Military Families Press To Receive Services for Their Disabled Children

May 30, 1990 9 min read

By Debra Viadero

William Cole Sautter is a bright student, but his cerebral palsy causes him problems. There is a stutter to his speech, and some movements common to 12-year-old boys are difficult for him to do without losing his balance and falling.

Yet, for more than two years, the elementary school he attends on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has refused to provide William with special-education services of any kind.

His parents’ strenuous efforts to secure a “due process” hearing to contest that decision have continually been rebuffed. And his father, an Army colonel, has been reprimanded by superiors for “making waves.”

The family’s plight is currently the subject of a lawsuit pending in a federal court in New York. But other military families and experts in special education say the kinds of problems encountered by the Sautters are distressingly typical among military families with handicapped children.

Children attending schools run by the military are not universally guaranteed the same protections other handicapped children enjoy under federal special-education law. And that inequity, combined with the problems many military families face in the public-school system because of their frequent relocations, make life difficult for the disabled sons and daughters of the nation’s fighting forces.

“When it comes to meeting the needs of their children,” said Jane West, who examined such families’ difficulties as part of a national special-education study last year, “military families are between a rock and a hard place.”

Not Subject to P.L. 94-142

The U.S. Department of Defense operates two separate school systems. The largest is the Department of Defense Dependent Schools, which runs 270 elementary and secondary schools in 20 foreign countries. Another 18 schools, known as “Section 6 schools,” are operated by the department on military bases in this country.

Military families and department officials say neither of the systems is subject to the regulations governing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, or P.L. 94-142, the landmark federal law that guarantees all handicapped children the right to a “free, appropriate education.”

The military writes its own regulations implementing federal laws. And both of its school systems make an effort to comply with the substance of federal law, according to Diane Goltz, a special assistant for education and family policy at the Defense Department.

“I don’t know of any instances where anything negative is going on,’' she said.

The military regulations governing the overseas school system were, in fact, revamped in the 1980’s to more closely reflect the federal special-education law, Ms. Goltz noted.

“The timelines for due-process hearings might be different because of the distances involved,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s very similar.’'

The issue of special-education rights becomes more problematic, however, with the 18 “Section 6 schools” in this country. A military directive states only that the services provided by those schools must be consistent with those provided by schools in neighboring communities.

“Basically, they feel they have the ability to control what they comply with,” said Heather Hebdon, the director of Specialized Training of Military Parents, or stomp, a federally funded resource center for parents of special-needs children in Takoma, Wash.

One of the areas in which they do not comply is the “due process” procedure outlined in federal special-education law. Parents who disagree with their child’s educational placement, such as the Sautters, must instead take their complaints through a somewhat lengthier employment-discrimination procedure.

The Sautters began that process in 1988.

After investigating the family’s complaints, Army and Defense Department officials came to three conclusions, according to letters mailed to the family. First, they said, West Point Elementary School had indeed failed to comply with federal special-education law. Second, they found, the boy was truly handicapped.

And, last and most surprising to the Sautters, the military concluded that the school was not required to provide adaptive physical education, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech lessons, or any other special-education services because William Sautter is “intellectually gifted and does well in class.”

“They said to me, ‘What do you think, Colonel? We’re going to give you help so your child can get A-pluses?”’ Lieut. Col. Fred C. Sautter, the boy’s father, said.

Through it all, the Sautters still had not been given a chance to air their complaints in an impartial hearing.

“The ‘due process’ procedure is, to me, what is really the teeth of the federal special-education law,” Lieut. Col. Sautter said. “I have put my life on the line to defend the Constitution of this country, yet the Constitution does not protect my own family.”

The Sautters turned to the federal court system for help in February, filing a lawsuit that names President Bush, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of the Army, and West Point school officials as defendants. No trial date for the case has been set.

Challenging the System

Their action is an unusually bold one for military families, according to many.

“There is incredible pressure brought to bear on these families to take whatever the military hands them and to shut up,” said Reed Martin, a Texas lawyer who is an advocate for disabled children.

Because his Austin law practice is in close proximity to five major military installations, Mr. Martin said he gets many calls for assistance from military parents with handicapped children. And overwhelmingly, he added, they call back, telling him to drop his efforts and forget they ever called.

