COPAA Round-up from Paradise

We’ve just returned from Paradise, as in Paradise Point Island, San Diego, where we attended the 17th annual COPAA (Council of Parent Attorneys & Advocates) conference.  We can’t say we missed the snow!

COPAA’s conference is an annual source of inspiration to us, as we join our colleagues in protecting the Civil Rights of students who have disabilities. At YourSpecialEducationRights.com, we constantly strive to empower parents, and COPAA is an organization committed to this cause we hold so dear. Read more

Lessons from Darien’s Special Education Audit: Don’t Assume Anything is as it Seems

It’s a sad fact that many parents have to question if their school districts are actually providing the services laid out in their child’s IEP (Individualized Education Program).  We see it often in our special education advocacy.  It’s not uncommon for a parent to report to us that their child told them they haven’t been receiving their special education and related services.   It usually happens something like this:  “So, Tommy, have you been enjoying working with Mrs. Jones in the speech room?”  “Oh, I haven’t seen Mrs. Jones since Halloween.  I think she might have had a baby or something.  I’m not going to the speech room anymore.”  Yikes!

Even worse, for many children who, due to the nature and severity of their disability, can’t tell their parents what is happening in school, parents suspect services aren’t being delivered, but have a hard time knowing for certain.

So we were not surprised to learn that a financial audit, which was part of an on-going probe of Darien, Connecticut’s special education department, revealed fraudulent practices that are downright sickening. The Darien special education department received over $200,000 for special education services that never happened! You can read the details here.  Before the audit of their special education books, a deep probe into the school district’s overall special education practices and procedures revealed serious violations of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).  Now we have learned that, not only was Darien removing necessary services from children’s IEPs, but they were charging the State for those services anyway!

While your school district may not be puffing their special education books to receive extra funds (and we certainly hope they aren’t!), you may believe or suspect your child isn’t receiving their prescribed services.

So how do you prove it?

In our experience, questioning the integrity of teachers and school staff can lead to serious ill-feelings.  No parent really ever wants bad blood with the very people who are working with their child.  But let’s face it, this is serious.  You’re entitled to know if your child is actually receiving what is in their special education plan, and your child is entitled to be receiving those services.

So how do you ask for documentation that doesn’t put everyone on the defensive and, from a practical standpoint, get you the information you need to help your child?  And there it is, “the information that you need to help your child.”  As parents, we want to know what our child is working on so we can reinforce or generalize the skill at home or in the community, depending on the skill.  We also want to know whether the services the school is recommending in the IEP are working!  Here are a few easy ways to get the information you need:

  1. Ask that a home/school communication log be developed.   This can take many forms:  email, notebook, or a specially-designed form that can capture what was worked on at school.  If your child is missing services, it should be fairly easy to notice if that provider isn’t filling out their portion.
  1. Ask for regular “team meetings” that include you as a parent.  These can be monthly, bi monthly, or quarterly.  We suggest that you have those meetings put into the IEP as required to happen.  When you meet with the team, you should be able to have a better sense of whether services are being delivered regularly.
  1. You can ask to observe a particular session in school.  This will require advance scheduling and notice, but this is a good way to get a sense of what is happening.
  1. Ask your child.  We realize there are some children who are non-verbal, but if your child can communicate, and is a fairly reliable reporter, this is often the best way to find out if a service is happening.

As with all things related to special education disagreements, make sure you are documenting any services you feel have been missed.  If it’s happening a lot, put an email or letter together to the district asking why your child is missing these services.  If it becomes an issue, your district may have to make up those sessions at a later date through what is called “compensatory education,” so it’s important to keep records.

Lastly, we want to say that we know that there are wonderfully dedicated teachers and school staff where these suspicions do not apply.  We also know that educators have the same life challenges we all have; they get sick, they have family members who pass away, etc.  But we need to take a page from the Darien, Connecticut probe, and not assume that everything is as it seems.

