Mom of girl with Down syndrome takes action against Wake Schools

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Rowan Shellenbarger.

Rowan Shellenbarger, 7, is still a little shy, but when she started kindergarten last year, she began to blossom.

"She was more interactive with the children at the school. She really kind of took off. Her verbal skills and some of her cognitive skills, we commented all the time, 'Wow! Look what she's doing!" said Rowan's mother, Melissa Mullin.

But at the end of the school year, officials with Wake County Schools said Rowan, who has Down syndrome, was not testing on grade level and needed to spend more time in a classroom with other students with disabilities.

"Nothing that I had taken the time to research, the videos I showed them about what Rowan was doing at home and her successes, none of it mattered," said Mullin.

Rowan was reassigned to another school about 30 minutes away from her Wake Forest home in a classroom for moderately disabled students.

"It breaks your heart to be in a meeting and have people focus on your child's weaknesses as opposed to her strengths," Mullin said.

Then, just days into the new school year, Rowan was bitten by a classmate.

Rowan was bitten by a classmate just days into the new year, at a new school.

Mullin has filed a due process complaint against WCPSS.

"Their system is set up in a way that's similar to the institutions. The children with disabilities are put in an institution in the segregated setting," said Yuki Puram, co-founder of Advocates for Inclusive Education.

Puram went through a similar ordeal with her daughter, who also has Down syndrome, so she started a non-profit to educate parents.

"Average parents are not experts in special education law, so if the education experts say your child will be better off in a separate setting then, it seems like, most likely they'll believe them because they're the experts," she said.

Bill Hussey, Director of Exceptional Children at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, oversees more than 200,000 special needs students in the state and said parents have to speak up.

"They're the primary advocate. They need to make sure their story is on the table as they see it, and they need to be able to say what it is they would like for their child," Hussey said.

Rowan Shellenbarger.

According to NC DPI, 100 state complaints were filed on behalf of exceptional children from 2015-2016.

Of the 53 investigated, 42 complaints found the school district cited as non-compliant.

In Wake County Schools, the state's largest school district, 10 complaints were filed from 2015-2016.

RELATED: Wake County mother writes open letter to WCPSS(.pdf)

Of the six complaints investigated, three found WCPSS non-compliant.


All school districts are required to follow federal guidelines under the IDEA Act.


Hussey said most disagreements between parents and schools can usually be worked out at the county level, but parents like Mullin say the process should not be so difficult.

"I just don't think it's right that families should have to go through this," she said.

WCPSS did not comment on Mullin's complaint.

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educationwake county schoolsdown syndromeCaryRaleighWake Forest
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