It was in Kindergarten that Sharon Butts started noticing her daughter was having difficulty reading and writing. Her daughter, Abby, is now in fourth grade and Butts is still fighting to get her the education she deserves.
"We tried for years. Not a year. We tried from kindergarten when I first asked for help, 'can you help me figure out what's wrong?' to third grade with no real help; no answers," Butts explained.
Abby was initially diagnosed with a specific learning disability in first grade and then dyslexia. Butts said problems started from the beginning when they tried to work with Greene County Schools to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
"I wasn't asking for monetary changes. I was asking like, 'Can you please just teach her to read?' You know, this shouldn't be something they don't have the resources for," Butts said.
IEPs are plans that detail what type of support each child with disabilities will receive. Schools are legally required to follow them and when they don't the result is often complaints and lawsuits.
It's a process Butts battled for years and thought she was alone, but now she knows her experience mirrors dozens of others each year.
The ABC11 I-Team obtained 32 complaints filed with North Carolina's Exceptional Children Division from August 2021 to July 2022 for central North Carolina counties. Around half were related to Wake County Public Schools.
WATCH: Parents detail costly process to get students education they're owed - Part I
The complaints detailed numerous difficulties parents encountered trying to get their children access to public education.
The issues detailed in the complaints ranged from schools refusing to evaluate children to failing to properly implement IEPs to inability to get effective services.
Complaint after complaint detailed the frustration that parents ran into time and time again.
"We get a lot of parents who are kind of stuck because the school either doesn't have the staff or has been ignoring their concerns," said Peggy Nicholson, a clinical law professor at Duke University.
Nicholson is a supervising attorney at the Children's Law Clinic at Duke Law School, which is focused on protecting children. She regularly hears the same issues outlined in the state complaints obtained by the I-Team.
"We'll get parents who have IEPs from years and years of school and the goals have stayed the same every year, but the school is saying the child is making progress," Nicholson said.
Last December, the project filed a systematic complaint against the Harnett County Public School District on behalf of eight students. The complaint claimed the "District systemically fails to identify and evaluate students with disabilities", and "systemically failed to properly implement the IEPs of students with disabilities", and "refused to provide special education records to parents".
Statewide 152 complaints were filed in North Carolina for the 2020-21 school year. Forty-seven percent of them related to noncompliance.
Beyond complaints; the costly legal route
Butts did not file a complaint but went through a mediation with the district when Abby was in third grade. She said this led to some changes but never to the point that she felt like they were true solutions.
"I don't even think they're being difficult. I don't think they're doing it on purpose. But I honestly don't know if they really even believe that she can learn to read," she said.
Butts knows her daughter can learn to read so she decided to take legal action. Hiring a lawyer was the last option for their family but after years of fighting, Butts said they were left no choice.
"I'm not asking for money. I'm just asking 'Will you get your teachers trained"' and show me proof," Butts said. "I just want to know that they're trained, and that should benefit all kids in the county, not just mine. They really would not agree to that."
She also was requesting the school pay for Abby's tutoring to help catch her up to the learning and resources she's missed out on over the years.
The option of hiring a lawyer is called due process. Sixty-seven due process complaints were filed in the state during the 2020-21 school year; only two led to written settlement agreements.
Butts had to take out a loan to afford the option but for her it was worth it for her daughter. She said over the years she has watched as Abby has changed.
"She was so carefree and would just throw out these crazy ideas, but they really were so really smart and innovative," Butts remembered. "She lost so much; almost all her confidence and it's getting worse... she's got anxiety all the time now."
Butt's case has recently been settled but she remains committed to helping Abby reach her potential and learn to read.
Nicholson said most issues are resolved by just talking to districts and legal action for any family is the last resort as it's costly for districts and families.
"A due process petition is so time intensive, so cost intensive," Nicholson explained. "And if you can resolve it at a lower level by communication, by making the clear case that this child is entitled to something the school needs to give it to the child, you know, we want to resolve it quickly and try to keep relationships as cordial as possible. Obviously, sometimes that's not possible."
Despite the complexity and the cost of the process, each year dozens of families chose to undergo it.