 

From Cruelty To Understanding: Trends In Special Education From Then To Now
August 7, 2014
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Here at YourSpecialEducationRights.com,  we are all about simplifying your special education rights.  That’s why we love this infographic on the history of special education brought to us by the folks at special-education-degree.net

Spec_Ed_Trends_112113

The Tip of the Iceberg

Published on June 16, 2013 by Jennifer Laviano

It’s been a fascinating several months here in Connecticut, as we have watched events unfold in the special education community in Darien. The coverage has been wide locally, but if you don’t want to read it all, here’s the upshot: the Special Education Director in this small, affluent town in lower Fairfield County (itself small and largely affluent), new to the position in the 2012-2013 school year, distributed “training materials” to educators in the community via memos and, yes, a Power Point presentation. So what’s wrong with that? Well, they included numerous misrepresentations on what an educator and a district’s obligations are under the law, and blatantly instructed the educators that they were not to disagree with administration during IEP meetings. Under the guise of asking educators to present a “united front” during IEP meetings, the Director effectively thwarted the legally-required open exchange of ideas which is supposed to be the heart of an IEP meeting.

“We must present a united front in IEP meetings” is code for “don’t disagree with the administration or make recommendations which might cost us money.”

Thanks to the courage of several parents who were rightly outraged by this directive (among the many, MANY other violations of the federal special education law included in these documents and countless examples of individual violations as well as systemic), and the steadfast representation of their rights by Mystic Attorney Andrew Feinstein, families joined forces and filed a Complaint with the Connecticut State Department of Education. The Complaint ultimately led to an investigation, which culminated last week in an open forum for parents to tell the State about their experiences in Darien. This EXCELLENT Editorial by the Darien Times, which has been remarkably committed to getting the truth of this situation despite some fairly strong local opposition (some of which has been truly vile via commentary online) summarizes how that meeting went.

When I read the Darien Times Editorial, I was stunned. I wish I could say it was because I was shocked by the stories the parents shared. That wasn’t it. What had stricken me was that the Editors got it! They GOT that this isn’t about a few disgruntled families. This is the “tip of an iceberg.” I particularly appreciated their reference to the disparity between Darien’s “internal charge” of providing a top notch education for its students, while defending its failures for students with disabilities as reasonable under the IDEA’s “appropriate” standard. For those of you who’ve been following my blog since the beginning, you know I’ve been disgusted by that hypocrisy in public schools throughout the State (and country) for years!

The Editorial suggests that the families who’ve spoken out in Darien represent a “tip of an iceberg” in Darien. But I’ve got news for them.  It’s not just Darien.

The scary thing to most of us who have been following this is that this type of administrative pressure isn’t uncommon; we know it happens all of the time, all over the country.  Teachers approach me after presentations I give, and on a few occasions have even followed me down a hallway after an IEP meeting to whisper “thank you” to me for getting the district to approve the support they needed, but couldn’t get without the pressure of the parents hiring a lawyer. Teachers email me or post comments to this blog all of the time, saying that they are conflicted because a student in their charge needs more than the school district will allow them to recommend, and they feel horrible about it.  Sometimes they’re subtly being told “you know who pays your check.”  Other times, it’s less subtle, and blatantly discriminatory.  I usually remind them that they, too, have rights, and they include not being retaliated against for speaking up about what the IDEA requires for a student and whether they are receiving it.

Even if I didn’t have the direct evidence of how some educators feel the administrative pressure not to refer, evaluate, identify, or properly service students with disabilities under the IDEA, I see it on their faces.  In hundreds and hundreds of meetings where I am expressing the Parents’ concerns about the inappropriate program their child is receiving, and some of the teachers can’t meet my eye, or the parents’.  Or I get the nodded head, or a wink, or something is said by an educator in a way that tells me “please ask me this question right now because the answer to it will get the kid what he needs but I just can’t volunteer it!”

The thing that’s unusual about what happened in Darien is that the practice to violate the IDEA was written down, and parents got their hands on the proof.

So, perhaps what happened in Darien is what needs to happen everywhere.  Parents need to organize, and tell their stories.  It has to be made clear to the good-hearted people of so many communities, the people like the Editors at the Darien Times, that this isn’t the exception; in many towns, it’s often the rule.  It’s time that administrators who look at special education as an expensive nuisance, rather than as an essential Civil Right designed to ensure that students with disabilities become adults with skills, are held accountable.

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.

The Gift of Knowledge

It’s been a couple of years now that I’ve been blogging about special education legal issues.  Unfortunately, the realities of juggling a busy law practice, a family, and other professional commitments don’t allow me to do it enough, and I continue to yearn to bring information about parents’ rights to a wider audience.

When I started this blog, I had been practicing special education law for well over a decade.  I thought I understood that parents of kids with disabilities were often unaware of their rights under the IDEA.

I didn’t have the first clue.

