Seven-year-old Madeline Aldridge is a vivacious first-grader who loves school. Both her legs were amputated, so she rolls around in a wheelchair or scoots around on the floor.
Maddie is an outgoing child who seems to get around effortlessly. But her parents have been engaged in a two-year disagreement with the Clover school district over issues concerning her disability.
Matt and Renee Aldridge said last fall they filed an Office of Civil Rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the district over playground access.
More recently, the Aldridges have disagreed with the school district and the S.C. Department of Education over transportation issues, and Maddie no longer rides the school bus.
“This is not just about Maddie, it’s about doing what’s legally required for children with disabilities,” said Matt Aldridge, also a double amputee, who works as an in-school suspension coordinator at Clover High School.
Addressing issues now
Matt Aldridge, 34, and Maddie had their legs amputated before age 2 due to tibial aplasia ectrodactyly syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by the absence of long bones in the arms or legs and split hands or feet.
Both were born without a tibia, a large weight-bearing bone in the lower legs, and Maddie has split hands. The Aldridges’ two younger children, Grady, 2, and Luci, 5 months, also have the disorder. Zoey, Renee’s 9-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, does not.
Matt and Renee said they want to address issues now not just for Maddie, but for their two younger children who will attend school in Clover.
“It’s the right thing to do, and it’s required by law,” said Matt Aldridge. “And it’s not just about Clover. It’s about the U.S. stepping up and saying we need to treat people with disabilities equally. And this district is not hurting for money.”
Clover schools Superintendent Marc Sosne said the district has invested time and money trying to address the concerns in the complaint.
“I’m sorry we had a parent who is upset, but our position is we have taken every concern very seriously, as we do from every parent,” Sosne said.
“We think we are responding in a very reasonable and prudent way, based on the legal advice and expert advice we have gotten,” he said.
Meredith Seibert, a Columbia attorney who has advised the district on the disability issues, said the Clover district has been responsive. She said the OCR report will not be final for a few more weeks, but said there were no findings against the district.
The school district “was very proactive in response to any parent concerns,” Seibert said. “They really did act prudently by trying to figure out what is the best service for these children.”
The issues arose last year, when the Aldridges say Maddie had to leave her wheelchair at the Larne Elementary School playground and crawl across the wood-chip surface because she couldn’t roll over it with her wheelchair.
Her hands were scraped up by the wood chip surface, Renee said, and the Aldridges said a teacher suggested she use gloves to protect her hands.
For a time, the couple said, Maddie also had to climb out of her chair and crawl across the bathroom floor to use the toilet.
After they complained, they said, she was allowed to bring her wheelchair into the bathroom and transfer from the chair to the toilet.
When the couple complained about the playground issue, Sosne said the district began to study the issue. He said the district decided to replace the Larne playground surface with a poured rubber material that can be navigated with a wheelchair. He said the new surface cost more than $100,000.
“We felt like we had really addressed the issue, based on the legal advice we had gotten from our attorneys in Columbia,” Sosne said.
After that, Matt Aldridge said he filed the OCR complaint in August about playground surfaces across the district, including those at Griggs Road Elementary School, where the Aldridges expect to enroll their two younger children in a prekindergarten program.
Aldridge said the complaint, which was filed anonymously, also addressed routes to the playground via a wheelchair and the accessibility of play equipment, such as swings and a jungle gym, that Maddie can’t use.
Matt Aldridge, who has not hired an attorney, said he filed the complaint against his employer after numerous discussions with district officials about the problem.
“I feel like this is discrimination, and I feel like it’s covered by the law,” he said. “And I’m not going to be scared by it. If you want change, you’ve got to be bold.”
A change in bus policy
A few weeks after the complaint was filed about playgrounds, the Aldridges said they were told by a district transportation official that it needed to change the way Maddie was loaded onto the school bus lift for children in wheelchairs.
Maddie had previously loaded herself onto the school bus lift facing the bus, with her wheelchair breaks locked, Renee Aldridge said.
She said the family was told that the policy of the state Department of Education, which pays for and manages S.C. school bus transportation, required Maddie to load facing away from the bus, with assistance from the bus driver, while wearing a seat belt on her chair.
The Aldridges said they have safety concerns about Maddie wearing a seat belt while loading with the school bus lift. They said her body is top heavy without the weight of legs, and she could easily fall forward.
“If she fell forward, she would ultimately be trapped hanging,” Renee Aldridge said. “Without a seat belt, she is able to land the way her dad has taught her, on her hands.”
Renee said Maddie was thrown from her chair one time last year, when a bus driver began to raise the chair lift before Maddie had completely gotten off the lift.
She said Maddie landed on her hands. “If Maddie had had a seat belt, her face would have hit the cement, not her hands,” she said.
The Aldridges presented a letter to support their position on the school bus loading from Maddie’s pediatrician, Dr. Hattina Osterberg with Rock Hill Pediatrics.
“A seat belt is not required for her type of wheelchair, and it can actually be more dangerous for Madeline to have a seat belt due to her torso being heavier than her lower limbs,” Osterberg wrote.
The Aldridges also have pointed to a clause in the state policy that says exceptions to the rule can be made on a case-by-case basis.
However, state officials have declined to make any exception to the rules in their correspondence with the family.
Dino Teppara, a media spokesman with the S.C. Department of Education, said the state is “exploring every avenue of assistance for this family.”
However, Teppara said federal laws regulate safety requirements for school buses that transport students in wheelchairs. He said state and local policies must be consistent.
“We are working diligently to see what policies may be enacted that still comply with federal laws to help this student,” Teppara wrote in a response.
Sosne said Clover district transportation officials are following the state’s advice.
“While there is flexibility built into the law in certain circumstances, the state is advising us that this is one of those areas where flexibility should not be applied,” Sosne said.
The Aldridges said they have been taking Maddie to school themselves since last fall, when the school bus loading procedure was changed.
“We don’t feel it’s safe for her to be riding the bus in the manner they want her to,” Matt Aldridge said.
Matt Aldridge said he believes the policy allows flexibility to consider Maddie’s unique circumstance. “No one blanket policy covers everything,” he said.
Matt Aldridge also said he’s awaiting the results of the OCR visit to the district’s playgrounds.
Sosne said the district is in the process of preparing several playground changes recommended by its attorney as a result of the visit.
He said they include two more poured rubber playground surfaces, one each at Larne and Griggs Road, a change to the wheelchair ramp at Larne and parking access issues at Blue Eagle Academy, near the Aldridge’s home.
Seibert said playground access for the disabled at schools and other public sites was added to federal law in 2010. However, she said the OCR inspection didn’t focus on whether there is wheelchair access at every school in Clover.
Rather, Seibert said, the focus of the federal inspectors was on whether there are children at each school who need that type of access and whether it’s provided for them.
“It’s not every playground, every school,” she said. “But we do need to look at the fact that we have a population of students here who have some sort of orthopedic impairment who need that access.”
Matt Aldridge, who said he has researched the law regarding disability access, said he understands the expense of such improvements.
“It’s expensive, but it’s also federally required,” he said. “And their needs are not fully met because of money sometimes.”
Aldridge said he feels Clover schools have room for improvement in terms of disabled access, and he wants to help the district enact that change.
“We excel at everything,” Aldridge said, referring to Clover schools. “We don’t excel at this. And I see things they don’t see.”
Jennifer Becknell • 803-329-4077