SENSITIVITY STRAINING

YEAR AFTER YEAR, DEBBIE MCQUEEN MAKES NEWS BY FORCING THE GOVERNMENT TO DEAL WITH A CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY SYNDROME THAT SHE CLAIMS AFFLICTS HER CHILDREN. THERE IS REASON TO WONDER HOW SICK THOSE KIDS ACTUALLY ARE.

Federal education officials could not find similar cases in other states.
The 1973 law says children with disabilities must have special school "accommodation plans" that enable them to learn unimpaired by their disability.

The boys' accommodation plans, which Debbie and Gray helped design, protected Jason and Michael by isolating them from such things as carpet glue, new construction, termite pesticide, room deodorizers, perfumes and even scented felt-tip markers. The school also agreed to supply sophisticated air purifiers for Michael's classroom. Teachers were instructed to make sure the boys followed special routes mapped out by the McQueens--routes that would ensure minimal exposure to toxins.

The school nurse, located in a newly carpeted, freshly painted building, was ordered not to allow Jason and Michael in the infirmary, but instead to go to the boys' classrooms should they get sick.

Pesticides were almost not an issue.
The school had stopped spraying pesticides, at Debbie's insistence, in 1991. The only pesticide applications at Eagle Ridge involved several termiticide applications in the early spring of this year, to the foundation of a new building. School officials notified parents before they applied the termiticide, called Torpedo.

The pesticide was applied after school hours, immediately covered with plastic and then buried in concrete a few hours later, says Hal Buckley, who is in charge of the school grounds.

Despite the school's caution, Debbie claimed the termiticide made the boys ill. School officials say maybe the kids just had a touch of flu; it was going around at the time.

As the school year progressed, Debbie seemed to grow more dissatisfied with the way the school was complying with the accommodation plans. For months, she had kept in touch with the Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the district had discriminated against her children because they had a disability.

In March 1995, shortly after the termiticide applications and at the very time Debbie's relationship with the teachers and Gasket had become brittle and hostile (she communicated with Gasket via certified mail by that time), a group of teachers and administrators led by Gasket discontinued the accommodation plans.

The team concluded that the McQueen boys' chemical sensitivities--if they existed--did not impair their ability to learn. Actually, the teachers said, the boys showed no more signs of illness than the healthy kids.

In short, the kids weren't really disabled after all, the team decided.
According to the 1973 law, school districts do not have to pay for medical tests to prove children have disabilities.

Thus the teachers would no longer be required to follow the burdensome accommodation plans. If the boys subsequently showed signs of chemical-related illness, Gasket later testified, the plans would have been reinstated.

"It was political," Debbie says of the team's decision to terminate the plans. Of course the boys weren't showing signs of illness, she insists--they were being protected from chemicals by their accommodation plans.

The school staff, she says, just wanted to get rid of her and her kids.
They did. Debbie immediately pulled her sons out of school after the discontinuation of the plans in March 1995.

Last spring, Debbie taught the boys at home. At the end of the year, the school, without testing the boys or checking on the progress of their work, advanced Jason to seventh grade and Michael to fourth grade.

When Debbie wasn't home-schooling the kids, she says she spent 60 hours a week trying to get their accommodation plans reinstated.

Debbie began communicating with the federal Office of Civil Rights about her "lack of due process." As a result, the civil rights agency began monitoring the district, which signed a "compliance order." The order ensured that Debbie would get a hearing on the accommodation plans, and that the school district would write policies and procedures surrounding the 22-year-old disability law.

But Debbie didn't get her hearing for months.
The district was busy writing policies and procedures, in accordance with the compliance order it had signed. Plus, the district said, it had difficulty finding an impartial hearing officer who was familiar with the 1973 law.

"The more she fought the system, and the more she had to use the feds, the more reticent the district was in dealing with her," says Greg Miller, a parent advocate who attended some meetings with Debbie.

Finally, a hearing was held in early August. Debbie did not succeed in reinstating the kids' disability status.

"It was a whitewash," says Debbie, pointing out that Larry Kelly, the "so-called impartial hearing officer" was a retired school administrator from a different district.

In his decision, Kelly noted: "There is no medical evidence that either Jason McQueen or Michael McQueen have been tested for any reaction to any specific chemical such as pesticides, termiticides, or outgasses emanating from such toxic materials as paint, carpeting, markers or other supplies, materials, furniture or equipment commonly found in school classrooms, school buildings, or school grounds."

Debbie has appealed the decision, and says she may well take the battle to federal court after the school administrative process is exhausted.

Although the McQueens had known since March 1995 that they might lose their battle with the school district, they failed to make firm alternative plans for their sons' educations. This week, Debbie enrolled the boys at a charter school that she claims does not use chemicals.

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