A 17-year-old girl struggling with severe mental illness shuffled between public schools, psychiatric facilities and residential treatment centers for years as she and her family tried to manage a complex and worsening diagnosis. She lost a semester of school this year because her parents and School District 51 officials cannot agree on how to educate her.

The district is appealing in federal court an administrative law judge's ruling that her educational, mental and emotional needs require District 51 to pay for her private education under federal disability law.

A legally blind sixth-grader tried to keep up with her sighted peers as her parents questioned again and again why she wasn't learning braille or how to use a cane as she fell further behind in school. The Colorado Department of Education ruled that her parents must comply with behavioral and cognitive tests they initially refused to administer.

These cases illustrate the complexity of and bureaucracy inherent in federal laws that dictate how school teachers and administrators educate children with disabilities and special needs.

They're also the result of a fractured relationship and rising tension between District 51, a local advocacy organization and parents of children with disabilities — discord that has triggered the filing of multiple complaints with the state in recent years and an ongoing federal lawsuit.

While everyone involved in these cases — school district employees, advocates, parents and providers — claim they're doing what's best for the children involved, they cannot agree on what exactly that looks like.

ADVOCATES, PARENTS  AND THE DISTRICT

Tanya Skalecki is a long-time educator, special education advocate and expert in disability law — but the first time she walked into a special education meeting as a parent trying to help her child, she was terrified.

"I will never forget the first meeting I went to. I have all this education and this job, but I was scared to death in there," she said.

Skalecki felt like any other parent grappling with how to help her child while in a room full of teachers, administrators and staff who also had opinions and advice about what was best.

Skalecki has always considered herself an advocate, whether for roommates, friends, family or her students. She was the director of special education at District 51 until 2015, when she was hired at The Arc Mesa County, a national disability advocacy organization with chapters across Colorado. She became executive director in 2017.

Since she was hired, Skalecki said she's seen an increase in parents calling with concerns about special education in District 51, up to 25 to 30 every month.

It wasn't always like this.

From Skalecki's perspective, The Arc's relationship with District 51 shifted after Skalecki filed a state complaint against the district in 2015. The state found that a District 51 policy regarding its therapeutic day program violated federal disability law and ordered the district to change it.

"It was the first state complaint Mesa County Arc had ever filed," Skalecki said. "It was like a switch flipped."

That same year, District 51 started requiring special education coordinators to attend every meeting where advocates were invited by parents.

Those "individualized education program" meetings are defined and guided by federal disability law. There are plenty of IEP meetings between school district staff, parents and advocates that go well, Skalecki said. But there are also some that do not.

Skalecki said her advocates go into meetings with the intent of being collaborative and problem-solving, but also to ask questions, dig deeper and help parents.

But a policy that bars advocates from certain meetings has left parents feeling intimidated, afraid and hesitant to speak up.

The district's policies around special education IEP meetings and advocates from The Arc resulted in another state complaint last fall.

The complaint details four incidents. In the first two, advocates or health care providers were barred from meetings between parents, teachers and district staff because the school district did not label them as IEP meetings, even though they were.

In the other two cases, parents who tried to bring advocates to meetings were forced to reschedule so a school district coordinator could attend. Both times, a parent was unable to attend the rescheduled meeting.

That violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Colorado Department of Education ruled.

There are legal guidelines that come with IEP meetings and the school district is allowed to implement policies that safeguard those meetings.

But not to the point that it inhibits parent involvement, the Colorado Department of Education ruled.

As a result of the state complaint, District 51 is required to clarify its policy and submit proof that employees have been trained on the differences.

Moving forward, Skalecki said, she hopes advocates from The Arc and school district staff can have better communication, relationships and trust.

"I'm hoping through public awareness we can get some more collaboration," she said. "You always take a chance when you do something like this that it gets worse. But with the number of calls we're getting, I don't know what to do. The Arc's not going anywhere."

COMPLAINTS AND CONTEXT

District 51 Special Education Coordinator Jan Blair has worked with advocates of all sorts during her 30-year career, including from The Arc. She has even called advocacy organizations for help when parents are having a tough time dealing with their child's disability.

But when Skalecki joined The Arc in 2015, Blair said, something changed.

"What we were hearing from our people is that they were being threatening, they were really advocating for the parents to fight the district (and) trying to find things that were wrong with the district," Blair said. "It was very adversarial."

The policy to have a special education coordinator attend any meeting where an Arc advocate was present was necessary to help teachers and staff feel safe, Blair said, as well as to keep those meetings from being so controversial.

"It's not personal. We really do want to protect those teachers," Blair said. "We do feel very protective of someone coming in to bash them because they're not doing this or they're not doing that. It is very painful for those teachers because they truly believe in what they're doing."

Blair said she looks at state complaints as a way to get clarity around special education and as learning opportunities.

School District 51 has 3,048 special education students, 530 employees who work with them, and at minimum 5,000 IEP meetings every year, Blair said.

That's a pretty good track record, said school district attorney Tammy Eret.

"If you're looking at 5,000 meetings a year and there are four that we miscategorized, we're doing a pretty darn good job," she said. "I don't want people to think that the district is doing this and they're failing because of this last state complaint. When you place it against every meeting we've had, it is a phenomenal job what these people are doing in the schools."

The school district is complying with the findings of the state complaint and will train employees in upcoming weeks, Eret said.

Blair said she believes the law is there to protect children and to protect families.

"I'm in special ed because I believe that every child should have every right to succeed," she said. "I don't think any of our teachers went into it so we can make those kids' lives harder."

THE DIFFICULT  EDUCATION OF K

Jeanine's daughter, 17-year-old K, is smart, sociable and struggles with a debilitating mental illness.

