NOTE: Chicago Public Schools ignored a COURT ORDER to place this child with social/emotional disabilities into a therapeutic day school. The child had no placement and receive NO EDUCATIONAL SERVICES from the district until this past Tuesday...and only after the Chicago Tribune emailed the district to ask why the court order was being ignored...
Family of eighth grader resolves dispute with Chicago Public Schools
October 15, 2009
Lissette Cruz thought she had won. She had a court order saying Chicago Public Schools had to place her 13-year-old son in a therapeutic day school to make up for the myriad ways the district had failed him over the years.
That was June 29. October arrived, and Christopher Cruz, a bright but emotionally disturbed eighth grader, still hadn't been placed in any school. He was staying at home or with relatives, and occasionally accompanying his mother to her job -- she's a Chicago Public Schools teacher.
At 11:03 a.m. Friday, the Tribune sent an e-mail to the district seeking comment about Cruz's case. Why hadn't Christopher been placed?
Within four hours, Deborah Duskey, head of the district's special education program, was on the phone with Cruz, telling her that Christopher would be able to start at the private Acacia Academy in the west suburbs this week. Tuesday was his first day. All it took was two years of parental pressure, an attorney, a court order and an e-mail from a newspaper.
The case of Christopher Cruz provides another glimpse into a special education system that many parents and disability advocates say is broken. They describe educational plans that fail to provide proper services to students with disabilities, poor monitoring of how special education students are progressing and parents' struggles to secure services even when they prevail over the district in court.
"They would rather litigate cases than just give the children what they need," said Nelly Aguilar, the attorney representing Christopher as well as the child of another Chicago teacher. "We were not trying to get [Christopher] a pony. We were just trying to get him basic educational resources."
Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said that of the 28 due-process hearing orders rendered in Chicago Public Schools cases this year, 11 remain out of compliance. She said state board officials consider that to be an uncommonly high number compared with the last few years.
The district is in weekly contact with the state board regarding the status of these cases, Fergus said.
Duskey said a problem in the district's placement office caused the delay in Christopher's case.
"We should have had him placed and ready to go from day one," Duskey said. "This should've happened much earlier."
In fact, according to the court order, the district was required to conduct an Individualized Education Plan meeting with the family within 14 days of the June 29 decision. At that time, the district was to provide Cruz with the names of four private therapeutic day schools that could meet Christopher's needs.
But it was nearly two months before the meeting was held, and Cruz and her attorney say they never received the list of schools.
Duskey said the summer break made it difficult to assemble the staff to hold Christopher's meeting. She also noted that the district is bolstering its oversight of special education cases and developing a plan to avoid summer delays.
The district is expected to spend about $850 million on its roughly 45,000 special education students this year.
Cruz's problems with the district's special education system began long before she prevailed in her due process case. Worried about her son's erratic behavior -- he had anxiety problems and at times would shut down and stop speaking -- Cruz asked the district to evaluate Christopher in April 2006. It took until October 2006 for the district to deem the boy eligible for special education.
A district psychological report said that "Christopher demonstrates concerning social-emotional behaviors." But according to the court order, the district's educational plan did nothing to address Christopher's behavior.
In fall 2007, Christopher's mother agreed to modify her son's special education plan, removing writing assistance that she no longer thought was necessary. At that time, however, the district fully removed Christopher from its special education program. A year later, a surge in behavioral problems led Cruz to inquire about Christopher's services.
According to the June court ruling, the district never gave Cruz notice -- as required by law -- that her son had been removed from special education.
Additionally, the hearing officer criticized the district for failing to identify Christopher's needs, implementing a "defective" educational plan and failing to hold further planning meetings when "it was obvious that the student was not appropriately responding to social work services."
As a Chicago teacher, Cruz feels like she knows the system and was able to act as a strong advocate for her son. And still, she said, it was a lengthy fight that she fears set him back academically and emotionally.
"I just saw this bright light totally fade," she said. "He became like an entirely different person in some ways."
Now she sees Acacia as a fresh start. As Christopher came out of the school after his first day Tuesday, Cruz noticed something refreshing. Her son was smiling.