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The Isolating Maze of Special Ed Services

March 2023

When my friends and their children were off doing college tours, I was researching residential mental health facilities for my son. Things had gotten so bad that he grabbed the steering wheel from my hand on our way to his high school one day, nearly causing an accident and then stating that he would rather die than return to that school. What had gone so wrong?

My sweet, funny, intelligent, musically gifted son began school with a love for learning that prompted his Pre-K teacher to dub him “The World’s Most Excited Human.” He loved to learn and play. Around fifth grade, with the need to become more independent about his work, he began to struggle. Teachers noted the disparity between his homework (frequently missing or incomplete) and his test scores (often top of the class.) The message was that we, his parents needed to be more diligent. We asked if maybe the teacher could check at the end of the day that he had the correct books and materials, and we’d take it from there? No, we were told, that is only offered to students who receive special accommodations.

So we began the process of having him tested and the deep dive into the labyrinth that is the Special Education world. Many doctors’ appointments and tests later we had his initial diagnosis of ADHD. We tried medication, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, many support systems at home. Eventually they all failed while his schoolwork deteriorated.

The next diagnosis was Anxiety and Depression, new therapists and new medications were offered, all equally ineffective. During this time, we applied for an IEP (Individualized Instruction plan guaranteed to all public school students under the IDEA act.) Our son was denied IEP status because his issues were socio-emotional and behavioral rather than a learning disability, and we were offered a 504 plan.* This plan essentially says that you can request certain “reasonable accommodations.” In the case of our school district, it was left to each teacher to determine what was reasonable. Each of his seven teachers had a different type and level of accommodation they were willing to offer, and some were more helpful than others. When one suggested that the child suffering from crippling anxiety attacks make it his responsibility to go to each teacher’s office hours each day and copy their PPT slide decks, I nearly lost it. The accommodations were supposed to make things easier, not harder!

Eventually the school administration counseled us that he would be better off in a smaller, more personalized setting and they “really weren’t set up to deal with students’ emotional needs.” Our local public school, heavily funded by a strong tax base AND a robust Ed Foundation could not serve our child. I wish I had known more about how to advocate for my child. I wish I had pushed harder for what he was legally and ethically entitled to receive rather than allow him to be pushed out.

The story ends OK. We found our son a private one to one program we could ill afford, but he finished high school there and earned his diploma. He’s now under competent medical supervision and he has a full-time job he loves.

I wish there had been a Parent Power Hour and a SpEd-Up campaign when I was struggling with this. It was isolating and depressing to feel like the only parent navigating this, and even worse to watch my child be discarded by a system sworn to educate him.

*For more about the difference between IEPs and 504 plans, see

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