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Mother presses CMS to improve special services

System did too little, too late for blind son, lawsuit says.

By Eric Frazier
efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

The mother of a 10-year-old blind boy is battling Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in federal court, alleging that the school system violated state and federal laws by refusing to provide him appropriate special educational services.

The mother, Grace Minor, said Tuesday that CMS has begun providing her son Ross with more appropriate services, but she's still pressing her case in court. She said parents with disabled children often find themselves frustrated by what they see as CMS' “cookie cutter” approach and unwillingness to adapt to meet each child's needs.

“I want a change for other children,” she said. “The system is not right now at a place where (its philosophy is), ‘Let's determine what's best for this child.'”

CMS contends in court papers that it offered appropriate services to Ross, but his mother initially rejected them because she wanted him to stay in the private school he'd been attending. A call to CMS' lawyer, Regina Bartholomew, hadn't been returned as of early Tuesday evening.

The court fight centers on how CMS responded to Ross, who lost his sight in June 2006 when his father shot him and his brother, Ryan, in the head while they slept. Mark Minor, who was reportedly distraught over a pending divorce, then killed himself.

Ross survived, but Ryan, 10, died a day later.

CMS contends that it offered appropriate educational services for Ross, but Grace Minor insisted on receiving Braille instruction and other special services at St. Matthew Catholic School.

Grace Minor said in court papers that her son suffered from post-traumatic stress, and she wanted him to keep going to St. Matthew, where he had friends and knew the campus layout. Federal law allows, but doesn't require, public school systems to serve disabled children in private schools. CMS offered private school students speech therapy, but provided no other services.

CMS officials said they hadn't been notified about post-traumatic stress. They said in court papers that they serve visually impaired students through a special unit at Eastover Elementary.

The Minors initially sought help from an administrative law judge, who ruled that the individualized education program CMS devised for Ross was appropriate, but that his mother should be reimbursed for expenses she incurred when CMS failed to provide services in a timely manner.

That decision was struck down, however, in March by a state review officer who said disabled children whose parents choose private schools aren't necessarily entitled to the same services as children in public schools. He ruled that the Minors weren't entitled to any legal relief.

Ross' educational situation has improved since then, his mother says.

Grace Minor moved to Greenville, S.C., in the fall of 2007, seeking better educational services. Schools there allowed Ross to remain in a regular classroom and receive instruction through an itinerant Braille teacher.

When the family returned to Charlotte this fall, Grace Minor enrolled her son in Hawk Ridge Elementary, the assigned school for their new home. Her lawyer, Laurie Gallagher of the Council for Children's Rights, said federal rules direct school systems to accept the individualized education programs of students entering from out of state.

She and Grace Minor said CMS officials allowed Ross to receive instruction at Hawk Ridge through an itinerant Braille teacher.

Grace Minor said Ross is adjusting well, is earning As and Bs, and reads Braille fluently. “He's a remarkable young man,” she said. “He's dealing with it amazingly well.”

She says it shouldn't have been so hard to get acceptable service, and hopes by winning the case she can make CMS be more flexible with parents.

“In my opinion, they (initially) kind of took a cookie-cutter approach – this kid's blind and he needs to go here,” she said. “Victory to me would be that they won't do this to another family.”

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