Kameron Can't Learn

Folio Weekly | January 2, 2008
Kathy Clark's smile never quite reaches her eyes. Photos from her past show that it once did, but that was before her long battle with the Clay County School District began -- back when she had more hope than cynicism.

In 1997, Clark was 32, happily married with a healthy son. She was working as a legal assistant in Jacksonville and lived in a beautiful home in Fleming Island. Her joy multiplied when she became pregnant with her second child.

It was an easy, uncomplicated pregnancy, but when her son Kameron was born on Feb. 16, 1998, his skin was blue, his oxygen levels were low and initial tests showed him in some distress. After several days of exams, the doctor delivered the bad news: Kameron had Down syndrome.

The news was devastating, made worse by what Clark saw as her doctor's bleak view of the baby's condition. He immediately began to tell her and her husband, Tommy, the ways their child wouldn't measure up to other kids -- motor skills, language, physical benchmarks. Clark retorted, "Bring me a doctor who can tell me the things my child will be able to do!" Once spoken, that sentiment became a motivating force in her life. She wanted to know what Kameron could do, and she was determined to help him do it.

In the beginning, Clark knew nothing about Down syndrome. She couldn't even recall having met anyone with the handicap. But she set out to learn every aspect of her son's disability. She began to research the condition, and she prayed for guidance. As if on cue, Sandra Ray came into her life.

Ray, a small, soft-spoken woman, has an easy smile and a deep religious faith. One of her four children, 17-year-old Andrew, was born with Down syndrome. She lived just a mile and a half from the Clarks and offered living proof of what 40 years of research has concluded: The functioning level of Down syndrome children is determined by their education and environment.

Ray decided early on that she wouldn't keep Andrew isolated. She fought to have her son educated alongside his childhood friends -- a practice once known as mainstreaming, now called inclusion -- rather than shunted to classrooms for disabled or handicapped children. She also worked to make sure his home environment was safe and nurturing. As a result, her son grew up a deeply social, caring and communicative young man.

Ray's son personified what the Clarks hoped Kameron would become, and both women hoped that Ray's efforts in Clay County schools had paved the way for Kameron.

What they found was more than disappointing. Rather than tolerance and acceptance, Kameron was met with ignorance and marginalization. His early school years, perhaps even more formative for Down syndrome children than for other students, were marked by a system less interested in helping Kameron than in maintaining a rigid and antiquated view of classroom disability. In the end, despite the best efforts of his parents and the advice of Down syndrome specialists, the now 9-year-old was unable to find a place in Clay County's public schools.

This is an admittedly one-sided story. Folio Weekly's attempt to get comment from teachers and officials in the Clay County school system was thwarted by Superintendent David Owens, who refused to comment or to allow anyone else to comment. Some teachers and administrators spoke off the record, but expressed fear of retribution.

This is a mother's story, then, one shaded by love, maternal expectations and disappointment. Kathy Clark lost many things in the course of her battle, including her marriage and her faith in the school system. But nothing can shake her belief in Kameron.

The Clarks first got a sign of things to come when they attempted to enroll their son in day care. Kameron's condition required expensive medical treatment, and it was essential that Kathy Clark work outside the home, but she couldn't find a day care that would accept him. Her mother-in-law volunteered to help, and the arrangement worked for a while. But by the time her son was 9 months old, Clark felt he needed more stimulation. She enrolled him at Orange Park Presbyterian Church Pre-School, but didn't tell them about his disability until after he was accepted. The director was skeptical, but Clark was prepared. After a little coaxing and a lot of pleading, she won the director over. Kameron attended OP Presbyterian for four years and had what his mom calls "a great experience."

Kameron also found his place in his neighborhood. He was a well-behaved, sweet-spirited child with a ready smile and a shy hug for all. He played with friends in the neighborhood, worked his way up to catcher on a community baseball team and took Karate lessons, earning several belts.

