Lawsuit highlights difficulty for parents of students with special needs

March 11, 2013

Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disabilities among school children.

But a lawsuit filed against Chicago Public Schools indicates it may be a hard one to get schools to acknowledge.

Heriberto Lopez Alberola and his ex-wife Elizabeth Nash filed a lawsuit against CPS last week, claiming the Ogden International School failed to make testing accommodations for their third grade daughter Isabella, who is dyslexic.

According to the parents, the school resisted doing an evaluation of Isabella last November when they first requested one. Since then, the family has been wrapped up in a procedural mess.

“It’s almost like they’re purposely trying to stretch this out as long as they can, make this as painful for us as possible, I know that sounds silly, but they’re dealing with a nine-year-old,” Nash said.

The parents  filed the lawsuit after Isabella wasn't allowed to have more time on the state standardized tests—even though she had been formally diagnosed by an outside specialist in February. The parents are seeking an injunction against the school.

CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said the district cannot comment on the specific case. But e-mails from the school provided by Lopez Alberola indicate the school did agreed not to administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Test to their daughter until the lawsuit is settled.

Ziegler said even with a medical diagnosis, if a student doesn’t have a district-documented special education plan, no testing accommodations can be made.

According to documents in the lawsuit, CPS officials are evaluating her for an Individual Educational Plan, or IEP, but Nash and Lopez Alberola said school officials have been resistant throughout the process.

The situation is not unusual when it comes to students who have a milder learning disability, like dyslexia. Special education advocates say school districts resist labeling such disorders, encouraging other interventions first.

Rod Estvan, executive director of Access Living, said schools usually try something called Response to Intervention first. It’s an individual plan for a child who may be struggling, but it’s carried out in the regular classroom with the general education teacher. Isabella did go through RTI in second grade, but continued to struggle in third.

Estvan said part of the issue with RTI is that there are no legal time limits, so if a child continues to struggle, they may never get the services they actually need. In CPS, RTI training is not as robust as it is in other districts and many classroom teachers may already juggle more initiatives than time allows.

Parents who suspect mild learning disabilities often seek out private services, rather than navigate the public school system, Estvan said. But that can be difficult for parents who lack resources.

In the lawsuit involving Isabella, Lopez Alberola who is also a lawyer, also sought support from state legislators. On Friday, he said some lawmakers are interested in creating a caucus that would focus on ensuring mild learning disabilities do not go untreated in public schools.