Making Special Education Actually Work
Intro Trailer: Making Special Education Actually Work

Intro Trailer: Making Special Education Actually Work

September 10, 2020

This is our brief introductory trailer to our podcast, Making Special Education Actually Work

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Public Education Version 2.0 and the Power of Stay-Put

Public Education Version 2.0 and the Power of Stay-Put

August 26, 2020
Photo Credit: Matthew Cipican

 

I'm pained to open with the platitude that these are unprecedented times. We all already know that and belaboring it for the purpose of a proper opening paragraph seems to belittle the magnitude of the moment.

 

The truth is that I've been having a hard time coming up with the right place to start the next conversation on this blog. I had developed a publishing schedule for Making Special Education Actually Work just before the pandemic hit and the schools in California, where we are headquartered, shut down.

 

All of that went out the window the moment the shutdown started and I've since published some bits about how to respond to the situation based on what was known at the time of each publication, but how things have continued to play out, or not, from one school district to the next has been nothing short of pandemonium. Some of my kids have done so much better with distance learning that they never want to leave their houses again. Others have regressed so greatly since the shutdown started that it's going to take years to undo the damage that has been done and catch them up to the degree its possible to do so.

 

Each kid, as a unique individual learner, has experienced the shutdown differently, but all of them are experiencing the same procedural violation at the hands of their Local Education Agencies (LEAs): Failure to implement the Individualized Education Program (IEP) as written. Or, framed in the language of the regulations, failure of the education rendered to conform with each student's respective IEP.

 

In California, the State has already assumed that compensatory remedy will be due to most, if not all, of its special education students because of the shutdown. None of the laws changed. There are permissible, though narrow caveats, in the law that provide for extenuating circumstances.

 

While the implementing regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandate the application of evidence-based science to the design and delivery of special education on a child-by-child basis, it is only to the degree that the application of the science is practicable. LEAs bear the burden of proving that the delivery of a special education service is not practicable before denying it and giving notice of such via a Prior Written Notice (PWN).

 

The real dispute, it seems, is over what is realistically practicable given the circumstances, but that first requires us to operationally define what we mean by practicable, and that's a problem. There is no legal authority or professional standard for what defines "practicable" within the context of 34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4).

 

I know this because the operational definition of "practicable" was one of the burning questions I had when I went back to graduate school in 2011 and had answered by the time I graduated in 2013. The truth is that there is no operational definition in the scientific literature or the case law as to what is meant by the term, "practicable."

 

Even Perry Zirkel was stymied by this question and ultimately concluded that most courts interpreted the definition of "practicability" as something to be left to the discretion of local education agencies - meaning, really, top administrators and board members, who are all politicians - get to decide what is and is not practicable as a matter of local governance. In those LEAs, "practicable" just means "if the LEA wants to."

 

This, of course, neglects the fact that 34 CFR Secs. 300.320-300.324 vests the authority in IEP teams, which include the parents, to make determinations as to what is educationally necessary and, therefore, the obligation of the LEA to provide to each given special education student. If that authority is vested in the IEP team, then no one from the LEA on the IEP team should have to go get the approval or permission of a superior outside of the IEP meeting, particularly when that superior has no direct knowledge of the student's unique needs or the IEP team's discussions about them. Whether or not something is practicable should be an IEP team decision, not an internal policy issue, yet the research that has been done suggests its a call to be made by top administrators, not individual IEP teams that include the students' parents.

 

Further, 34 CFR Sec. 300.321(a)(4)(iii) mandates that each IEP team include at least one LEA representative who is "knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the public agency." Usually, this is an upper-level administrator from the main office who not only knows what resources the LEA has, but has also been granted the authority to commit the LEA's resources to a student's IEP. This can come in the form of committing existing resources to the IEP as well as procuring those materials and services that are not already available through the LEA.

 

I've been in IEP meetings during which such an administrator fills out and submits online requisitions for use of existing assets, as well as online purchases and purchase orders through their LEA's internal automated workflow system, during IEP meetings as the team agrees to things that are needed but not already on hand. It's not that uncommon and it goes a long way towards doing it right the first time.

 

Again, there should be no going to someone else outside of the IEP process for permission or approval. In one fairly recent meeting I attended, the school district's administrator on the IEP team shared her screen with the rest of us so we could all look at our options on Amazon together as an IEP team and make the purchasing decision right there. Then, "click," it was ordered and the student had his accommodations the next day. Easy peasy.