Clark was confident the boy's skills would prepare him for his first year of kindergarten, but she also wanted to prepare the school. So the year before Kameron was slated to begin at Paterson Elementary, Kathy contacted Daniel Becton, the county's director of the exceptional student education.

"I wanted to let him know that I wasn't going to allow the district to send Kam to a school out of his neighborhood [or] let them put him in a self-contained classroom," she recalls. "Kameron had always been in an inclusive environment, and I wanted him to be given the same opportunity as the other children."

Becton acquiesced; he had little choice. The 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), updated in 2004, guarantees disabled children "free, appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment." More specifically, the act requires public schools to maintain qualified teachers and aides, and any services needed to mainstream children in regular educational environments. According to the act, a school is not relieved of its responsibility because of "lack of adequate personnel or resources."

The justification for the act is years of research showing the benefits of inclusion -- particularly if it's done early. Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California, and an expert in diseases and disorders of the brain, has found that the "brain machinery plasticity" -- critical for learning -- slowly dies in Down syndrome children over the first few years. But early educational intervention helps maintain plasticity, and is critical for behavior and developmental progression.

While Down syndrome children are delayed socially, academically and verbally, most research has found the ideal setting for these kids is in a traditional classroom, with some modifications and an aide to assist in the learning process. In inclusive, mainstream settings, DS children tend to "model" or mimic their peers. If they stay on track, most DS students can identify the alphabet, read words and count to 20 by their third birthday -- much like their non-disabled counterparts.

Newsweek columnist George Will recently wrote about his adult son who has Down syndrome. His son lives alone, travels independently to his job at RFK Stadium, has season tickets to several professional sports, and, to a large extent, lives a normal, independent existence.

Inclusive education also benefits regular-education children. It discourages discrimination by reducing the "fear" of those out of the norm, helps create empathy and encourages teamwork.

When Down syndrome children are placed in "self-contained" classrooms with other disabled children, however, they fall far short of their peers in inclusive settings. This is why federal law mandates that all children with disabilities be placed in the "least restrictive" setting.

Florida schools lag behind those in other states in fulfilling this mandate, although some have made strides in the last few years. Two years ago, for instance, Duval County schools formally adopted the inclusive policies of IDEA. But Clay County, one of the fastest-growing school districts in the state, has not. Some county educators and district administrators believe Clay's policies are driven by money. While disabled children bring with them large amounts of federal dollars to provide services and accommodations, it is less expensive to confine disabled children in one or two classrooms, and avoid duplicating services throughout the system. Dollars intended for disabled children are then freed up for other purposes. And in a fast-growing system like Clay County's, there are always plenty of demands for money.

In the summer of 2003, Kathy Clark took her son to Paterson Elementary for kindergarten testing. It didn't seem as though Daniel Becton had prepared anyone for Kameron or made any special arrangements to test him. Still, Principal Fred Fedorowich, who was principal when Andrew Ray went to school there, was willing to accommodate the child.

Kameron's teacher, who was the kindergarten "Team Leader," was not. She gave Kameron the same test as the other students, without offering any modifications specific to his disability. When Kam did poorly, the teacher informed Clark that Paterson wasn't the place for him. She suggested his mother seek other "educational alternatives."

Clark wouldn’t hear of it. "I beg to differ," she remembers telling the teacher. "I know he is not the same as the other children, but he is to be given the same educational opportunities."

Clark took the matter to Assistant Principal Pam White. Although White had initially resisted mainstreaming Andrew Ray, according to his mother, Clark hoped Andrew's success had changed her outlook. Ray, on the other hand, was prepared for obstacles. "I wanted Kathy to understand that her advocacy would be an ongoing process," she says. "She will have to fight for Kameron his whole life. She will also have to continue to re-educate people."

Clark says White told her Kameron "would never be successful" in a mainstream environment and added that it was the district's view "that Down syndrome kids are trainable, not educable." Mainstreaming, she told Kam's mother, "will only hurt him."

