VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The Normans, a military family in Virginia Beach, have battled the public school system for four years now over the education of their daughter. In December the school district filed legal action, essentially suing to get the special needs child back in public school.
Every child is entitled by law to a free and appropriate public education, including children with special needs.
But what happens when the system isn’t or can’t provide an adequate education for a disabled student?
At the center of this is 15-year-old Marisa Norman. Marisa has 21 disabilities, including cerebral palsy, hearing loss, partial paralysis and severe anxiety. She’s a smart girl, however she needs a very specialized learning environment to succeed.
Like many military families, the Normans have moved multiple times, always keeping Marisa in public schools. Then in 2014, they moved back to Virginia Beach.
“They started removing some of her related services, saying ‘we just don’t do this here in Virginia Beach,’” explained Marisa’s mom Michelle. “My mom gut knew that there was something wrong.”
Marisa’s parents noticed that she started to significantly regress in school, although her report cards were showing all A’s and B’s.
“So that kind of sent some red flags to me and my husband,” Michelle said.
When a school system fails to provide a student with a “free and appropriate public education,” the school district must pay for the student’s private school tuition.
In 2014, the Normans enrolled Marisa in Chesapeake Bay Academy, a private school for students with disabilities. They also filed for due process.
Due process is a legal system set by federal law as a way for school districts and families of children with disabilities to settle disagreements.
The Normans won the first hearing in 2016. Virginia Beach appealed to federal court.
The Normans won again. A federal judge ordered Beach Schools to pay for Marisa’s tuition at CBA, as well as the parents’ legal fees. The judge also ordered Marisa was to “stay put” at the private school until the final resolution of the case.
In July of 2018, the Normans say the school district went against the federal judge’s ruling, and stopped paying for Marisa’s school. The Normans filed a state complaint, which came back in their favor.
“The interesting thing about the Norman case is there seems to be no end in sight,” said Grace Kim, an attorney who has represented the Normans since the first hearing.
In December of 2018, Virginia Beach filed a due process against Marisa, essentially suing to get her back in public school.
Officials with Beach Schools wouldn’t comment on Marisa’s case specifically, but did say they believe in their special education program.
“I think we do some great things for all students, and we do a lot of great things for our students with disabilities,” said Roni Myers-Daub the executive director for programs for exceptional children for VBCPS.
Michelle Norman says she doesn’t want to fight anymore, but feels she must.
“I know it’s not right what they’re doing to us. It’s not right and I can’t let anyone get away with that,” said Michelle Norman. “There are so many other families out there that don’t have the resources, that cannot sustain this whether it be a military family because they’re only here for two to three years, whether it’s just a family who’s here already in this area and they just don’t have the time because we’re tired as parents of kids with special needs, we’re exhausted.”
The due process hearing took place in March over a five-day span. This was the week before Marisa’s dad, Captain Cassidy Norman, left for a 15-month posting as the commanding officer for the USS Mount Whitney.
Each day was filled with testimony from both sides. Independent experts testified to Marisa’s abilities, progress and what she needs to succeed in a learning environment.
This past Friday the hearing officer released the decision, ruling in the Normans’ favor, again.
The decision states the school district’s Individualized Education Plan for Marisa, known as an IEP, did not meet her needs.
The decision says the private school is the best place for Marisa, it also orders VBCPS to reimburse the parents for the past two years of tuition and next school year’s tuition.
For the Normans, it’s a cautious victory.
“My guess is that 90 days later at 5 p.m. they’re going to appeal it,” predicts Michelle Norman. “Because that’s just what they do. So how do you break the cycle?”
There is federal funding available to the school district to go towards paying for Marisa’s education from the Child Services Act, as well as funding set aside for military children. Finding out where those dollars go is Michelle Norman’s mission.
In the middle of this she was named the Armed Forces Insurance Navy Spouse of the Year. She’s using her title to work with lawmakers to make it easier to track how districts spend money earmarked for military kids.
We wanted to know how much the school division has spent fighting the Normans.
The Normans’ attorney did request the numbers through a Freedom of Information Act request, however the response from Beach Schools did not include a total amount. Regardless of what’s been spent it is taxpayer money. The Normans’ lawyer, Grace Kim, estimates it could be hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“And history shows that they may do this all over again,” Kim said. “I would hope that the school district at this point, would stop using taxpayer resources to fight this family. Someone has to pay, and right now the taxpayers are paying for the school district to continue to fight Marisa Norman, because let’s remember, this was filed against her. It’s her name that they sued.”
Virginia Beach can appeal this most recent decision by the hearing officer.
This decision was just released, and we plan on asking Beach Schools if they will appeal. 10 On Your Side will submit a formal request for just how much they’ve spent in this legal process.