Little 9-year-old Bella French, wearing pink Hello Kitty boots and clutching her puppy dog notebook, didn't pay much attention to the nine men in suits and ties seated in leather chairs before her.
She couldn't take her eyes off her weeping mom.
For the second week in a row, Christa French stood before the nine-member Hamilton County Commission to beg -- to demand -- help. Yesterday, she spoke one sentence -- but not two -- before the tears came.
It was as if she was crying for more children than her own autistic, dyslexic, special-needs, pink-booted daughter.
"Close your eyes," French said to the commissioners after her tears stopped, "and imagine 200 people behind me."
For the last three weeks, a group of determined, frustrated and weary parents has addressed the commission, all with stories that fall under the same heartache.
The treatment — or mistreatment — of their special-needs children in Hamilton County's public schools.
"I could bring people here all day," said D.R. Fraley, whose red-haired daughter has multiple special-needs diagnoses.
Fraley and French are becoming accidental leaders in a growing crusade, populated by county parents who are all members of a unique community: Their children have special needs. Dyslexia. ADHD. Autism. Physical disabilities. Anything that is atypical.
Federal law — the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act — requires appropriate and proper education for special-needs students. This happens through special classes, specifically trained teachers, specific curriculum and a multitude of attentive adult responses to the varying needs of certain children.
Which, if present, can provide a rich, safe and promising environment.
But if not, can be hell on earth for special-needs kids.
"It's gut-wrenching," said Commissioner Tim Boyd.
Boyd has received claims -- all the papers stacked together are an inch thick, he said — from parents. He said reading them made him weep.
One letter told of a special-needs child who suffered under a teacher who was "verbally, emotionally and physically abusive."
"Unqualified staff members. Behavioral problems. Sexual assault with a teacher present," Boyd said. He's calling for a third-party investigation into what he believes is a systemic pattern of mistreatment.
"I fear this is an Erin Brockovich story," said Fraley.
Fraley, French and other parents have seen their children flourish under profoundly good care from certain county teachers and professionals.
But they've also seen what French calls "a corrupt system" that does just the opposite.
Special-needs children are deeply valuable and vulnerable, and not one hair on their heads should be harmed, especially in the name of education. The school system needs to fully investigate these claims, and bend over backward to provide a safe space for parents to come forward with their stories.
Seems strange that Fraley and French are speaking to the County Commission. Shouldn't they be talking to the school board instead?
"We cannot speak at a school board meeting," said French.
Because there is no formal, public-comment segment during Hamilton County Board of Education meetings.
Maybe the parents should just go anyway.
Take their kids.
Cry. And then demand answers.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...