“I’ve never had a parent willing to stand up to the military like Colonel Sautter has,” said Mr. Martin, who has also reviewed the family’s case.

Ms. Hebdon of stomp, who tangled with military officials over her own son’s education, said her husband, an active-duty officer, had been told at the time by his supervisor to “control his wife.” Other parents have reported experiencing other forms of intimidation when they questioned the kinds of educational services their children were receiving.

Lieut. Col. Sautter said he has been able to take action because of his higher rank and the fact that he will soon retire.

Even so, he said, he has been pressured by superiors to drop his fight.

“My life has been made terrible here,” the colonel said. “They told me my career is over, and they told me to sit down and shut up, but I figured, what the hell, it’s my family.”

Added Ms. Hebdon: “Do we say to Joe Smith at the local grocery store, ‘If you challenge the system you will lose your job’?”

Troubles with Public Schools

Ms. Hebdon’s parent-information center, funded with a grant from the U.S. Education Department, fielded 6,800 special-education-related inquiries from military parents in its first three years of operation.

While many voiced complaints similar to the Sautters, a large number of the military parents who called reported encountering difficulties with the regular public schools their children were attending.

“A lot of times, [school officials] feel like you’ll be there 18 months, and the longest they’ll have to deal with you is three years,” said Kathy Mitten, a Georgia parent who successfully sued a school system in that state over services for her severely handicapped child.

As a result, she said, school systems tend to keep putting off the demands of military parents until they go away.

Such was the case with Maj. Paul Barkey, a U.S. Army chaplain stationed in North Carolina who has a son with cerebral palsy. Major Barkey’s son, Ian, was enrolled in the local school system because the military school at Fort Bragg’s JFK Special Warfare Center could not provide services for him.

The Barkeys found, however, that the level of services the school district was willing to provide fell far short of the kind of assistance their son had been receiving in three other states. Instead of thrice-a-week occupational- and physical-therapy sessions, the district offered a half hour of physical therapy once a week.

To get the services he needed, Ian Barkey eventually began commuting each week, with his mother, to a residential school 100 miles away.

Major Barkey requested a “due process” hearing to challenge the district in July 1988. The hearing has been scheduled for July--weeks after the chaplain was slated to be transferred, with his family, to another base. He has been granted a 60-day extension of his stay at Fort Bragg to go forward with the hearing.

“We heard from a number of people in the school district that they were trying to outlast us,” he said. “They had written our son off and written us off as a family, and we just couldn’t let them do that.”

The frequent moves military families are required to make sometimes may also mean that disabled children must undergo frequent special-education evaluations, according to Ms. Mitten.

Partly as an effort to address some of the problems generated by frequent relocations, the military in recent years has instituted an Exceptional Family Member program.

Its purpose, according to a recent federal report, is to more efficiently link available special-education and medical services with the families who need them. The program requires all military personnel to identify family members with disabilities.

But, Ms. Hebdon notes, registering with the program provides no assurances that those families will be stationed only at military posts where their needs can be met. It may mean, instead, that the service member can be ordered overseas without his or her family when no services are available.

Ms. Hebdon noted, for example, that her husband was stationed alone in West Germany for three years because medical services for her son, who has Down’s syndrome, were not available at her husband’s base.

And, according to the same federal report, some families believe that being listed with the program may, in effect, serve to limit their career paths.

These and other difficulties faced by military parents with disabled children were outlined in a September 1989 report by the National Council on Disability. The Congressionally mandated study--entitled “The Education of Students with Disabilities: Where Do We Stand?"--was intended to provide a status report on special-education programs across the nation.

The limited rights of the disabled children of armed-services members was one of 29 areas deemed by the council to be in need of improvement or further study.

Ms. West, who directed the study, noted that some of the document’s other recommendations have since been taken up by members of the Congress and written into bills reauthorizing federal special-education programs. She said there have been no similar efforts to strengthen the law for military families.

“I think these things get worked out when there is enough light shed on them,” she said, “and that just hasn’t happened yet.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 1990 edition of Education Week as Military Families Press To Receive Services for Their Disabled Children