 

The law does not provide for the IEP team's authority to be displaced by or shifted to an uninvolved third party. If no one on the IEP team from the LEA knows whether the LEA already has the necessary resources available or will need to purchase stuff it doesn't already have, it's not a real IEP team.

 

Because these decisions are IEP team decisions, and not the decisions of removed administrators who are motivated by factors other than the individual needs of each special education student, deferring to top administrators to determine what is or is not "practicable," opens the door for a litany of procedural and substantive errors that will quickly create due process claims against the LEA. It behooves no one for LEAs to play this game, but plenty of them do.

 

Competent people have no motivation to do sketchy stuff and lie about it, so when you encounter this kind of behavior, it's because you're dealing with people who don't know what else to do and/or are crooked through and through. What we are all now going through as a nation under the current presidential administration is a reflection of the crap I've been dealing with for nearly 30 years in special education local governance. None of this is new to me, it's just now happening on a national scale. Maybe everybody outside of the special education community will finally believe me about this crap, now.

 

More often than not, what is deemed by an LEA as not being practicable is likely better framed as being something for which the LEA is simply not willing to expend the necessary funds. While it is unlawful under the IDEA to use fiscal considerations to determine the contents of a student's IEP, it happens all the time. The language of IEPs are often deliberately kept vague and weak so that they are difficult to enforce or so that it is otherwise difficult to say that the education rendered failed to conform with the IEP.

 

I'm seeing this happen in a way with 1:1 behavioral aide support services, right now. I've got families barely holding it together, stuck at home with their severely impacted children who have serious behavioral challenges arising from their disabilities. They'd give anything for in-home 1:1 behavioral services, right now.

 

And, that's the thing: they should already be getting it under the existing laws. On August 24, 2020, (the day before this post), the California Office of Administrative Hearings, which tries special education due process cases within the State, issued an order making clear that students who require in-person services in order to access and benefit from their educations, including during distance learning, must receive such services according to medically acceptable safety procedures regarding COVID-19.

 

Behavioral services are medically and educationally necessary, the California Department of Education (CDE) has advised that in-home services during the shutdown may be necessary in order for LEAs to comply with their IDEA requirements under the law, and, now, OAH has ordered a school district to provide in-home services as a matter of stay-put during the shutdown. This is huge! This settles the argument once and for all.

 

I know of at least one student who is currently getting in-home behavioral services through his health insurance, which is the only reason he was able to participate in distance learning during the last half of the Spring 2020 semester. The same agency currently serving this student through his health insurance had previously served him as a Non-Public Agency (NPA) under his IEP in the public school setting. Same people, different funding source, different willingness to send personnel to his house for in-home, 1:1 behavioral aide services.

 

His school district has offered to provide an aide online during distance learning, like somehow that's going to produce the same educationally substantive outcome of getting him to engage in the online instruction in the first place and remain engaged throughout each lesson. The boy needs an in-person 1:1 aide in order to access the instruction at all. How is he supposed to access online aide support when he needs in-person aide support to access any kind of online services?

 

And, he's one of many students on my caseload with similar needs; he's just the only one I know of currently living the experience of having the in-person 1:1 aide support during shutdown and being met with educational success because of it. Everybody else is asserting the need for it, but not getting it, and due process cases are popping up everywhere now, including among my students for whom I never thought litigation would realistically come to fruition.

 

The legal authorities favor special education students on this issue, and school districts in California are now having to weigh the risk of litigation from unionized employees against the risk of litigation from parents of students with special education needs as this whole debacle clatters forward in the absence of unified leadership across the State's public education system. Many districts are still clinging to outdated paint-by-numbers procedures and fill-in-the-blank on standardized documents and forms, aiming for procedural compliance without thought to the substantive considerations ... like providing 1:1 aide support via Zoom to a student who needs in-person support in order to access instruction via Zoom in the first place.

 

It's like they think conforming with the IEP in any way complies with procedure, even if it entirely fails to meet the instructional purpose it's supposed to serve from a substantive standpoint. The real tragedy, here, is that these paint-by-numbers bureaucrats don't understand how to act according to the substantive needs of the student; they just want to know which form they are supposed to use.

