From the time her boy was diagnosed with severe autism at age 2, Kim Riley has striven to do what she thinks is best for her son who, now 18, can speak some words but is largely nonconversational.
For Riley, doing her best has always meant occasional visits to Kendall’s elementary or middle school classes — sitting, watching and learning what he was capable of so that she might better help him at home.
“I’ve always been part of his educational team,” said Riley, who said that until recently, in two other school districts, she had always been allowed to make appointments to watch her son in his classes. “He cannot tell me what goes on in class, so I need to observe him.”
But in 2015, after Kendall — now 18 and standing 6-foot-3 — began living in a Raytown group home and thus entered the Raytown School District, Riley hit a wall.
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The district denied Riley’s request to observe her son at Raytown High School inside what is known as a “self-contained” classroom for children with significant disabilities because it possibly would violate the privacy rights of other students under FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Riley was flabbergasted, as no such policy exists at many of the large districts in the Kansas City area, including Olathe, Blue Valley, Lee’s Summit, Park Hill and Shawnee Mission.
None of those districts has a full open-door policy. For example, parents must make appointments, give notice, talk to teachers about what it is they hope to see or achieve by their visits and limit their time in the classroom. In general, the rules that govern other students also govern those with disabilities.
“We have no problems with parents wanting to observe their children even if they’re placed in a self-contained program,” said Jackie Chatman, director of special education at Shawnee Mission School District. “They have the right just like all parents to observe their children.”
Kansas City Public Schools has a similar policy to Raytown’s. If parents want to observe their child in a self-contained classroom with other children with disabilities, the district would arrange for the other children to first be removed to protect their privacy under FERPA, district spokesman Ray Weikal said.
“In that situation, we would arrange a one-on-one,” Weikal said.
Riley said the Raytown district never explicitly offered her such an option. But even if it had, she thinks it is beside the point.
“If Kendall was not disabled,” said Riley, 46, “I’d be allowed to visit and observe him in class.”
Thus, in October 2015, Riley filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which began an investigation, the results of which Riley has anticipated for more than a year. It is ongoing.
In early March of this year, the Office for Civil Rights sent Riley an email stating “our negotiations with the District to resolve the case before the OCR makes legal findings concluded unsuccessfully.” The office indicated that it would take the next move in issuing a “letter of finding” regarding whether it has determined that the Raytown district is in noncompliance.
Danielle Nixon, a spokeswoman for the Raytown district, said she was not at liberty to talk specifically about Riley or her complaint. She said the district encourages parents to be involved in their children’s education.
“We don’t make it a point to deny requests from parents to see their students in the classroom,” Nixon said.
Email correspondence between Riley and Raytown’s director of special education shows that the district was looking to find a middle-ground solution.
“We are unable to allow you to observe Kendall in the self-contained classroom due to confidentiality of other children,” one email reads. “... Our Board policy on Visitors to District Property does encourage parents to be an active part of their child’s education. At the same time, we must maintain an instructional environment and cannot allow observations that could be disruptive to that learning environment. … We want to to honor your request while respecting the confidentiality of other students.”
The email suggests that Riley might visit her son during a “general education setting,” such as gym, lunch or breakfast. The district also offered another option to “create a setting that allows the teacher and Kendall to be working together.”
Advocates for the disabled said the larger issue of parental rights versus student privacy is hardly black and white; it is a matter of competing rights.
“There are different districts across the state that do it differently,” said Byron Koster, a senior advocate for 21 years with Missouri Protection and Advocacy Services. “The real question is, is the school district discriminating in any way, violating this student’s rights. In my opinion, no, they are not.”
As Riley sees it, she is fighting for a larger point. She is convinced that because her son is disabled, he is being denied the help that comes from a parent being fully informed, and thus Kendall is being denied an equal education. She just wants to see how he operates in the classroom, around other people, and what skills he is learning.
“Usually the complaint is the parents aren’t involved enough,” Riley said. “Why is it OK to blatantly discriminate against these students?”
Besides that, she argues, if the issue is the privacy of other students, how does allowing her to see her son in gym or at lunch protect the privacy of other students? Students with severe autism or other disabilities, she said, are also likely to be at gym or at lunch and thus identifiable.
They are also identifiable in general education classes, in the school hallways and on school athletic fields, she said. If privacy is the issue, why is it not the issue in every classroom with all visitors?
Kendall is set to graduate this month from Raytown High School. But because he has a disability, he will still be attending classes within the district until he is 21.
Riley intends to see him there.
“My child can’t come home and tell me things,” she said. “It’s imperative I get feedback.”