At one point, Norton didn't know the magic word either. For years, frustrated with SFUSD, she sent her autistic daughter to private school. Norton's daughter recently returned to public school and finished her first year back at Washington High.

Special education is expensive business. Budgets are tight. Staffing is an issue. Other controversies have rocked the district in recent years. A state audit found hundreds of violations in the way SFUSD handled its special-education cases. And, most recently, the district was found to diagnose black children with behavioral problems at disproportionately high rates.

"Is every kid getting everything they need? No," says Norton, "but this is the world we live in. I challenge you to find any district that does."

Lio McAllister at play.
Brian Rinker
Lio McAllister at play.

Indeed: Problems with getting quality public special education are not unique to San Francisco.

In April, two parent-group associations filed a federal lawsuit against the California Department of Education, accusing them of failing to provide FAPE to children with disabilities at schools across the state. The groups want the Department of Education to enforce FAPE obligations at school districts, instead of just recording them and doing nothing.

Katy Franklin, chair of the Community Advisory Committee for special education in S.F., compared the Education Department's enforcement strategy to "batting the flies away instead of picking up the shit in the room."

The lawsuit alleges that school districts spend tens of thousands of dollars in lawyers' fees to fight parents. One district cited in the lawsuit spent $80,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid forking over $4,500 to reimburse the parents for the costs of an independent education evaluation.

Districts usually have private law firms on retainer to litigate if the case goes to due process. The playing field for parents is usually unfair. In an NBC Investigative report, it was found that SFUSD spent $460,000 in outside legal fees since 2010.

"A child's special education should not depend on the parents' ability to advocate for services," Franklin says.

The McAllisters spent much of their life savings fighting the district. They risked a lot.

"It makes me want to throw up," Donna says, thinking of all the money spent. "Sometimes when I'm writing a check to the bank, I think I'm going to pass out."

Now that the judged ruled favorably for the McAllisters, they should get compensated for the nearly hundred thousand dollars in attorney fees and tuition costs. But how much money they actually get is still undecided. Right now, the district and the family's lawyer are negotiating over the fees.

So the McAllisters haven't prevailed yet. The district can appeal the decision, drawing both parties back into another lengthy legal proceedings. The decision to appeal could depend on the amount of fees the family's attorney requests, which the McAllisters estimate to be more than the tuition costs.

For now, Lio will finish out his time at Laurel and then go back to public school. The district and the McAllisters will have to create a new education program, one with the proper behavioral support, and then place Lio in the right school. A task easier said than done.

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