Inequity in special education: One family’s story in Virginia

Educating a child with special needs isn’t for the weak or the weak-hearted.

That’s what Sid Hagan and his wife Cassie learned soon after their boys were born in 1990 with Asperger’s Syndrome--though the couple didn’t learn for years what plagued their sons.

Living in Newport News, Va., the couple recognized that young Kian and Niall Hagan did not interact with other people as do most children.

Their preschool teacher sent home evaluations that said the twins had attention deficit disorder and were essentially unteachable. Their kindergarten instructor, Hagan said, “asked my wife if she had taken illegal drugs while she was pregnant.”

It wasn’t until the family moved to Iowa when the principal of Hunt Elementary School in Sioux City took them aside and said she believed that the boys had autism. She was calling in a multidisciplinary team from an area education agency to properly diagnose and provide support for the boys.

The boys’ parents were stunned. How could one school system be so progressive in its approach to dealing with students with special needs and another be so clueless?

The Iowa team spent a year monitoring the boys before diagnosing them with Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum that causes severe difficulty in social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior but does not necessarily degrade linguistic and cognitive developments. It is often called high-functioning autism.

The boys thrived while participating in a pilot program in which about half a dozen high-functioning autistic children were taught together with instructors and assistants. The twins made the honor roll by the time they hit middle school.

Had the family stayed in Iowa, Hagan said, Kian and Niall would have enjoyed a continuity in the services they received in school all the way into the state college system, which receives information from the high schools about a child’s diagnosis and special service requirements.

But, because of a job change, the family moved back to Virginia in 2001 and settled in Lynchburg. The trouble started all over again in middle school there, and “every day was a battle” for services, he said.

Hagan said he was told a school administrator that the boys might be in high school until they were 22 years old because it would be difficult helping them pass the state’s standardized tests, the Standards of Learning.

But "we knew our rights because we had lived in Iowa,” Hagan said, and the couple advocated for their kids. The boys graduated with their class, both with “B” averages. Then they started at Central Virginia Community College--but problems continued.

“You would think that once your children graduate from high school with Individual Education Plans, that that information would be communicated to state and community colleges,” Hagan said. “It didn’t happen in Virginia.”

Now the family is set to move to Paris, where Cassie has a new job, and the twins will continue their college education on line.

Hagan said he considers his family lucky.

“I could stay home and fight for the boys,” he said. “Other people can’t.”

What he wants, he said, is for lawmakers and educators to honestly address the inequities in the way kids with developmental disabilities are treated in many parts of Virginia and do what the law requires.

I asked David Braddock, an autism expert and author of the reports periodically issued called “State of the States in Developmental Disabilities” (published by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) about how well Virginia addresses the needs of people with autism and whether the experiences of the Hagan family were unusual.

Braddock said that while he does not monitor services in school systems, his research and anecdotal evidence over decades shows that Virginia is one of the states at the lowest end in providing autism services in residential and institutional settings. (He did note, however, that Fairfax County Public Schools has a good reputation for addressing special needs issues.)

I’d be interested in hearing other stories about how well school systems have or have not addressed the needs of children with developmental disabilities. Please write in the comments section or email me at

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By Valerie Strauss  |  December 3, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Special Education  | Tags: special education Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Previous: A teachable moment for and about the Secret Service
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The question for me is, when does this special treatment, as far as education is concerned, stop. No one in any state is guaranteed a college education, so how can colleges, public or pviate, be required to provide the level of support required of K-12 education.

Posted by: oldwolf53 | December 3, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Fairfax County may have a good reputation, but our reality was quite different. We have left the school system because of its inability to address specific needs for high-functioning Aspergers.

Posted by: mherd1 | December 3, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

“You would think that once your children graduate from high school with Individual Education Plans, that that information would be communicated to state and community colleges,” Hagan said. “It didn’t happen in Virginia.”

As a teacher this statement is a big red flag about the parents. Parents are provided a copy the IEP and the documentation used to develop it. Why did they choose not to share it with the appropriate post secondary institution. The rules on sharing information about a child are and should be very strict . What if the disability is emotionally disturbed and the child ( now an adult) would rather not share that openly. One of the major problems with special education is the amount of time and resources wasted on CYA instead of providing services to children.
It's very easy to present one side of a story.

Posted by: mamoore1 | December 3, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

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