What I failed to account for was that my experiences and impressions as a special education attorney were, by definition, limited to those families who have the ability to contact a lawyer!  I’m not just talking about financial means, although that is a HUGE part of it.  I am talking about parents who are willing and able to question authority.

Suddenly I started getting tons of emails, phone calls, questions and comments from my blog readers across the country about their experiences.  These parents weren’t trying to hire a lawyer.

These parents wanted information.

Many were just beginning to understand that their child wasn’t getting what they needed from their school districts, and that maybe they had a right to do something about it.  Many more had become informed about their rights, but felt completely powerless to enforce them.

As the scope of the problem became more clear to me, I started working in earnest with a friend and colleague, Julie Swanson, who is a non-attorney advocate here in Connecticut.  Julie and I met 15 years ago when my late father represented her son in one of the first cases involving the appropriateness of autism programming in our State.  Since that case was (successfully) resolved all those years ago, Julie became more and more passionate about advocating for children’s rights under the IDEA.

One night, over dinner, Julie planted an idea.  She was convinced that the reason so many children with disabilities receive sub-standard programs is not just that parents are largely uninformed about their rights, but that there is no easy, mainstream opportunity for them to learn about them.  She was pretty much preaching to the choir at that point, but over time we started coming up with various models.

How could we “spread the word” about special education advocacy to parents?

We decided that the answer was to simplify the special education process as much as possible.  As our ideas started to gel, we had the fortune of meeting up with a wonderful group of producers of educational videos who believed in our mission.  It has taken nearly two years to develop, but I am proud to announce the birth of www.YourSpecialEducationRights.com.

Our concept is simple.

Julie and I have filmed dozens and dozens of short, easy to understand video clips on numerous topics relevant to special education rights.  Parents (or grandparents, or students for that matter) subscribe to the website at a reasonable annual rate.  They can watch the video segments whenever they want, as often as they want, at any time of the day.  Watch when the kids are asleep or while getting ready for an IEP meeting.  We like to think of it as a cross between a webinar and a talk show!  New series are added continuously.

As the video library grows, so too grows knowledge, and a feeling of empowerment.

We have several series on IDEA basics and terminology.  We have a series called “Crisis Corner” for urgent matters.  We have a series focusing on the bullying of kids with disabilities.  We have a multi-part series called “My Child Is In a Psychiatric Hospital.  Now What?” with step-by-step suggestions depending on whether or not your child has an IEP, 504 Plan, or is not yet identified for services.  We have “Jen and Julie’s Booklist,” where we share what’s in our advoacy libraries and why.

Perhaps my favorite series is called “They Say, You Say,” where we take comments that parents often hear from school districts, and provide suggested responses.

Already filmed and in the editing room is a series on Transition to adulthood; another series is on issues related to infants and toddlers; and yet another on home-schooling of kids with special education needs.  We are working on a series for gifted and talented students with disabilities, as we know these “twice exceptional” students’ needs are often overlooked by our public schools.  Future series on independent evaluations, and how to understand testing in general, are in the works.

The list of possibilities is really endless!

It is Julie and my greatest wish that, by making the laws surrounding special education more understandable —by simplifying them–parents will learn how to EFFECTIVELY advocate for their children.

Check out the site, watch the previews, and hopefully, join our community.  Just imagine what a difference can be made.  What if MOST parents knew what to do and say in meetings with their child’s special education team?  What if MOST parents understood how to get their children appropriate services and accommodations?  What if, instead of a few parents understanding the special education system, MOST did?

What if?

IEEs: Do You Have to Explain Why You Disagree?
February 14, 2011
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As I have covered on several occasions in the past, a parent’s right to an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE) under the IDEA is, in my view, one of the strongest available under the special education laws.  This opportunity to get a “second opinion” on the school district’s evaluations is, in many cases, the difference between positive outcomes and disaster.

The first step towards obtaining an IEE is to disagree with the school district’s testing.

However, what if you disagree with the testing, but you’re not quite sure why?  Or perhaps there are several things with which you disagree?  Or maybe you have a sense of what you disagree with, but you don’t have the “proper” terminology to explain it.

Do you have to be able to articulate WHY you disagree with the school’s evaluation in order to trigger your right to an IEE?  In a word, no.

The school district is legally permitted to ask you why you disagree, but they can not require an answer.  Nor can they delay a response if you don’t provide a reason.  Please read this important provision of the statute.

I suggest you print that provision out and take it with you to the IEP meeting at which you intend to ask for an IEE.  Heck, maybe even laminate it!

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