When classes resume at Portland Public Schools this fall, three students with autism will receive more personal care than another 15 of their classmates with the same disorder.

One of those children will have a district-employed therapist dedicated to him full time, and will also have his personal therapist in the classroom for four hours a week.

Another roughly 15 students with autism who used to receive daily help from their personal therapists won't get the same care. Their therapists—paid for by their parents' insurance—may only observe from the back of the class for a maximum of two hours a week. Instead, they will receive help from therapists paid for by the district, who will split their time among the kids.

The difference? Three families had the money to sue the school district. The others didn't.

"Only the families who could spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal services were able to get their services restored," says Paul Terdal, a parent who sued the district in 2017 and eventually settled, obtaining extra care for his son.

The families who sued the district are among those who have insurance plans that cover "applied behavior analysis," a well-regarded form of autism therapy. But not all families have such health care.

The district says the fairer approach is that all students get the services of the same publicly funded therapists.

"It means that those strategies are now available to all students with autism, not just the lucky few," says Portland School Board member Rita Moore.

But she admits that lawsuits led to better care for some kids. "The reality is that the parents who were in a position to [get more resources] were parents who were in a position to sue," she says. "That cannot be denied."

The dispute at PPS is part of a larger quandary about whether wealthy district residents should be allowed to have private services their neighbors can't afford. In the most conspicuous recent example of a similar conundrum, for-hire firefighters in California protect billionaires' mansions from wildfires ravaging the state.

At Portland Public Schools, this argument comes after years of intense debate about students who disrupt class. Last year, teachers launched a public relations campaign arguing their classrooms were unsafe because of violent students. Teachers asked for more support staff and more mental health support for kids.

But the district was not willing to cede control of classrooms to private therapists—and has spent thousands to prevent it.

District records show it spent over $96,000 on legal fees and negotiations in various cases involving ABA therapy in 2018.

"It's a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars and time," says Vanessa Jovanovic, who sued, alongside her husband, Radivoje, and eventually settled with the district.

Children with autism often have a hard time understanding the emotions of others, and therefore have a hard time effectively communicating their own needs and emotions. Though the spectrum of autism is broad, typical manifestations can include rigid behavior patterns, inappropriate social interactions, and strong reactions to sensory stimuli (like a noisy classroom or a pen repeatedly tapping on a desk).

For two years, Terdal's now-13-year-old son Billy (not his real first name) had a personal therapist who accompanied him in class at Access Academy in Southeast Portland.

But in September 2017, Portland Public Schools told Terdal his son's personal therapist would soon be limited to two hours a week in the classroom, rather than several hours every day. The therapist would be allowed only to sit quietly in the back of the room and observe. No communication or hands-on help would be permitted, the cornerstone of applied behavior analysis.

Moore says that's because personal therapists were interfering with education that the district is legally required to provide. "It wasn't just PPS being defensive," she says. "A lot of it was PPS having to manage a problem."

Over the next few months, Terdal says, Billy's behavior deteriorated. His grades plummeted and he became physically aggressive with peers. After he was told to stand on one tile of the floor for 15 minutes as a punishment for what his teacher deemed bad behavior, he destroyed a trinket his teacher cherished.

Terdal says that's because Billy was not allowed to have a trusted therapist trained to help him cope in the classroom.

"When you take off the Band-Aid and don't put another Band-Aid on, that's child abuse," says Terdal.

During the summer of 2018, the district came back with a plan to make up for what the families had lost: They would hire seven ABA-trained professionals. And they kept that promise. They eventually doubled the number to 14 professionals in the fall of 2018.

According to public records, the district paid $740,000 during the 2018-19 academic year to the health care provider that supplied the ABA-trained professionals.

When the two-hour rule was implemented in late 2017, paraeducators were left to pick up the slack (PPS has 450 of these educators, who are not ABA-trained). They had collaborated with the personal therapists when they were allowed extensive time in classrooms.

Unlike the private therapists, the paraeducators are unionized. They're part of the Portland Federation of School Professionals, a union that includes 1,400 district employees.

Union president Belinda Reagan says labor didn't influence the district's decision to limit private therapists' access to students. "Our paraeducators are incredibly busy in the classroom," Reagan says, "and I don't know that they have tremendous input in any decision."

But Terdal wasn't satisfied. In December 2017, he sued. The Jovanovic family sued in late 2018.

Terdal and the district settled out of court in June 2018. As part of the settlement, the district agreed to dedicate one of the publicly funded professionals full time to Billy. Terdal says all kids need the same level of care as Billy.

Billy and the Jovanovics' son—whose parents had the financial means to pay for an attorney—were granted privileges other kids weren't. Billy's personal therapist still comes in four hours a week and assists him with extracurricular activities.

Courtney Taylor's son Jack (not his real name) was not so lucky. Taylor hired an attorney during Jack's kindergarten year at Woodstock Elementary after she felt the school wasn't fulfilling its legal obligation to provide Jack with appropriate help.

The school agreed Jack's therapist could come with him to school at the start of the following school year, and Taylor says she felt hopeful.

By the fall of 2017, however, the district had set the two-hour limit. Taylor says she knew it wasn't working when Jack came home from school one day and shared he was having thoughts of self-harm. "I didn't even know that he knew that was a thing he could do," Taylor says. "And this kid just turned 7."

Taylor officially pulled Jack from school in August 2018, when she met with administrators and they voted not to let him back into school and described him as "cruel."

Taylor says she couldn't find more money to challenge the district in court again. (She still owes $15,000 in legal fees.) She also didn't want to.

"I didn't feel like I could, and not just financially," Taylor says. "I didn't want to fight that hard to send him where they didn't want him."

She says she plans to move her family to a different state by the end of the year.
"It's heartbreaking, because it's the kids who have money who are getting their needs met," Taylor says. "I spent so much money on what's supposed to be free education."