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With SPLC's Help, Youth Goes from Non-Reader to College Student

By the time Joe Bates finished middle school in 2004, he had fallen years behind his classmates. His struggle with asthma was just one of his problems. He also had learning disabilities that had been ignored by his school.

By the time Joe Bates finished middle school in 2004, he had fallen years behind his classmates. His struggle with asthma was just one of his problems. He also had learning disabilities that had been ignored by his school.

Desperate for help, his mother, Carolyn Bates, appeared at the Southern Poverty Law Center's doorstep to seek legal assistance. Her son's lawsuit against the school board in Selma, Alabama, was pending in federal court, but their attorney could no longer practice law. They had no one to litigate the case.

The SPLC, which has launched a campaign to address inequities facing students with learning disabilities, took over his case. And this past spring, Joe graduated from Selma High School as an A-student. He is now enrolled at a community college and plans to attend a four-year college next year.

"My child went from a non-reader to an advanced placement student making all As," Carolyn Bates said. "Joe's story shows that a child doesn't have to stay at the standard he's prescribed at in elementary school. If given appropriate services, he can advance to a higher standard."

To Courtney Bowie, the SPLC lawyer who represented the student, Joe's story is an "amazing success" that illustrates the importance of providing children with disabilities the special services that can turn their lives around.

Joe was identified as a student with a learning disability when he was in the 3rd grade. But his parents, Carolyn and Harry, were dumbfounded when he was suddenly found ineligible for special education services as a 6th-grader.

Though the school district claimed he was cured of his learning disability, he continued to struggle with emotional problems, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, severe asthma and continued learning problems. After asking that he be retested and going through an administrative process several times, they filed suit in federal court, claiming that their child's rights under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act were being violated.

SPLC wins settlement

After working on the case for months, Bowie won a settlement in August 2005. The school system refused to acknowledge that Joe had special education needs but agreed to provide special accommodations designed to improve his academic performance, including tutoring in reading and math, biweekly progress reports to his parents, better coordination among teachers and tutors, and vocational training as necessary.

Because he was not in special education classes, his mother insisted that Joe be placed in honors classes. "Her logic was that the best teachers were in those classes," Bowie said. "To Selma High School's credit, they did it, and kept Joe up to speed."

Despite his hours of after-school tutoring, Joe managed to take part in extracurricular activities. He was an instructor in his ROTC class, taking part in drill team and color guard. For fun, he joined a 12-member stepping group.

Because she learned so much about advocacy and education law while fighting for her son's rights, Carolyn Bates decided to open a community disabilities center to help other children with similar needs. The after-school program serves about 25 students, offering a computer lab, tutoring and other learning activities. "When they come to our center, they have all failing grades," she said. "When they leave, they are on the honor roll."

Carolyn Bates credits the SPLC with turning around Joe's sense of his own potential. "If not for SPLC's help, my child would not have reached his full potential, and he never would have been admitted to any college," she said.

The SPLC cannot help every child like Joe individually. That's why the organization has filed class action complaints in school districts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida to seek systemic reforms that will help all children with learning disabilities get the special, individualized services they need.

The work is part of the SPLC's School-to-Prison Reform Project, which seeks to stem the flow of children from schools to the juvenile justice system and, eventually, adult prisons. Children with emotional disturbances and learning disabilities are far more likely than other students to wind up in detention – often because of minor misbehavior related to their disabilities.