By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Paula Black spent years warning the state that the money it was handing out in her autistic son's name was being misspent at a private Akron Christian school.
When the state investigated this year, it concluded she was correct.
While Black still believes in the Autism Scholarship voucher program that allows her to seek private services instead of a public education, she wishes the state cared more about the quality of those services.
Hers was one of two complaints filed last school year with the Ohio Department of Education the first year that parents could question the value of services and both resulted in investigations that exposed improper use of state money.
A third complaint making similar allegations is now under investigation.
The program gives parents up to $20,000 a year to spend on private services from the state's list of 231 approved providers.
Black, the mother of a 15-year-old autistic boy, filed the first complaint, alleging that Emmanuel Christian Academy wasn't following the education plan established for her son.
''I really was naively under the impression that there were some guidelines, that there was some structure,'' Black said.
She said she couldn't believe that anybody ''would be stupid enough to give someone $20,000 and there's no accountability, no checks and balances. . . . .''
Black's son was born in 1995 and within two years, she noticed that he wasn't reaching
By kindergarten, he was falling behind but Black didn't know exactly what was wrong until the spring of 2002.
That's when a doctor at Akron Children's Hospital diagnosed her son with a condition on the less severe end of the autism spectrum called ''Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.''
Her son was enrolled in kindergarten at the academy. Black said that when she told the principal, Veronica Suber, about the diagnosis, Suber told her that the academy couldn't provide what her son needed and he'd have to withdraw.
Suber did not return repeated phone calls requesting a discussion about the autism program and Black's complaint.
Public school years
For the next three years, he attended Akron schools.
His mother always had to explain that although he has autism, he wasn't curled up in the corner banging his head against the wall.
Her son, whose name is being withheld at his mother's request, is a polite young man who enjoys playing video games and can tick off a litany of his favorites. But he needs a specialist to help him comprehend what he's reading, express himself in writing and reason through a math problem.
She worried that he lacked the street smarts to survive in a regular public school without a lot of support and tried unsuccessfully to find a better school.
Then one day she ran into the Emmanuel Academy principal at the supermarket.
She said Suber told her about a new state program that provided money to parents of autistic children to attend private schools. The academy was on the state's ''approved, registered'' list of providers for the Autism Scholarship Program.
Black had an Individualized Educational Program for her son from his time with Akron schools, so she was eligible to apply.
The individualized plan which is required to receive a scholarship spells out educational goals for the child and the specific services, such as speech therapy or one-on-one time with a specialist, needed to reach those goals.
The academy qualified because it had employees with the proper special education certification to work with her son on his individualized plan not unlike the services he had received in public schools.
Black's son was at Emmanuel for four years. But over time, she saw him falling behind, given assignments beyond his ability or simply given fewer questions than other kids instead of the extra support he needed.
Renita Walker, one of her son's teachers who has since left the school, admits that she didn't even have a teacher's license, much less any training to work with autistic children.
Walker had Black's son for half days when he was in the fourth grade.
''He sat in my classroom, but I didn't interact with him,'' Walker said. ''I know that there were times when I was teaching and he was somewhere else. He wasn't participating. I knew I couldn't interact with him.''
Black said she tried repeatedly to work things out with teachers, the principal and the school board. But at the same time, her son was growing increasingly upset about bullying.
''It happens at these bathrooms,'' Black said. ''They were messing with him when he was peeing. They were messing with him when he was changing. And it got built up and built up. Somebody tapped him. He just exploded, threw the milk carton and, whoever it was, hit the person in the eye, and he got in trouble, so he had to get a swat.''
Her son remembers the bullies and the swats.
''Sometimes when I was afraid I was going to get bullied again, sometimes I overreact and I got two swats for it,'' her son explained.
Paddling children with autism is never appropriate, according to Barb Yavorcik, executive director of the Autism Society of Ohio. ''You can't paddle the autism out of a kid.''
Told to go elsewhere
Whenever Black called the state to complain that Emmanuel wasn't fulfilling its obligations, she was told that if she didn't like the provider, she should just take the voucher money elsewhere.
''If you get bad service from McDonald's, you can complain to McDonald's,'' said Ohio Department of Education spokesman Scott Blake when asked about the general policy. ''If they don't fix it, you go to Burger King next time. We're in a parental choice setup.''
But switching schools for a single mother, who was raising two children while going to school herself and working long shifts as a nurse, isn't as easy as picking a restaurant in the mall's food court.
Black said she tried at the start of every year to find some place better, but other schools were either full or unable to provide the services her son needed.
Last Nov. 6, her frayed relationship with the school snapped as she argued that information about a school play was not made available to her.
With her son standing by her side, the principal informed her that her son could no longer attend the academy not because of anything he had done but because Black had complained too much.
Her son was crushed that he'd been expelled through no fault of his own, which prompted his mother to file a formal complaint with the state, a process that had only recently been made available to parents.
State backs family
The Ohio Department of Education investigation concluded that Emmanuel had shortchanged her son on time with a special education teacher providing just one hour a week of math and reading help instead of the required 90 minutes a day.
Emmanuel had believed the other time could be provided by classroom teachers who weren't certified in special education.
Emmanuel also billed the state for twice the required speech therapy and failed to deduct the costs of religious instruction such as field trips to a Kentucky creationism museum.
''We don't pay for Bible study, either,'' said Ann Guinan, assistant director for the Office for Exceptional Children at the Ohio Department of Education.
The state determined that academy must pay back $456.96.
But the state said that the only way her son could get the services he was owed was to attend academy three hours a day last summer the same school that expelled him last November.
Guinan acknowledged that parents don't like that answer.
''It's not about punishing,'' Guinan said of investigations.
''We don't have jail terms, fines. It's not that kind of law. We are assisting people to do what they're required to do under the law.''
Black refused to do that and academy agreed to pay for her son to make up the owed time at Sylvan Learning Center.
Black's son finished the last school year with another approved provider that Black says is doing a much better job.
But she still wishes the state exercised more oversight.
''Everybody's getting paid and this child is getting lost,'' Black said. ''It's a crime. This needs to stop.''