"It can be very isolating being a parent of a child with special needs," Case-Lo said. Parents are sometimes embarrassed and unwilling to admit that their child needs help.
In an effort to dispel that stigma — and to generate support and awareness for the special needs population in local elementary and middle schools — Case-Lo has co-founded the Mountain View Whisman Special Education Parent Teacher Association, or SEPTA.
About 50 families have joined the district-wide SEPTA since its launch in March, Case-Lo said. The organization was recently granted non-profit status, and although Case-Lo and co-founder Nan Recker have lofty goals, they are starting off small.
One of the first steps SEPTA took was to put together inexpensive care packages of simple items to help teachers with their special needs students.
Many of the items requested were what Case-Lo described as "fidget toys" — such as Velcro, malleable putty and specialized pencil tops that children may safely gnaw.
"A lot of kids with autism need to fidget," Case-Lo explained. "It actually helps them focus."
Some teachers requested timers that help the children with time management, or little prizes — like stickers — that they can use to reward the children for a job well done. "Every little bit helps," Case-Lo said.
To complicate matters, because of budget cuts, Case-Lo said that the Mountain View Whisman School District does not have adequate resources to help children like Alex. As a result, regular education teachers are being assigned more special needs students without proper support, and parents are left searching for costly solutions in the private sector — if they even bother looking at all, she said.
"Providing special education is very expensive," said Steve Gingras, head of special education at Mountain View Whisman. Gingras estimated that caring for a special needs child can range anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000 annually. There are about 620 special education students in the district. "Over the years the money that has come from the federal government and the state is nowhere near close to covering all the expenses that are incurred," he said.
Gingras countered Case-Lo's claim that his district is not adequately addressing the needs of special education students. "We are providing more special education classes this year than we did last year district-wide," he said.
Case-Lo said that a practice known as mainstreaming — where special ed students are brought into regular classrooms, at least for a portion of the school day — is being implemented with increasing regularity in the district.
Mainstreaming is not new, Case-Lo said, and it isn't necessarily a bad idea.
"It's a fine line," she said. For some special education kids, being exposed to the behaviors of the other children helps them model their behavior. For others, however, being in a large classroom can cause stress and anxiety, which may trigger disruptive behavior. "I would say that it is not appropriate for many kids."
Alex attends a special day class at Monta Loma Elementary School, but Case-Lo said she had to push to get her son the instruction that he needs to learn. One of SEPTA's goals is to provide parents with enough information and counseling so that they can be the best advocates for their children.
The work SEPTA is doing will not only help the special needs students and their families, she said. Case-Lo said her organization will also help other students and teachers in the district, as one unruly child can throw off an entire lesson plan.
Kathy Patterson, a first-grade teacher at Bubb Elementary School, said a special needs student that was mainstreamed into her class had "major behavior issues." The child "ran around the room, putting things in his mouth and screaming and throwing tantrums."
Patterson, like many teachers, does not have the training, or the time, to deal with such children. "We're not special ed teachers here," she said.
According to Case-Lo, a lack of funding for special education students is the driving force behind the increase in mainstreaming. "We live in times where it's just very difficult," she said.
Gingras disagrees with Case-Lo on the subject of mainstreaming. Gingras said that all decisions regarding where special needs students are placed come as a result of so-called individual education plans, or IEPs.
The IEPs are hashed out in a group that includes the parents of a child, special education teachers and aides, and a district administrator. The goal of each IEP, Gingras said, is to provide the least restrictive environment for every child. "The decision for mainstreaming would never be based on the idea that the district cannot provide appropriate classes."
In answer to Patterson's concerns, Gingras said that the district is open to moving children around if it appears that mainstreaming is not working. "We are always looking to see if the student is receiving what we call 'educational benefit,'" he said.
Although Case-Lo may disagree with certain district policies, she said she and SEPTA aren't interested in finger-pointing. "We just want to get stuff done," she said. "We want to help our kids."
Gingras is supportive of SEPTA, and said that the district is working to accommodate the organization's goals.
"I think it's a great idea," Gingras said of SEPTA. "Very often the families of children with special needs find that their interests are different than what you have with the general ed families. I think that's good."
In the future, Case-Lo hopes to be helping special needs students, and their families, with free or low-cost social skills classes. She envisions a day — albeit a distant day — when all special needs students have access to an iPad or similar device. Touch screen, tablet computers have demonstrated promise in engaging children with learning disabilities with their colorful, tactile screens.
Before that happens, more parents and teachers need to get involved. She encourages anyone who is interested to get in touch with SEPTA via the organization's e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.