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'This is not the kind of life we want for our daughter': Parents of student with special needs protesting outside Clackamas school

Jennifer and Michael Corbus are fighting for their daughter Kylie to have a free appropriate education, as required under federal law, during the pandemic.

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. — Some families of kids with special needs feel they've been left behind by schools during the pandemic. That includes the family of a 13-year-old in Clackamas with cerebral palsy.

The Corbus family is fighting for a free and appropriate education for their daughter Kylie, which school districts have to provide under federal law. 

Every weekday morning, Jennifer and Michael Corbus protest outside Rock Creek Middle School in Clackamas.

"We're happy people, we're waving at people," Michael said, "Just trying to spread the word."

Kylie's cerebral palsy means she has trouble hearing, seeing and severe difficulty communicating.

"She deserves anything anyone else deserves: an education, to be around her peers, to learn and grow and have socialization," Jennifer Corbus said, "We want her to learn new skills and practice communication."

When schools closed in spring 2020 Kylie's ability to learn shut down too. She wasn't alone; the Dale family, who lives in Lake Oswego, fought a similar battle early on in the pandemic.

"When it seems like it's simple to have a one-size-fits-all for those kids it's not," said Jennifer Dale, whose fourth grade daughter Lizzie has Down Syndrome. "We'd get the message: 'Every kid will be behind'. Well that's different with a child with special needs. Because they're already trying to catch up."

Credit: Jennifer Dale
Lizzie Dale doing remote learning on tablet

Zoom classes couldn't didn't meet Lizzie's needs, or Kylies, or many other kids with disabilities.

"When you come to special needs children they have a lot of unique issues that were really ignored over the last year," Dale added.

The Corbuses say in-person learning with safety measures to protect students and staff from COVID-19 in schools doesn't cut it for Kylie either. She hasn't gone back to school since the pandemic started.

"All of the PPE alone makes it impossible for her to really learn because she reads lips and can't hear well and the muffling and all that. But then she's very social," Jennifer Corbus said. "We didn't want her to go and be in such frustration which is what she would be."

The district has offered to have teachers in face shields and clear masks, saying there are options available to Kylie. But the Corbuses say they don't think Kylie would be able to understand a teacher in a clear mask or face shield because they fog up and muffle voices.

Over the course of a year - from April 2020 to April 2021 - Jennifer and Michael say they met with Kylie's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team in the North Clackamas School District (NCSD) multiple times.

The district tells KGW they offered reasonable options so Kylie could come back to the classroom or learn from home. But the family and district couldn't agree on a solution, and they haven't resumed conversation about a plan in weeks.

"Any path forward requires a conversation and we're always open to engaging in that," North Clackamas School District Director of Communications Seth Gordon said.

Ultimately, the family is asking the district to pay for Kylie to get her education another way. The district refuses.

"There's not an existing function in our system for changing funding through the district to an individual family," Gordon told KGW.

"Unusual circumstance requires unusual solutions and that's what we're asking for," Michael added.

The Corbuses specifically want an unmasked private teacher to come to their home to teach Kylie and transport her to different places for social interaction. 

Credit: Michael Corbus
Kylie Corbus, 13, has cerebral palsy.

The district said it would send staff to the family's home, but they must wear a face covering.

"NCSD can't respond in ways that are outside the law including around masks. And I think there are a wide variety of options," Gordon added.

We wanted to find out: If a family and a school district can't agree on a plan for a student with a disability could a district do what the Corbuses are asking?

Technically, yes. But Oregon rules make it really tough for that to happen. 

There are several steps the Oregon Department of Education wants families and districts to go through prior to getting to this point, discussed in its procedural safeguards handbook. This includes parents having a facilitated IEP meeting, going through mediation, or filing a state special education complaint.

Under Oregon law, a district could pay for a student to get an education somewhere else if the district or a hearing officer or judge decide the district can't provide a free appropriate education. Typically this happens through an IEP team decision or a formal due process hearing.

Parents can also enroll their student in a private school and a court may make the district reimburse them, but that's not guaranteed. With all these processes families may want an attorney.

"I don't have the money to do that. And if a free and appropriate education requires me to hire a lawyer it's not free," Michael Corbus said.

The Dales went back and forth with Lizzie's IEP team and district all throughout 2020. For them, it was worth it to have Lizzie back in the classroom.

"In our family, we've had to make a lot of compromises we didn't want to make. But our daughter is in school," Dale said. "At the end of the day we're doing it for the kids and their education."

For the Corbuses, the fight drags on. Kylie spends her days at home as her parents take to the sidewalk outside her school in protest.

"This is not the kind of life we want for our daughter," Jennifer Corbus said. 

"We want this to go beyond just us. So we'll be out here till change happens," Michael added.

Over email, the Oregon Department of Education said that "despite everyone's best efforts" the circumstances associated with the pandemic impacted children's educations. They admit -- there's been a - quote - "disproportionate impact on students experiencing disability."