The fight for Marisa: Inside a long legal battle over where a sailor’s special-needs child should go to school

Published on
February 11, 2019

By Dianna Cahn, Stars and Stripes

After winning a four-year battle, Navy Capt. Cassidy Norman and his wife, Michelle, thought they had finally cleared the path for their severely disabled daughter to receive the educational opportunities she needs.

They faced down withering pressure from the Virginia Beach School District as they fought to ensure that Marisa was in the best learning environment — a private school with smaller classrooms and more individual attention.

Yet the district is once again suing to get Marisa Norman back into public school.

Marisa has cerebral palsy, partial paralysis, neurodevelopmental and neurological disorders, hearing, vision and sensory processing difficulties, and she suffers from anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other complications. But she is bright, and experts and the district agree that given the right set of tools, she is quite able to learn.

After Marisa regressed and struggled as a fifth-grader in public school, the Normans fought the district to place her in a private school. She flourished, and her evaluations show she continues to do so today, as an eighth-grader who is well on her way to graduating high school.

Now, after an administrative judge and a federal judge ruled that the public school system had failed Marisa –- and ordered the district to pay for her tuition at the private academy — the Virginia Beach school district is suing to have Marisa go back to public school. The district is arguing that the time frame of the rulings has passed and insisting that despite past failures, it can offer her an appropriate education.

The Normans say the newest due process action, filed in late December, is not only putting strain on the parents — pulling Cassidy’s attention away from his overseas deployment preparations as the new commanding officer of the amphibious 6th Fleet flagship USS Mount Whitney — it’s creating enormous anxiety for Marisa.

Marisa, now 15, was with her mother when the due process suit was delivered to the door in December. She spent the night sobbing, her mother said, and has been pulling out her hair, and having trouble sleeping, eating and drinking. Her parents had to take her to the emergency room with digestive complications from stress.

“The anxiety is eating away at her,” Michelle Norman said. “She knows how it affected our family. … I feel like this is their strategy: to make it super stressful on families so (the legal fight) will just stop. But we are not going to just stop, because it’s not right for Marisa.”

Navy Capt. Cassidy Norman, left, with his daughter Marisa, 15, son Chase, 9 and wife Michelle, pose with Santa near home in Virginia Beach in December 2018. The Normans are fighting the school district to keep Marisa, who is severely disabled, in a private school.

‘Free and appropriate’

Children with disabilities often struggle to learn in different ways, facing not just neurological and physiological obstacles, but also the psychological or behavioral challenges that come with them. Federal law requires schools to provide every child a free and appropriate public education, but parents and educators don’t always agree on how to achieve that.

Add the complications for a military family, which might be in a location for only a few years, and the situation can become even more tenuous. Some military families have recited horror stories about school and district administrators becoming aggressive and digging in their heels when parents say their child is not getting an appropriate education.

The Normans say that’s what happened to them in Virginia Beach.

They said they have tried for years to work with the district on the best way to help Marisa get an education. Yet, even after a hearing officer, a federal judge and the Virginia Department of Education ruled that Marisa’s “stay-put” placement is in private school –- meaning that is her default placement until evaluations and testing indicate otherwise — the district has challenged that placement again.

“It’s like this crazy circle that keeps replicating itself year after year,” said the Normans’ lawyer, special education attorney Grace Kim. “How do we get to the point where a school district follows the law rather than suing the parent?”

Kim said the Normans have been cooperative and remain open to the possibility that Marisa could return to public school. But experts involved with Marisa’s assessments say she still is not ready, Kim said. “The parents, how can they just deny or ignore all of that?”

In its latest due process filing, the district argues that past litigation and rulings were specific to the school years that already transpired, and that Marisa belongs back at public school. The district contends that it has now created a more comprehensive Individualized Education Plan for Marisa that is “significantly different than the IEPs that were the subject of litigation for the past four years,” and it is ready to take her back.

In a statement to Stars and Stripes, the district said that the February 2018 IEP addresses everything both the hearing officer and the federal judge outlined.

“We care deeply about the education of all children who enter the doors of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, including the Normans’ daughter, Marisa,” the statement said. “We have not been given the opportunity to educate her with fidelity. … We are confident that given the chance to work with the family and implement this IEP, Virginia Beach City Public Schools would be able to fully attend to Marisa’s needs, and would very much like the chance to do so.”

Her parents say they believe the district is more concerned with winning than with Marisa’s best interests.

“It’s concerning to us as parents that we’ve had to fight this much to make sure she is getting what she requires and what she has a right to by law,” Michelle Norman said.