The school, by law, had to accept him, but his mother had reason to worry. "Kam now had a teacher who obviously does not want him in her class," she recalls, "and an assistant principal who not only doesn't believe in inclusion, but doesn't want him in the school."

The first year was rough. Kathy Clark met with Kameron's teachers to craft an Individual Educational Plan (IEP), as required by the federal Disabilities Education Act. An IEP is designed to assess existing skills, set goals and hold specific individuals accountable for each goal. The presence of a disabled student automatically requires class size be reduced, and Kameron's teacher was provided with an aide specifically to facilitate his educational process. But Clark says his kindergarten teacher appeared unprepared for -- and resentful of -- Kameron.

"I think that's when the ball started to drop," says Clark. "Kam appeared to be doing some work, but was he pushed to his potential? I don’t think so."

The Clarks worked with Kameron at home to make up for the school's deficiencies, but his mom wasn't surprised when the IEP team met at the end of the school year to announce Kameron hadn't accomplished his goals. Rather than push him unprepared into first grade, Kathy and Tommy Clark agreed to let Kameron repeat kindergarten.

For his second year in school, Kameron was assigned a new teacher who'd had some limited instruction about how to work with handicapped students. Things got a little better, and Clark began to feel hopeful. Kam's third year of school -- when he was in first grade -- was also a success. Teresa Carpenter, who'd been Andrew Ray's second grade teacher, stepped up to offer advice and resources to Kam's teacher, and Clark volunteered two days a week in his classroom. At the end of the year, she even received a certificate for her volunteer time at the school, having logged more than 100 hours there, working in and out of classrooms.

By the summer of 2006, Kathy Clark had thoroughly educated herself on the IEP process. She knew teacher involvement was crucial, and she requested that Teresa Carpenter be assigned as Kameron's second-grade teacher. She also asked that the teacher be present at the pre-school-year IEP meeting.

But there had been some administrative changes at the school in 2006. Principal Fedorowich retired, and Superintendent David Owens appointed his friend Terry Grieninger to replace him. Out of respect for his position and hoping to establish an early rapport, Clark asked to meet with Principal Grieninger.

At the meeting, Clark says it quickly became clear that Grieninger didn't share her enthusiasm for mainstreaming. He also declined her request to place Kam in Carpenter's classroom. (Clay County Superintendent David Owens refused to allow any educator or education specialist in the Clay County district to comment for this story.)

Soon after, Clark arranged for Kameron to meet his second-grade teacher. The teacher said she was looking forward to having Kameron in her class and that she would include him as much as possible. She added it was her understanding that it was her job primarily to engage Kameron socially, not to educate him.

"I corrected her," recalls Clark. "I told her we, his family, were responsible for his socialization. She was responsible for educating Kam."

Clark says the teacher explained her statement hadn't come out right. But she admitted she was concerned that she didn't have any training, ideas or materials to teach handicapped children. Clark suggested she ask the teachers who'd taught Andrew Ray and seek resources from Thunderbolt Elementary, a school a few miles away with a containment classroom for disabled children.

While preparing for an interim IEP meeting on Aug. 10, Kathy tapped every resource she could. She also made multiple inquiries of the Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee. Little did she know literally every communication was being reported back to the Clay County School District.

"Parents need to know this," Clark warns, "Unless you specifically say 'I do not want this reported,' every communique is detailed to the school district they are inquiring about, even if you want to file a complaint."

In retrospect, Clark believes her inquiries generated resentment among Paterson administrators. She also began exchanging emails with Exceptional Student Education Administrator Samantha Wright, but quickly sensed problems in the ESE department. Wright sent her a list of tests they planned to administer to Kameron, but they were all standardized tests, without modifications for his limited abilities. They were, in fact, the same tests they had given him previously and determined he was unable to take.

