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Parents of student with autism search for a school, with no luck


For the past eight months, Jennifer Schuh has felt powerless as she watches her 8-year-old son with special needs sit at home, isolated from his peers and unable to attend school.

Diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder while he was in preschool in early 2021, her son has spent little time in a classroom because of numerous roadblocks.

Schuh has toured specialized schools, hired an in-home tutor, created at-home lesson plans herself and eventually filed a grievance against the school district. Now, she doesn’t know what else to do to help her son.

Experts say a slew of factors are frustrating special education families in Illinois – including a shortage of teachers, school aides and substitute teachers in addition to a lack of space and resources at therapeutic day schools.

And as Schuh’s experience illuminates, solutions are not readily available for some of Illinois’ most high-need young students when public districts lacking resources can not guarantee school placements, even though they are federally mandated to provide a free and appropriate education for special education students.

COVID, experts say, has made matters worse.

In the wake of the pandemic demand for more intense educational services is high, said Charles Fox, a special education lawyer based in Buffalo Grove who has represented families in similar cases for the past 30 years. The current need for special education puts pressure on the supply of available desks and families seeking services.

“I’m afraid we’re going to see it for at least the next 10 years,” Fox said.

Last year, after a brief stint in a first-grade public elementary school classroom for students with special needs, Schuh’s son’s behavioral outbursts led the school district and his parents to agree to send him to a therapeutic day school to provide him with the customized instruction and emotional support he needs. Under state law, the district would pay for the day school tuition. But first, a school had to be found.

For months, the process dragged.

Jennifer Schuh tears up while discussing her son B., 8, who is Autistic, and her struggles with getting assistance and schooling, at their home in Westmont, Feb. 23, 2024. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune)
Jennifer Schuh tears up while discussing her son B., 8, who is Autistic, and her struggles with getting assistance and schooling, at their home in Westmont, Feb. 23, 2024. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune)

Schuh is in a similar situation as other Illinois parents seeking alternatives to a traditional public school. The Tribune is using her son’s first initial, B., to respect privacy concerns.

When searching for a school for B., a school that seemed promising would say it did not have room. Another would turn him away after he displayed behavioral issues during an on-site tour. Another school was too far from where Schuh lives in suburban Westmont, a village just east of Downers Grove.

Despite officials at their son’s school district, Downers Grove District 58, contacting more than 30 therapeutic day schools for a spot, Jennifer Schuh, and B.’s father, Eric Schuh, have been unable to enroll him this academic year.

Some schools that D58 recommended had bad reputations in the special education community – leading Schuh not to feel comfortable sending her son there.

“This has taken all my energy,” said Schuh, 38. “It just really wears on you trying to figure out the solution to this problem,” she said. Schuh said she feels she has “zero support from the school district that’s supposed to help everybody.”

The Schuhs have argued that until space in a therapeutic school opens, their public school in District 58 should temporarily place B. back in a public school classroom for kids with special needs.

But District 58 school officials say B.’s behavior is too disruptive for their teachers, already overwhelmed in understaffed classrooms.

After months of back-and-forth, the Schuhs filed a complaint with the state board of education, saying the school district did not fulfill its duty to their son. An impartial hearing officer sided with the school district, leaving the Schuh family without a solution.

These days, B. stays at home during the school day, with little social interaction or learning instruction, besides twice-a-week in-home tutoring paid for by the school district, his mother said.

As his absence from school stretches on and a solution appears to be out of reach, Schuh doesn’t know how he will bounce back and restart school, now nearly a grade behind his peers.

“He’s sitting at home doing nothing,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take for him to recover from this.”

Special education in Illinois

Jennifer Schuh tries to get her son B., 8, who is Autistic, off the game, while at their home in Westmont, Feb. 23, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Jennifer Schuh tries to get her son B., 8, who is Autistic, off the game, while at their home in Westmont, Feb. 23, 2024. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Special education services are broad in scope and tailored to students individually.

More than 278,000 students, or 15% of public school students in Illinois, require special education services in the public school system, according to the Illinois State Board of Education 2023 Report Card released in October.

The percentage of Illinois students requiring special education support has increased compared to a decade earlier, when 13.6% of students required special education services according to ISBE data.

Pandemic conditions contributed to an uptick in special education students, according to Fox, the special education attorney.

Long periods of virtual education and social isolation have created learning and social delays. Consequently, parents are recognizing that their children need the extra support special education provides to get their children up to speed.

“The little ones are getting older and older, and they are still feeling the aftereffects of that time out of school over a period of years,” Fox said.

In 2023, students with autism – like B. – made up 11% of Illinois students in special education. But students across the state have varying disabilities — from developmental delays to speech impairments — each with their own set of needs and support.

Placements for students with special needs range from general education classrooms with extra support from teachers or aides to what are called “self-contained” classrooms filled with only special education students to residential boarding schools, which are generally considered the most restrictive kind of special education.

A team of parents, teachers, administrators and therapists in the school and school district decide where a student should be placed. In B.’s case, the team decided that a therapeutic day school – with smaller classrooms and more intensive support – would be most beneficial after a semester in a Downers Grove public school.

Placement decisions rely on an IEP, or Individual Education Plan, which is a legal, binding document that public schools must follow. Parents are a part of the team that develops the document and must sign off on the final decision

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