Throughout Ashton’s illness, our family was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support that the Walled Lake community showed us. We were amazed that so many school board members, cabinet members, and building administrators attended his services. We were so honored that the district would close school on Thursday so that the entire Keith community could attend his services as well. We were also a bit shocked, however, considering Ashton was not even technically a student at Keith during that time. Few people knew this, but our 6-year-old boys had been pushed out of our home school and were being forced into a segregated, self contained classroom at Meadowbrook Elementary, another Walled Lake school 3 cities away. Regardless of the fact that they were successfully meeting their IEP goals in their general education classrooms, which we have mounds of evidence and data to prove, someone in the district made the determination that they do not belong at Keith and would be sent to a classroom for the cognitively impaired.
The first of many problems with this determination is that our twins are NOT cognitively impaired. By definition, a cognitive impairment is when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life, none of which apply to Adam and Ashton. In a short time as kindergarteners, they’ve learned their letters, numbers, colors, shapes, and how to spell and write their names, more than what some “average” kindergarteners can do. Their biggest challenge is their speech delay, more specifically speech apraxia, which prevents them from being able to communicate the way other 6- year-olds do, but that never stopped them from making friends and charming their classmates. So when the district is using assessments that require kids to use typical language, it becomes easy to falsely and inaccurately label children as cognitively impaired, which results in the second problem with their determination.
The state complaint we filed with Michigan’s Office of Special Education outlines in great detail the other violations that have occurred. Sadly, IEP team members were not given the opportunity to share their input with regards to placement. From our perspective, the decision to move our children from our neighborhood school was made unilaterally. I have asked over and over again for someone, anyone, to talk to the teachers and support staff that work with our children on a regular basis, and to hear the truth about their ability to learn and grow in the general education setting, but our request is continually denied.
We are not alone in the misery of the special education process. We’ve connected with many other families that have struggled under this system and we have been tirelessly trying to make our voices heard. We’ve met with our principals. We’ve met with district supervisors. We’ve met with our superintendent. We’ve followed the chain of command that was recommended and have exhausted every avenue that we could think of in order to resolve these issues in a private and amicable manner. Our concerns have been chalked up to a difference in philosophical beliefs and making a fuss because we weren’t getting what we want. But this is about so much more than just getting our way. It is about poor treatment of families who are already struggling with their children’s challenges. It is about segregation of precious children that have needs that are different from their typically developing peers. It is about protecting the rights that should be guaranteed to families through State and Federal IDEA laws.
This battle has been ongoing since spring of 2015 and those that have heard the true facts of what we’ve experienced are just as concerned as we are. In fact, the dynamics of this case have even captured the attention of individuals at the Michigan Department of Education, several special education attorneys, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I could go on and on about the unethical tactics that have been used against our family, like not one, but two contracts that take us outside of federally protected IDEA laws and strip us of our procedural rights and safeguards, but I’ll let the State take care of that.
I share this story because I know that there are so many others, across the state and nation, that have felt voiceless and powerless in their attempts to advocate for their children with disabilities. I share this so that people will begin to understand the turmoil that parents must endure simply to get their kids what all other kids are entitled to. I share this because if this process has been so challenging for me, a valued employee of the district, a State Teacher of the Year, and a member of Governor Snyder’s Task Force on Special Education, I can only imagine how hard it must be for families without titles or resources or connections. It is time for change.
Although my ultimate goal is to make changes that will protect all families and children with IEPs, I’d like to get personal for a moment. While Ashton was still here, I regretfully spent the last year of his life in a state of constant stress and outrage over this situation. I did not get to enjoy my twins’ first day of kindergarten and I was robbed of relishing their school milestones because I’ve had to fight so hard for them every step of the way. I need to focus my energy on helping our other children grieve the loss of their brother. I want to focus on establishing the foundation we’ve created to honor Ashton’s life. But I can't yet. There is a serious level of compassion and empathy missing in this scenario, for our entire family. But let’s think about the best interests of Adam. After losing his twin brother, best friend, and other half, does he deserve to be shipped off to a new school that he’s never stepped foot in, full of strangers and uncertainty, so that the district can fill a quota in an underpopulated CI classroom? Or does he deserve to be at Keith Elementary, where he’s been happy, safe, and flourishing, and welcomed with open arms by every person who knows him?
Adam needs to be at Keith, now more than ever. His nine year old sister needs him there. I need him there. The staff and students need him there. They are already trying to cope with the loss of one very beloved student. So what do we tell them about a second? He’s still alive but not good enough to go to school with you? He can’t come back because he can’t talk as well as the rest of you? Think about the message that the archaic system of segregation teaches kids - if you are different, you are not welcome. Separate is NOT equal.
I wish that our family could continue to be remembered for honoring our son’s legacy through Ashton’s Miracle Foundation, and not for the private struggles we’ve gone through to protect our children’s rights. But here we are - compelled to make the public aware so that we can institute change. I hope to connect with others that have the same goal so we can make our voices heard collectively. Please feel free to comment and share your story.