COVID-19 has disrupted economies, households, healthcare and our children’s education. This spring, over a million military children adjusted to the sudden shift to remote learning and the grim realities of finishing the school year without graduation ceremonies or saying goodbye to friends before moving once again.
Many military children, who regularly face educational and emotional challenges, will get through this stressful pandemic with more grit and more resilience. However, even before the pandemic became the new normal, the most vulnerable members of our military community, children with special needs, had already been struggling to get the access they need to education.
When a military family member needs specialty medical care due to a diagnosed physical or learning disability, they are required to enroll in the military’s Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). This program is intended to help place families in areas that can serve their needs and avoid rural duty assignments that would negatively impact family members’ health and education. In practice, this program is understaffed given the complexity of need. However, in recent years a grassroots movement has started, seeking to reform EFMP and Special Education delivery for military children.
On February 5th, the Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held its first Congressional Hearing in almost a decade to address the struggles of over 135,000 EFMP families. The findings? A lack of standardization and performance measures among the DoD EFMP Programs, confirmed by a 2018 GAO EFMP report.
Michelle Norman, the 2019 AFI Navy Spouse of the Year, was one of two military spouses who testified in front of Congress on February 5, 2020. Norman, along with military spouses Shannon DeBlock, Grace Kim and Kaci McCarley, co-founded Partners in PROMISE to address the education challenges that military children with disabilities face on a daily basis.
What brought Shannon DeBlock to congress that day was her battle to receive a free and appropriate education for her 10-year-old son who is diagnosed with autism. In 2017 the DeBlocks received military orders to move from Annapolis, Md. to San Diego, Ca. The DeBlock family was met with egregious violations of state and federal education laws by the receiving school district that resulted in a two-year lapse in education for their son. After their family did not consent to a substandard education plan, the school district filed a due process complaint against their son. The lack of resources available to their family and unenforceable education laws led Shannon to team up with other military families who have children with disabilities and began advocating for special education reform for this population.
Military Special Education 2020 Survey (MilSped2020)
The Partners in PROMISE founders wanted to know if they were the only ones so they released a grassroots survey about the special education of military children, the first survey designed to protect families and eliminate the fear of reprisal from school districts. The survey asked participants to “share your experience with special education.” Although many parents compared schools or mentioned both good and bad experiences in public schools, the response was overwhelmingly negative.
Parents used the following words to describe public school special education: horrible, tough, lacking, disappointing, garbage, awful, challenging, utter failure, and absolute nightmare.
Survey results spanned 39 states, Washington, D.C., Guam and all Department of Defense-run (DoDEA) schools. The preliminary data indicate that special education is an unspoken challenge for military families of all ranks and services at duty stations around the world.
Despite federal and state education laws designed to protect students with special needs, children are caught in a system in which school districts are not providing the minimum standards of education because they are not held accountable. Although the Department of Education is the regulatory agency, they have no effective way to enforce their legal decisions, leaving it up to schools to self-regulate without penalty.
Challenges faced by special education students are compounded by the military lifestyle. Frequent moves, service member deployments, lack of local family and support, and the community integration challenge of being the new kid are all additional burdens that military children and their families endure.
At the request of the Military Family Caucus, co-chaired by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Congressman Sanford Bishop (D-GA), Partners in PROMISE created The PROMISE Act. The PROMISE Act (Protect the Rights Of Military Children In Special Education) is proposed legislation created to address the deficiencies of current legislation that would assist military children with needs.
Key Initiatives in the PROMISE Act
- Collect data on military family disputes, number of disputes compared to civilians, and accessibility barriers to dispute resolution processes, high risk school districts, sufficiency of federal funding, oversight and accountability to ensure school districts provide Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
- Allow families to maintain their child’s current IEP for at least six months after arrival at a new duty station before any changes are made
- Direct states to document parental consent before any IEP changes can be implemented for military children
Congress has included parts of the PROMISE Act in this year’s defense budget. Following the GAO Study, the PROMISE Act will then address their recommendations.
As an organization we have seen the strength from our children with special needs and the larger military community. Our civilian partners have stepped up with initiatives like Operation Autism, proactively offering military-specific services and resources to our community.
One of the struggles the military community faces is a lack of civilian connection. We move often. Forming relationships with us may feel like a countdown until saying goodbye, but are encouraged whenever we see organizations and individuals making a concerted effort to connect. That is why we are so excited for our military family members served by resources prepared specifically for them by the Organization for Autism Research. This ability to connect with their civilian counterparts going through similar struggles is invaluable.
On the surface we seem strong. “We’ve got this” is a military mantra. But our community must move beyond an outward appearance of strength in order to help our children with exceptional needs. WE NEED YOUR HELP with this historic movement. Become a Partner in PROMISE! We need all boots on the ground to make change. With your support, we will make sure our most vulnerable children have equitable access to education.
Want to help? Become a Partner in Promise and receive updates today.
Want to learn more about our community or connect to resources that will help your own family? Take a look at our EFMP Stories series. Our participants open up about the struggles and strengths of our military community, while sharing expert advice on how to have more constructive IEP meetings, what to do if you find yourself in due process and more.