 

This significant subset of the public workforce may have memorized many of the procedures for the job and can usually find the right form to use, but don't ask them to actually engage in deductive reasoning, creative problem-solving, troubleshooting, or solution-seeking. They simply can't. They don't think that way. And, the human resources department didn't recruit for people who can think for themselves on purpose.

 

The middle management jobs require drones who respond to authoritarian hierarchies of leadership and do not question the orders they are given, if the system is going to function according to its bigoted design. And, that is how it has been functioning for the last few decades following the passage of federal civil rights laws, including disability-related laws that first started passing in the early 1970s, up through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

 

Those laws were necessary because the public education system, among others, was actively discriminating against children with disabilities, including denying them even enrollment. The public education system was already discriminating against students with disabilities or the laws would not have become necessary.

 

When the laws passed and the public education system was ordered to comply, those individuals who had been philosophically opposed to accommodating learners with disabilities were still employed by the public education system, by and large. They didn't all leave. Many stayed and have been sabotaging it from within this entire time. And, they recruit people who are too incompetent to realize they're being used and/or too afraid of losing their jobs to dare question what is really going on, so they can maintain positions of authority and control according to their own fascist belief systems rather than their mandates under the law.

 

One of the most powerful things to come out of the current state of affairs in this country is the cracks in the publicly funded systems that people like me have been squawking about to no avail for decades, but which can no longer be denied by the masses. As we move forward to rebuild a better America in the wake of the destruction currently happening all around us perpetrated by people with way more authority than they can responsibly handle, it is painfully obvious that we have a disturbingly large swath of the adult population that "pass" as competent adults but who actually are not.

 

These individuals occupy a great many niches of society, including in the public sector. Their approach to leadership, when they are allowed into offices that require more of them than what they possess, is destructive. It can ruin a child's future through educational malpractice at the local level or fan the flames of a global pandemic and domestic terrorism at the national level until it ravages the entire nation.

 

These individuals place cronyism over science because they are not smart enough for the science and, frankly, they're not smart enough to cover the tracks of their cronyism. They have simply had the power of money behind them and those without money have had to tolerate their malarkey as a matter of survival. But, now that tolerance doesn't even achieve survival for those without, so they aren't motivated to tolerate the malarkey anymore. Look out Marie; here comes the guillotine.

 

Society has finally had its fill of incompetent bullies acting like they are better than the rest of us to the detriment of us all and for no other reason than to stroke their own egos and line their own pockets. We have become aware that they are too dimwitted to realize the harm in what they are doing and too selfish to have any sense of compassion or empathy for the people they hurt.

 

These individuals are emotionally still children, trapped in their bodies for decades without maturing, thinking their chronological age and changing external appearance are all of what earns them respect as adults, and often unable to fully engage in adult-level problem-solving and critical thinking tasks, but able to develop academic and/or professional skills that can otherwise allow them to "pass" as competent.

 

These are high-functioning individuals with significant impairments in judgment who engage in intuitive rather than deductive reasoning. Intuitive reasoning is age-typical in young children. It's indicative of an impairment in adulthood. It co-occurs with egocentric thought, in which the individual is incapable of engaging in perspective-taking and appreciating the experiences and viewpoints of others.

 

An egocentric person is the center of their own personal universe. Everyone else is just an object in orbit around them who may or may not serve a useful purpose at times and is only accessed when the egocentric person thinks an individual is useful.

 

The egocentric person recognizes his/her/their own agency - that is, the ability to act upon the world to produce intentional outcomes - but they struggle to appreciate the agency of others. They tend to only perceive other people relative to their own thoughts and feelings and fail to consider that other people have their own thoughts and feelings that are each different from one person to the next.

 

Egocentric people tend to assume that whatever they are thinking and feeling is what everybody else is also thinking and feeling, and/or that everyone else's decisions are made with the egocentric person in mind. The egocentric person struggles with perspective-taking, which requires that they first understand the agency of others and that everyone is preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings, not making the egocentric person the focus of their every decision.

 

Errors of omission and thoughtless, inconsiderate acts by others are perceived by egocentric people as deliberate efforts to cause harm or offense to the egocentric person. Because egocentric people assume that whatever they want and need is automatically understood by everyone else, which is because they assume everyone else is thinking and feeling the same things they are, if everyone else fails to deliver according to an egocentric person's expectations, the egocentric person attempts to force the desired response to present itself.

