly – even though she had to repeat 5th grade.
We won our first due process hearing in 2016.We won an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court in 2018. And we won numerous VDOE State Complaints in between. Yet VBCPS refused to comply with the orders from VDOE, a Hearing Officer and a Federal District Judge. A few days after Christmas 2018, right before Cassidy was to leave for a 15-month overseas deployment, VBCPS sued my daughter to get her back in public school. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was now being used as a weapon against my family.
Marisa has now testified twice; it will literally take years of therapy for her to heal from the trauma and anxiety the school district created. But this story is not just about Marisa. It’s about the tens of thousands of military families in EFMP. If, after spending over $220,000 in legal expenses out of our own pockets and winning all legal decisions, the school district, with “deep pockets” of taxpayer money, continues to violate law with impunity, and without penalty, how can an enlisted service-member even begin to fight?
Our deployed service-members are distracted and worried about their children, while their spouses are being forced to fight an unfair fight for education already mandated by law. We are too burdened, too tired, too scared of reprisal, too spent on deployments, and too broke to obtain the resources our children need.
That is why we need data and legislation to universally fix EFMP. After presenting at the Congressional Military Families Caucus Summit last October, three military spouses and I designed a special education survey. The results confirmed that special education is an unspoken challenge for military families, illustrating systemic problems that transcends all ranks and all services for military families at duty stations around the world.
At the request of the Military Family Caucus, we drafted the PROMISE Act (Protect the Rights Of Military children In Special Education). The PROMISE Act will provide safeguards for military children with special needs, provide accountability and transparency of taxpayer dollars, and support military families
forced to pursue due process.
Key initiatives in the PROMISE Act include:
1) Collect data on military family disputes, number of disputes compared to civilians, and accessibility barriers to dispute resolution processes, high risk school districts, sufficiency of federal funding, oversight and accountability to ensure school districts provide Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
2) Allow families to maintain their child’s current Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for at least six months after arrival at a new duty station before any changes are made
3) Direct states to document parental consent before any IEP changes can be implemented for military children
Access to reliable special education resources affects and touches all citizens in our society – and the lack of access impacts thousands who serve this great country, especially their military readiness and retention. The legislative fixes included in the PROMISE Act can make a difference.
Let’s do the right thing and fix it. Join this historic movement by becoming a Partner in PROMISE! We need all boots on the ground to make change. With your support, we will make sure our most vulnerable children get the education that federal law affords them.
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