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Facing Facts

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ederal judge Robert Payne recently ruled that Henrico County must pay what will amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars to the family of Reid Tutwiler, an autistic boy whom the county school system was unable to educate. I'm sure Judge Payne had the child's best interests at heart, but the fact is that an incredible amount of money will be spent on what may turn out to be a futile cause.

I'm going to take a lot of heat for making that statement, and rightly so. But I speak from experience, and it is only after considerable thought that I even made it. Part of my reasoning is my disdain for frivolous litigation, and part of it stems from a sense of practicality. Let me explain.

My daughter graduated in June from a Henrico County high school, having spent her entire academic life in the special-education program within the county school system. She has been diagnosed as both autistic and moderately retarded. Frankly, I've never been impressed with the county's approach to special education. She's had Individual Education Plans since she was in first grade. The IEP is the county's special education plan, which sets specific goals for a student and is tailored for that student's particular needs. From elementary school through high school, the Henrico County school system never met a single goal set for my daughter, much to my disgust and consternation. Mostly I blamed a lack of resources, bureaucracy and money. But I never thought that litigation was the solution.

There are many shortcomings in the county's special-education system. Several changes could make it work for a broader spectrum of students. For instance, the county has a battery of tests that is administered to special-education students. I once requested that my daughter be tested for dyslexia, which is not on the list of tests. I was told that I could have her tested by an independent source and the county would make necessary adjustments to my daughter's IEP, but there wasn't anything in the curriculum that addressed dyslexia specifically. In other words, I could satisfy my curiosity about whether she had dyslexia, but it would be at my expense. Then I'd have to accept the fact that the county couldn't teach dyslexic students. In short, the county's resources are limited.

The limits pertain to teachers as well. Special-education teachers right out of college usually go to county schools, which they often use as a training ground. A year or so later they head for places like the Faison School, Montessori and similar private institutions, where the salaries are much better. Interestingly, the Tutwiler boy is back in the county system being taught by an aide trained in the methods used by the Faison School. One has to wonder how long this aide will remain in the county school system before he or she leaves for a more lucrative position at a private institution (which might initiate another lawsuit).

The Tutwilers have lauded the accomplishments of the Faison School. They said that Reid has learned more than 100 words. At $50,000 a year, that factors out to around $500 per word. No parent wants to give up hope for his or her child, no matter how profound the disability. I'm sure the Tutwilers are thrilled that Reid has made the progress he has. But I have to wonder if the cost is worth the result — particularly when it's funded by tax dollars.

My point here is that there are times when practicality, reality and a sense of reasonableness must factor into decisions made by parents, schools and the legal system. I went through an agonizing internal debate many years ago, wondering whether I should send my daughter to a private school and fight the county to pay for it. I chose not to because sometimes you just have to accept reality. Sometimes a child is simply unable to learn. It's one of the most difficult things a parent will ever have to accept, but it's something to consider.

Let's look at it another way. I drive a Cavalier. I would love for it to perform like a Corvette. If the same theory the Tutwilers and Judge Payne have about education were applied to this situation, then it would stand to reason that my Cavalier should perform just like the Corvette. After all, both cars are made by Chevrolet. Unfortunately, no matter how much I want it to, my car never will run like a 'Vette. It just doesn't have the components to make it so. Suing General Motors, however, will not solve the problem.

I may never know if my decision to not sue the county was right or not. I don't know if sending her to the Faison School would have made a difference. I do know I never had the financial resources to send her there or to take on the county in a legal battle. I also know that she's a delightful young lady with a bright future. Now, thanks to the judge's decision and my county taxes, I'll get to find out what it feels like to spend my money at a special school.S



Ray Schmitt is a freelance writer who does not believe in litigation as a means to solve society's problems. He lives with his special-needs daughter in Henrico County.



Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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