Marisa’s case

Almost from the moment the Normans moved back to Virginia Beach in 2014 – the second time Cassidy was assigned to the area as part of his Navy career – they’ve found themselves at odds with the with the administration and Virginia Beach City Public Schools district over Marisa’s Individualized Education Plan.

School administrators insisted they were providing Marisa an adequate education. But by the end of the school year, after they’d been through 16 unsuccessful IEP meetings, Marisa’s academic ability had regressed so badly her parents decided to place her in Chesapeake Bay Academy, which recognized she needed to repeat fifth grade based on her testing.

The district pushed for her to continue to sixth grade and denied Marisa needed the academy’s services and environment. It refused to pay her private tuition of about $33,000 including transportation each year.

After months of impasse, the Normans filed a due-process suit in mid-2016 stating the district failed to properly assess Marisa’s disabilities or offer services she needed. They argued that by not paying for her private school, the district was failing to provide a free and appropriate public education.

And so began a combative process that the Normans say is cruel and unfair. A hearing officer confirmed that the Normans were right and ordered the district to pay two years of Marisa’s private school tuition. She was to be evaluated again after that to determine if she should return to public school.

Instead of paying, the district appealed the ruling to the 4th Circuit District Court. It only paid after the Virginia Department of Education ruled the district was in violation of the administrative ruling. The tuition payments came in mid-2017 – more than 220 days after the hearing officer’s deadline, Kim said.

With the federal case still pending, the district continued tuition payments. But by then, a new school year was rolling around and the district once again challenged Marisa’s placement. The Normans asked the judge to assert that Marisa’s “stay-put” placement was the private day school – something the judge granted, stating it would be in force until the federal case is resolved.

In February 2018, the federal judge affirmed the hearing officer’s initial ruling. The district argued that the case was now resolved so the stay-put order was rescinded. And in June 2018, it again stopped paying Marisa’s tuition.

The Normans argued that once the federal judge upheld the administrative ruling, it meant the administrative judge’s determination that Chesapeake Bay Academy was Marisa’s stay-put school was back in play. They filed another Department of Education complaint and on Dec. 4, the department confirmed that when the judge ruled the stay-put should be the private school until “resolution of the case,” his intent was not for Marisa to return to public school when the case was resolved, but rather she “should not be removed from CBA pending legal resolution.”

On Dec. 28, three days after Christmas, the district responded by suing the parents for due process, once again insisting that it can give Marisa a free and appropriate public education, at Princess Anne Middle School.

Virginia Beach investigation

Like school districts across the country, Virginia Beach receives federal funding from the Children Services Act to help pay for private schooling for severely disabled children. A Virginia Children’s Services official said the state funding covers 65 percent for Virginia Beach school district, while the district pays the remaining 35 percent. Because of its large military population, the district receives additional funding for severely disabled military dependent students from the Department of Defense Impact Aid.

The Normans said they sat in a meeting with Office of Children’s Services representatives who informed district officials that there was funding available for Marisa’s private school tuition, but the district turned those and the DOD Impact Aid funds down. The district did not respond to a question about this issue.

Meanwhile, after receiving a joint complaint about Virginia Beach from the parents of several special needs students, the Virginia Department of Education last year conducted a larger investigation. It reviewed the files of 225 of the district’s 7,886 special education students and in a report issued in October, found dozens of deficiencies and examples of noncompliance with federal and state law regarding special education students and highlighted what it called “disturbing” issues relating to military families.

“Most disturbing was the treatment reported by military families,” it said. “We heard a common theme that they felt that the schools were simply trying to delay until they were transferred.”

Asked about the report, the district said it was “not surprising that parents involved in a complaint don’t say positive things about their experience with the division,” but insisted it serves its special needs students well.

“We commissioned an external audit of our programs two years ago and have taken steps to reorganize our Office of Programs for Exceptional Children in support of our schools,” the statement said. “We have already taken steps to address the one systemic finding in this complaint — transitions. … VBCPS continues to strive to meet the needs of each and every child.”

The Normans know they are not alone fighting for Marisa. And the problems are not isolated to one school district or to military families.

But knowing that their daughter, given the right environment, can learn, develop and evolve into a more functional adult, they say they will keep pushing to ensure she is given those opportunities.

Next month, they will go before a new hearing officer, who will review Marisa’s history to determine whether she can stay in private school.

Michelle Norman said she wants the issue resolved, so she can focus on her husband’s deployment and their two children.

“I want to be happy and present for my kids 24-7. I don’t want to have to fight.”

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