Suzette Farnum loves her son’s school. It may not have the best resources, but the teachers and administrators are responsive to her concerns and seem dedicated about getting her son the help he needs, and staff members are consistently updating her on her son’s progress.
The school, she said, "has really gone the extra mile" for her son, who has autism.
Tassie Kreutz can’t say the same about her daughters’ school. She fought with teachers and administrators at the campus for more than 12 months over the services she believed her children should be getting. The school, again and again, said her daughters weren’t eligible for special education. Then, everything changed.
Seemingly out of the blue, the school determined Kreutz was right.
By that time, Kreutz was convinced the school was more concerned about money than getting her daughters educational help. "It was a complete nightmare," she said.
Remarkably, both Farnum and Kreutz send their children to the same school, Leihoku Elementary in Waianae. Farnum’s son, Levi, is 5 and has been at the school since he was in preschool. Kreutz’s two daughters who attend the school, Tatum and Torie, are 7 and 6. A third daughter is in a residential home.
The Department of Education couldn’t comment because of privacy issues.
The experiences of Farnum and Kreutz represent near polar opposites — and advocates say that’s not all that unusual. In Hawaii, the delivery of special education not only differs by school, but also differs within schools. One parent can have a great relationship with teacher and staff, while another can feel intimidated or slighted.
Some of that, they say, is simply human nature. And parents aren’t always in the right or always pleasant to deal with, especially when they have to discuss some tough issues about how far their child is behind or what progress their child isn’t making.
There are also inevitable disputes between parents and schools over what services constitute a free appropriate public education, the mandate schools must follow under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. "Appropriate is in the eye of the beholder," said Ivalee Sinclair, Special Education Advisory Council chairwoman.
But some of the problems are also more systemic, advocates say.
A lack of training and poor communication can lead to misinformation and mistrust.
Kreutz, whose daughters are adopted and have been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (the youngest also has a form of autism), said things have improved since Leihoku started offering special-education services. And she’s starting to build up her trust in the school again.
Farnum, meanwhile, said she is seeing progress in her son, Levi. And she acknowledged that though she believes Leihoku staff is working hard for her son, she also feels like getting her son services is a constant battle. One of her biggest complaints is the dearth of qualified personnel to work with children, especially in rural areas.
"It never feels like I can ever relax," she said.