Resolved to bring some professional help to her side of the fight, Clark and her husband brought local Down syndrome advocate Sheri Henderson to the interim IEP meeting. When they got there, they were surprised to find the room full. The small team had grown from a handful to approximately 15 people. But there was still no plan. The meeting was turned the over to the Clarks, who asked that Kameron be given non-verbal assessments in reading and math. (Sheri Henderson assured the team that there were a number of alternative tests available.)

Clark requested that the team provide services according to the mandates of IDEA, including an individual educational plan, and strategies, materials and supplementary accommodations needed to get results. She noted that although IDEA required a specific individual be held accountable for each part of the IEP, marked by a signature, none of her son's previous reports was signed. She asked that accountability be a part of the upcoming IEP.

Clark also noted that Kam's slow progress in speech was due to hearing difficulties, and she requested that assessments be conducted to see if he qualified for what's known as an Assistive Technology Device to help him learn. Specifically, she wanted to know if he could use a hearing device similar to one he'd worked with at Brooks Rehabilitation Services.

When Clark finished speaking, she says, the room was totally silent. "I could see by the look on their faces, they had nothing," she says.

In the absence of suggestions from school officials, Clark made several of her own. She wanted Kameron to be retested on his reading and math skills in order to form the basis of a new IEP. She also asked administrators to establish a point of contact, as suggested by IDEA, to organize the testing, gather results and report back to the parents.

The group agreed to meet again for an interim IEP on Oct. 18, but Clark noticed "red flags going up." They agreed to designate a contact person for the IEP, but the person they appointed, a curriculum specialist, was a woman who'd already stated she didn’t believe in inclusion.

Clark says it was clear they simply wanted to mollify her. "They had not met any IDEA criteria for my son and didn't plan to do so as long as I didn't require it."

Kameron's mom volunteered to write the IEP herself, but said she would need progress reports from the school to set proper benchmarks. ESE administrator Samantha Wright asked the Clarks if they had thought about paying for private testing. Clark said she had not, but would consider it.

At the end of the meeting, the Clarks gave Principal Grieninger a written request for a complete copy of Kameron's file, including any evaluations, assessments or personnel-to-personnel notes about him. Clark had already decided to develop her own system to track IDEA compliance. She began taking notes on every conversation with school officials, and printed and saved every email she received. In the end, it would prove a paper trail of failure. But in August 2006, she was still determined to make the system work for her son.

The meeting was adjourned. The Clarks left, but Kathy Clark noticed everyone else stayed behind.

On Aug. 15, Kathy Clark received an email from Samantha Wright, asking her for the names of the non-verbal tests that Sheri Henderson had mentioned in the meeting. Clark was surprised. Although the state allows each school district to decide which alternative assessment they want to use, all schools must have alternative tests. It appeared the district hadn't followed state guidelines.

Once again, Clark educated herself on what was available. She gathered the names of the assessments and sent them to Wright. A few days later, Wright sent an email back, detailing the tests that would be administered. Not one of them was from the set of tests Clark had suggested. She responded to Wright on Aug. 28, noting that some of the tests seemed ill-suited to Kameron and asking the district to "hold off" on those that appeared inappropriate. She noted she was having her son privately tested and said she would provide the district with the results.

"I don't quite understand what you mean," Wright responded in a note brimming with impatience. "I have already pursued, organized and scheduled K.C.'s testing. In fact, it is supposed to start today. It is very difficult to get all the appropriate personnel to clear their schedules quickly in order to take care of your request."

Kathy Clark acceded. "Go ahead with your assessments," she wrote. An interim IEP meeting was scheduled for Oct. 18, 2006.

In the weeks that followed, Clark began to notice a number of things that concerned her. First, although her kids' teachers had put out a call for volunteers, Clark's offers to help were never accepted. She was also hearing from others -- Kam's classmates, their parents and other sources -- that her son was rarely in the classroom. Some asked her if Kameron had changed teachers, others said they frequently saw Kam sitting in the hallway with his aide, Cheryl Plummer.

