Advocates: Virginia Beach failing military families with special-needs children

Marisa Norman, center, a special education student who lives in Virginia Beach, Va., cheers with her hand up just ahead of a regional cheerleading competition on Feb. 26 in Norfolk. Marisa's parents fought the school district to place her in a private school where they say she is flourishing.


By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 13, 2017

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — With more than a quarter of its 67,214 students coming from military families, the school district in Virginia Beach is one of the most military-connected divisions in the country.

The region is home to six aircraft carriers, dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft. It hosts the largest U.S. naval base in the world, half the Navy SEAL population, a nuclear shipyard, and thousands of military families and defense contractors who anchor the economy.

The Virginia Beach City Public School district has many programs supporting military families that are often recognized for excellence.

But when it comes to special education, some military families say Virginia Beach is failing their children. Half a dozen military families who spoke with Stars and Stripes said their special-needs children fell through the cracks, and experts working with them said the children were denied services they need to learn.

“I felt like we were a burden, like we were expendable,” said Christine Kemper, wife of a retired Navy SEAL. Kemper said her older children breezed through the school district. But when their youngest started having trouble, school officials denied that he needed help and asked her if she was sure she wanted to “label” her child. After battling the district for months — with the help of the charity SEALkids, Inc. and an advocate that the nonprofit provided — the couple put their child in an expensive private school, where the only accommodation he needed was to sit in the front of the class.

“He went from failing reading to being an accelerated reader,” she said.

Jan Price said she and her husband, a retired admiral, fought the school district to have their daughter’s learning disability acknowledged. The Prices got their daughter tested privately and said that only then did she get the accommodation she needed to go from failing math to getting an A in calculus.

“The system doesn’t work for them,” Price said. “It makes them feel broken.”

Their advocate, Amy Courtney, said she has seen dozens of similar cases in the district. She worked for 15 years as a school child psychologist and behavior specialist in the nearby Chesapeake School District. After retiring in 1995, she has worked as a paid advocate for parents of special-needs children — working privately and for SEALkids.

“If I am needed on behalf of an admiral, what does that tell you about other families?” she said.

The school district disputes the characterization by these families. Deputy City Attorney for Public Education Kamala Lannetti said Virginia Beach receives a disproportionate number of military children with special needs and is “generally considered a division of choice.” Because of the large concentration of military families and medical services, Virginia Beach is one of just five locations where the Navy assigns severe special-needs families.

She said special education is complex and often fraught with different interpretations of the law, which provides for every student to receive a “free and appropriate public education.” She noted that out of the district’s 10,000 kids with disabilities, there are “a handful” who claimed they have had issues.

Lannetti stressed the school district’s dedication to all military families: “We have probably the best transition program for (military) children in the country.”

Division spokeswoman Heather Allen, addressing concerns of the special-needs parents, highlighted the district’s record of serving all military families: from successful counselors on staff and peer support programs aimed at increasing military awareness to awards for excellence.

The Navy said its school liaison officers work closely with the school district and will reach out when there are issues. Charles Clymer, the Navy’s program manager for child and youth education services, acknowledges that while the liaison officers can exert what he called “a quiet influence,” that’s as far as they will go.

“If a parent wants us to try to strong-arm, we’d be hard-pressed.”

There are 7,926 special needs students in the Virginia Beach school district and 2,300 more who require accommodation but not an Individualized Education Program. At the last official count in 2015, the district said there were 1,546 military-connected students requiring an IEP, with an unspecified number requiring some accommodation.

The district receives federal aid to offset the loss of property taxes from exempt military families. It also receives educational grants from the Department of Defense Educational Activities agency. In 2014, Virginia Beach was a recipient of a multi-year, $1 million DoDEA grant for special education that went to seven schools to provide extra resources for military connected students.

The grant also paid for an instructional specialist who works in collaboration with the district’s parents, and a support liaison for military special-education families. Those two officials have been asked to make a presentation about their success at a state education conference later this month, Allen said.

Courtney says those successes don’t negate failures she has seen for military families. An example: when school officials set the bar so low for special-needs students that failing is acceptable.

She cited one IEP in which the goals for the child were to get “at least 50 percent accuracy on 2 of 3 quizzes” involving math equations; solve three out of five real world multistep word problems; and complete 60 percent of her assignments in a nine-week period.

“How will completing 60 percent of general assignments contribute to this student’s successful completion of ninth grade?” Courtney asked.

What vision does the Virginia Beach City Public School district hold for this student’s future “when seemingly content to continue to offer IEPs like this to parents?” she said. “How much assistance should parents require in relation to attempts to address IEP proposals that are educationally indefensible?”

Lannetti said the district follows the rules of special education, trying to keep special-needs children in regular classes as much as possible. But Courtney disagrees. She — and her clients — say the district overall is not a good fit for their children.

“It’s kind of a school-by-school basis,” Courtney said of judging the Virginia Beach district. “But it is a problematic area. In my opinion, military families with special needs shouldn’t be assigned here.”

Twitter: @DiannaCahn

Michelle Norman, left, and her husband, Navy Capt. Cassidy Norman, at home in Virginia Beach, Va., on Feb. 25, 2017, discuss their fight with the Virginia Beach school district to get their disabled daughter into a private school.