Parent Testimony Influences Special Education Report

Dollie Spencer.jpg

The stories of families in Arkansas’ special education program are often heartbreaking, but they are also playing a part in improving the system.

Trilisa Marshall’s daughter was born with hydrocephalus, meaning she has excess fluid in her brain. 

She struggled in school, but multiple tests for learning disabilities continued to turn up the same results.

“The person doing the testing kept saying nothing was wrong,” Marshall said. “Although I let teachers know about her condition, some of her teachers didn’t treat her with appropriate care.”

One day, Marshall was called to her daughter’s school after she fell asleep in class. At the meeting Marshall found out the teacher had jerked her awake and threatened the girl with expulsion.

“The stress of this caused my daughter to have a seizure,” Marshall said. “The teacher didn’t know how to deal with it.”

While Marshall spoke to school administrators, her daughter collapsed on the playground, and had to be rushed to the hospital.

“We learned the tube in her head had been shaken loose,” Marshall said. “Fluid was building up on her brain.”

Marshall’s daughter finally got help when she was in the 7th grade. A new person performed the test, and said she should have been in the special education program long before. 

Marshall traveled to the Capitol in July to share her story with the Legislative Task Force on the Best Practices for Special Education.  

“My daughter spent years struggling in regular classes and being mistreated by some teachers because the person doing the testing was not doing their job,” Marshall said. “The people who are testing kids for learning disabilities need proper training and they need to be held accountable.”

The CFC and our partners at Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families pushed for creation of the task force after parents complained that their children with special needs were not receiving adequate services. The Panel helped organize parents, and collected stories to inform the discussion.

Dollie Spencer told the task force her granddaughter was prematurely removed from special education. 

Spencer’s granddaughter suffered extreme trauma when she was two years old. 

“Her mother put the girl and her brother in the trunk of a car, and the boy died,” Spencer said. “I don’t know how much my granddaughter remembers of this, but she sometimes talks about her brother’s murder, and when she gets upset, she lashes out. Sometimes she starts laughing for no reason, or bursts into tears and can’t explain why.”

She didn’t speak for the first four years of her life, and entered elementary school with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). However, when she graduated to middle school, Spencer says the district removed her from the special education program, over the protest of her granddaughter’s therapist.

“The school said we no longer needed an IEP,” Spencer said. “They told me she just has bad behavior. She has been suspended three times this year. She was suspended three days for crying in class, and that just puts her farther behind.” 

Spencer called on the task force to increase training for Special Education teachers and new discipline policies that do not punish a child for their disabilities. 

“They need to show these children compassion, and take time to work with each child on their own level,” Spencer said. “Teachers need to know this is a child suffering from emotional trauma, and how to work with her to calm her down. Simply sending her home is only making it harder for her to learn.”

The parents’ testimony highlighted the disconnect between the policies in place and what’s actually being implemented. On paper the state is complying with federal regulations for Special Education, but student outcomes say otherwise.

“The task force really needed parents’ perspectives,” said the Panel’s Education Organizer Ana Phakhin. 

Phakhin said the testimony heavily influenced the task force recommendations. 

When one member objected to a mandate that all schools implement evidence-based interventions, another member reminded everyone of Ms. Marshall and Ms. Spencer’s stories. The mandate was included. 

Recommendations also include increasing the number of Special Education teachers, and increasing funding for special education. Currently, the fund for “catastrophic” special education needs is supposed to provide $30 million (2014-15 school year) for special education needs but has only given out $11 million per year.

As a result of the task force’s findings, the house and senate education committees voted to recommend a $20 million increase in funding over the next two years. 

Legislators will take that information into account while they set the budget, but we are still in the beginning stages of true reform.

“These are just words on paper until we actually get the legislation and the funding to implement them,” Phakhin said. “Politicians pay lip service to special education, but will they prioritize it in the budget and pay for it with real dollars?”

Anyone who is interested should join the Opportunity to Learn Campaign at or find us on Facebook. 

“Special education is one of our priorities,” Phakhin said. “We’re going to be working on this for the long term.”