The case of Diana Zhou’s fight with the Bethlehem Area School District has made for fascinating reading, partly because it shows an extreme version of the conflicts that can bubble up between school districts and parents of children with disabilities.
Zhou has been locked in a lawsuit with BASD over more than $200,000 in legal costs. The district incurred them responding to about two dozen complaints Zhou filed over BASD’s education plans for her two sons, one of whom has Asperger’s, which is on the autism spectrum.
Testimony during the federal civil trial in Philadelphia in the last week showed the frustration of BASD administrators and teachers in trying to satisfy Zhou, who appeared to find fault with everything they did for her children. Witnesses for BASD have testified that despite being proficient in English, Zhou required the district to provide a Mandarin Chinese translator during hearings, which drove up its costs greatly.
One special education director testified that Zhou told her that all the hassle and expense would go away if BASD would just pay to send Zhou’s children to a private school like Moravian Academy. To get the full story, I’d urge readers to go to the excellent trial coverage in The Morning Call.
Meanwhile, Zhou and her attorneys have portrayed her as a caring mother advocating for the best interests of her sons – who were exceptional at math. They argued that the district responded by making Zhou feel like a pariah.
Her attorney pointed out that federal law gives Zhou the right to disagree with the district special education placements and doesn’t cap the number of due process hearings she can seek to change those placements.
But just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s right.
I spoke to two friends who have children on the autism spectrum, including one with Asperger’s, and both have at times struggled with their school districts over their kids’ Individual Education Plans.
But these women also understand that schools are pulled in all directions with demands and mandates from other parents, students and the state as well as taxpayers who want them to keep costs down. My friends recognize that their children aren’t the only ones their district has to serve.
That appeared to be lost on Zhou, who called teachers so often during class that the district changed the policy of patching parents through to their kids' classrooms, according to testimony.
My friends said that often – but not always – understanding, civility and negotiation with the educators work better than demands and threats.
“I realize how overburdened they are and that they generally want to do what’s in the best interests of the child,” one friend said. “As his advocate, I still try to get more with honey than vinegar.”
My other friend said that parents who turn hostile and threaten to sue can win the battle but lose the war. “That can be effective in the short run but you can lose in the long run,” she said. “Anybody under a threat is probably not really going to be invested” in the therapy or placement you demanded for your child.
There’s a financial motivation – not just a moral one – in making sure children on the autism spectrum get the services they need as early as possible. Psychologist James Mulick of Ohio State University found that early intervention therapy makes a huge difference in a child’s long-term abilities.
"It will cost approximately $6 million to support an untreated autistic person to age 50," Mulick said in a 2004 report by the American Psychological Association. "If you spend $150,000 and they become capable of normal learning by third grade, that's a huge savings."
My friends’ children had some intervention services but these women also worked tirelessly with their kids on socialization and other skills. Today these young men are doing well in school, including one in college.
The social contract in this country only works if we don’t abuse its rights and benefits. The Preamble of our Constitution begins “We the People” not “Me the People.”