Henrico mother says fight to educate special needs child forced her to move

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HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — A mother says her fight with Henrico schools to educate her special needs child forced her to move.

Tonie Matthews told 8News, “we had to do what was best for our family.”

Matthews, 37, had been a lifelong resident of Henrico.

“I didn’t want to leave but I had no choice,” she said.

Several months into the move Matthews still gets emotional talking about her decision to uproot her family from Henrico to New Kent County. 

“It’s a drastic change, however, it’s been a positive,” she added. 

A mother says her fight with Henrico schools to educate her special needs child forced the life-long resident to move.

Matthews’ son Gregory Junior is autistic and non-verbal. Matthews says she spent years fighting for his right to an education. The decision to move was made after the Henrico school board filed a lawsuit, taking the Matthews family to federal court.

“It is really overwhelming,” she explained. 

Last year, a hearing officer ruled Henrico was not providing a free and appropriate education for Junior and the district should pay for him to attend the Faison Center, a private school for children with autism.

The cost to Henrico about $23,000  a year. Mom says he was making progress there. The non-verbal student was suddenly counting and reciting the alphabet.

“It was the best experience. He progressed tremendously,” said Matthews.

However, the Henrico school board filed the lawsuit to reverse the ruling taking issue with the hearing officer and arguing Junior can appropriately be educated in the public school setting.

A federal judge dismissed the school board’s case as moot in December due to the fact that Matthews qualified for the Faison Center after moving to New Kent.  

Dr. Marla Crawford a special needs expert and advocate for the Matthews family says, “I feel this is a situation where individuals were given directives and they have followed through on directives not to educate him.” 

Dr. Crawford agrees Faison is the best place for Junior. Since the move, what Henrico wouldn’t do, New Kent schools will.

A mother says her fight with Henrico schools to educate her special needs child forced the life-long resident to move.

“He should be starting Faison in the next week or so,” Matthews told 8News.

New Kent schools has agreed to send Junior to Faison.

“New Kent County educators, I believe they take the education of the children to a different level.”

8News has uncovered Henrico has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on special education disputes like Matthews. 

The cases and costs on the rise, skyrocketing from $107,000 in the fiscal year 2015 to nearly $655,000 so far this year.

A mother says her fight with Henrico schools to educate her special needs child forced the life-long resident to move.

“I know I made a good choice to move from Henrico County,” said Matthews

For parents looking for resources, the Virginia Department of Education is offering free classes for parents with students who have disabilities. 

You can find more information here: http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/parents/index.shtml#train

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