Student advocate is barred, re-admitted to public schools

Julie Yankovich

Julie Yankovich

CAMBRIDGE – Sometimes speaking up can get a person shut down.

Julie Yankovich was banned from all Dorchester County Public Schools properties after a contentious March 17, 2017 meeting in which she was acting as an advocate for a student with disabilities. Following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), she was readmitted this June.

Her forceful presentation on behalf of the student was interpreted as intimidating by school officials, who informed her she could no longer set foot on any school property, though she could still speak on a student’s behalf by phone.

“I have a son who has autism. I advocated for his needs,” she said. “Parents constantly have to fight for services.”

Expensive process
Her own experiences with her son Johnny sensitized Ms. Yankovich to the needs of young people who have developmental disabilities and what the school system sometimes offers them. While his teachers said her son should study academic subjects, she insisted that he receive lessons related to life skills.

“Johnny didn’t need to know algebra and geometry,” she said. “He needed to know how to cross the street safely.”

Then she laughed a little, remembering one incident in particular. “They had my son skip a grade,” she said.

As she continued to work for Johnny’s interests and education, Ms. Yankovich discovered that it was necessary to attend his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings with her own lawyer. The schools were represented at times by a group including their own lawyer, teachers, a principal and the superintendent.

The meetings sometimes lasted as long as eight hours, as both sides tried to hammer out an agreement – with her lawyer charging $300 per hour, the process became very expensive. Finally, her son began attending the Benedictine School in Ridgely, an institution serving individuals with disabilities.

Dorchester Public Schools had to pay for that, but the Yankovich family was out $40,000 in legal fees.

Asked why there is so often a dispute regarding what is best for a young person, she said, “Basically, because it’s always subjective.” That is, a school might decide a student doesn’t need certain services, leaving the parents to wonder if that has more to do with saving money than giving the student what he needs most.

Limited comment
The Dorchester Banner contacted Superintendent of Public Schools Dr. Diana Mitchell for comments on this issue. She directed Public Information and Community Outreach Specialist Valerie Goff to respond.

Ms. Goff pointed out that the incident that led to Ms. Yankovich’s barring occurred under a previous administration. Still, she said, “Parents certainly have the right to bring an advocate.”

She said she was limited in what she could reveal, considering confidentiality rules.

COPAA
Ms. Yankovich’s activities led to her affiliation with the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA).

“COPAA’s mission is to protect and enforce the legal and civil rights of students with disabilities and their families,” the group’s website says. “Our primary goal is to secure high-quality educational services and to promote excellence in advocacy.”

COPAA aims to enable parents to work more effectively with school personnel; encourage more attorneys and advocates to represent parents of children with disabilities; and to provide resources and information.

Banned from all schools
A July 12 letter from the OCR to Ms. Yankovich summarized the series of events.

“The Complainant [Ms. Yankovich] is a parent advocate and has been assisting a family with the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process for their son (the student) since October 2016,” the letter said. “At the time, the student was in the 9th grade at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School and had been diagnosed with autism and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Following an IEP meeting held on March 17, 2017, at which the Complainant was representing the parents and the student, the District banned the Complainant from all District campuses and property. The Complainant has been permitted to attend meetings via telephone.”

The letter continued, “After attending IEP meetings in October and December 2016, the Complainant assisted the student’s parents in filing a complaint with the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) in January 2017. The MSDE’s resulting Letter of Findings, dated March 13, 2017, was sent to the family and the District. The Letter of Findings reviewed the District’s actions over the course of a series of IEP meetings from September 2016 to March 1, 2017. After considering all the evidence, including audio recordings of the IEP meetings, MSDE found that the District denied the parent an opportunity for meaningful participation in the December 2016 IEP meeting and that, therefore, ‘violations occurred.’ As part of its Corrective Actions plan, the MSDE required that high school staff participate in remedial training to, among other things, ensure the meaningful participation of the student’s parents in the education-decision making process.”

After the MSDE’s finding were issued, an IEP meeting was held on March 17 of last year. School officials, the parents and Ms. Yankovich were present.

Ms. Yankovich says she presented the report, containing the corrective actions specified for the student and the school, but that the officials present would not review it.

Later that day, she received an email with an attached letter, banning her from any school-related property, due to “inappropriate and intimidating behaviors” she exhibited during that morning’s meeting. The OCR’s letter said, “The Complainant believes that the ban was implemented in retaliation for her part in filing a complaint against the District.”

Parents’ rights
“The Complainant provided OCR with a recording of the meeting, which reflects that she and the parent disputed the purpose of the meeting with the District, and demanded that the IEP team review the corrective actions from the MSDE report, which the IEP team refused,” the OCR’s letter said. “The recording further reflects that the Principal ended the meeting. While the recording reflects heightened tensions and raised voices, it does not demonstrate the Complainant or the parent engaged in any offensive or inappropriate behaviors as alleged by the District.”

The OCR’s letter contains a legal analysis, which begins, “OCR finds the District’s barring of the Complainant from being on the campus of any school to be an adverse action and that this occurred subsequent to the Complainant’s advocating on behalf of the parents…the audio recording of the meeting does not corroborate the District’s assertions.”

The OCR concluded that the evidence supports that the District retaliated against the Complainant, as Ms. Yankovich alleged. The letter noted that the MSDE also reviewed the audio recording of the March 2017 IEP meeting and found the behavior of the school staff to be “concerning.” The state agency recommended “that District staff review the recording themselves to ensure appropriate professional behavior at future IEP meetings.”

A June 28, 2018 letter to Ms. Yankovich signed by Dr. Mitchell said, “This is to advise you that effective of the date of this letter, the ban barring you from coming into Dorchester Public School facilities is hereby rescinded.”

Ms. Yankovich said, “They do this with other parents. Parents don’t know they have rights.”

Editor’s Note: This article includes a correction from the printed version, which stated that Dr. Mitchell sent Ms. Yankovich the email and letter banning her from school property. The letter was not sent by Dr. Mitchell. The Banner regrets the error.

To clarify, the Benedictine School is a non-public special education facility. It is an independent 501(c)3 organization. Though not specifically a Catholic institution, it was founded by the Sisters of St. Benedict.

Dave Ryan is editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at dryan@newszap.com.

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