CHICAGO — For more than eight months, Jennifer Schuh has felt powerless as she watches her 8-year-old son with special needs sit at home, isolated from his peers and unable to attend school.

Diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder while he was in preschool in early 2021, her son has spent little time in a classroom because of numerous roadblocks.

Schuh has toured specialized schools, hired an in-home tutor, created at-home lesson plans herself and eventually filed a grievance against the school district. Now, she doesn’t know what else to do to help her son.

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Experts say a slew of factors are frustrating special education families in Illinois — including a shortage of teachers, school aides and substitute teachers in addition to a lack of space and resources at therapeutic day schools.

And as Schuh’s experience illuminates, solutions are not readily available for some of Illinois’ most high-need young students when public districts lacking resources cannot guarantee school placements, even though they are federally mandated to provide a free and appropriate education for special education students.

COVID, experts say, has made matters worse.

In the wake of the pandemic demand for more intense educational services is high, said Charles Fox, a special education lawyer based in Buffalo Grove who has represented families in similar cases for the past 30 years. The current need for special education puts pressure on the supply of available desks and families seeking services.

“I’m afraid we’re going to see it for at least the next 10 years,” Fox said.

Last year, after a brief stint in a first-grade public elementary school classroom for students with special needs, Schuh’s son’s behavioral outbursts led the school district and his parents to agree to send him to a therapeutic day school to provide him with the customized instruction and emotional support he needs. Under state law, the district would pay for the day school tuition. But first, a school had to be found.

For months, the process dragged.

Schuh is in a similar situation as other Illinois parents seeking alternatives to a traditional public school. The Tribune is using her son’s first initial, B., to respect privacy concerns.

When searching for a school for B., a school that seemed promising would say it did not have room. Another would turn him away after he displayed behavioral issues during an on-site tour. Another school was too far from where Schuh lives in suburban Westmont, a village just east of Downers Grove.

Despite officials at their son’s school district, Downers Grove District 58, contacting more than 30 therapeutic day schools for a spot, Jennifer Schuh, and B.’s father, Eric Schuh, have been unable to enroll him this academic year.

Some schools that D58 recommended had bad reputations in the special education community — leading Schuh not to feel comfortable sending her son there.

“This has taken all my energy,” said Schuh, 38. “It just really wears on you trying to figure out the solution to this problem,” she said. Schuh said she feels she has “zero support from the school district that’s supposed to help everybody.”

The Schuhs have argued that until space in a therapeutic school opens, their public school in District 58 should temporarily place B. back in a public school classroom for kids with special needs.

But District 58 school officials say B.’s behavior is too disruptive for their teachers, already overwhelmed in understaffed classrooms.

After months of back-and-forth, the Schuhs filed a complaint with the state board of education, saying the school district did not fulfill its duty to their son. An impartial hearing officer sided with the school district, leaving the Schuh family without a solution.

These days, B. stays at home during the school day, with little social interaction or learning instruction, besides twice-a-week in-home tutoring paid for by the school district, his mother said.

As his absence from school stretches on and a solution appears to be out of reach, Schuh doesn’t know how he will bounce back and restart school, now nearly a grade behind his peers.

“He’s sitting at home doing nothing,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for him to recover from this.”

Special education in Illinois

Special education services are broad in scope and tailored to students individually.

More than 278,000 students, or 15% of public school students in Illinois, require special education services in the public school system, according to the Illinois State Board of Education 2023 Report Card released in October.

The percentage of Illinois students requiring special education support has increased compared to a decade earlier, when 13.6% of students required special education services according to ISBE data.

Pandemic conditions contributed to an uptick in special education students, according to Fox, the special education attorney.

Long periods of virtual education and social isolation have created learning and social delays. Consequently, parents are recognizing that their children need the extra support special education provides to get their children up to speed.

“The little ones are getting older and older, and they are still feeling the aftereffects of that time out of school over a period of years,” Fox said.

In 2023, students with autism — like B. — made up 11% of Illinois students in special education. But students across the state have varying disabilities — from developmental delays to speech impairments — each with their own set of needs and support.

Placements for students with special needs range from general education classrooms with extra support from teachers or aides to what are called “self-contained” classrooms filled with only special education students to residential boarding schools, which are generally considered the most restrictive kind of special education.

A team of parents, teachers, administrators and therapists in the school and school district decide where a student should be placed. In B.’s case, the team decided that a therapeutic day school — with smaller classrooms and more intensive support — would be most beneficial after a semester in a Downers Grove public school.

