When Maricela signed papers enrolling her young son Jonathan in special education to help with his speech, she had no idea she was starting a five-year battle with the schools. “They tell me he has a speech delay. He was only 3-years old. And they said if I sign a paper, they can get more help for him to help him to speak faster.”
Spanish is Maricela’s first language, and she says, “My English is not good, but back then it was worse.” When she signed and put her son in special education, she “didn’t understand what is all that about. I didn’t know. I didn’t have that kind of issue before with my three older kids. So I thought it was good for him, that they [would] help him.”
Today, Maricela would say to herself, “You have to ask more questions; you have to make sure this is going to be best for your son. Maybe there are more options; look for those options!” She says, “I think it’s bad that they don’t explain the consequence or the good or the bad things about that. It was really hard.” Knowing what she knows today, Maricela wouldn’t have signed the papers.
Over time, she’s grown confident in her own voice as she advocated for her son’s. But what she didn’t have before was the deep support network she’s developed while living on Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus.
Jonathan started preschool soon after the family moved into a new apartment at Sand Point Housing. From preschool through 2nd grade, he was placed in special ed classrooms with some classmates living with physical and developmental disabilities so severe, they could neither verbalize nor move on their own. Maricela has always known her son is smart; he did well on other tests, he just didn’t speak much. Almost right away, she realized special ed “was a mistake. I start[ed] thinking that’s not a good place for him.”
At home, Maricela read to Jonathan, who could repeat stories back to her word-for-word. His memory and ability to learn were clear to his mom. Solid Ground case managers connected him with speech therapy, counseling and an adult mentor – and he did make progress. But at school, his special ed IEP (Individual Education Plan) didn’t reflect his potential. Instead of being challenged to read, he learned that if he acted out – biting, screaming and refusing to do his work – he’d be allowed to play.
He also started internalizing a destructive message – that he couldn’t learn. Daily, he’d say, “I’m stupid! You pressure me too much! I quit!” Before special ed, Maricela says Jonathan never had behavior problems. “He didn’t hit or bite. But after starting the program, he started getting frustrated, biting other classmates, kicking, biting, hitting – that kind of issues.” Then one day, when they called her to pick him up, she found him tied to a chair with restraints.
“It broke my heart. My son was really down, and I think that affected him a lot! And I remember I [felt] so bad, because I think it’s my fault to sign those papers. That’s the hardest thing [that] happen[ed]! And I really want[ed] him out of there.” She had to change the situation and vowed, “I don’t want to see that happen again!”
In IEP meetings, Maricela requested Jonathan be taken out of special ed, but she says, “When I go by myself, it’s like I’m talking with the wall. Nobody listens [to] what I said.” She knew she had to find a better way to advocate for him – and through her community at Sand Point Housing, she found the support she needed to amplify her own voice and get her son’s needs met.
‘Who’s on your team?’
“In 1st and 2nd grade, I started asking people to go with me, because when I complained when he was restrained in the preschool, [the school said] it wasn’t OK, but nothing happened.” First, her family advocates began attending IEP meetings with her. Then Jonathan’s Spanish-speaking therapist from Ryther Center for Children & Youth, Mariana Sampaio, LMHC, MSW, CPP, joined her. Even with just one other person in the room, she says she felt more heard and the teachers were “more careful [about] what they say or what they do.”
Bellen Drake, her current Family Advocate, started helping with paperwork. Maricela says, “I didn’t understand many things. Now, Bellen helped me a lot! Papers that I don’t understand, I come first to her – so now because of her, I understand more about the situation.”
So Bellen encouraged her to expand her support network, asking, “Who’s on your team? How are you going to deal with challenges if you don’t have a team?” Maricela pulled together an amazing group of people in Jonathan’s life: Bellen, Ms. Prussing, Mariana Sampaio, Marco (his big brother), Marjon (a Parent Educator from a Sand Point Housing parenting group), and Sofia Deglel (a neighbor and friend who successfully advocated to keep her own diabetic son out of special ed).
Maricela also gives a lot of credit to a North Seattle College “Family Connectors” class offered to parents at Sand Point Housing. “They come here and teach us how to advocate for our kids. They have very good ideas and we learn a lot there. So I started taking more people with me for the IEP meeting – there’s a lot of people, and [the school] didn’t like it!” Still, they would not acknowledge her right to take Jonathan out of special ed.
Voicing community support
Just weeks before Jonathan was to start 3rd grade in a special ed classroom, this “team” had Maricela’s back, accompanying her to meetings with school staff. It made all the difference. She says, “One voice maybe is not heard, but when voice[s] got together, then they listen[ed].” With her team at her side, she requested three things the schools said were impossible:
1) Remove Jonathan from special ed.
2) Have him repeat 2nd grade, allowing him to catch up with important learning building blocks he missed by being in special ed.
3) Allow them to choose Ms. Prussing as his 2nd grade teacher.
The school’s initial response to all three? “No! Impossible.” But each teammate spoke to their experiences with Jonathan, describing evidence of his ability to learn with the right support. Each person advocated for why Maricela’s demands should be met.
Maricela says, “I think that the one [that] push[ed] the most is Sofia,” her neighbor and friend. Having been through a similar situation with her own son, Sofia said, “Let me make this clear: If she [doesn’t] want him in the special education, it’s her right to say no.” Bellen adds, “It was quiet for a minute, and [Sofia] said, ‘She doesn’t want it!’ And Maricela said, ‘No, I don’t want it.'”
By the end of the final IEP meeting, she achieved the “impossible” three times over: Jonathan would repeat the 2nd grade in Ms. Prussing’s general ed classroom. She beams as she describes how this felt: “Empowering! Our team was really good!”
Parents helping parents
Through this process, Maricela learned she was not alone in her struggle – and that inappropriate special ed placement disproportionately impacts families of color. She noticed that most of the white kids in special ed had extremely severe disabilities. Meanwhile, other teachers confirmed there are many white kids in general ed who have much lower skills than Jonathan.
Maricela’s voice is strong and clear when she says, “That’s why we need to advocate for our kids and help them out. Because when they’re behind when they get out of the special education, they’re always going to be behind, it’s not worth mak[ing] that effort. They just drop out of school. And they don’t have a career, they can’t work, and they end up doing stupid things.”
Maricela hopes that her experiences will help other parents. She says, “It’s really hard to talk about this, but I think it might help somebody else who is struggling with this [type of] situation.”
A brighter future
Today, five months into the school year, Jonathan’s reading has progressed from level A to H. Maricela says, “He’s doing much better and he feels very confident, and his behavior is getting better too. I’m really happy!” It hasn’t been easy. She volunteers in his classroom for several hours every afternoon and works with him every day at home. He still sometimes says he wants to quit, but he no longer acts out.
She says he no longer says he’s stupid, either: “Before, it was an everyday word. Every day I repeat with him, ‘I am smart, kind and handsome,’ and he likes that part, of course! He is getting more aware of his potential, because when he’s reading he says, ‘I know how to read! You want me to read a book for you?’” It makes all of the effort worthwhile.