For the most part, Brooke Petro, 10, is blissfully unaware of an ongoing battle between her parents and the Blue Valley School District.
The legally blind 10-year-old competes in Braille contests during her spare time. After school, she works with a instructor to learn to navigate her world — this week she used a cane and a GPS device to find her way to an ice cream store.
She wants to work for NASA someday. This week, she’s headed to a special camp for visually impaired kids at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
As Brooke continues to prep for adulthood as a visually impaired person, her parents, Soren Petro, a popular Sports Radio 810 WHB personality, and his wife, Lyn, an occupational therapist, are prepared to extend a legal battle with the Blue Valley School District. The dispute has lasted almost two years and cost the district more than $130,000 in legal fees.
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The question? Whether school officials needed the Petros’ consent when they tweaked a legal document that outlines what special needs services Brooke receives and then stopped paying for Braille materials she uses at the private school she’s attended since kindergarten.
If Brooke lived in another state, she’d likely receive little to no public school support by attending private school. But Kansas law requires that districts provide the same special needs services to private school children that are afforded to public school children.
From the time Brooke was in kindergarten until halfway through third grade, the Petros say the Blue Valley school district committed to paying for Brooke’s Braille materials. They wrote that commitment into the legal document that parents and school teams typically review once a year.
Then in January 2016, the Petros say, the district told them that they would no longer pay for Brooke’s Braille materials after her third grade year.
After withdrawing an initial complaint, the Petros hired an attorney last summer and filed a due process complaint against the school district early this year.
They believe the school district didn’t follow the right procedures for withdrawing those services, and circumvented the process that would have allowed them to discuss the decision with school officials. In the meantime, the Petros say they’ve spent $24,000 providing Brooke’s materials themselves, in addition to their own attorney’s fees.
The district has said it gets to decide where special education services are provided, and is not obligated to braille private school materials.
Earlier this year, a hearing officer sided with the Petros, ordering the district to backpay the Petros for the cost of Braille materials used since January 2016. Then the district and the Petros could reconvene to discuss future services.
But the district appealed and won. Lyn and Soren Petro say they will contest that decision in state or federal court.
Soren Petro said he knows many parents would have likely bowed out of the legal process by now.
“The better move for us would be to take our lumps and move on and keep doing our brailling,” he told The Star. “We are the parents that have said, ‘That’s it, we’ll fight it. OK, we won’t get to retire when we want to, the way we want to, but we are going to do what’s right.”
A question of process
Lyn and Soren Petro decided that Brooke would learn Braille just before her third birthday.
Most visually impaired people never learn to read, Lyn Petro said. Illiteracy makes it hard for some to graduate high school, move on to college and become employed.
“We did all of our research,” Lyn Petro said. “We decided that’s not what was going to happen to our daughter.”
So the couple paid for Brooke to attend the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired during her preschool years.
When it came time for kindergarten and it became obvious that the Blue Valley School District would not be able to provide certain resources, the Petros made the decision to send Brooke to private school.
There, Brooke would have more time with a visual impairment teacher and could work with an orientation and mobility instructor to help her learn to navigate.
Through the same process that any public special needs student undergoes, the Petros met with school officials before kindergarten to determine what services she would need from the district.
The Petros agreed to pay for their daughter’s visual impairment teacher, an orientation and mobility instructor and other materials while the school district would pay for her Braille materials.
The agreement was written into Brooke’s individualized education program, or IEP, a contract of sorts between parents and school districts. IEPs are legal documents that outline goals, services and plans for special needs kids.
Specific school officials, as well as parents, are required to be present at annual meetings to update an IEP. Together, the group agrees on what a student needs to be successful that year.
There are procedures to follow to amend the plan throughout the year, with a parent’s consent. Kansas law states that districts can change plans without parent consent if they are adjusting less than 25 percent of the services a student receives.
But in January 2016, the Petros said special education directors called a meeting at Brooke’s private school and told them that the district would no longer pay for their Braille services after the completion of the 2015-16 school year.
The Petros say their daughter’s IEP was amended to reflect that, despite their objections.
According to Lyn Petro, the district offered to let Brooke use the school district’s Braille materials, but those materials do not match the curriculum she studies at private school.
Lyn Petro also said directors told her they were concerned about setting a precedent that the district would pay for Braille materials for other children who go to private school.
While the Blue Valley School District did not speak specifically to Brooke’s case because of privacy reasons, communications director Kristi McNerlin issued a statement related to the district’s Braille services.
“The School District does provide the District’s materials in braille format for students enrolled in the District who are visually impaired,” the statement read.
“Because the District’s materials can be used in future years by the District’s visually impaired students, there is long-term value in brailling these materials. The District also provides the District’s materials in braille format for visually impaired students who reside in the District’s boundaries but elect to attend private schools. The law does not require the District to braille the private school materials.”
Lyn Petro said she and her husband are not litigating the case because the district opted not to pay for Braille services. She said they are fighting back because the district circumvented the process that would have allowed them to discuss the change in the first place.
“Our case is about that they changed our child’s IEP without our consent, without calling an IEP meeting and that process is not what the law states has to have happened,” Lyn Petro said.
Here’s why that’s important, said Nancy Huerta, a special education lawyer representing the Petros.
When parents and school districts enter the dispute process, a safeguard called a “stay-put” essentially freezes a student’s most recent plan until the issue is resolved. That prevents a district from rapidly changing special education services to quickly save money. It also protects a student from changes that might not be upheld in court.
Hearing officers ultimately decide if the changes in question constitute the “free and appropriate public education” required by state law.
If Brooke’s IEP had not been altered, the Petros would have continued to receive Braille services while working the issue out in court.
But the district amended Brooke’s IEP to circumvent the “stay-put” requirement, Huerta said, ensuring that the Petros would have to pay for Brooke’s Braille materials while fighting the decision. Huerta said this was “cheating.”
“It’s not about Braille,” Huerta said. “It’s not about services at a private school. It’s not about what a school district is obligated to do at a private school. This is about the school district not following process.”
The $24,000 the Petros say they have spent on Braille print, software, books, keyboards and other technology that Brooke needs includes a special printer that allows them to braille books and worksheets themselves.
That — coupled with attorney fees to participate in a Kansas State Department of Education hearing process that historically has not sided with parents — would be an impossibility for parents with less resources, Huerta said.
According to school records, the district has paid more than $130,000 in legal fees in due process hearings with the Petros. That’s more than five times what the Petros said it cost them to provide Brooke’s materials themselves this year.
The Blue Valley School District said the cost of brailling materials for visually impaired students can change from year to year. It did not release figures on how much it has spent annually on Brooke.
So why fight the Petros?
The school district could not say specifically but offered a statement.
“We care deeply about this student,” McNerlin said. “We have a longstanding history of great success serving not only Blue Valley students, but private school students who attend our schools for special programs or services. One of the pillars of our work is providing our students with tools, opportunities and methods for learning. We whole-heartily embrace this responsibility.”
Soren Petro believes the district is fighting back to show others how expensive and tedious it can be to push back against district decisions.
“It is absolutely: We will outspend you,” Soren Petro said.
Soren Petro said he and his wife aim to bring awareness to rules and procedures that make it difficult for parents to advocate for their kids.
He wants lawmakers to consider making it harder to districts to adjust IEPs without parental consent, or create statutes that more clearly state expectations and requirements.
He said he and his wife are in it for the long haul. For now, his wife, Brooke and her little sister make her school materials from a printer in her home.
“At the end of the day you’re not going to get anything out of this case but your money back,” Petro said. “In the meantime, you’ve got to make your Braille publishing house in your home.”