Children with learning disabilities left behind?

Federal law requires schools to identify children who have learning disabilities and provide them an education appropriate to their needs. Two recent stories have surfaced showing that Utah school districts may be breaking this law.

Watch this video to hear about the stories of sisters Brittany and Whitney Wardle and brothers Anthony and Amani Hall.


As this story shows, public schools simply cannot address the individual needs of each child without communicating often with parents and allowing them to direct the education of their children.

What do you think? How can schools involve parents more, especially when their children have learning disabilities?

Here’s the script of the video:

VOICE-OVER: Are school districts in Utah breaking a federal law by their treatment of children with learning disabilities? Under the “Child Find” law, when a child shows reasonable evidence or even a suspicion of a learning disability, the school district has a legal responsibility to have the child evaluated to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. But as we found out from education advocate Dr. Gary Thompson, some school districts in Utah are not complying with the law.

DOCTOR GARY THOMPSON: “The districts have a federal and state obligation to identify and locate these kids and evaluate them – not the parents, you cannot put the blame on the parents. The teachers are the professionals; they are the front lines of professionals observing these kids. It’s just a simple matter of sending a referral to a special education department, and it’s not being done.”

VOICE-OVER: Brook Wardle is the father of Brittany and Whitney Wardle. His oldest daughter, Brittany, struggled throughout elementary and junior high to keep up and had failing grades to prove it. Despite multiple pleas to Jordan School District for help, Brook was never told about the Child Find law or the possibility that Brittany had a learning disability.

BROOK WARDLE: “When we first requested some help, we got a letter back that – at first it seemed very terse, basically ‘no,’ with no real explanation of why. They didn’t feel that you know, that … no explanation of ‘no,’ just ‘no.’ I kind of felt like one of their students that stepped out of line and got kicked back in.”

VOICE-OVER: And, as for Brittany:

WARDLE: “As she got older these problems compounded and started to eat away at her self-esteem, her self-image. Caused huge amounts of stress on my family because she was starting to engage in risky behavior, have different kinds of friends. Basically, her learning disability was beginning to devour her.”

VOICE-OVER: During Brittany’s senior year, as it appeared that she wouldn’t graduate, the Wardles went in desperation to West Jordan High School to plead for help, and once again, no luck. Shortly after that, they found Dr. Gary Thompson, who is the Director of Clinical Training and Advocacy Services at Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center. He taught the Wardles about the Child Find law and IDEA. And under Dr. Thompson’s recommendation, the Wardles had Brittany tested for a possible learning disability.

WARDLE: “The testing did come back that she did have a learning disability. With all the problems with Brittany, I nearly divorced, the money we spent trying to help her I nearly lost my home. So when my middle child Whitney started to show these same types of patterns, I knew I had to do something, I wasn’t going to go through that again. Dr. Fran Thompson did test Whitney; she did come back with a severe mathematics disorder and along with some other things.”

VOICE-OVER: Dr. Fran is Dr. Gary Thompson’s wife. He has been helping the Wardles for six months free of charge in their case against Jordan School District, and just recently Jordan School District decided to settle the case.

WARDLE: “Looking back to my older daughter’s experience, I said not only do I need to make a statement here, not just for my kid, I need to do this for other kids too, and even though I have a small chance of success, you never know unless you try. So we filed the complaint, then before the actual hearing we had a settlement meeting where we could see if we just avoid the whole mess and after being able to sit down with them, they were sincere in wanting to rectify things.”

VOICE-OVER: In Granite School District, Jason Hall and his family had an experience similar to the Wardles’.

JASON HALL: “I have an older son who is in 11th grade, who started having issues in school in fifth grade. So in elementary school we asked the school what are some things that we can do to help him; he’s obviously losing half of his homework or it’s never making it to you. The test scores are showing that he is obviously not learning, and so we met with the school counselor or whatever it was, we filled out some basic forms. Basically saying does he pay attention, does he do that, you know, the basic stuff which were all pretty clear, and then she did as well, and then we never heard back. They never called back; they never followed up with anything; they never even mentioned it again.”

