VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — What do you do when the public school system fails your child?
Frustrated parents Capt. Cassidy and Michelle Norman feel forced to file legal action once again against Virginia Beach City Public Schools.
The Normans are a military family based in Virginia Beach. This legal battle over the education of their 16-year-old special needs daughter Marisa has been going on for five years.
Like many military families, the Normans have moved around a lot. Marisa’s parents say she was doing great in public schools until they moved back to Virginia Beach. Marisa was in 5th grade at the time. Her parents soon noticed she started regressing instead of progressing academically.
Marisa has 21 disabilities, including cerebral palsy, partial paralysis, hearing loss and severe anxiety.
The Normans say they tried to work with the school district to come up with a suitable Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for their daughter, but the two sides couldn’t agree on Marisa’s needs.
Feeling like they had no other choice, Marisa’s parents pulled her out of public school and enrolled her at Chesapeake Bay Academy, a private school specializing in educating disabled kids. Like most private schools, CBA comes with a hefty price tag.
Federal law states every child is entitled to a “Free and Appropriate Public Education.” So when a public school isn’t able to meet the needs of a disabled student like Marisa Norman, the school district has to cover the costs of the private school.
But Virginia Beach City Public Schools claimed they could meet all of Marisa’s educational needs. Her parents, her doctors and her lawyer argued otherwise.
The case has gone to litigation five times now. Every time the hearing officer ruled in the Norman’s favor, stating the private school was the best placement for Marisa. This also meant VBCPS was responsible for paying Marisa’s tuition at CBA.
Last December, VBCPS essentially sued to get Marisa Norman back in public school. The case went though a legal proceeding called “due process.” The hearing took place over a five day period in March. 10 On Your Side attended the hearing.
The decision was handed down in May. The hearing officer ruled in the Norman’s favor, ordering Virginia Beach to continue paying Marisa’s tuition.
The new school year has started, but Virginia Beach hasn’t made any payments. Currently the Normans are paying out of pocket, waiting to be reimbursed.
Seemingly out of options, the family filed a state complaint with the Virginia Department of Education against the school district. But going through the courts means it could be months, even up to a year before the Norman’s receive compensation.
“However they’re not supposed to simply be reimbursed for the payment plan,” explained Grace Kim, the Normans’ attorney. “The school is supposed to take over payments. They haven’t. I’m not sure why not. We’ve sent multiple emails.”
“And we’re trying to be reasonable,” explained Michelle Norman, Marisa’s mom. “Reaching out and saying ‘hey let’s try to come up with some type of agreement because this is enough. We need to be able to talk and come up with some solutions. It’s just a hardship to have to pay someone to have someone else comply.”
The school district has a different story.
In an email sent to us, representatives of VBCPS said the Normans haven’t sent them a bill yet for the 2019-2020 school year.
They also said Chesapeake Bay Academy won’t accept payment directly from the district.
Then there’s the question of the legal fees.
“It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of money. It’s close to $100,000,” explained Michelle. “It’s just an incredible burden for a family to try to do what’s right. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”
That figure is just for this year’s due process hearing and this year’s IEP meetings.
Because the Normans won the case, Virginia Beach has to cover all the legal fees. According to the Normans and Grace Kim, the school district hasn’t made any payments on that account either. So they filed a fee complaint in federal court.
When we asked Virginia Beach about the legal fees, the said the two sides haven’t come to an agreement on how much those attorney fees should be.
Now the decision on the disagreements between the Normans and VBCPS is back in the hands of the legal system.
The Normans and attorney Grace Kim say there is state and federal funding for Marisa’s education. Here’s how it works.
From the federal level there’s Impact Aid funding sent to the district simply because she’s a military child. There’s also extra money from this pool because she’s disabled. At the state level, there’s the Child Services Act which covers a sizable chunk, about two-thirds of the private school tuition for students like Marisa.
Michelle Norman says they’ll continue to fight because the battle is bigger than just their daughter.
“I just feel like everything happens for a reason.,” Michelle said. “Because of my daughter’s bravery, we’re able to have that voice and it was a voice that was desperately needed in the special needs community.”
Here’s the full statement sent to us my Virginia Beach City Public Schools:
“In July, Virginia Beach City Public Schools provided the Norman family with a check for last year’s expenses at Chesapeake Bay Academy (CBA), in accordance with the Hearing Officer’s decision. The Hearing Officer also required that the family be reimbursed by the division for school year 2019-20 tuition expenses at CBA, but the family has not submitted a bill for those expenses, and CBA will not accept tuition payments directly from the division. The division has proposed several Individualized Education Programs (IEP) for the 2019-20 school year. The division is providing transportation to and from school and extracurricular activities. Speech services goals have been agreed to by the family, but the family is refusing provision of those services as proposed by the division. The appropriate procedure to challenge an IEP is to file for a due process hearing. The division and the family have been unable to agree on attorney’s fees, so the appropriate procedure is for the attorney to file an attorney’s fees request to the court to determine the appropriate amount of those fees. We believe that the division is fully in compliance with the Hearing Officer’s order as well as the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) implementation plan. The division has consulted with VDOE regarding compliance requirements throughout this process, and we will continue to work diligently to ensure Marisa is getting all the support she needs.”