"I was just at my wit's end," said Wake County mother Heidi Belisle on her decision to go through due process. "Sometimes you're pushed in a corner and like there's no other option. So you have to retain an attorney and like that's $10,000 retainer, so it's not anything that's cheap."
Her fifth-grade son was diagnosed with dyslexia in second-grade. At first the diagnosis came as a relief, but like Butts, it soon send Belisle's family down a years-long journey to fight for resources owed to them.
"No one wants to go through due process. It's such a last resort .It's parents thinking that the system is going to work; the system is going to work with you. Before you really like, 'Hey, I've done everything I can my last resort is due process,'" Belisle said. "Like 100% it was our last resort. We were just tired of fighting."
Belisle said they found out her son had been getting additional assistance for years without the Wake County School district ever alerting them.
"Had they followed the process that they should have or the guidelines set, we would have probably done something in first grade," she said. "Like even if the school wouldn't help him, we would have done something knowing that he was having struggling with reading and there was a reason why he was struggling."
Belisle explained she had to fight because there was no other options for her son. Private school is costly and private schools that help dyslexic students are limited.
Her due process complaint led to the case being resolved. Today, she said her son is doing really well in school as he continues to catch up. But reflecting on the fight over the last few years, Belisle said the issue is with the system.
"They have this system in place that's supposed to help kids with specific learning disability, but the system isn't, I don't want to say it's not designed for kids, but they don't want to help," she said.
Where the system fails
Nicholson said a big reason why the process isn't working for some students is because of a lack of staffing.
"In North Carolina, we are seeing huge amounts of staff vacancies in schools, especially in special education. That's because we are not always providing the right training and support that teachers need to allow them to do their job as the law requires," she said. "So many teachers want to do the right thing but they are so stretched to capacity and it's easy for things to fall through the cracks."
The National Center for Education Statistics found 44% of public schools reported at least one teaching vacancy in January 2022. Nationwide, special education positions were identified as roles with the most vacancies. Locally, North Carolina districts continue to report some of the highest vacancy rates among exception teaching positions.
The 2020-21 State of Teaching Profession in North Carolina reported more than 600 open positions with exceptional children staffing positions.
Nicholson said these gaps can often lead to students going months without needed services, which allows them to fall further behind.
"I want to make sure that the students with disabilities who are the most in need and most marginalized and most at risk in our society aren't the ones bearing the brunt of that," Nicholson said.
She said when the issue of lack of services is a result of staffing vacancies, she advocates for student but also for the district to get better resources and funding from the state.
Another obstacles schools run into is funding to provide all the services some children need.
Educating exceptional children is often more expensive. To help states offset this additional cost, the federal government agreed to pay 40% of these costs. However, the National Education Association points to the governments' failure to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In 2020, the federal government only funded 13.2%, the lowest percentage since 2000, according to the National Education Association.
Around 174,000 North Carolina children between 5-17 years old are served under IDEA.
The National Education Association found the funding gap in North Carolina is $741.5 million; one of the top ten largest gaps in the country.
While some families see the system failures as daunting, some progress is being made.
Literacy Moms N.C., a parent advocacy group, filed numerous complaint in the fall of 2020. Those complaints led to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) identifying multiple districts, including Wake County that were not in compliance with federal requirements to identify children for special-education services. The finding led the state to made changes that would reduce the number of roadblocks students face in becoming eligible for special-education services. The group has filed more than 40 complaints with the state over the last two years.
A U.S. Department of Education report also found North Carolina attributed gaps and inefficiencies in evaluating and implement correct resources to lack of training and staff shortages. The federal department issued corrective actions for the state to take in May 2021.
Advocates remain hopeful that further long-term solutions will come to the system in North Carolina. Meanwhile, families are hoping to reduce the number of other students who land in their position.
"I just don't want people to feel alone. I felt alone at first because...I thought this was you know, just her and there was not many other people like her," Butts said. "I felt alone and I had nobody to ask for help or where to go and I just don't want the other parents to feel like that."
For information on Duke's Children Law Clinic visit here: https://web.law.duke.edu/childedlaw/services/
To connect with Literacy Moms N.C.: https://www.facebook.com/groups/175241973895861/
To file a special education state complaint: https://www.dpi.nc.gov/media/12170/download?attachment