For disabled children of military parents, frequent moves can lead to schooling gaps

When service members move from base to base, they sometimes find it takes too long for their child’s new school to begin providing special education services.

By Carson Frame, American Homefront ProjectDecember 1, 2022 10:30 am

From the American Homefront Project:

On weekdays, Lawanda Jenkins wakes up well before dawn. The wife of an Army soldier, Jenkins spends hours helping her 8 year-old daughter Victoria Thomas get ready for school.

It’s an exacting morning routine that’s often interrupted by health scares. Victoria suffers from two neurological conditions that make it hard for her to process information and lead to problems with body functioning. She’s nonverbal and relies on a motorized wheelchair and assistive communication devices.

“Usually she’ll have a seizure once every other morning,” Jenkins said. “If she has a seizure, she’ll typically have it around 3:00 a.m. But her standard wakeup time is about 5:00 a.m. because she requires a lot of work.”

When the family lived on post at Fort Sam Houston, Victoria’s life at school was pretty stable. She attended the elementary school on post, and Jenkins says the teachers there understood her routines and quirks.

But when the family had to move off base unexpectedly last year, Victoria transferred to another school system, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District.

“It was a big learning curve for the teacher, even though the teacher was a special needs teacher,” Jenkins said. “Victoria required the most care. One day she started having a seizure and there was no nurse on site. So they started panicking, calling me.”

For the first several weeks Victoria was at the new school, she didn’t have all of the equipment she needed, so Jenkins had to bring a lot of it from home. Jenkins also had to take time off work to train teachers and deal with emergencies.

To make matters worse, Jenkins said the school liaison officer at Fort Sam Houston, a civilian employee who is supposed to help military families in situations like these, didn’t help. When Jenkins asked for assistance transitioning Victoria’s care, she said the officer simply Googled the phone number for the new school district.

“I felt like they put in no effort,” Jenkins said. “It was just like, ‘We don’t care. It’s not our child.’ That’s kind of how I felt.”

The school liaison officer said she does not recall the interaction.

Advocates say military families with disabled children often face problems like those when they move from place to place. Their new district or state might not offer the same services as their old one.

“It’s a very difficult system to navigate, especially when it comes down to the school district level,” said Jackie Nowicki, a researcher with the Government Accountability Office who has studied the programs the Defense Department offers to families with children in special education.

Military spouse Lawanda Jenkins feeds her 8-year-old daughter, Victoria Thomas, a breakfast of pureed oatmeal before school.
Carson Frame / American Homefront

Though initiatives like the School Liaison Program and the Exceptional Family Member Program exist to support families with medical and educational transitions, the Defense Department is limited in what it can do to help families with special education disputes. There is no statutory role for the department in determining a child’s eligibility for special education services. That’s mostly up to the Department of Education, states, and school districts.

“The way the law is designed, they’re provided latitude in defining disability categories and setting eligibility criteria. That results in unevenness or variation,” Nowicki added.

Frequent moves — a staple of military life — add to the problem.

“It’s not as though our experiences in the military community are different from the experiences of our civilian counterparts in special education. It’s just that we experience them more frequently because of the highly mobile military lifestyle,” said Jennifer Barnhill, lead researcher with Partners in Promise, a nonprofit organization that provides special education resources to military families.

Disabled children are evaluated to determine the kinds of support they need. But when they move, their new school districts often start that process from scratch. New evaluations average 171 days to complete, according to a Partners in Promise survey last year. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires school districts to conduct evaluations within 60 days.

Delayed evaluations mean students have to wait longer for services.

“If a military student arrives in a new location, and it takes them — as our survey data show — roughly 5.75 months to receive services, they’re approximately a quarter of the way through a two year tour of duty at that point,” Barnhill said.

Dispute with school districts about special education services can take months or years to resolve. The dispute process relies on back-and-forth communication between parents and school districts, with actions escalating from informal complaints to mediation to court cases, according to Partners in Promise. By the time resolution is reached, it may already be time to move again.

The Department of Education recently sent a letter encouraging school districts to look at the complications of the military lifestyle, and to offer disabled children the services that have historically worked for them. In addition, last year’s defense budget expanded legal assistance for military families who experience special education disputes.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.