Illness pits family against Bethel school
MELISSA SANTOS; The News Tribune
The mother of a student with a brain tumor is fighting the Bethel School District over whether the girl should get special consideration under federal disability laws.
Sixteen-year-old Gauvrielle Harp missed dozens of days as a sophomore at Bethel High School last year because of medical appointments and illness.
Gauvrielle’s mother, Tanya Williams, wanted Gauvrielle placed on an individualized plan to help her succeed and to give her extra time to do assignments.
But district officials refused, saying they never were told details about Gauvrielle’s illness that would qualify her for a specialized plan. They also say they worked to accommodate her many absences in other ways.
Things got so bad that Williams pulled her daughter out of the Bethel School District this summer. Gauvrielle will start school at the Puyallup Tribe’s Chief Leschi High School next week.
Gauvrielle’s case illustrates the miscommunications that can arise between families and schools during a prolonged and emotionally draining medical crisis. It also shows the tough choices that must be made: Let a child advance with her class, fail her, or place her in an alternative program that she may not want.
Williams still wants Bethel to give her daughter credit for classes she believes Gauvrielle failed as a result of the school not working around the illness. She said she has also filed a federal complaint.
“I want my child to be able to get full credit for all the work she did,” said Williams.
Doctors reports indicate Gauvrielle has a tumor on her pituitary gland that doesn’t seem to be growing, but may be connected to other neurological problems.
Gauvrielle reports she’s lost the ability to see out of her right eye and has lost feeling on one side of her body. She said she has seizures that can last from 30 seconds to one hour, during which she uncontrollably stares into space and can’t hear or process information.
Sometimes she’s had them in school, she said, and her teachers think she’s just zoning out.
She’s undergone test after test to determine how her symptoms and the tumor may be connected. Doctors say they still aren’t done.
“It just seems like every time I get another MRI, there’s something else wrong,” Gauvrielle said. “And now I have these missing credits I can’t possibly make up.”
Public schools put students on “504 plans” to meet the requirements of Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law prohibits organizations that receive federal funding from discriminating based on disability.
One of Gauvrielle’s nurses wrote Bethel High School to recommend that she be evaluated for a 504 plan earlier this year.
Williams said that without a plan tailored to her daughter’s circumstances, Bethel misplaced many of Gauvrielle’s makeup assignments that Williams returned to the school. Gauvrielle’s teachers also didn’t seem aware of her condition, Williams said.
As a result, Gauvrielle failed classes last semester that she should have passed, Williams said.
Bethel School District officials have a different story. They said they never received specific details about Gauvrielle’s condition that would qualify her for a 504 plan. They didn’t even know she had a brain tumor, said vice principal Susan Mayne.
“The reports we read, they said they needed more tests to determine what was wrong with her,” Mayne said. “All we knew was she had headaches and doctor’s appointments that prevented her from attending school.”
Despite that, Mayne said, the school worked hard to accommodate Gauvrielle and her absences, allowing her mother to pick up and return assignments. But Gauvrielle didn’t do the work that she and her mother insist she did, Mayne said.
District officials say Gauvrielle missed 71 out of 90 days in the spring semester. Williams said most of those were late arrivals or absences from select periods, not full days.
Instead of putting Gauvrielle on a 504 plan for the 2009-2010 school year, district officials recommended that Gauvrielle attend Bethel’s Online Academy and transfer to Challenger Secondary School, the district’s alternative high school.
Williams said she would prefer her daughter attend traditional high school under a 504 plan so she can develop socially and ask teachers questions face-to-face. Plus, the cost of high-speed Internet is a burden for the family, Williams said.
“She wants to go to school, not go to online school,” Williams said. “She needs to interact with other kids her age.”
Doctors don’t want to remove Gauvrielle’s tumor at this point so as not to impede Gauvrielle’s hormonal development, Williams said.
Still, a nurse in the neurology department in Seattle’s Children’s Hospital thought Gauvrielle’s condition was severe enough to interfere with her ability to learn.
“Because of these impairments she has experienced limitations in seeing, concentrating, learning, and thinking,” the nurse’s letter reads. “Although we have not been able to name a diagnosis which is responsible for all of her symptoms, her extensive workup has required and will continue to require multiple visits with various specialists.”
That letter was sent to a Bethel guidance counselor a few weeks after the school’s evaluation determined Gauvrielle didn’t qualify for a 504 plan. Mayne, the vice principal, acknowledged receiving the letter, but it didn’t change the school’s decision.
Bob Maxwell, Bethel School District’s executive director of special education, said a specific diagnosis is needed for a school to develop a 504 plan that will meet a student’s needs. Though he didn’t have exact numbers, he said that a handful of students at each of Bethel’s 26 campuses may be on a plan at any given time.
Maxwell said that if a student has vision problems, a 504 plan could require the school to provide audiobooks or books with enlarged text. A student with mobility issues could participate in modified physical education.
“If you don’t know what the diagnosis or disability is, it’s very hard to determine what will be a successful, proven intervention,” Maxwell said.
But a state expert on 504 plans said students’ specific diagnoses aren’t as important as their symptoms when deciding whether a 504 plan is needed.
The main requirement is that there be a substantial effect on one of a student’s basic functions that impedes her ability to learn, said Jim Rich, special education director for the Puget Sound Educational Service District.
“What I counsel the districts on is, ‘Let’s look at the symptoms,’” said Rich, who trains school districts across the state about 504 plans.
A 504 plan could give a student extra time to complete assignments if the student must miss school for medical appointments, Rich said. School officials just need to agree on an amount of time that’s reasonable, he said.
However, parents don’t get to choose the pieces that comprise the 504 plan for their child; schools do. And school officials may include online learning if a student is absent often from class, Rich said.
“At some point that doesn’t really work,” Rich said. “You end up not giving her any good education.”
One benefit of a 504 plan is the ability to clear up miscommunications between parents and school officials, Rich said.
Whatever measures a school puts in a plan it must follow, or else face investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
“It’s a commitment between the district and the family to deliver the services on the plan,” Rich said. “It’s just a good way to get everyone on the same page.”
That’s what Williams feels has been missing most in the family’s recent dealings with Bethel.
She still thinks the school owes her daughter credit for classes she received no credit for last semester, but the district says Gauvrielle’s grades will stand.
“If there was a 504 plan intact, I wouldn’t be doing this right now,” Williams said.
Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058