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SENSITIVITY STRAINING

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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.

Although there are several schools in the Paradise Valley school district that control pests through nonchemical means, Debbie will not let her kids return to the district. She calls the nonchemical programs in district schools "pseudo programs."

What really concerns her is how teachers and administrators at Eagle Ridge "mentally and physically abused" her sons.

She gives examples of that abuse. The kids got sick after the school used the termiticide. Jason's teacher allowed a room deodorizer in the classroom in clear violation of his accommodation plan. Such scents, Debbie says, might be dangerous to Jason's health. The band teacher failed to give Jason an "effort" grade and isolated him from the rest of the kids, just because the accommodation plan kept him out of some sections of the band room. Michael's teacher prevented him from participating in a tee-shirt tie-dye project.

District officials will not comment on the McQueen case. But available public records, including some of the boys' medical records, point up troubling inconsistencies.

These inconsistencies surface at the very time mental-health professionals struggle to differentiate between two types of mothers who complain repeatedly about the treatment of their children.

The first type of mother is merely anxious, concerned that a child with special needs is being shortchanged by the educational system, says Herbert Schreier, an Oakland, California, child psychiatrist who studied such mothers. The anxious mother generally quiets down when her child's needs are met, he says.

The second type of mother uses her child as a tool to manipulate professionals and get attention for herself--at the expense of the child, says Schreier. The mother never seems satisfied, no matter what officials do to appease her. Mothers in this category may be suffering from a variation of a psychological syndrome known as Munchausen by Proxy, Schreier says. Like all forms of Munchausen by Proxy, this variation of the syndrome is actually a type of child abuse, Schreier says.

He would not comment on the McQueen case. And without performing an extensive psychiatric examination, it is all but impossible to prove, definitively, into which category Debbie McQueen might fit.

When Debbie McQueen talks about her childhood in Illinois, she paints a picture of isolation and loneliness. She was a skinny tomboy who spent a lot of time alone. She often felt "judged" by other kids because she lived in a "slum area of Springfield."

"I hated it," says Debbie.
She describes her father as a "refined Archie Bunker" and an "extreme right winger" with a bloodline that traces back to Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee.

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Terry Greene