Most disturbing, however, was a call from Mary Maraghy, staff reporter with the Clay County bureau of The Florida Times-Union. She had done a human-interest piece on Kameron during the summer, detailing his participation in baseball and his successes joining mainstream activities. But in late August, Maraghy contacted the Clarks and expressed concern that Kameron was going to be sent to a containment classroom at Thunderbolt Elementary. She couldn’t say where she'd heard about the move, but said it was a reliable source. (Maraghy confirmed this story to Folio Weekly.)

Kathy Clark was shocked. "There's a process the district must go through before they can attempt to move him," she explains. "The first thing they have to do is contact me. They hadn't even suggested they might move him, but after Mary contacted me, I knew in my heart the district planned to try to move Kam."

Soon after Kathy Clark heard from Maraghy, Principal Grieninger's office called to say there would be a copying fee and a possible charge for the labor to duplicate Kam's file. The Clarks agreed to pay. But when Tommy Clark picked up the file, the reproduction quality was so poor, much of it was unreadable.

Kathy Clark notified Samantha Wright, who told her to take the file back to the school so new copies could be made. Clark also asked for a brief parent/teacher conference. Instead, she received notice on Aug. 28 that an interim IEP had been scheduled for September. She emailed Wright and explained she just wanted to have a brief discussion with the teacher, not an IEP. Wright agreed and said the Sept. 18 meeting would be a "conference" instead of an IEP. The scheduled Oct. 18 interim IEP stood.

On Aug. 29, Tommy Clark brought the file to the school’s front office. He was asked to wait and was directed to a chair outside the principal's office. When he sat down, he says, he heard Principal Grieninger arguing loudly with someone on the phone. Tommy Clark says it quickly became apparent the principal was discussing Kameron. "We don't have the assets to educate Kameron Clark at this school," Tommy Clark says Grieninger shouted, adding that Kameron was not going not remain in his school. Grieninger slammed the phone down with a loud, "Ahhhhg!"

Grieninger's secretary, in apparent sympathy with her boss, called out, "That woman should be sued for mental anguish!" according to Clark.

Clark believed the secretary was speaking about his wife. "It was clearly obvious who he was speaking about and whom the secretary was speaking of," Clark says. He marched into the principal's office and asked to whom his secretary was referring. Grieninger became defensive and said Clark had no way of knowing who was on the phone or what the conversation was about.

Tommy Clark didn't concede the point, but he handed the file to the principal and asked for fresh copies. Grieninger left his office. While he waited, Clark noticed an email from his wife to Samantha Wright on Grieninger's computer screen. When the principal returned, Clark didn't mention the email. He did notice the file he was given was incomplete, however. "I told Mr. Grieninger there appeared to be information missing and that I would be grateful to receive complete copies of the files as previously requested."

Tommy Clark called Samantha Wright after he left and asked her if she'd spoken with Grieninger that morning. Wright confirmed she had. Clark went directly to the administration office and filed a complaint against the principal and his secretary. He was referred to Ira Strickland, assistant superintendent for Human Resources. He expressed concern that the entire front office at Paterson Elementary had heard Grieninger's outburst and said the principal had no respect for his son's privacy. He told Strickland he and his wife deserved an apology, and asked that his written complaint be placed in both Grieninger's and his secretary's personnel file. Strickland assured him both would be done.

School administrators arranged for a "mending the fences" meeting on Sept. 8, 2006. But on Sept. 5, Kathy Clark received a notice in Kameron's backpack that yet another interim IEP would be scheduled. They had not yet received the missing files, so on Sept. 6, she went back to the school.

As Kathy Clark waited in the front office, Grieninger walked in. She took the opportunity to ask Grieninger why another IEP had been set up, instead of the parent/teacher conference she’d requested. He said he didn't know anything about the meeting and referred her to Lucille Gallagher, who worked in the front office and who'd sent home the meeting note with Kam.

