A hearing officer ruled this week that York Preparatory Academy and the South Carolina Public Charter School District provided a student with Down syndrome a “fair and appropriate public education,” as guaranteed by federal law, despite his mother’s claims to the contrary.
Douglas Dent, the hearing officer with the state Department of Education, ruled that “a preponderance of evidence” showed that York Prep provided Wilder Stokes, 18, with a proper education and that he “progressed educationally and socially.”
Stokes’ mother, Barb Stokes, argued during a due process hearing on Friday that during the 2013-2014 school year, York Prep failed to fully implement her son’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP, a plan that represents a formal agreement between the family and the school about what services are to be provided to the student.
She also alleged that her son’s occupational therapy plan was inappropriate based on his abilities, insufficient technology was available, and that staff members from York Prep and the South Carolina Public Charter School District were unethical in their dealings with Wilder Stokes.
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In Friday’s hearing, Barb Stokes, who represented herself in the court-like proceedings, said her son’s IEP called for 300 minutes every week of reading, writing and math instruction, or 60 minutes of each subject a day. Wilder Stokes, who was classified as a ninth-grade student and was 17 when the year started, was in a self-contained classroom with four other special-needs students and one classroom teacher.
Wilder Stokes’ schedule included physical education, band, lunch, computer, “social and behavior skills” and “employability skills,” Barb Stokes testified in the hearing. There was not enough time in his day for full math, reading and writing instruction.
“According to the schedule, he was not receiving the minutes,” Stokes said.
Erik Norton, the attorney for the South Carolina Public Charter School District, argued that Wilder Stokes’ IEP was fully implemented and that he made progress in his academics, proof that the IEP was working.
“I don’t think (free and appropriate public education) was denied,” Norton said in his opening statement.
Norton also said that Wilder Stokes enjoyed his time at York Prep, playing on the basketball team and in the band and becoming popular with many of the students. Barb Stokes agreed with those points.
During her testimony, Jan Lee, the special education director at York Prep, also said Wilder Stokes was making progress towards all of his annual goals.
“He seemed to be doing absolutely, impressively well,” she said.
During the 2013-2014 school year, Barb Stokes said, she began to have serious concerns about her son’s education. When she visited his classroom last fall, the only work sample the teacher provided from more than two months was a drawing he had completed. The teacher, who is no longer working at York Prep, wasn’t able to provide any information about the math or reading programs he was using in the classroom, Barb Stokes said.
In his decision, Dent wrote that the classroom teacher “could have been more forthcoming with information and could have had better communication with Ms. Stokes.”
In an email dated Dec. 8, Lee told Barb Stokes that the teacher was working on gathering inventory of materials available, that log-ins were available for online math and reading programs, and that iPads were being “reimaged” for classroom use.
Still, no one was able to tell Barb Stokes the curriculum being used in her son’s class, Stokes said.
“This is December and we still don’t have things in place for our kids,” Barb Stokes said on Friday during the hearing. “I needed to know what the curriculum was, as a parent.”
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act mandates that students with disabilities participate in the general curriculum, or the same curriculum being used for non-disabled peers.
According to the Parent Guide for Special Education Services in South Carolina, a document produced by the S.C. Department of Education, “parents should be aware of the curriculum that their school district uses for students who are the same age and grade level as their child...” The same document says the school district must be sure there is a person on the child’s IEP team “who understands the general curriculum and can be helpful in discussing how the student can participate...”
At the hearing, Barb Stokes asked Lee why she didn’t know the specific curriculum being used in Wilder Stokes’ classroom.
“I know what was available to our special education department,” Lee said. “There is no one set curriculum that would work for every single student in the school.”
In February 2014, when it was time to sign a new IEP, Barb Stokes did not feel comfortable with York Prep’s approach. So she reached out to the Department of Education to request a mediated IEP meeting, where a third party from the state participates in developing the plan.
The first scheduled mediated meeting had to be canceled because Barb Stokes had to leave town for a family emergency. As she was trying to schedule a new meeting, she got a notice from York Prep asking permission to proceed with a non-mediated IEP meeting on April 11 without the school’s occupational therapist present.
Stokes said she didn’t want any IEP meeting unless it was mediated, regardless of who could or could not be there.
On April 1, Wilder Stokes turned 18. Barb Stokes filed the paperwork to get power of attorney because of her son’s Down syndrome, but that process takes several days.
On April 8, an email from Robert Compton, the South Carolina Public Charter School District’s director of federal programs, instructed Lee to get Wilder Stokes to sign the IEP form excusing the occupational therapist from the meeting, since he was of legal age to do so.
“Someone went into my son’s classroom and coerced him to sign that form,” Barb Stokes said before Friday’s hearing.
At the hearing, she said that is the incident that pushed her over the edge.
“This is despicable,” she testified.
In his decision, Dent said the district had “probably overstepped its bounds” in “an effort to meet its procedural requirements.”
But, he wrote, although this action was “offensive” to Barb Stokes and “unwise,” it was not something that falls under the purview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, so he could not address it in his order.
Immediately after learning about her son signing the form, Stokes dictated a letter to him canceling the meeting and sent the letter to YPA. She kept her son out of school the next day, she said, and went back to her lawyer. Within a few hours, she was granted power of attorney.
In the decision, Dent wrote that Barb Stokes failed to inform the school that she was seeking power of attorney.
On April 9, Stokes said she got a letter from the school that her son’s classroom teacher was no longer working at York Prep. He had resigned March 31, so the IEP meeting York Prep had wanted to schedule wouldn’t have been able to happen without one of the Stokes signing another form excusing the classroom teacher from participating, Barb Stokes said.
Stokes withdrew her son from York Prep at the end of the school year and the pair moved to Florida, where Wilder Stokes is being home-schooled. Even though he isn’t a student at York Prep anymore, Barb Stokes said she couldn’t let the school “get away” with the way her son was treated.
In her request for the due process hearing, Barb Stokes asked for $15,000 from the school to fund tuition at a private school in Florida that would cater to her son’s specific needs. Norton argued private school tuition was not appropriate in this case.
In his ruling, Dent agreed, stating that Stokes didn’t meet “evidentiary tests” and had not followed proper procedures to obtain the tuition as compensation, even if he had ruled in their favor.