Mother fights to get autistic child’s tuition

In a children’s card game called “Aliens vs. Villains,” 8-year-old Nolan scored a rare win against his mom.

“You always beat me, Mom. So I fought back and got victory,” he said triumphantly last week.

Jeanine Davis, Nolan’s mother, is seeking the same satisfaction against the Clark County School District in her ongoing dispute over what constitutes an appropriate education for her son, who is a high-functioning autistic with attention deficit disorder.

This school year, Davis has kept Nolan out of the school district, asking instead that it pay his $14,500 tuition to attend a new private school, the Achievement Academy, at 95 S. Arroyo Grande Blvd. near the Las Vegas Beltway and Valle Verde Drive in Henderson.

Spurred by a June U.S. Supreme Court decision, parents of autistic children are seeking government reimbursement for private school tuition, but they accuse the school district of obstruction and delay.

The district has denied Davis’ financial request. Nolan, according to a form-letter response to Davis from the district’s Student Support Services division, has shown progress in both academics and behavior at his public school, Whitney Elementary. It also described the private school as a “more restrictive placement.”

Davis wants to enroll her son in private school because she feels the staff at Whitney is excluding her from planning her son’s education program. She also is concerned that he has fallen behind in basic skills such as reading and writing.

Barbie Lauver, founder and president of the Achievement Academy, said district officials haven’t made contact with her new school for high-functioning autistic kids, which opens Tuesday and was recently licensed by the state Board of Education.

“I’m not surprised they rejected her request,” Lauver said of Davis.

The Achievement Academy is opening with five to six students in two rented classrooms at DJ’s Community Christian Academy in Henderson.

At least two other families want to send their children there if they can get tuition reimbursement, Lauver said.

“These parents are seeking a precedent. They could really open the floodgates for other families in Southern Nevada,” Lauver said.

Autism is the fastest growing special education population in the district. Clark County public schools served 2,225 autistic students in 2008-09, an increase of 235 students from the previous year.

Despite the increase in numbers, Lauver said autism is an “invisible disorder.”

Autistic children “don’t have Down syndrome,” she said. “They’re not in wheelchairs.”

But kids with the developmental disorder lack the concentration, communication and social skills to excel in regular school, said Lauver, who has a 14-year-old son with autism.

Because they don’t know how to communicate, they’re often punished for acting out and are unable to make friends.

“They’re loners,” Lauver said. “Loners get bullied.”

The Achievement Academy will serve students in first through eighth grade. It focuses on both academic and social skills and has a special classroom for role-playing, where students can practice ordering in a restaurant or shopping.

Students also will have regular interaction at lunch and recess with Christian Academy students. The academy is nonprofit.

“I’m not trying to make any money,” Lauver said.

The school is independent and opened without receiving government aid.

Lauver became weary of fighting with the district to make sure her son John got the appropriate education for his disabilities.

“It’s a scary, helpless feeling,” she said. “I feel for any parent who has to go through it. You pretty much get burnt out. I only have so much energy.”

Diane Burnett, who has a granddaughter with autism, is trying to organize a school, the Wintros Academy, for more severe and profound cases of autism, students who need one-on-one instruction. Enrollment will depend on whether parents can get government reimbursement on tuition.

“I get lots of calls from parents asking for direction,” Burnett said.

Referring special education students from their public school to private schools is already common practice in other states such as California and New York, which have more specialized schools.

But it’s a rare practice in Nevada.

In 2007-08, the most recent data available, only 80 special education students, or less than 1 percent of all special education students in Nevada, received public funding to go to private schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling appears to expand the practice and scope of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. It allows families to seek reimbursement for private school education even in cases of students who had not been receiving special education services at their public school.

Local school officials, however, contend that families still must prove their students are not getting an appropriate education in the public school system.

They said they have a mediation system in place to handle disputes over a student’s education plan, but Davis and another parent of an autistic child, Caroline Sanchez-Rangen, criticize the system as unenforceable and unaccountable.

“We’re done with the state. We’re moving on to the federal,” Sanchez-Rangen said, referring to possible court options.

Sanchez-Rangen wants to organize a class action lawsuit against the school district, saying special education students are entitled to local and federal funding.

In the dissent to the 6-3 Supreme Court ruling, Justice David Souter was concerned that reimbursement for private education would undermine the spirit of cooperation between local school officials and parents.

Souter, who was joined in his dissent by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, also noted the high cost of special education, which amounts to “tens of billions annually.”

Charlene Green, the school district’s deputy superintendent for student support services, said the district will spend as much as $60,000 to educate one special education student.

Special education consumes about $111 million of the district’s operating budget, which is supported by local and state taxes.

Green said the district will abide by any court ruling resulting from a lawsuit.

“The school district will follow the law, end of story,” Green said. “Until that point in time, we have a program for these children.”

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug @reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.

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