 

Because they lack the emotional intelligence to navigate many types of complex situations involving other people, whatever cognitive abilities they may actually have don't do them much good. They make errors in judgment when it comes to how they interact with other people; how well they can do math, design a building, or research historical biographies just doesn't matter in that moment.

 

When people like this become employed within the public sector and have to make policy decisions, they are incapable of putting themselves into the shoes of their constituents and engaging in legitimate representation and advocacy for services that meet the of needs of those they have been hired to serve. Because of their egocentrism, the job is a means to a self-serving end. Also because of their social/emotional developmental impairments, their ability to actually engage in adult-level problem-solving as required by their positions is equally limited.

 

Because they can't actually meet the performance requirements of the job, they find ways to socially engineer their ways to the top, including taking credit for the accomplishments of their subordinates while sycophantically leeching onto the coattails of those who have grifted their way up the food chain before them. They all keep each other's dirty little secrets about not actually being able to do their jobs and abusing their positions of authority to the benefit of the highest bidder, be the currency money, power, or both.

 

Eventually, an emperor emerges from the mix, some traveling salesmen weave him a in invisible robe from gold thread that, allegedly, can only be seen by competent people, and, as he's parading down the street in this magical garment, a child points out that he's actually just a naked guy played for a fool by a couple of con artists who have since skipped town with a fortune in gold thread. I'm paraphrasing the parable, here, of course.

 

The problem is that a public institution can become such a hopelessly dysfunctional system that it's really better to take it down the way the Attorney General (AG) of the State of New York is trying to take down the National Rifle Association (NRA), right now. When the corruption runs as deep in a public agency as New York's AG asserts is the case with the NRA, it's better to scrap everything and start over with all new people and a new method of operating that conforms to the appropriate standards.

 

Sometimes the well becomes so hopelessly poisoned that it's just time to dig a new well. I think America is at that crossroad in a very broad and general sense. We are at the tipping point of a crisis of conscience.

 

Who do we want to be? The cronyistic incompetents who stab each other in the back over superficial slights, engage in power grabs like reality TV show contestants, and are utterly detached from and incapable of living up to the responsibilities of the job? Or, the hard-working, methodical, responsible adults who understand and are humbled by the responsibilities before us, know that our efforts to do things right will pay off in the long run but we're going to have to struggle in the short term to clean up the messes we've collectively made?

 

So many people who came before us fought and died so that we could have the freedoms and legal tools to save our democracy, right now. I have been fighting this fight since the 1990s, but I have also lived the reason for this fight as a twice exceptional student who was never identified for any kind of services or accommodations for my processing disorder when I was a K-12 student. During the 1970s and 1980s, when Section 504 and what is now known as the IDEA were new, they were not being implemented by the overwhelming majority of public schools in the United States at the time, and certainly not in Louisiana and Arkansas, where I grew up.

 

I was briefly put on Ritalin in my early elementary years. But, who wasn't, back then? I was later diagnosed with "minimal brain dysfunction" in junior high as the result of a quest for a reason why I couldn't walk in heels (there was great social pressure on females in the Deep South at the time to wear pumps with everything, including jeans). I had to do physical therapy to stretch out my hamstrings and heel cords from all the years of toe-walking I'd done (which, by the way, toe-walking can be a neurological soft sign of autism).

 

My vestibular sense and my proprioception were jacked. My reflexes were/are abnormal. I can distinctly remember having visual processing issues that made it such that my brain couldn't piece together what I was looking at to make a picture of the world that made any sense. Abstract shapes would slowly resolve into a singular whole that then made sense, but I can remember having to wait for that visual resolution to occur at the brain level before I could start understanding what was happening around me. My eyes could see, but there was lag time between when I looked at something unfamiliar and my brain was able to put the shapes together in a cohesive way that I could understand. My last recollection of that happening to me was around 8 or 9 years old. I can remember it happening a lot prior to then.

 

I also had very bad vision, so it could have been that my brain didn't get the requisite practice at piecing together the parts of what I saw into a cohesive whole until I got glasses and could actually see everything clearly. I don't have ADHD; I have ADH - Oooh, shiny! I also have mild hearing loss due to a condition that runs in my family. My dad and many of my cousins have hearing aids. I haven't gotten to that point, yet, but it's coming, eventually and that's okay. Worse things could happen; hearing aides don't ruffle my feathers in the least. I'm just not spending the money until I have to.