Mrs. Gallagher brought Clark into a conference room and gave her Kam's file. She said she did not know the particulars of the IEP meeting, but had simply notified her about it at Grieninger's request.

On her way out, Clark approached the principal and told him what Mrs. Gallagher had said. At that point, according to Clark, the principal "lost it."

"I will not have you speaking to anyone here about Kameron unless it is in the presence of the IEP team to cover my butt," Clark says he shouted.

Astounded, Clark replied, "So you're telling me I cannot speak with anyone here regarding Kameron?"

"No!" he answered.

Clark left and notified Ira Strickland of the principal's outburst. Strickland promised to look into it.

Only Grieninger and White came to the Sept. 8 "mending fences" meeting, but few fences were mended. Clark says the principal's apology was hollow and half-hearted, and that White mostly took notes. The Clarks again insisted their complaints be placed in the principal's and his secretary's personnel files. A recent review of both personnel files found no complaints.

By now, things were so tense between the Clarks and Paterson officials that the school had simply stopped responding to some requests. The Clarks paid for their son to be privately tested and received the results soon after. They could not, however, get school officials to send the results of their own tests, which had been completed much earlier. Despite numerous requests for the information, the Clarks received nothing.

The "parent/teacher" conference on Sept. 18 drew nine people, including Grieninger. Kathy Clark expressed her concern that Kameron was being pulled out of class. She noted that he needed remedial help in reading and math, and said she was still not receiving progress reports like other parents. Clark says she appealed to everyone to work together to find solutions for Kam, but that those gathered remained tight-lipped and avoided eye contact. The meeting adjourned.

The Clarks did get the results of the school's tests, but when Kathy Clark examined them, she discovered the worst. The school said it had used standard tests with "accommodations," but they gave no indication as to the sort of accommodations used. They did not use the non-verbal assessment the Clarks requested, or an Assistive Technology Device. The results were summarized and bleak: Kam could not verbally state or write the answers, therefore he could not complete the tests.

Kathy knew the testing was inappropriate because of her son's lack of pencil/ paper skills and verbal communication. She also suspected the results would be used to build a case against educating Kameron in an inclusive environment, and as an excuse to send him to self-containment. She was not going to let this happen.

Clark contacted the Florida Inclusion Network, an agency that offers advocacy, curriculum help and teacher training for students with disabilities, and asked for them to send a representative to the next IEP. (The agency said it was not allowed to get involved on the IEP level, although it offered to provide help for Paterson teachers and administrators.) She also asked a Down syndrome specialist at Hope Haven Clinic in Jacksonville to conduct an independent classroom assessment to see how the school could better meet Kameron's needs.

Hope Haven assigned Laura Watts, director of Hope Haven's Down Syndrome Center, to the case, and she visited Kam's classroom on Oct. 3. In her report, Watts noted that Kameron's teacher "... expressed concern that Kameron is not able to do in class what Mrs. Clark and past teachers have indicated he has done in other settings."

Watts wrote that Kameron was a well-behaved, "bright child," and made numerous suggestions as to how to educate him, including modifications and accommodations, along with ways to boost his self-esteem and independence. She also encouraged Kathy Clark to continue to advocate for her son.

The next IEP was set for Oct. 18, 2006. But on Oct. 17, Clark received disturbing news from a parent volunteer. The parent told her that while other children were taken off buses and sent to homeroom, Kam's aide kept him by her side while she performed bus duty every morning. Kam never attended homeroom. Kathy was concerned about her child's safety and angry at the misuse of his aide.

Before the Oct. 18 IEP began, Clark asked to speak to the principal and Samantha Wright privately. Wright was shocked at the news regarding the aide's bus duty. "You can't do that," Kathy Clark says Wright told Grieninger. Wright agreed that Kameron needed to be taken to his classroom and that bus duty was misappropriation of an aide.

According to Clark, Grieninger threw his hands up, laughed wryly and walked into the meeting.