Placement decisions rely on an IEP, or individualized education program, which is a legal, binding document that public schools must follow. Parents are a part of the team that develops the document and must sign off on the final decision.

These education plans are at the foundation of special education and any child needing special education services undergoes an evaluation so teachers, social workers and parents can determine the best academic and support plan for the student.

A struggle to have a seat in class

When B. was diagnosed with autism in preschool in early 2021, he received an individualized education program for the first time.

In the fall of 2021 when B. started kindergarten, his mother, a former teacher with a background in special education, chose to homeschool her son, hoping he could meet standardized benchmarks while receiving an individualized education she could oversee.

But a year and a half later, after separating from B.’s father in January 2023, Schuh needed to return to work, and turned to the public school district to educate her son once again.

That’s when their problems navigating special education began.

Due to his extended break from school, B.’s special education team recommended he be placed in a classroom with other special education students.

B’s parents said he enjoyed returning to school with peers his age, but within a few months, school officials raised concerns about his ability to stay focused in class, and they discussed placing him in a therapeutic day school.

Changing his placement to a therapeutic day school meant a more restrictive environment and no time in a traditional public school — a transition that can be difficult to revert.

But even with a placement for a day school, B. was not guaranteed admission, and a search for a school with the right resources and space took months. More than eight months later, it’s still going for the Schuh family, as B. sits at home out of school.

Fed up because her son was missing valuable school days, in October, Jennifer Schuh asked District 58 to temporarily place B in the self-contained special education classroom, while she continued to search for a day school.

After that request was denied, she filed the complaint, arguing the district downplayed its aide staffing shortage, misrepresented availability at therapeutic day schools, falsified behavior data and denied her son the education required by federal law.

Throughout a week-long hearing in January, District 58 officials described difficulties they had supporting B’s behavior in the self-contained classroom with other students with disabilities during his short time in the self-contained special education classroom, according to public records.

A classroom teacher testified that physical and verbal incidents led paraprofessionals at the school to be “afraid of the student.” His mother said that was the first time she had heard the extent to which her son would disrupt class and put teachers in harm’s way.

“I was getting notes home every day that said ‘he had a great day and he’s doing great and he’s earning his reward at the end of the day’ so I was thinking he’s doing great, this is good,” Jennifer Schuh recalled. “As I was sitting at the hearing listening to people say, ‘He was struggling so much’ I’m thinking, ‘Why didn’t I know he was struggling so much?'”

The district is legally required to keep meticulous records of behavior incidents and make them available to parents if requested, but Schuh said she was not aware of that policy.

In a desperate attempt to help her son, Schuh asked the school to hire her as a short-term aide in his classroom. The school refused, explaining they worried a short-term aide would be a bandage for a longer-term issue.

District 58 officials declined a phone interview to answer specific questions, citing student privacy policies.

In a statement to the Chicago Tribune, superintendent Kevin Russell said the district’s first step is to identify strategies to support students with special needs within district classrooms. However, occasionally, when a student’s needs outweigh what the district can support, an individualized education program team recommends a different setting. Those decisions are “always in consultation with the family,” he said.

‘I’m just flabbergasted’

Following the emotionally tiring hearing where the officer sided with the district, Schuh was at a loss for words.

“I’m just flabbergasted that they would do this to a child and leave a child out of school,” she said.

Fox, the attorney, said it is “absolutely” a school district’s responsibility to educate a student until they can enroll in a placement their individualized education program recommends.

And federal law requires schools to provide an education specific to a child’s unique needs.

At a minimum, school districts should provide tutoring during dead time out of the classrooms, Fox said, which “sounds like a short-term bridge, but it doesn’t always work out so well.”

“There’s no public holiday from the obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education,” he said. “A week is a long time for students, a month is a very long time and several months is just an eternity, so it’s really meant to move along.”

In drastic situations, Fox said parents sometimes expand their search to schools that haven’t been certified by the state’s board of education — a move that can be risky for families and costly for school districts.

Meanwhile, the Schuhs are at a standstill.

B. is asking his parents when he can return to school, his parents say. Jennifer Schuh said she is considering private schools or moving to another district. However, brief consultations with other school districts in the Chicago area foreshadow similar difficulties with finding him a school.

“He has become aware of the little bits and pieces that he’s not allowed to go back to his old school, and the sense of rejection that he feels and the lack of confidence and self-esteem has been so damaging,” Jennifer Schuh said.

With seemingly no solution in sight, B.’s mother tries to keep her son occupied during the school day with coloring books or reading lessons, as second grade passes him by.

© 2024 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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