 

The point is that I had a mixed bag of processing issues as a kid that was somewhat offset by my processing speed, but not enough to make me academically successful. I know what it's like to have my potential wasted by people who don't understand my needs as a developing child. The adults in my life cared, but were at a loss as to what to do because the science just wasn't that good or well known at the time, and certainly not where I grew up. They couldn't begin to abide by the relatively new civil rights and special education regulations; the science behind it was way beyond them. They didn't know any of that.

 

But, that was a long time ago. We don't have those same excuses, now. Adults like me who used to be those struggling students decades ago are everywhere now in public education advocacy, rights, and reform efforts. We know first hand why it's so important for the public education system to engage in person-centered planning for every student, not just those identified as having something "wrong" with them.

 

We also understand why it is so important to identify those who do have exceptional needs, and meet those needs, so these students have equal access to learning as that given to their peers without exceptional needs. We understand why it is so important to address the disabilities of our twice-exceptional students while simultaneously nurturing their gifts. Last year, Kodi Lee brought the point home to the lay public, which had not had any similar prior exposure to twice-exceptional people, and certainly not one so impactful.

 

No matter how impaired someone may present, the public learned to never assume that such a person's presentation accurately captures all of who that person is. Kodi humbles people in the kindest, most innocent, and inadvertent way, which is what makes him so powerful. He isn't trying to ram a message down anyone's throat. His existence is the message; he lives it for the rest of us to observe and copy.

 

Kodi is a powerful living metaphor to not judge a book by its cover, which has been a recurring lesson born over the last few years of these talent competitions happening around the globe that he simply drove home with an exclamation point. The cultural norms surrounding public opinion of people with disabilities have tipped strongly in the direction of inclusion by the display of capability and superior abilities by contestants with a wide variety of impairments in these competitions.

 

Leave it to the entertainment industry to be the agent of change. If we live in a shallow culture in which life imitates art, then art should model appropriate behavior, such as inclusion. I'll say this for Simon Cowell: he made inclusion marketable and profitable by allowing talented people to be defined by their acomplishments rather than their limitations. At the end of the video clip of Kodi Lee's first audition for America's Got Talent, after winning the Golden Buzzer, the judge who had awarded it to him, Gabrielle Union, told him straight to his face, "You just changed the world!" and she wasn't lying.

 

This is part of the brave new world that is to come as we rebuild our public education system to meet the needs of today's students in the 21st Century, including the flexibility to rapidly adapt to changing lifestyles, national emergencies, job market demands, and advancing technologies. All of these things will continue to collectively alter how we teach and manage the teaching process according to best practices, and continue to engage in ongoing research to continually improve those processes and their supporting administrative procedures.

 

Which circles us back around to the issue of stay-put and the recent stay-put order from OAH, linked to above. While the order is limited to California, it is germane to a federal district court case being tried in the Central District of California in which the plaintiffs, which include parents of children with extreme special needs who are not getting the 1:1 in-person services required by their IEPs, are suing the State over school shutdowns and attempting to get a federal court injunction that allows school districts to decide whether to reopen or not.

 

Not surprisingly, the case originates out of Orange County, California, which has a large extreme right population relative to the rest of the State and is, not coincidentally, also a COVID-19 hotspot within the State. COVID deniers abound and are having a deleterious impact on local governing decisions as they impact public health. For a lawsuit disputing the legality of school shutdowns over a legitimate public health crisis to emerge from this climate is not exactly a shock.

 

Not also surprising is the rampant special education violations and related scandals that have plagued Orange County for decades. Egocentrism is confused with personal civil liberties, and the welfare of others is beyond comprehension, resulting in extremist beliefs and behaviors. It is not shocking to me that school board members who have been actively violating special education and civil rights law convinced a bunch of parents who they were actively screwing over to join them in a federal lawsuit against the State to force the schools to reopen in order for their kids to access services.

 

If you read the plaintiffs' complaint compared to the legal authorities I've already cited previously in this post, it's plainly evident that these people don't know what they are doing. I spoke with the State's lead attorney on the case last week and shared the arguments I've now presented in this post with her.

 

While the judge has yet to decide the case, and, in fact, today is the filing deadline on briefs regarding the exhaustion requirements under the IDEA and the California Department of Justice (CADOJ) is on it, the nature of the questions the judge asked the parties to brief in his last minute order inclines me to believe that once those questions have been answered, we'll have a federal district court decision on the matter that will apply to every school district in California.

