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The Oakland Press
By Jerry Wolffe
December 21, 2010
A Royal Oak mother of a visually impaired teenager who attends a Catholic school said she fears for the educational future of her son and all disabled students.
Dina Vailliencourt, whose son Sean, 14, attends Guardian Angel Catholic School in Clawson, said she has been told by Oakland Schools officials that her son will no longer be provided with textbooks in large print as required under federal law.
"The ISD (intermediate school district) told us they are not required to enlarge (print of) textbooks for children who are not in public school despite the fact they have been providing the large print books for my son since he was in first grade at St. Dennis Catholic School in Royal Oak," she said.
If teachers can find textbooks in large print somewhere in the Michigan school system, they will give them to Sean to use, she said.
Dina and her husband, John, pay $4,300 a year tuition for Sean to attend Guardian Angel.
"I asked for large print books through the vision consultant at Oakland Schools," said Dina. "They gave me a price. They said they'd do it if I paid 20 cents a page for black and white and 25 cents a page for color: To get his pre-Algebra book, it would cost $800.
"Of course I can't afford that," she said. "I think it (not providing accessible textbooks) is budgetary and people like us don't really have a voice because we are ... not a powerful group."
Oakland Schools found Sean, who is legally blind in one eye and has 20-80 vision in the other, large print books in science and math, but her son is trying "to make do" with normal print textbooks in his English, social studies, language arts, Spanish and religion classes, Vailliencourt said.
She said she spends up to five hours a night trying to help her eighth-grade son do his homework because he can't see print in his textbooks.
For decades, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 have required school districts to provide accommodations to students with disabilities in public as well as private or parochial schools and for those who are home-schooled.
School districts throughout the nation also are required to create Individualized Education Plans for any student with a disability so the specific goals and accommodations required for that student to succeed in school are provided on a yearly basis by the intermediate school district.
"Students who are privately placed by their parents in nonpublic schools or who are home-schooled are not eligible to receive the same services that students are eligible to receive at public schools," said Shelley Rose, director of communications services for Oakland Schools when asked about Sean's case.
When Rose was told attorney Richard Bernstein planned to file a federal lawsuit against Oakland Schools for not providing accommodations to disabled students in private schools, she said, "Yes, he (Bernstein) was one of our public school students and we provided materials for him."
Bernstein, 37, of Birmingham, is blind and attended Andover High School and received accommodations.
"Our lawyers tell us that we are prohibited by law to provide textbooks or trade books in any format to students parentally placed within nonpublic or home schools," said Rose. "That includes parochial and private schools."
However, she was unable to say which law the Oakland County school system's lawyers were referring to in justifying denial of accommodation to disabled students.
"If the student is enrolled in a private school and has an IEP through the local school district we can provide teacher consultant services through Oakland Schools directly to the private school student and can bring along materials," Rose said.
However, she said "we cannot give the student the materials" to take home.
Kathy Barker; director of special education for Oakland Schools, said the school system does not need to provide accommodations to disabled students in private schools or those home schooled based on the Michigan constitution.
She said Gov. Jennifer Granholm, when she was attorney general, issued an opinion on the Michigan Education Auxiliary Act.
Granholm wrote that services that would include large-print or Braille textbooks are not considered to be ancillary services and therefore are not required by law to be provided to disabled students in private schools, she said.
Barker said the change in policy that went into effect in June was due to dramatic declines in school revenue from property taxes as a result of the housing market collapse.
"When we started seeing the very large budgetary challenges we are facing, we were asked to turn over every rock and question all of our services that spend taxpayers' dollars," Barker said.
"Our law firm (LaPointe and Butler of East Lansing) said we should not be providing accessible format textbook materials to nonpublic students.
"It's important for people to understand that if a parent chooses to enroll a child in public school, we have very high quality accessible textbooks," Barker said.
"Now, we have to say what we do we absolutely have to do versus what has been nice to do in the past.
"Parents have a right to enroll a student in non-public schools, but they give up FAPE," she said.
FAPE is an acronym for Free Appropriate Public Education under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Rehabilitation Act is designed to guarantee equal rights and opportunities of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal funds.
Under the Rehabilitation Act, educational services "must be designed to meet the individual education needs of students with disabilities as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students."
Both the Rehabilitation Act and IDEA also require disabled students receive "related aids and services ... to ensure an appropriate educational setting."
Bernstein said Oakland Schools must provide accommodations to disabled students in private schools because the federal laws -IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 -supersede state law.
United States Code 20, Section 1412-the federal law being challenged by Oakland Schools-says "such services (as large-print or Braille textbooks, aides and other accommodations) to parentally placed private school children with disabilities may be provided to the children on the premises of private, including religious, schools to the extent consistent with the law."
Bernstein said Granholm's interpretation on auxiliary aids is wrong.
"It does not have the power of a law-it is just an advisory opinion," he said.
“Accommodations for parochial and home-schooled students must be provided under IDEA or the Rehab Act," Bernstein said.
"The state of Michigan set up the intermediate school districts to provide centralized resources to meet needs of students in multiple school districts because local districts such as Royal Oak where Sean lives do not have the resources to provide disabled students with accommodations.
"They (Oakland Schools) are trying to save dollars on the backs of disabled students," he said.
Bernstein and Vailliencourt fear this action by Oakland Schools in denying large-print textbooks to Vailliencourt's son is just the beginning of cutbacks to the 22,000 disabled students in Oakland County.
"So when other districts provide these services to disabled students in other counties such as Macomb and Wayne, are they breaking the law?" Bernstein said.
"No child should be forced to choose between religious beliefs by going to a parochial school and having the accommodations they need to have a basic education."
Bernstein said if Oakland Schools does not modify its new policy of not providing accommodations to disabled students in private schools, he will file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Oakland Schools as soon as possible.
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