VOICE-OVER: When Jason’s son, Anthony, reached junior high, his failing grades continued. Jason still met with the counselors and teachers, and attended conferences, pleading for help for his son.

HALL: “We had the meeting, but nothing ever changed, nothing was ever done. Nothing was ever really written out that I can remember, and it just went on the same. He passed from middle school and went to high school, you know was the same kind of thing. I would go to parent-teacher conferences and we had this big long list of problems – we don’t really have anything positive to say; we don’t have any solutions – and that’s kind of how things went and have always gone. And to this date nothing has ever been done, nothing has ever changed, and he’s about to finish 11th grade.”

VOICE-OVER: So not only did this happen with Jason’s son Anthony, but it’s now happening with his younger son, Amani.

HALL: “Even by the time kindergarten ended, he was very far behind in reading and math and all those things. I don’t remember if it was kindergarten that we requested some sort of testing, and they did the same thing. They sent home the same papers that we filled out and we’d send back in and once again the lady at the school didn’t do anything; she didn’t even call back.”

VOICE-OVER: The same thing continued year after year. By the time Amani reached third grade, Jason said he had enough, and that’s when he reached out to a private education center and found Dr. Gary Thompson. His wife, Dr. Fran Thompson, then evaluated Amani for a learning disability. The test results showed the most severe case of ADHD that she had ever seen, along with an adjustment disorder with anxiety.

HALL: “I took the bill down to Granite School District and said, ‘Hey, we had this evaluation done and we want you to pay for it, because you guys haven’t done anything and we want to find out what’s going on with our kid.’ And at that point was when someone actually started to respond and say something, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, we can do A, B, C and D, and by the way, guess what, we can do this testing for free.’ ”

VOICE-OVER: Jason filed a complaint with the Utah State Board of Education. The school board said they are not in violation and refused to help. The next step for Mr. Hall and Dr. Gary Thompson is to await the state’s finding regarding the Child Find issues, and then in July or August their attorney will sue Granite School District via an administration law hearing for their decision not to give Amani special education testing. Dr. Gary Thompson has helped the Wardle and Hall families for six months now, and out of the 40 Child Find violations he has seen, he agreed to help these two free of charge.

DR. GARY THOMPSON: “They were blatant, they were obvious, and quite frankly, I think I got a little emotionally involved with the Wardle family and the Hall family. Because it happened to their older children and they went through years of suffering, and just the thought of watching it happen again to their younger ones, it was just too much.”

VOICE-OVER: Glenna Gallo, director of special education for the State Office of Education, says each school district in Utah is required to have policies and procedures in place for the “Child Find” law.

GLENNA GALLO: “They’re required to have a special ed policy manual that addresses their Child Find that’s aligned with the federal IDEA law and State Board of Education special ed rules. And then they also have to show that they’re doing annual training for their school staff, and they have to show how they’re notifying parents and community members of their responsibilities.”

VOICE-OVER: Regarding the Wardle and Hall families, the Utah State Board of Education cannot publicly comment.

GALLO: “Due to federal confidentiality agreements under FERPA and IDEA, we are not allowed to comment on any student-specific information. That would all be handled internally and not available publicly.”

VOICE-OVER: Derek Monson, director of public policy at Sutherland Institute, says the Wardle and Hall cases are perfect examples of why parents should be given more control in the public school system.

DEREK MONSON: “Nobody knows a child better than that child’s parents and these two stories illustrate that very well. In both cases, parents knew at an early stage that there was an issue that needed to be addressed. But the system didn’t provide them the freedom to address it themselves, and instead threw them against the brick wall of a bureaucracy, and the children suffered as a result. In both cases, the Wardle and Hall family stories show that parents need to be given more control in the public school system.”

VOICE-OVER: For Sutherland Institute, I’m Alexis Young, reminding you that public policy changes lives.