Judging Autism

Parents of autistic children win two important lawsuits against local school systems. Is Virginia ready for the fallout?
By Brandon Walters

James Peterson has autism, a developmental disability that significantly impedes a child’s capacity to communicate, talk and socially interact with others.

In late August, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne ruled that Peterson didn’t receive what federal law entitles every child under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: a free and appropriate public education in the least-restrictive environment.

“The question is, who pays for him to be where he is [now]?” his mother asks. “That’s the gray area in the law.”

The Petersons’ case against Hanover County Public Schools marks the second time in three months that Judge Payne has sided with parents of autistic children who claimed that public school systems broke the law by failing to properly educate a child with autism and, consequently, had to provide private-school tuition reimbursement.

Linda Peterson says her son’s experience in public schools was a disaster, accompanied by a significant regression in reading and communicating. Conversely, she says, he progressed well in a one-on-one, private-school setting.

Payne’s recent decisions are a departure from the norm in which school districts routinely win legal battles such as the Petersons’. The rulings have been the buzz of educators, parents of children with disabilities, lawyers and politicians. They also underscore a growing problem within the realm of special education: How well are public schools providing for the specific and increasing needs of children with autism?

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