A typical IEP meeting consists of only those personnel involved in the education of the child. This meeting was not typical. The small conference room was packed, elbow-to-elbow, with roughly 25 people. Even School Board Attorney Bruce Bickner attended.

Kathy Clark joked that even the janitorial staff appeared to be in attendance. But the Clarks brought some people as well. Having been told they could invite whomever they wished, the Clarks brought along a Down syndrome advocate, a student from Florida Coastal School of Law and a Folio Weekly reporter.

This didn't sit well with Bickner, who ordered the reporter to leave. Asked if he could offer any legal basis for his directive, Bicker responded, "We will either disband the meeting or you can leave." (The reporter left.)

Since Kathy Clark called for the meeting, she began by voicing her concerns for Kameron's lack of educational support at Paterson Elementary, despite the fact that Daniel Becton had known of their intentions to mainstream him since 2002. She presented her IEP goals for Kameron and reminded the group of IDEA's requirements of measurable goals, objectives and accountability. She told them that if they provided the testing and communication device for Kameron, which he had previously used at Brooks Rehabilitation Services, "he could show you he knows a lot more than you think he knows."

The meeting grew heated. Wright asked school personnel if they thought Kameron should be sent away. Although IDEA directives require disabled students be allowed to attend their neighborhood schools, they do allow a school to do a "forced placement" if the school can show it has exhausted all options and the student is not succeeding. All school personnel agreed that Paterson could not provide an appropriate education for Kameron, and they voted to send him to Thunderbolt Elementary, where he'd be placed in a containment classroom.

Kathy Clark knew what was coming, and she tried to quickly disband the meeting and leave. She wasn't quick enough. Wright, with a nod from Bickner, served her with a "Due Process Hearing" form. This meant that if the Clarks didn't agree to follow the recommendations of the group, they would have just 10 days to hire a lawyer and file for a Due Process Hearing. If they failed to file, their child would be bused to self-containment without their permission. Even if they did file for a hearing, they would get only a 10-day reprieve, during which Kameron would be allowed to continue at Paterson. Whatever decision was made at the Due Process Hearing would take effect immediately.

The day after the meeting, as Kameron was getting off the bus, the driver told his parents that "Kameron's assistant" was crying when she put him on the bus to go home. The Clarks found a note in their son's backpack from Cheryl Plummer stating she enjoyed working with Kameron. As it turned out, Kameron's aide, one of most important people in his life, was being taken away. Principal Grieninger had reassigned her to a desk job.

The couple had always tried to keep Plummer out of the fray because it was apparent that Kameron loved her deeply and that she loved him. Kathy Clark says Plummer was one of those people who truly "'got' Kameron." Now she was gone, and the little boy hadn't even had a chance to say goodbye.

The Clarks were heartsick over how the disruption would affect their son. They were also shocked that the school would treat him so callously. But there was much to do. They filed for a Due Process Hearing, and it was set for Nov. 8. The Clarks hired April Katine, an attorney from the Advocacy Center for Persons With Disabilities, a Florida group that offers legal help in discrimination cases. The attorney believed the school had violated Kameron's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as IDEA directives. She felt there was little possibility that a judge would rule in the school district's favor.

District representatives surprised the Clarks at the Nov. 8 hearing. They offering to give them everything they wanted, which was simply what federal law guaranteed. But in a "tit-for-tat" move, the district presented a demand from the principal. Kameron could come to Paterson, but his parents could not. The Clarks would be permitted to visit the school only for occasional lunches and field trips. Grieninger maintained the Clarks "threatened the teachers."

Kathy Clark says the condition was payback for knowing too much. "This was a concerted effort to keep me uninformed," she says. "Teachers and parents would inadvertently give me more information than the principal wanted me to have."

The Clarks agreed to the deal, which guaranteed Kameron a place at Paterson until the next IEP assessment in April 2007. But the disruption was starting to wear on Kameron. After Plummer disappeared, his mom says, he became sad and withdrawn. He didn't sleep or eat well, and he didn't want to go to school. He still had a temporary aide, but several parents told the Clarks that she was short-tempered and curt with the little boy. They told her they'd seen him crying on several occasions.