 

The CADOJ's arguments must naturally rely in part on the arguments I've asserted herein. The federal district court judge will likely defer to the OAH stay-put order that was just issued yesterday, given that OAH has the authority to try special education cases and is, therefore, authoritative on how the law applies to the rights of special education students, special education students must exhaust their due process rights through OAH before filing in federal court (generally speaking), and it is proper for the federal court to defer to OAH's judgment, which will mirror the arguments I've been asserting this whole time and which CADOJ will also be asserting. They are aware of yesterday's stay-put order, as well, just in time to meet their filing deadline.

 

Things are about to get a whole lot more okay for a lot of kids on my caseload. Whether their LEAs capitulate and provide the services or we end up going to hearing with the right kinds of legal authorities backing us up, either way, the rule of law is working slowly but surely and the application of the peer-reviewed research to the delivery of special education, now that reform is unavoidable, is about to enjoy a new era of advancement in the education of all students, not just our students with the most demanding needs.

 

It's always darkest before the dawn. An extinction burst of escalated behaviors always comes before a maladaptive behavior finally becomes extinct. We are riding out one heck of an extinction burst on the part of incompetent people whose cronyism and transactional relationships have defined their realities and ours, and who cannot function in a more advanced, emotionally intelligent society that is moving increasingly towards meritocracy in which actual ability and earned achievements promote social status. Hucksterism has become obsolete. The Patriarchy is now rightly seen as a pack of egocentric ghoulish caricatures, not as dignified elites worthy of worship by everyone else.

 

These moments will pass and we will have the power to make something new and better once we get to the other side. This latest stay-put order and, hopefully, the upcoming federal court decision, are incredible first steps in the right direction.

Example of a Request for a Better IEP Offer During the COVID-19 School Closures

Example of a Request for a Better IEP Offer During the COVID-19 School Closures

May 11, 2020

Photo Credit: Mike Cohen

 

I know that everyone in special education is scrambling to try and make things work during these unprecedented times, but a lot of parents and advocates are struggling to find the language necessary to move things in the right direction and keep entire IEP teams from coming apart at the seams. Our kids who require expert behavioral interventions appear to be losing the most ground.

 

I want to speak to the families and advocates working with students who have behavioral needs by sharing the language of a communication that I recently had to submit on behalf of one of our families. It's altered, of course, to protect the identity of the student, but I think a lot of parents and advocates may be able to recycle this language to fit their own situations.

 

Because so many families are in this same boat without an oar, we all need to share resources with each other so that we can be effective IEP team members. It shouldn't be on us to keep school district people from spinning out, but humans are humans regardless of who employs them and, particularly if you're a parent dealing with this on behalf of your kid, it in the best interests of your child to be the anchor that keeps the rest of the IEP team from drifting off course.

 

Just to put things into perspective, this student is in a Special Day Class (SDC) with embedded mental health and behavioral supports, including a Positive Behavioral Intervention Plan (PBIP) in his IEP that identifies his target behaviors as: Refusing to follow staff directions by either not responding, putting his head down, making statements such as "this is stupid," "why do I have to do this?" or engaging in a different activity. Not surprisingly, this is what he is now doing at home during his school closure instead of participating in the online instruction.

 

Below is a copy of the email exchange that includes the language you can hopefully repurpose if you are having to argue similar points on behalf of your own children or clients. The first bit is an email that the parent and I received from the student's special education teacher/case manager. The second bit is the reply I sent, which has now been forwarded to the district's main office and we're awaiting Prior Written Notice (PWN).

 

For more information about PWN, please see the ad-free early release of our informative Quick Fix video on Patreon by clicking here. This video will be released on YouTube for free, but with ads, in a couple of weeks and run for 30 days on YouTube before retiring to our Quick Fix Video Archive on Patreon, but for the $2.99 monthly pledge to our Quick Fix Video Archive on Patreon, you have immediate and indefinite ad-free access to that information plus all of our other Quick Fix Videos.

 

Because we've already published content on PWN, I'm not going to belabor it, here. I'm just going to get right into these emails and the language I hope at least some of you are able to repurpose and tweak to your own situations.

 


So, here is the email that I and the parent received:

 

Good morning,

I hope ALL is well and you guys are staying safe and well.

