Fmr. Teacher of Year fights for son's education

Posted at 7:09 PM, May 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-25 10:16:32-04

Last year she was celebrated by her district - named 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Now one mother and teacher says she is being forced by the Walled Lake Consolidated School District to fights for her son’s legal rights. 

Melody Arabo showed 7 Action News video of her five-year-old son Adam writing numbers. He and his twin brother Ashton learned to write their numbers in kindergarten at Keith Elementary in Walled Lake Schools.

“In kindergarten, within the first few months, they know their colors, numbers and they were writing their names,” said Arabo.

Then in January the Arabo family suffered unthinkable tragedy.  Ashton died of the flu.

The same month, the family got news that the school district wanted to move forward with a disputed plan to move Adam this school year to another school with a class exclusively for cognitively impaired kids. 

Though Adam was learning, he was developmentally delayed. He has a severe speech impairment, which makes it challenging to understand what he knows.

“When you know your child, when you know your goals for your child and you get so much resistance, it is really hard,” said Arabo. “Research shows kids with speech impairments benefit from being around peers with high vocabulary."

The school district released a statement to 7 Action News saying:

Our hearts go out to Melody Arabo and her family on the passing of Ashton. We continue to grieve along with the entire school district the tragic loss of this young life. We are very proud of Mrs. Arabo and her teaching expertise as the past State Teacher of the Year. She is a valuable resource to our District. Separate from this, is the fact that we have a disagreement about her child’s education.

Melody Arabo says she and her husband asked the Michigan Department of Education to look into whether the school was violating her son’s civil rights. The state started its investigation. It called on Walled Lake Consolidated Schools to keep Adam in his current mainstream class while it comes to a decision. 

The school did not wait for the Michigan Department of Education to make a decision on whether making Adam go to school outside his community school violated his rights.  It took legal action, requesting a due process hearing. This forced the state to pause its investigation for the hearing.

A due process hearing is a legal proceeding, during which it is often recommended one be represented by an attorney.

“We are going to have to pour every minute of our time and life savings into fighting for our kid, when all we want is him to go to school where he has been all year and all we want is him to be educated with his peers as the law says he should,” said Arabo of her concerns when she heard the school took this decision.

She has fortunately found special education advocates to help her.

However, the Federal Department of Education says her concerns are all too common. It sent out a letter last year asking schools to let their states investigate claims and avoid due process hearings, if at all possible.

It says:

While a public agency has the right to file a due process complaint, we believe that in some situations, a public agency's filing of a due process complaint after a parent has filed a state complaint on the same issues may unreasonably deny a parent the right to use the state complaint process. It appears that in some instances, public agencies may have filed due process complaints against parents in an effort to prevent the state complaint process from moving forward.

The letter also raises concerns about the cost of such hearings. Legal fees can add up to the tens of thousands of dollars for both parents and school districts during them.

The district responded saying:

While we respect the Michigan Department of Education and certainly will cooperate with them, we believe the due process hearing is important to ensure a fair and objective hearing in a reasonable time frame. Our first priority remains providing  Mrs. Arabo’s son with the best educational environment to achieve his ongoing personalized learning objectives.

In the meantime, a 5th grader at the Keith Elementary School named Amanda Dunn started a petition online just yesterday asking for Walled Lake Schools to reconsider. She already has more than 700 signatures.

She says, while Adam can’t speak for him self, she will make sure his voice counts.

“It is not fair to people with special needs to just kick them out because they are different,” said Amanda Dunn, a 5th grader. “Even though they are not really different than us. They just have a disability.”

The due process hearings will happen over the summer.