JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — For parents of children with disabilities, finding the right school can be difficult.
In some cases, local parents claim their children with autism were denied access to certain schools, despite state and federal laws.
Autism impacts communications, social skills and behavior.
The National Autism Association said it now affects 1 in 59 children.
Adam Kirk, who works at the company that own Actions News Jax, said his 7-year-old son Jacob, who has autism, was turned away from a school.
“His enrollment was initially accepted until they found out he had autism,” Kirk said. “Once they found that out, they said ‘Well, we don’t think he’s a good fit anymore,’ and they denied it.”
Jacob needs one-on-one attention in the classroom because of his IEP—an Individualized Education Program.
“It’s hard to find a place that will accommodate his special needs, even though they’re required to,” Kirk said.
Kirk said it wasn't until he threatened the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act that they decided to give his son a chance, but the family found a different school for Jacob instead.
Jacob's story isn't unique.
Shawnteria Marlow contacted to Action News Jax in August for help after she claimed a charter school refused to accept her son with autism.
“I feel like my son was turned away because of his disability,” Marlow said. “It felt like [the school] discriminated against him.”
It’s against the law for public schools and charter schools to turn away students because of special needs.
However, Action News Jax learned there’s a catch.
The Florida Department of Education said it’s not discriminatory for charters to suggest a different school that would better serve a student with disabilities.
Action News Jax analyzed FLDOE enrollment data for school districts in northeast Florida and southeast Georgia for the 2018-2019 school year.
We found in Clay, Columbia, Duval and Putnam counties, charter schools enrolled fewer special education students.
St. Johns County charter schools enrolled more of those students—36% compared to 15.5% in public schools.
FLDOE spokesperson Cheryl Etters said every school can’t serve every child and what matters is that the student thrives academically.
“Just like traditional public schools, each charter school has different resources and may not have the ability to meet the demands of a student with specific disabilities,” Etters said via email.
Dr. Lynn Wadelton, a clinical psychologist at First Coast Therapy Group, has worked with hundreds of local families.
“Now, we’re realizing there’s a lot of functional ability in kids with autism,” Dr. Wadelton said.
If your child is turned away from a school, Dr. Wadelton said try to work something out. She then suggested looking at your legal options.
“They do fail if they are cherry picking the children that they take,” Dr Wadelton said. “They do fail if they are not providing a free and appropriate public education to meet the actual needs of the children who apply.”
Both parents believe it comes down to money.
“A lot of schools do everything they possibly can to discourage people with autism or other types of special needs children from going there because it’s more money they have to spend out of their pocket,” Kirk said.
Kirk said every child deserves a quality education, and that’s priceless.