I was hoping you could help me with [Student's] participation in our weekly Google Meets. He declined the meeting again for tomorrow  

I really need to speak with him at least once a week.

Thank you VERY much for your help.

Be Well,
[Case Manager]

 


Now, here is what I wrote in response:

 

[Case Manager],

We would appreciate the District's help with this, as well.  Behavior modification is supposed to be embedded in [Student's] specialized instruction as part of his placement, but that component is not being implemented in the home and no one who lives there is specifically trained, credentialed, or certified in the necessary expert disciplines.  The District is responsible for FAPE, even now.  The fact that [Student] is not receiving the behavioral interventions necessary to afford him equal access to education as that given to his peers without disabilities is directly reflected by his refusal behaviors in the absence of his social/emotional and behavioral supports from his SDC.

The parent is not in any position to implement an expert level of positive behavioral interventions to facilitate [Student's] participation on her own.  She is relying on the public agency funded by the taxpayers to deliver these interventions under a federal mandate to provide him with a FAPE, that being the District, to come up with these solutions.  The parent requests an offer of appropriate behavioral interventions as part of a prospective offer of FAPE that addresses these immediate concerns or an offer of compensatory services that will be provided to remediate this behavioral and academic regression once school starts back in the Fall and the campuses are re-opened.

We understand that these are difficult times, but regardless of the difficulties, [Student] still has a legal right to a FAPE and he isn't getting it.  You asking his mother for help to facilitate his compliance with online learning given his unique circumstances inclines us to worry that the District doesn't know what to do and is grasping at straws.  Any IEP team member that actually understands the complexity of [Student's] needs would already know that [Student] requires supports beyond what an average lay person would know to provide.

While [Student's] mother absolutely wants to be part of the solution, she cannot be expected to deliver any kind of home instruction on par with what [Student] was previously receiving in the SDC, which was a step down in restrictiveness from his previous placement, and in which he had been participating for only a few months before the campuses all shut down.  There is an overtly apparent need for an increased level of support to [Student] in the immediate present to avert significant behavioral and academic regression during the shut-down.  

The lack of an appropriate response from the District right now will create a significant compensatory education claim that [Student's] family will have to pursue in order to make him as whole as possible.  We're not looking for a lawsuit, but if that is the only procedural mechanism the family has left to protect [Student], I will refer them to a qualified attorney.  It is the District's burden to offer and render a FAPE.  We remain ready to collaborate with the rest of the IEP team to come up with an appropriate solution, here, and avoid the need to involve attorneys.  We would much rather sort this out than have to litigate.  We want to see [Student] appropriately served as quickly as possible.

[Student's] family will participate in IEP implementation during the shut-down to the degree they are able, with the full understanding that they do not have the training, experience, or professional expertise needed to competently support [Student] behaviorally and academically at home on their own.  If his mother tells you that something that needs to be done is something they cannot do, they will expect the District to propose viable solutions to each such task.  

[Student] continues to require the expert services from which he was previously benefitting in the SDC and the effects of the absence of those expert services is apparent to all of us.  We understand that these difficult times call for out-of-the-box thinking.  So long as there is a viable plan for how to deal with this situation in place, whether it's through the immediate increase and/or modification of how current IEP services are provided, a plan for compensatory services upon the campus reopening, or a hybrid combination of these two options, the family can trust that everything will come out okay in the end, but we can't leave things so open-ended.  That lack of predictability is part of what is causing [Student] to experience increased school-related anxiety and avoidance behaviors.  

The District has a legal obligation to make a firm offer of FAPE based on [Student's] present levels of performance in the immediate moment, as well as plan ahead for the next 12 months via the IEP process.  We're not asking for anything other than what the regulations already promise and we're willing to be creative about how we achieve that as an IEP team given the unique circumstances.  We await the District's PWN in response to the request made herein.

Kindest regards,
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.


 

So, there you have it. What I see in all of this is a case manager who hasn't been given the tools and authority to do what needs to be done. I'm not frustrated with the case manager. I feel bad for him because he's being expected to somehow pull this off without the support of his employer.

 

I wish I had the PWN to include, here, because I think it would be equally informative. That may become a future post topic. In the meantime, if you think you can recycle this language to create your own request letter to address similar issues with your own children or clients, please feel free. It isn't the work product of an attorney and I'm not putting this out there as formal legal advice. It's just a tool that might be useful to some people, but if it helps even one family, it's worth sharing.

