Story

A Personal Search for a School in Morocco Turns Up a Big Story at the State Department

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The author's sons, ages 5 and 3, walk up the stairs at their private French school in Morocco. The boys are autistic. Image by Jackie Spinner. Morocco, 2017.

The author's sons, ages 5 and 3, walk up the stairs at their private French school in Morocco. The boys are autistic. Image by Jackie Spinner. Morocco, 2017.

The story started with a personal one. I needed to find a school in Morocco for my autistic sons when we traveled there on a reporting trip. I used the U.S. State Department list of sponsored schools as a starting point and earlier this year contacted all of the schools in Rabat, where I intended to live for a few months this fall while I reported from the country and produced a documentary on autism. I was surprised, naively, to discover how hard it was to find a school that would accept my boys, ages 5 and 3, for kindergarten and pre-school.

For example, the Rabat American School in Morocco, which is on the State Department list of accessible schools, does not admit students who require more help than its two learning resource instructors can provide to more than 400 students. That means students who are in self-contained classrooms in the United States or who require a one-on-one aide are not admitted. My 5-year-old is in an inclusive classroom in a neighborhood public school in America and has an aide with other students, so I thought he would have a chance at admission. But the school did not have the resources to support him. Other English-speaking international schools also turned us down, and I ended up enrolling my children in a private Moroccan-French school, where they struggled in the first weeks to navigate in a language they did not speak. “We do review applications individually to determine if we are able to meet a student's needs,” Kristy C. Krahl, the Rabat American School’s elementary school principal, told me. “I have little knowledge of what families of special needs students do when schools such as ours are unable to meet their educational needs.” The school where my sons ended up was exceptional, and they have thrived there. But the process made me wonder: How do other parents find a school overseas for children with special needs?

As a former foreign correspondent with The Washington Post, I had friends in the Foreign Service, some with children with developmental and learning disabilities. One of them posted an inquiry for me on a Foreign Service list-serve, and I started to hear back from parents who told me that it had become more difficult for parents of children with special needs to find assignments overseas that the State Department would support. I heard stories from families forced to leave their children at a boarding school that the department would not pay for, and from parents who spent hours researching possible locations with schools that could support their children—at a location where the family had a reasonable chance during the bidding process of getting an assignment. I talked to a parent whose child was once cleared to go overseas but was suddenly denied the necessary medical clearance. Most parents would not talk on the record because they were afraid that they would lose even more support or face retaliation during the competitive bidding process.

The more I dug into the story, the more I realized the significance of what I had uncovered. The State Department had been quietly withdrawing financial support for children with special needs, effectively forcing their parents to serve abroad without them or leave the Foreign Service. Charles Roe told me that his family has been fortunate during the decade that his 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, who has Rett syndrome, has attended school, most of those years in schools overseas. All of the schools have integrated children with special needs into their communities, said Roe, whose wife is a U.S. diplomat.

Because his daughter is non-verbal and requires assistance walking, eating, and using the bathroom, there have been many assignments in both developed and undeveloped countries where the family hasn’t been able to go because schools have not had the resources to accommodate her, he said.

But his family has been happy, Roe told me from Australia, where they currently live. “This is a huge planet,” he said. “There are many lovely places with beautiful, intelligent teachers who love a challenge and who love being with our daughter. Olivia, like her parents, is a diplomat.”

To me, that was the story. In places in the world that most need advocates for children with special needs—or at least the personal understanding that comes from being a parent of a child with special needs, the State Department was potentially losing these diplomats—and their children.

The Washington Post published the story this week.