Why Won’t They Stand on their Desks?

So many of us are grieving the loss of Robin Williams this week.  As an actor, he made us care about his characters by becoming them; and in so doing, he made us care about him.  As a comedian, he was an unstoppable energy that was equal parts intelligence and irreverence.

I know you’re wondering what this has to do with special education advocacy, but give me a few minutes. I’m getting there.

When I was fresh out of high school, Dead Poets Society came out.  I thought it was brilliant, and that Robin Williams’ portrayal of Mr. Keating was stunning.  Later, when the movie came out on tape (yes, tape. To watch on our VCR. Which was only slightly larger than our answering machine), we watched it incessantly at my house.  The movie spoke to so much of what I was raised to believe in:  questioning authority; the need for individuality; having courage to stand up for what’s right in the face of powerful forces which make doing so especially difficult.

In the iconic ending of the film, after being unfairly fired from his job as a teacher, Mr. Keating comes in to collect his things from his classroom.  The students, who have been pressured by the school administration and their parents to acquiesce to the plan to scapegoat Mr. Keating, sit uncomfortably by while their beloved teacher quietly packs up.  All the while, their class is being taught by one of the very administrators who orchestrated his removal.

As the pressure builds, it becomes too much for those in the class with integrity.  One by one, the students decide to show their loyalty to Mr. Keating by standing up on their desks, saying “Captain, My Captain” (a loving tribute Mr. Keating created to Walt Whitman) while the administrator shouts at them to sit down.  Robin Williams’ face as he watches this display is impossible to describe.  It encapsulates the humanity that he was able to portray unlike any other actor.  Somehow, when allowed few words, he was able to say it all with his sheer presence, energy, and reaction to others.

So what the Hell does any of this have to do with special education advocacy?

When we would watch our VCR tape of the movie in my house, my dad would say to me “Jenny, pay attention to this.  Notice that not all of the boys stand up on their desks.  That is very true to life.  There will always be people who lack the courage to stand up to authority.”  It stuck with me, and it stays with me to this day.

Almost every week I attend IEP meetings where good, honest, decent people who chose to become educators sit uncomfortably by as their administrators deny students services which those educators, in their heart of hearts, believe are necessary.  I can see it on their faces.  They want to shout out “YES, I AGREE,” but fear for their jobs.  Every once in a while, one of them will be unable to stand the pressure, and will openly side with the family; but those examples are few and far between.

I wish they knew that if they had the courage to stand up on their desks, they would be protected.  They have rights, including the right to not be fired or retaliated against for being honest about what a student requires under the IDEA.   I wish they knew that teachers staying silent about what kids with disabilities need is probably the primary obstacle to those students getting that help.  Administrators, faced with teachers who are willing to be honest “on the record,” often have no other choice than to do the right thing.

I wish those good teachers could see what those teenagers in Dead Poets Society saw:  that standing up for what is right, even shouting it from the top of your desk, is what makes them worthy of the profession to which they have been called.

Special Needs Not Met
October 24, 2012

There is a system in place to develop IEPs (individualized education plans) for special needs children in schools, but that system isn’t serving kids or families. Watch this segment from Huffpost Live detailing the issue, hosted by Janet Varney, and including:

  • Valerie Vanaman (Los Angeles, CA) Attorney Specializing in Special Education
  • Monika Jones (Los Angeles, CA) Parent of Special Needs Child
  • Gloria Perez-Stewart (Los Angeles, CA) Community Organizer for Latina Mami
  • Kate Ahern (MA) Special Needs Teacher

Watch the Segment from Huffpost Live »

We Don’t Do That in This District

There are lot’s of things I hear at IEP team meetings that cause me to bristle and take a deep breath.  One of them is when I hear “We don’t do that in this district.”

It was recently said at a meeting in which we were discussing the possibility of a student requiring a residential program as part of an appropriate placement.  The director said, “we’ve never paid for the residential portion of an educational program,  we don’t do that here.”

As I usually do,  I took a few deep breaths and contemplated my response to make sure I said something appropriate.

I explained that I was a uncomfortable with his response and I would be more than happy to ignore it.  But, if he really meant it and wanted it on the record, than I would request for the district’s position to be on the record.  Loud and clear!

I explained that I was uncomfortable with it because he was predetermining what the IEP team was going to decide about the student’s program.  Additionally, it sounded like it was their policy not to do such things, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for the district to have a policy about what they do and don’t pay for as a part of a student’s IEP.

He rethought his definitive statement about not paying for residential portions of educational placements and said he wanted to wait to see what the evaluators had to say about what the student needed.
I confirmed that I thought that was a great idea!
Don’t Put All Your Stock in Hallway Conversations


In my experience talking with parents who have special education concerns, it is disturbing for me to learn about misinformation often given to them in hallway conversations with teachers or other school staff.

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not about teachers or other school staff and placing blame on them.  Most teachers are worth their weight in gold.  But, ultimately most teachers are not experts on the IDEA (Individual with Disabilities Education Act) and your rights under this federal law.

Here’s an example.  I had a parent insist that he couldn’t refer his child to special education because his child’s teacher said that only teachers could make the referral.   After I took a couple of deep breaths, I explained that the teacher’s explanation was not entirely true.  Teachers can make referrals to special education, and so can you!  Please know that you, as a parent or guardian can refer your child to special education.  The referral can trigger initial evaluations in all suspected areas of disability by your school team or other professionals.

In another example, a parent explained to me that the school speech and language pathologist reported to him that his son was going to be exited from special education at the next IEP team meeting because he was doing so well.  O.K., I would consider that predetermining an outcome at it’s best.  So hold on right there, this type of decision can only be made in an IEP team meeting where many things are taken into consideration when exiting a child from special education.

So whether your child is not currently in special education or already receiving special education services, you would be well-served to request an IEP (Individualized Education Program) team meeting to discuss all of your questions and concerns.

So while it’s tempting to put all your stock in what you’ve discussed casually in the hallway, don’t.

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