Hearing-impaired student fights to be ordinary teen
By PENNY BROWN ROBERTS
DUTCHTOWN -- A dark blue Jansport backpack stuffed with pens, Altoids, crumpled note and textbook strapped to his shoulders, Buddy Veazey is just another high school freshman trying to get to class on time.
Quickening his pace, he cuts to the left -- around a cluster of teenage boys pulling the ponytail of a giggling classmate -- then to the right, past a smooching young couple. He stops for a few minutes at locker No. A598 to grab another book, then disappears again -- swallowed by the clamoring crowd.
It's an ordinary moment, really, in the day-to-day routine of any ordinary teenager at Dutchtown High School.
But to Buddy, it means everything.
The 15-year-old freshman, who was born deaf but now has a cochlear implant that gives him some ability to hear, has spent much of his life fighting for these kinds of moments, in which he can be just a regular guy.
His desire to be immersed in classes at his neighborhood school -- rather than clustered with other hearing-impaired students on another campus -- has been the subject of a federal lawsuit in Baton Rouge since he was in third grade.
Now, as Buddy has taken his first date to the homecoming dance and started playing in the marching band, the Veazeys are awaiting a ruling from U.S. District Judge Ralph Tyson. But what has been a dogged, seven-year crusade possibly might end in defeat for the Prairieville family.
This summer, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a favorable ruling by U.S. District Judge James Brady in a similar case against the Ascension Parish School Board. That student -- Dylan White -- must leave his neighborhood school by order of the court.
"It's pretty devastating for us," said Buddy's father, John Veazey. "We had no idea it would go on this long and that the courts might rule against us. We thought it was a slam dunk."
At issue is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that guarantees all children with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education.
Parents like the Whites and the Veazeys insist that means their hearing-impaired children be provided the necessary services to be educated at their neighborhood schools like their hearing peers. But increasingly, the courts have ruled that districts have the right to select a centralized location for such students -- in part to save money.
Students like Buddy and Dylan require cued-speech transliterators in the classroom. A transliterator does not translate from spoken language to sign language. They supplement lip-reading and partial hearing with hand and finger motions.
Ascension Parish public schools provide such specialists at three sites where it clusters hearing-impaired students who use cued speech. The students are mainstreamed in regular schools in classrooms with other students.
The rulings in these cases are being watched closely by school districts throughout Louisiana and the rest of the nation. East Baton Rouge, Livingston, Point Coupee and Assumption parishes all provide special education services at centralized sites.
Gonzales attorney Jeff Diez, who represents the Ascension Parish School Board, argues that the school system "has provided an education that even the plaintiffs concede has resulted in significant academic achievement and educational benefits."
A ruling against clustering, he contends, "would obviously be detrimental to the programs of all the other school boards."
Transliterator costs alone would be about $11,000 per student per school year.
The Veazeys began their battle for Buddy when he was 2 years old. That's when he received the cochlear implant, a device that allows him to talk and hear others.
While in pre-school, Buddy attended a special class at Gonzales Primary School, where he learned the basics of spoken language. In 1995, he was sent to Oak Grove Elementary School -- his neighborhood campus.
A report on his progress noted that Buddy's "speech is intelligible to the familiar listener," and that his "social skills have improved in peer groups since coming to his home-based school."
The following year, the Ascension Parish School Board decided to send Buddy back to Gonzales Primary School, where he was to be clustered with another hearing-impaired student. According to the plan, he would ride a special education bus to school every day.
The family went through a series of hearings with Ascension Parish administrators to fight that decision. In 1997, a state Board of Education official ruled that Buddy should be clustered with other deaf students because the School Board provided him with "a free appropriate public education."
An appeals panel upheld that decision.
That's when the Veazeys filed suit in federal court, alleging the Ascension Parish School Board was violating federal law.
They've fought the issue, they say, because they believe their son must learn to exist within the hearing world. Clustering him with other deaf students, his parents say, will isolate him and perhaps limit his abilities to cope outside that setting.
"What's frustrating is that it's obvious no one is evaluating our son as an individual," Tanya Veazey said. "Buddy wants to graduate from high school and go on to college. He wants to get a job, have kids -- the all-American dream. To do that, he has to know how to live in the hearing world."
The courts have been increasingly reluctant to support social development as an argument for providing special services in the neighborhood schools.
That was the case with the recent 5th Circuit ruling on the other Ascension Parish student, Dylan White.
"The parents' request that Dylan attend his neighborhood school was primarily social -- they wanted him to be able to attend school with other neighborhood children," the 5th Circuit three-judge panel wrote. "This concern is beyond the scope of the 'educational benefit' inquiry courts make under the IDEA."
While awaiting a ruling in his case, Buddy has attended his neighborhood elementary, middle -- and now high -- schools.
He is followed from class to class by his transliterator, who sits in a desk facing him -- hands moving to help him follow discussions between teachers and classmates. In English class recently, she cued Buddy dialogue from "The Miracle Worker," a movie about Helen Keller the students are studying.
Buddy has exceeded even his parents' expectations, routinely scoring in the top percentiles on standardized testing, winning academic honors -- and making friends who don't view him as disabled.
Gabbrielle Williams has known Buddy since Prairieville Middle School, where the two played in the band together. Buddy played trombone then.
"I think it's great -- awesome, really -- that he keeps pushing himself like he does," said Gabbrielle, a 16-year-old sophomore. "He's one of the most active, outgoing and happiest people I know."
Sean Altazin met Buddy when they were in the fourth grade. Buddy's mother, Tonya, asked Sean to help Buddy with his telephone skills by calling him.
They've been friends ever since.
"He's just another one of the guys," said Sean, a 15-year-old freshman. "Everybody knows who he is and really likes him just because he's a great guy."
He says this as he heads off to the cafeteria for lunch, where he catches Buddy copping a French fry from a friend as nearby diners toss mayonnaise and mustard packets at one another.
Buddy takes off for the lunch line, where he buys a meal that probably wouldn't please his parents: orange juice and a package of Starburst fruit chews.
He has dreams of attending LSU and studying biology; on getting a doctoral degree from Texas A&M. He'd like to work with reptiles, or write books, or maybe even get involved in politics.
"I'm grateful to my parents for all that they've done," he said. "Other parents might have given up but mine didn't. I think the most important thing I've learned in all of this is that I am capable of succeeding in a hearing environment. And that means I can do anything I want to."
That said, Buddy sits down in a front-row desk for his last class of the day: speech.
His teacher, John Mangus, begins this class as he does every one -- with a journal assignment. Today's topic: High school is a dress rehearsal for life.
Buddy thinks for a moment, and he begins to write.
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