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Duval Family Takes Special Education Fight To Social Media

Rhema Thompson

Asa and Priscilla Maass’ fight for their daughter’s education has been a long one. But it’s the last month that has felt longest.It’s a story that they’re now sharing with thousands of others through Facebook page Big Fight For a Little Girl.

Nine years ago, their daughter Abigail was diagnosed with infantile autism.

“Very early on we noticed her missing her milestones,” Asa Maass said. "'Self-stimming' behavior where she yells out, the sensation that she gets from stuff like that...A lot of those behaviors started early."

Now, the dimple-faced 9-year-old is a rising fourth grader in Duval County Public Schools’ Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program and remains largely non-verbal.

The Maass’ legal battle over her education began in October of 2013, after issues ranging from improper instruction to school safety arose. The family filed a due process complaint against the district, arguing Abigail wasn’t receiving the appropriate education outlined in her individualized education plan (IEP) and mandated under federal law.

In July, an administrative judge agreed.

“The judge saw that our lawyer was able to prove that Abigail showed de minimis progress,” Asa Maass said.
In other words, Abigail was not making substantial learning gains.

Over the last two years, she hadn't even met half of the academic goals laid out in her individualized plan, the judge ruled. Under the order, the Maass family was to receive reimbursement for the outside therapy they'd paid for to help Abigail as well as compensatory education to make up for the years of lost learning.  

The news was overwhelming for Asa Maass.

“I, literally, squatted on the ground and cried when our lawyer called us, when she said that we won,” he said. “I was shocked. I was happy."

But that wasn't where the story ended.

"If I’d have known what was next, I wouldn’t have been as excited. I wouldn’t have been as happy,” he said.

Following the ruling, the family requested that the district help pay for Abigail to attend a private school — the Jacksonville School of Autism.

Last month, they received a McKay Scholarship to pay for about $21,000 of the $46,000 in tuition costs for the school. They reasoned that it would cost the district significantly less to cover the remaining $25,000 than it would cost to meet all of Abigail’s needs in a public school setting, such as one-on-one instruction from a certified behavior specialist and therapy requirements.

"There was a difference of about $100,000," Maass said.

However, the Office of General Counsel, representing the district, felt differently. They declined to grant the request, stating in an email that the district “will not be providing additional monies for AM’s (Abigail Maass’) private education at this time.”

Now, with the new school year about two weeks away, Asa and Priscilla Maass are still waiting for answers.

“We don’t know where she’s going to be in school, we don’t know whose care she’s going to be in,” Asa Maass said.

Last week, they decided to take their frustration to social media with the launch of their “Big Fight For a Little Girl” page.

“We put it out there, started sharing," Priscilla Maass said. "Next thing you know friends started sharing."

Since launching the site Thursday night, the page has received more than 800 likes and about 8,000 views.

A screenshot of the "Big Fight For a Little Girl" Facebook page taken Monday, Aug. 4.

Citing federal student privacy laws, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti stated in a written response to WJCT that he could not discuss the details of the Maass case.

“Our legal counsel is currently working with their attorneys to ensure that we meet the guidelines of the Final Order that was issued,” he wrote.
The district has a 90-day window to appeal the order.

The Maass’ campaign highlights larger issues among ESE parents in Duval, said ESE student advocate Patty Wimmer-Johnson.

Wimmer-Johnson is the mother of two ESE students in the district. Back in January 2013, she and several other parents met with then-ESE Department executive director Mason Davis to voice concerns over the special education program. Davis was recently appointed as the district's new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

“We stressed that training was desperately needed that parents needed training, teachers needed training and principals needed to be trained so we could all have intelligent conversation,” Wimmer-Johnson said of that January night. "I was very hopeful at that time, with that kind of a turnaround and response, that we were going to be successful in fixing some issues in Duval County."

In July, a state department investigation found that schools within the district had violated state and federal special education laws by failing to use ESE staff and support services appropriately.

“Parents are very disheartened because we actually felt we were moving forward and we moved nowhere,” Wimmer-Johnson said.

The state department has given the district until next month to provide ESE training to all its principals, special education teachers and school-based local education agency representatives. The district also has until Oct. 1 to provide a comprehensive analysis of each elementary student who did not receive proper specialized instruction during the 2013-14 school year.

In addition to this, Vitti has promised to establish a hotline where parents, teachers and students can report violations within the ESE department. He's also said he plans to have district officials do periodic spot checks to determine if the regulations are being implemented and followed properly.

But as of Monday, Asa and Priscilla Maass said they still don’t know where that leaves their daughter.

“She’s a child with special needs that doesn’t have a voice,” Priscilla Maass said.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.