Michigan Schools and Parents of Disabled Children in Conflict

Written by Patricia Hawke for Schools K-12

As in other states, Michigan schools are seeing more and more parents of disabled children pulling them out of public schools, providing alternative private education, and then suing the Michigan Schools to foot the bill. It has become a problem and growing expense for public schools across the nation, ever since the passing of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which states that public schools are required to provide special education students with a free, appropriate public education. Disputes arise when parents and school administrators are in conflict over what is appropriate.

The Michigan Schools recently had its Birmingham school district sued by parents of a 17-year-old son with bipolar, obsessive compulsive and Asperger’s disorders, as well as other impairments. Andrew’s condition has become more serious in recent years, though Andrew’s daily regimen of pills control his otherwise violent and uncontrollable episodes.

His parents believed he would be better educated at home with one-on-one instruction, where there would be few distractions. Andrew had attended Groves High School in Franklin; however, his parents took it upon themselves to pull him out and provide his education at home through private teachers.

Michigan schools officials in the Birmingham district believe that Andrew would do better being educated at the high school with other students, where he could improve his social skills. The dispute between parents and Michigan schools administrators became a legal battle, with the parents seeking compensation of $113,000 to pay for the at-home private teachers and therapists for the past three years, as well as to cover these same expenses for one additional year.

The Michigan schools district in Birmingham charged that they had provided the Lipsitt boy with appropriate educational opportunities by shortening his school week and providing classes with opportunities for him to learn to socialize (some in regular classroom settings). They made numerous attempts to create a special educational program for Andrew, all of which were rejected by his parents, who wanted him home schooled.

This is not the first such case for the Michigan schools that currently have 242,000 students, who receive special educational services, and the number is growing each year. In the 2005-2006 school year, the Michigan schools saw 110 formal complaints over special educational services. There were only 77 such complaints just nine years ago. Though most cases are resolved before ever going to a hearing, the Michigan schools are seeing more and more parents pulling their special needs children out of the public schools first, providing alternative education, and then suing the Michigan schools’ districts for compensation.

Some cases do not even involve services that the Michigan schools are obligated to provide. One family with an autistic 12-year-old, for instance, was told by their doctor that their son needed several hours each week of speech therapy. They wanted the Michigan schools to provide this, but they offered 40 minutes each week, though they were not obligated by law to provide any such services. The parents then went to their insurance company, which paid for some of the therapy, as well.

The Lipsitt case was recently settled by a state administrative law judge, who ruled in favor of the Lipsitt family. Judge Lauren Harkness ordered the Michigan schools Birmingham district to pay for more than two years of homebound special education, stating that the district denied Andrew a free and appropriate public education. The district may appeal the ruling.

It is not that these children do not deserve these services — they do; however, the Michigan schools have a limited budget to cover such services for all of the 242,000 special needs children. As the number of such children rises, so does the state and federal contributions to each school; however, the current $723 million is not enough to cover the in-school costs of special education, as well as the expenses incurred by parents who make alternative educational arrangements (usually private and expensive).

There is no doubt that, as a society, we need to provide an appropriate education for special needs children. To do so, without hurting other children (including those with special needs who attend public school), the Michigan schools and other public school systems across the nation must develop a better method of communicating and working with the parents of special needs children, the community and government. Better funding and guidelines must exist for the schools, as well as other funding opportunities for such parents to provide non-educational services needed for their children. Otherwise, the public schools will be bankrupt paying for expensive educations and services for only a few.