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Knox County; IEP board denies ABA services; "parents are outnumbered"

Apr 17 2023, Knox News, Knoxville, TN: Parents push for autism therapy after 'exhausting' fight with Knox County Schools

In three-minute slots, one after the other, parents of students with special needs stood before Knox County school board members to tell their stories.

They pleaded for resources for their kids, specifically for a therapy they know works and is used in nearby districts.

They described the challenges they’ve faced navigating Knox County Schools as parents of kids on the autism spectrum.

They spoke in February. They spoke again in March. And again in April. And each time, nothing changed in how Knox County Schools treats students with special needs even though the district says it's looking for ways to improve.

Knox County Schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington said the Student Success Team and Superintendent Jon Rysewyk are working to identify opportunities for improvement for kids with special needs.

The parents say the kids, some as young as 4 years old, are missing out on critical interventions at a crucial time in their development.

The Knox County Schools director of special education says the district could offer the therapy if it's deemed necessary for a kid. The hang-up is over who has the final say on whether the therapy is approved and, right now, parents and school officials disagree.

So the parents are going over the heads of school district leaders. They've asked the school board to force administrators to allow parents of kids on the autism spectrum to demand a commonly used and proven therapy that helps their children learn and navigate life. Knox County Schools says it's looking to find a solution

Special needs administrators and the superintendent say they've heard the parents' concerns….

The frustrated parents aren't waiting. They're pushing for a new policy, mandated by the school board, that requires KCS to provide a specific therapy parents want and then implementing it as soon as possible….

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA as it's commonly called, improves social skills for children and adults on the autism spectrum using direct interventions. It can be used to help students effectively navigate social settings.

The therapy is backed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is approved by most insurance providers and is offered at neighboring districts, including in Loudon and Jefferson counties….

What happens if parents and district disagree on what's best for the student?

KCS says it’s providing all the necessary support students need, but parents feel strongly otherwise. The dispute centers on how the students’ individualized education plans are structured for the year. An individualized education plan assesses a student's needs and creates a roadmap for how to best educate the child and what services to provide….

The IEP team at the start of every school year assesses the child's current abilities and comes up with a goal for progress to be made by the end of the year. At the end of IEP meetings, the district puts its findings and conclusions in writing.

For students with special needs, an IEP team consists of at minimum an administrator such as a principal or assistant principal, a special education teacher, a teacher who knows the child and a parent, said Karen Loy, Knox County Schools' director of special education.

Depending on the child’s needs, therapists also could be a part of the conversation.

Ultimately, the decision whether to allow ABA therapy ‒ or any other kind of service ‒ is determined by the IEP team. And the parents are outnumbered.

"The hope is that the IEP team is in agreement," Loy said.

The district has the authority to determine if ABA therapy is necessary for a child as a part of their free and appropriate public education, state department of education spokesperson Brian Blackley told Knox News.

So far, no KCS student IEP team has ever recommended ABA therapy, Harrington said…

. Several parents told Knox News they feel helpless to influence the outcome of an IEP recommendation. They argue it's them against the district in deciding what plan is adopted, and the district holds all the power….

Some members from a group of parents – 90 members strong now, according to Piper — sent a draft policy to board members for their consideration. Piper has also reached out to school board members directly, she said.

“While there is a lot of empathy and compassion for our individual situation, I’ve not seen any inclination for action," she said….

Cortney Piper has been advocating for her son Aidan and other students like him to get access to ABA therapy in Knox County schools. BRIANNA PACIORKA/NEWS SENTINEL


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