Kameron also began receiving negative behavioral reports. He'd always been an agreeable child, and teachers, coaches and expert evaluators had praised his good behavior. However, soon after the Due Process Hearing, the Clarks started to receive the negative reports from his teacher. They noted he was easily distracted, distracted other children, refused to hold his head up and hid under his desk. Eyewitnesses told the Clarks that Kameron was still being pulled out of class, and that the appropriate modifications and services were not being employed.

Since Kameron's former aide was still working at the school, the Clarks asked that their son be allowed to spend some time with her to help with the transition. Grieninger refused.

The Clarks were torn. They felt terrible for Kameron. Still, they sincerely believed mainstreaming was best for him. He had made lifelong friends and had advocates at the school, and his parents believed that if they could just make the school system obey federal mandates, Kam would thrive.

They just weren't sure it was possible.

On Feb. 22, Kathy Clark made one last appeal. She and April Katine scheduled a meeting to "persuade" the school to provide Kameron with an Assistive Learning Device. Both women believed Kam would be greatly helped by a new mini-computer system designed to bridge the gap for disabled students with speech problems. Although it was a $10,000 system, Kathy Clark had worked with her insurance company for six months, and they had finally agreed to purchase the computer. She and Katine were hopeful the school would agree to let Kam use the device in class. The school refused.

The final IEP on April 18 was a repeat of the October meeting. District officials noted that Kam had failed to achieve the goals of his IEP and they again demanded "forced placement" at Thunderbolt Elementary. This time, they told the Clarks, they would offer no more deals: Kameron was no longer welcome at Paterson.

But when Kathy Clark rejected the proposal, school officials did, in fact, proffer one more deal. They promised to allow Kameron to attend any other school in the county, citing Paterson's "lack of services." The contradictory deal meant that school officials were claiming Kameron could not be educated in a mainstream setting -- yet they were willing to let him try to do it anywhere but at Paterson.

"It made absolutely no sense, except that it was proof that Terry Grieninger didn't want Kameron at his school," says Clark.

Clark refused their offer, and another Due Process hearing was set. But soon after the meeting, April Katine sat Kathy Clark down for a heart-to-heart. The attorney emphasized that while the law was on Kameron's side, this wasn't a case they could win. The reality was that Terry Grieninger did not want the boy at his school. A judge could order the principal to educate Kameron, but there was no way to ensure he would treat Kameron fairly or provide an appropriate education.

Kathy knew her attorney was right. And since Paterson officials had admitted they could not educate Kameron, he would be eligible for a McKay Scholarship, a state-funded voucher to be used to pay for the school of her choice. She applied for the scholarship before the May 8, 2007 Resolution Meeting. The administration reiterated its offer to allow Kam to attend any other school in the county. This time, Kathy Clark agreed to the deal. It would buy some time, allowing Kam to finish the second grade at Paterson. He did, and on May 24, he rode the bus home from the school for the last time.

Kameron started school at Millennial Christian School on Jacksonville's Westside on Aug. 13, 2007. "He loves his new school," says his mom. "The teachers are knowledgeable and patient, and the administration is a pleasure to work with."

With instruction and inclusion, Kam has succeeded in doing exactly what some in the Clay County School District said he never would: writing in cursive, reading and making great strides in math.

But the strain of the battle with the Clay County School District and the responsibility of raising their child took its toll on Kathy and Tommy Clark's marriage. They recently divorced.

At the beginning of the 2007-'08 school year, Principal Grieninger directed that a "Parent Guide" be sent home to the parents of each student at Paterson Elementary. On page 25, the guide lists a host of classroom accommodations, test accommodations and special communication devices available for children with disabilities in all Clay County schools. Ironically, they are the very modifications that Kathy Clark asked for, but was unable to get for Kameron.

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