K liked school and spending time with her classmates, doted on her pet birds and thought a lot about saving the environment.

But since she was young, K has been haunted by anxious and intrusive thoughts that she cannot separate from reality.

Her struggles have worsened with age, escalating to a suicide attempt in 2017 and a prolonged stay in a psychiatric hospital in Utah.

Jeanine, who asked to not identify her daughter to protect her privacy, spent nearly all of her time and energy trying to help K be successful. It was heartbreaking to hear from doctors that K was now too fragile to return home or to a public school.

"Every day I go into her room, I sit down on her bed and look around and wish she were there," Jeanine said. "I miss being (K's) mother, I miss mother-daughter activities and I miss helping her grow up and mature. Those things have been taken away from me."

As K recovered in a psychiatric unit, doctors urged Jeanine and her husband, Barry, to enroll K in a private residential treatment program and school in Utah that provided a high level of support and a high ratio of students to teachers.

Jeanine and Barry agreed, and asked School District 51 to help pay for the school portion of K's time at Waterfall Canyon Academy.

District leaders refused, stating they had not been involved in the decision, and disenrolled K from District 51.

Jeanine and Barry hired Theresa Sidebotham, a Monument-based attorney, and filed a due process complaint against the school district. After a four-day trial in May, an administrative law judge found that District 51 was required to pay for K's education at Waterfall Canyon.

The school district is now appealing that ruling in federal district court.

After the trial, K's mental illness worsened and she was no longer allowed to attend Waterfall Canyon. She went home to Grand Junction.

As the case works its way through the judicial system, the relationship between K's parents and the school district has deteriorated. At an August meeting about K's education, Jeanine tried to bring three of K's medical providers.

The school district barred them from attending the meeting, stating it was not an official IEP meeting — a decision later cited by the Colorado Department of Education as a violation of federal disability law.

K's parents, Sidebotham and the school district cannot agree on how to educate K, particularly given the fact that she can no longer attend Waterfall Canyon, which the administrative law judge approved as a placement.

Jeanine and Barry wanted K to start attending the district's therapeutic day program, but said district officials would not consider it until K had been placed at Denver Children's Home — a facility for abused and neglected children — to be evaluated.

The parents are also refusing to release K's medical records to the school district, instead insisting that the school district talk to K's doctors.

K has not attended one day of school in District 51 this year and has continued to experience psychiatric problems. She was again admitted to a psychiatric facility in December.

K is now living and going to school on a trial basis at another residential treatment facility in Utah.

For Jeanine, it feels like the last year — K's deteriorating health and the legal battle with District 51 — has torn her family apart. But the need for justice, for K and for other children, continues to drive her.

"I feel like every time I win a decision against the school district it's a victory for all disabled children and their families," she said. "I don't want anyone to ever have to go through what our family has gone through."

RESPONSE AND RULING

District 51 is limited in commenting on K's case because Sidebotham did not give full consent for Eret, the district's attorney, to discuss it for this story.

Eret confirmed the school district is appealing in federal court an administrative law judge's decision that they must pay for K's education at a private residential treatment center.

According to court records, district officials testified that K was successful when she attended high school in District 51, that teachers and aides were able to meet her needs and her mental illness was separate from her academic performance.

The judge did not agree.

"...The fact of the matter is that for many years, (K) has not been able to string together full school years actually present at school," the judge wrote. "Her inability to do so is due to her mental illness, and to believe that her mental health needs can be separated from her educational needs is not tenable."

The judge also found that by insisting K could continue to attend a public high school, the school district had denied her "free, appropriate public education," which the district is required to provide for all students with disabilities under federal law.

District 51 disagrees with the findings and legal issues in the administrative law judge's order, Eret said.

"This case is very fact-specific, there is a lot of factual information that led to where we are today and I'm not able to talk about it," Eret said.

Eret said just as K's family has a right to pursue a state complaint against District 51, the school district has a right to appeal the judge's ruling.

"Sometimes people just don't agree, and you have your ability to go certain routes in the legal system and be heard on certain legal issues," she said.

Eret also said she was informed by Sidebotham that if the district appealed the decision, it would give K's family a chance to shine "public light" on how the district treated children with disabilities.

COMPLAINT: LACK OF SUPPORT FOR BLIND

Rob Harris was on the other side of the state complaint process when he refused to let School District 51 conduct cognitive and behavioral tests on his sixth-grade daughter, Isabelle.

Isabelle is legally blind, and Harris claims the school district is not educating her properly given her disability.

Isabelle has 20/800 vision, which means that things 20 feet away look as clear to Isabelle as objects 800 feet away for a sighted person.

Harris has long worried that she wasn't being taught to read braille or use a walking cane and that she wasn't given access to the same materials her sighted peers were using.

When she couldn't read sheet music, Harris said, Isabelle was told she could play the gong, rather than being provided with enlarged sheet music.

When school district staff said Isabelle's academic struggles were due to cognitive or behavioral problems, Harris disagreed.

"Isabelle often misses out on the materials that her sighted peers get on a daily basis, so without standing next to her at school I know she's not getting everything magnified or enlarged," he said. District 51 filed a state complaint, and the Colorado Department of Education ruled that Harris must comply with the additional tests.

"That specific judgment was a crossroads for us," he said. "Either we back down and go away and stop complaining, or we don't."

Harris didn't stop advocating for his daughter, and a year later the district is offering her more braille training, he said.

Despite the stress of advocating for his daughter, Harris said he sees many positives from the process. More people are getting involved with the local National Federation of the Blind chapter, and Isabelle is now friends with two other blind girls. They recently enrolled in a self-defense class together.

"I couldn't have asked for a better outcome," he said.

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