Fighting for Change: The Lawyer

If school process unclear, parents can turn to law

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

images/greengate/articles/ Staff Writer [email protected]

Clay GibsonAs a freshman at Grissom High School, Clay Gibson was allowed to type assignments. Teachers gave him extra time on written tests.

“I was doing fine,” Gibson said. At the end of the 10th grade, the school system agreed: School officials removed his special education designation. That sparked a dispute that eventually led Gibson to attorney James Irby.

“I’ve had a number of cases where schools have not provided services for children who obviously need it and have dyslexia and otherwise are capable of doing just fine,” said Irby, a former superintendent from Athens who takes special education cases across North Alabama.

“It’s not a matter of the child is not able to learn,” he said. “It’s a matter of the child has an imperfect ability to read.”

Gibson flips digits and scrambles phone numbers. He has trouble with spelling and handwriting.

Help not guaranteed

irbyIrby, who won’t speak about specific clients, said any school system is bound to recognize such symptoms and find a way to help without failing or holding the student back. But outside special education services, there are few guarantees of extra consideration.

In his junior year, Gibson’s services were governed by a group of teachers and administrators who were members of a building-based school support team. It’s a state program, a sort of half-step between regular education and special education.

But not every teacher honored the team’s recommendations to give Gibson more time on tests or to allow him to answer orally, Gibson said.

“Nobody would follow the program guidelines,” said his mother, Loretta Gibson. “They would flat out refuse.”

During his junior year, Gibson’s grades sank as he misspelled vocabulary words on tests in Spanish class. Gibson said the teacher agreed to let him tape-record his answers, but the tapes were misplaced.

In Algebra 2, he said, he understood the concepts but reversed the numbers. He needed a calculator to keep straight long rows of arithmetic. Gibson said the teacher did not allow any student to use a calculator second semester.

Despite a history of high marks in advanced classes, Gibson received two F’s at a time when he was applying to college.

Grissom Principal Tom Drake said he could not comment because the Gibson’s sued the school system.

Dr. Ann Roy Moore, superintendent of city schools, said dyslexia is not a distinct special education category.

Moore said that she cannot discuss the case of an individual, such as Gibson, but that the system does help dyslexic students who struggle.

“If we have materials and other techniques we can use where suspected, then we do that,” she said. “We try to do what we can to meet the needs of the student.”

Legal battle begins

While Gibson attended summer school to make up the math credit, his mother hired Irby to overturn the low grades.

Irby knows the law, plus he knows how school systems work. The belief that dyslexia is not a special education category is common in the public schools of Alabama, he said.

“Let me tell you why I disagree with that,” Irby said. “There is a discrepancy between the Alabama Administrative Code, which does not enumerate dyslexia, and the Code of Federal Regulations, which does.”

The federal code cites dyslexia as an example of a specific learning disability, which is a recognized special education category.

“Whenever there is a disagreement between state and federal law, federal law trumps,” Irby said. “It applies to any school who takes federal funds.”

Last fall, despite the two low grades, Gibson enrolled at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where he is studying political science. He had aced advanced placement history at Grissom. But he believes the low grades in math and Spanish damaged his chances for scholarships.

System reverses itself

Then in January, six months after he graduated, Huntsville City Schools acquiesced.

“A year and half later they came to us and asked us to settle for what we originally asked for,” Loretta Gibson said.

Gibson’s grades were overturned. Spanish was raised to a D. The math grades were re-placed with an A from summer school. Gibson said the school system paid all attorney fees.

The city system also requested a confidentiality clause. “I told them I wouldn’t sign it. So they took it out,” Gibson said.

Two months ago, he took the legal agreement to a meeting of the Huntsville school board. He complained about lack of services for dyslexia and tax dollars wasted on attorneys to fight students.

He said many wonderful teachers helped him at Grissom, and a few others didn’t. He asked the board “to look out for students in the future.”