The Parents Who Fight the City for a “Free Appropriate Public Education”

Jessica Winter:

Travis came to live at his ninth home the day before he started kindergarten. When his new foster parents, Elizabeth and Dan, enrolled Travis at their neighborhood public school, in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn, they learned that Travis was eligible for special-education services. (Some names in this story have been changed.) Several languages had been spoken in Travis’s past homes, which had included foster-care placements and homeless shelters, and he had not begun speaking until he was three and a half. A neuropsychiatric evaluation of Travis, conducted when he was four, estimated that he had a grasp of twenty words; it also noted that he still wore pull-up diapers and “tends to speak very loudly to his peers.”

Elizabeth noticed a line in Travis’s paperwork that read “Disability Classification,” and, next to it, the initials “E.D.” The school’s principal told her that they stood for “emotional disturbance.” Elizabeth and Dan, who later adopted Travis and his infant brother, Kieran, did not yet know that Travis had suffered abuse and neglect in previous homes. Nor did they know that Travis had been kicked out of two preschools for violent behavior. But, Elizabeth told me, “it was almost immediately apparent that he had aggressive and violent coping skills. That was how he interacted with the world, because that was how the world had interacted with him.”

That fall, when Elizabeth visited Travis’s kindergarten classroom for her first parent-teacher conference, one of the teachers gestured toward a comfy reading nook, piled with pillows. “See that calm-down corner? We built that for Travis,” the teacher said. Elizabeth, who is a stay-at-home mother, began receiving frequent calls about Travis acting out at school: tantrums, hitting other children, throwing books. A behavioral paraprofessional was assigned to Travis, but the incidents persisted. “We started getting calls like, ‘There’s a field trip coming up, and it would probably be best if Travis stayed home.’ Or, ‘Could he not come into school tomorrow? It would just be easier,’ ” Elizabeth said.