Amber Tatro, At Center Of Landmark Special Ed Battle, Dies At 42
DALLAS — Amber Leigh Tatro had plenty of cause to be down on the world. And yet, even as her frail body yielded to the toll of numerous surgeries, those who knew her say she stayed positive and full of life, proud to have aided others through her role in a landmark court case.
“She never complained about her situation,” said friend Yareli Esteban. “And that always allowed me to see life from a different perspective. I would always walk away thinking, ‘none of my challenges are real challenges.’ She was just a really special person.”
Tatro — whose 1984 victory over the Irving Independent School District at the U.S. Supreme Court ensured students with disabilities the right to public education — died last week. She was 42.
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Born at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital, Tatro was diagnosed with spina bifida, a physical condition causing partial paralysis. As a grade-school student, Tatro would require help with catheterization several times daily in order to remove urine.
But Irving ISD officials refused, saying having to do so would open a “Pandora’s box” and require the district to provide extensive medical procedures.
The district’s battle with Tatro and her family advanced all the way to the nation’s highest court, which ultimately ordered the district to perform the procedure. The decision for the first time made a legal distinction between a related health service and a medical service requiring a doctor.
The landmark decision “set the standard for getting ‘related services’ from a school district,” attorney Mark Partin said at the time. “And that allowed kids to stay in school who perhaps were being sent home.”
It also allowed the soft-spoken Tatro, distinguished as much by her big glasses and bright-colored bows as by her crutches or the plastic braces on her legs, to graduate from Irving’s MacArthur High a decade later.
Tatro’s condition would pose a difficult path, including three eye surgeries, two hip surgeries, toe surgery, a major back operation and installation of a shunt in her skull to help relieve fluid buildup on her brain. She also had to overcome numerous infections.
Still, when the day of her graduation ceremony came, Tatro insisted on walking across the stage like everyone else to collect her diploma rather than using a special ramp to ascend and descend, as suggested by school officials. The effort earned her a standing ovation.
Tatro’s mother, Mary, said Amber was “a wonderful kid” with strong morals. “The only drugs she ever had was what the doctors gave her,” she said.
Music made her happy, especially Elvis, Prince, Michael Jackson and her beloved New Kids on the Block. A souvenir blanket that she owned depicting the American boy band will be buried with her.
A member of Irving’s Northgate United Methodist Church, Tatro served as a teacher’s aide at Holy Family of Nazareth Catholic School and then volunteered as a receptionist at an agency for kids with disabilities until several years ago, when her health got the better of her.
“In the last two or three years, everything seemed to be happening to her,” her mother said. “They tried everything. We just had to let her go.”
Through the difficulties of her final years, Tatro remained upbeat.
“She always had a way to make people smile,” said her sister, Kashia Wales of Dandridge, Tenn., who Tatro rarely addressed as anything but “Hey, sister!”
As her health went downhill, Tatro’s laptop was her outlet to the world. She spent hours in her room, tracking down old classmates from her high school yearbook, cultivating Facebook connections and corresponding with them via email.
One of those people was former MacArthur classmate Esteban, now CEO of Strategar, an Addison-based ad agency. The two hadn’t been close in school, she said; back then students in special education were kept separate from the other kids.
But when Tatro reached out to her as one of her many surgeries approached, asking her former classmate if she would pay her a visit, Esteban was touched.
She did, and the two clicked. They stayed in touch, periodically lunching at Red Lobster — Tatro’s favorite — and talking about Tatro’s situation, how she could better advocate for herself and the impact her court case had had.
“She was just glad she could help other people,” Esteban said. “She knew that because of her that they could get services they might not otherwise have had.”