Military children with special education needs are facing significant delays in getting services they need, according to a new report based on a parent survey.

The delays are systemic and parents are resigned to expecting those delays — findings which are no surprise to special needs families in general, said Jennifer Barnhill, chief operating officer and lead researcher for Partners in Promise, a nonprofit focused on protecting the rights of military children in special education. That organization, along with researchers at Ohio State University, conducted the fall 2021 survey of military and veteran parents of children with diagnosed disabilities.

The overwhelming majority of the 1,156 people who responded were members of active duty families, including 238 active duty service members and 685 active duty spouses, Barnhill said.

On average, parents said they wait 23 months between the time their child’s issue is first identified and the time their child receives special education services. That includes waiting for and getting an evaluation of the child, waiting for the eligibility determination, getting the individual plan for services, and receipt of services.

But military moves further exacerbate the issues for these parents, and Barnhill said this survey provides some rare data about that. About 39% of parents surveyed said they went without special education services at some point after a permanent change of station move. Of those, the average delay was 5.75 months.

“Our survey shows that military families are not equipped to fix special education challenges in their communities,” said Michelle Norman, executive director and founder of Partners in Promise. “These families are so numb to the systemic timeline delays and inequities in access to an appropriate education that they no longer believe any one group or any one system is able to help them. “

Are school districts violating law?

Many military families reported that school districts aren’t providing the minimum amount of support and services required by federal and state laws, according to the report.

Some of the delays “constituted procedural violations” of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the researchers found. The basis of the IDEA is to guarantee timely access to a free and appropriate public education for those with disabilities to help them thrive.

The delays “have become so normalized they have been left largely unexamined,” the report stated. “Parents may not even raise an objection because ‘it’s just the way it is’ across all states.”

The IDEA requires school districts to hold an initial meeting within 30 days of receiving a new student with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, which outlines the education, support and services that student needs to thrive. But the researchers noted the law doesn’t require that states stick to a specific timeline to establish a new IEP. When a student moves to a new school, that school may accept, reject, or propose changes to the child’s previous IEP. Some school districts might require their own evaluation, which means the lengthy process starts over again.

Researchers said the data show military families are resigned to waiting for their children to be able to have access to a free and appropriate public education. “They are resigned to accept the education they are given by a new district because they believe their military status prevents them from pursuing recourse.

“And despite knowing the needs of their children, they are resigned to ‘go it alone,’ " the report stated, “because they do not believe the systems that are in place to support their children in special education will make a difference.”

It’s essentially up to parents to navigate the the complicated maze of federal and state laws to advocate for their children and enforce the special education laws themselves, the researchers stated. “Military children are suffering from their parent’s (perceived or real) inability to enforce this law. This is not an issue felt by military students alone, but rather one that is simply exacerbated by the highly mobile military lifestyle.”

When parents don’t believe the law is being followed, and their child isn’t receiving the services they need, they can register an unofficial complaint with the school. If the conflict is not resolved there, parents may choose to file a complaint with the state board of education. Only 20% of respondents have filed any level of complaint, according to the survey.

However, of those who didn’t file, 74% indicated that they wanted to file. But nearly a fourth of them responded, “I didn’t think that filing a claim would help.”

While the Department of Defense has a number of programs available to help special needs families, many families may not be aware of the services, the report stated. For example, 76% said they didn’t know whether their installation provides military legal assistance for special education concerns. The services have been increasing their legal assistance for special needs families. Only 23% of those who filed a complaint notified a military point of contact at the installation, such as a school liaison officer, or contacted the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission.

Parents are angry

Many of the parents who responded to the survey were angry, the researchers stated. Parents struggle in their relationships with schools as they try to get services for their children.

One parent wrote, “the emotional and financial stress of having two children with disabilities is indescribable. Parents are in a constant state of worry and angst as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. Nothing with schools is ever easy. We manage and do the best we can, but there’s always so much to do, people, providers to follow up with, battles with the schools.”

Some families — 35% — said they had paid out of pocket for special education support over the previous year. Of those, 24% paid between $500-$1,000 and 9% paid over $10,000.

As of 2018, there were more than 130,000 individuals enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program, which is mandatory for families with special needs. The program is designed to make sure a family’s needs are considered during the military assignment process and to provide support and resources to families. Researchers analyzed the 1,156 responses collected through an online survey distributed in a direct email campaign.

Although this survey is not a random, scientific sampling, this type of tool has been increasingly used by nonprofits to gather information and dig deeper into military families’ issues and trends, and can be used in conjunction with other sources, such as the Defense Department’s own surveys, said Barnhill. EFMP families represent about 6% of the military family population, she said. The survey sample size is about 0.84% of the EFMP population, which allows researchers to “reliably generalize to the EFMP population,” she said.

Among other findings:

♦ 61% of survey respondents reported that their children didn’t receive an eligibility determination for special education services from their public school within the 60-day timeframe, from the start of special education evaluations, required by the IDEA.

♦ 43% of the families reported they were either extremely satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their public school experiences; but 35% reported negative experiences.

♦ 85% of the families said that all their eligible children were enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program.

♦ There were no significant differences among the experiences of families in the different branches of service.

♦ 64% of the 740 military spouses who responded said they weren’t paid employees; 33% said they were unemployed to care for their child’s educational needs. It’s not known how the pandemic affected these employment situations.

♦ Families who were informed about the support and services available to them experienced better results in getting that support for their children. But being informed didn’t prevent families from experiencing delays and timeline violations.

Recommendations

“We can’t do this alone,” said Norman. “We need allies that are willing to work together with us on actionable solutions while prioritizing the voices of our exceptional families.”

The researchers recommend:

♦ Reducing barriers to advance enrollment for special education children when they move by developing a plan to address the issue across all service branches and for each installation to work with states and local schools.

♦ Educating parents on their rights, the procedures for addressing violations and providing effective support systems.

♦ Standardizing EFMP process and resources across the service branches to lessen the burden placed on special needs families by DoD-controlled systems and programs.

♦ Increasing the input from military special education families to lawmakers and the Department of Education in the EFMP decision-making process. “Representation is vital to develop real solutions that fund and enforce the IDEA,” researchers stated.

They noted that the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act requires new data on special education for military children, including a DoD tracking requirement on special education disputes filed by military members, and a Government Accountability Office study examining, among other things, the effectiveness of special education attorneys and other legal support services for these families.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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