New York is renowned as one of the only places in the country where parents who buy legal help can count on winning. Usually, lawyers never even have to prove the failings of the schools themselves, because the Board of Ed has missed some basic step, like putting together an education plan for the child (also required by law). Skyer ticks off a few other typical bureaucratic screwups: “They don’t hold meetings, they lose files, they don’t have mandated people at meetings, placements are not made in suitable groups.” Usually the educators who attend the legal hearings have never met the children.
In the past two years, the city has opted to pay 50 settlements of over $100,000 apiece—almost all for autistic kids—instead of fighting to the death in court. The city comptroller’s office rejected just one: a settlement of $387,400, for one year of therapy. “It’s not just ‘Hire a lawyer and win,’” says John Farago, a hearing officer who issues decisions on autism cases. “It’s ‘Ask for a hearing and win.’ ”
Six years ago, commercial litigator Gary Mayerson put out a shingle on West 38th Street and now has a four-attorney practice suing New York and other school districts for private education for autistic kids. For the 2005–2006 school year, Mayerson had 257 such cases—and has lost only two. “These are the cases where I still need to collect attorneys’ fees,” he says, pointing to a thick stack of purple folders on his desk. The Department of Education will pay for those, too.
Although Mayerson is on the Rebecca School’s go-to list, many of his clients come from the five-year-old McCarton School, a private autism program on the Upper East Side that charges $84,000 a year and advises its 23 kids to participate in personalized after-school programs that cost anywhere from $18,000 to $56,000 more. McCarton has a waiting list 127 names long; one family moved to the East Side from eastern Connecticut just to attend the school. Others have relocated from England, Colorado, and Texas. All can now get the city’s Department of Education to pay the bill.
Students who don’t attend the school can hire its founder, Cecelia McCarton, to perform an autism evaluation. It takes three months to get an appointment. Then, for about $2,500, she’ll do up an impeccable dossier on a kid’s issues and needs, a lethal weapon for any litigation to come and another expense the city winds up paying.
Mayerson also represents parents who homeschool their kids, hosting a parade of professionals each morning for some $80,000 a year. And some are starting their own schools. In a stucco house off Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway, formerly home to a large Orthodox family, Imagine Academy offers kids daily yoga and a “sensory spa” where they can calm down by staring at soothing lights. “We decided we’re going to put in all the things we ever dreamed of and never got,” says Rebecca Harary, one of ten parent-founders. Her school has 28 staff for thirteen children and, like Koffler’s school, it’s hired as a consultant Stanley Greenspan, a Maryland doctor who has created his own proprietary method of autism treatment. Tuition there is $70,000, not counting after-school therapy.
“It might cost a million, a million and a half to save a kid. You’ve got kids going to schools that cost $20,000, $30,000, or $40,000, and they have worse outcomes.”
“It might cost a million, a million and a half to save a kid,” calculates Mayerson. “You’ve got some kids going to schools that cost $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000, and they have worse outcomes. Wouldn’t you rather pay $100,000 a year for a few years and get a great education and productive members of society? Do the math.”
Mayerson doesn’t dare say autistic children can be cured. Rather, he prefers to say they “can be functionally remediated, so a child can be indistinguishable from other children.” That’s the hope Maggie and Robert Eigen hold for their son, Jake, a 7-year-old diagnosed with PDD-NOS who attends the McCarton School. On a recent day, Jake’s $46,000-a-year after-school program went something like this: At 3:15, a half-hour after the official school day ended, a young teacher named Jayshree Patel took Jake to play in the fountains at the Museum of Natural History, and then jumped in a cab with him to head for a trim at Cozy’s Cuts back on the East Side. At 5:30, she handed Jake off to his second teacher, Abi Leibovitch, who also works at McCarton during the day. First they wandered through the lobby of a movie theater on East 86th Street, where they’ve been working on making Jake less scared of big, dark spaces. Then they moved on to Logos Bookstore on York Avenue, where he tried pulling every kids’ book out of the rack, then to the diner on the corner of 86th for some ice cream.