Right to Education Preserved for Special Needs Child
Stacie Jernigan knew her son Rishad had the right to an education, though asserting this right was often a challenge. The elementary student was legally blind, unable to speak, had cerebral palsy and suffered from asthma. Still, when the family moved to the suburbs from Cleveland, Rashid’s mother enrolled him in the local public school.
As the school year progressed, Ms. Jernigan was horrified to learn her son was being restrained – often for hours at a time – in a special chair designed to hold developmentally disabled children when they are unable to hold themselves upright. Rishad’s pediatrician found no medical need to provide this for Rishad. The school was simply using the chair as a convenience. The special education class was not engaging; sometimes Rishad was just given newspaper and told to tear it into pieces. The school district insisted on keeping Rishad in diapers, even though he was supposed to be toilet training. Though the school employed a nurse, she only worked part-time and was not always available to help if Rishad suffered a sudden asthma attack.
Frustrated, Ms. Jernigan took a friend’s advice and called Legal Aid. Legal Aid education attorney Jennifer Martinez Atzberger represented the family and requested a letter from the doctor explaining that Rishad had no medical need for the chair. Ms. Jernigan was told the chair had been taken out of the room, but when she stopped by the school unannounced, the chair had reappeared.
Meanwhile, Ms. Atzberger worked with Ms. Jernigan and the school team to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Rishad, clearly outlining requirements and techniques for occupational, behavioral and speech therapy and removing any use of the special chair. The process took months. Often Ms. Jernigan and Ms. Atzberger would arrive for a meeting only to find the district representative was not coming.
Finally, after Ms. Atzberger made it clear that she intended to file a complaint with the Ohio Department of Education if the district did not cooperate, a district representative came to the meeting and agreed to place Rashid in a private facility with the highly trained medical and teaching staff he required. Ms. Atzberger notes: “I really admire Ms. Jernigan for her dedication and determination. She refused to sign the IEP until she believed it contained what her son needed. We worked as a team.” Ms. Jernigan underscores the team effort, “I couldn’t have done it without Ms. Atzberger. She was my spokesperson. Before, when I called, people didn’t pay much attention – I was just ‘the mother’. Having an attorney spoke volumes.”
A full year after Ms. Jernigan’s initial complaint, Rishad began sixth grade at his new school. He is out of diapers and learning to use the restroom in accordance with his new IEP; he starts each morning in a group of classmates, then goes to his own desk where a picture schedule walks him through the day’s assignments. The new school offers art, music and occupational therapy.
Rishad also helps out at lunchtime, wiping down tables after everyone has eaten. Ms. Jernigan notes that Rishad has become more social and plays with other children in the class – an opportunity he’d never had before. Rishad is happy, and so is his mother: “They wanted me to get tired,but I kept going. I couldn’t get tired – I wanted the best for my son.”