Houston Family Uses Little-Used Tool To Fight For Son's Special Education

Under federal law, all students have a right to an education. That includes children with autism, whose numbers have more than doubled in Texas since 2004. From the KUHF Education Desk, Laura Isensee has the story of one Houston family's fight for their son's education.

Like a lot of nine year old boys, Garrett likes to watch cartoons and play video games.

He also loves to read.

“Once there was a king and queen. They were happy together.”

Garrett reads at a very high level. The technical term is hyperlexic. His mom Michelle Groogan:

“He knew his alphabet, the sounds letters make at about 18 months, so before he could speak, he could read.”

"The child’s golden hair, the child’s golden hair seemed as magic as the flower. She kidnapped her. The end."

Garrett has autism. On the spectrum, his condition is moderate. His mom says he can ask for a cookie, but he can’t engage in a real conversation.

He’s been in and out of private school and special education classes with the Houston Independent School District.

Last year in HISD was not a good year. Groogan says her son wasn’t learning anything. She worried about the class size and how the school managed Garrett’s behavior.

"Just to be told no, no, no. We had to stand up to them and that’s why we’ve gone this far."

The Groogans are battling the district. They don’t think HISD has done a good job with their son, and they want to help other families.

They’ve turned to a little used due process hearing.  Last year, there were just 28 hearings in Texas. It’s sort of a court for special education. There’s a hearing officer, attorneys, witnesses and stacks of evidence.

HISD declined to comment for this report. But at the hearing, HISD attorney, Hans Graff, said the dispute is over methodology.

Advocates say the hearings can be intimidating.

Lisa Goring is vice president of Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group.  She says the process taxes parents  — their time, money and emotion.

“So parents in many cases do try and avoid due process and really see it as a last resort.”

The Groogans felt they had to take a public stand, so they opened up the hearing, which is normally private.

The first day this week, more than a dozen people came. Mara Laviola drove six hours from Frisco, north of Dallas. She has a son with autism, too, and is one of the few parents in Texas that has had a hearing.

“When we get a parent that’s taking this type action and going up against the system, I think we have to stand by them. I don’t think the numbers are low because things are going well in Texas I think they’re low because parents have given up in Texas.”

The odds are not in the family’s favor.  Of the 28 cases last year in Texas, parents won four, districts won 17 and seven were split.

Bio photo of Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for KUHF, including K-12 and higher education.

Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and regularly contributed to WLRN, the local NPR affiliate and Miami Herald news partner...