USDOE Preserves the IDEA

USDOE Preserves the IDEA

May 1, 2020

 

It’s now official: There will be no waivers of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) during any time of sheltering-in-place and resultant school closures. Thanks to the efforts of many people, most notably the Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys (COPAA), a national non-profit professional and volunteer organization of advocates and attorneys, working with the United States Department of Education, (USDOE), Secretary Betsy De Vos determined that no part of the IDEA should be waived at this time.

 

This is important because it’s no secret that most students, just in general, are going to regress in their learning because of the sudden school closures, putting them behind relative to the grade-level standards. Special education students are even more vulnerable to regression, but only special education students have a legal right to assert demands for compensatory education to make up for regression.

 

This suddenly creates inequity in favor of the special education students with respect to compensatory education, when is an unexpected turnabout. It's usually the other way around that the general education students have advantages over the special education students. What was originally meant to level the playing field for kids with special needs has now become an unfair advantage over the general education students with no enforceable right to compensatory education. That's something that needs to be addressed and rectified.

 

The degree to which a court may reduce the amount of compensatory education due to a special education student in light of the need for sheltering in place remains to be seen. In my lay opinion, there is an obvious need for some leniency. None of this was within any public education agency’s control and its commendable how so many educators stepped up their game during this crisis and continue to give us their best.

 

There is no way I could possibly diminish from that. It moves me in my heart and gives me faith that we can all somehow pull it together for all of our students, regardless of how each of them learns, if we all just collectively put forth the effort.

 

There is also the matter of the “snapshot rule.” In special education litigation, it is commonly known among attorneys and paralegals that an IEP cannot be judged with the benefit of hindsight. It has to be judged according to what was known or should have been known during the time at issue. This requires the trier of fact to look at the period at issue as a “snapshot” of what was known or should have been known during that time.

 

Given the unprecedented unique nature of the sudden school closures, and the pre-existing lack of a contingency plan in the event of something like it, what was known or should have been known by public school officials will require an unprecedented degree of scrutiny. This is because unforgivable errors are being, and will continue to be, hidden among the forgivable ones, and a few bad apples are already seeking to exploit the situation to get away with things for which they would otherwise normally be more likely to get caught.

 

So, how the law will be applied to the facts in the months and years to come ahead is something only time will tell. Given how conservative our Supreme Court has become, there is still cause for concern as to how the law will be enforced. The innovations that are happening around the country in response to campus closures are inspiring and shaping our understanding of what is realistically practicable.

 

This is important because the federal regulations require the public schools to deliver special education according to the peer-reviewed science to the degree that it is practicable to do so. Those who are innovating in public education, right now, are establishing the education community’s professional standards with respect to practicability in many regards.

 

In the effort to determine what was reasonable, given what was known or should have been known in light of the evidence, the innovations being reported around the country by clever educators should have shown up in the research of any educator searching the internet for solutions. This goes to what should have been known.

 

I am the last person to advocate for litigation unless there is just no other way to resolve the problem. I’m thinking about these things from a preventative standpoint, considering the consequences of what will happen if IEP teams don’t work together to figure things out, now. I am trying to think ahead and consider what can be done to prevent worst-case scenarios.

 

My motivation is envisioning what the worst-case scenarios would look like. That prompts me to consider what would have to go wrong to arrive at those outcomes, then backwards-chain the process to basically reverse engineer it and come up with preventative strategies that will hopefully steer things in a better direction. So, I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, here.

 

I am happy to celebrate the champions in all of this, but we still have a lot of work to do. Everything we do right now to prevent regression will be heartache we spare everyone in the near future when school starts back up, again, in the Fall. I want to encourage everyone impacted by school closures to do everything they can to prevent educational regression in their students.

 

The generational Cohort Effect of this pandemic will be something that affects our species for generations to come. How history remembers our responses to these sudden changes in our world depends on our collective decisions in the present.

 

We're going to have children who have lived in trauma for one reason or another throughout this period who will be re-entering our school system in need of supports that they would have not otherwise needed. Our kids already in the special education system are going to have more demanding needs upon their return. The more wisdom we can exercise today, the less regret we will have tomorrow.

Regression, Compensatory Education, & Quarantine

Regression, Compensatory Education, & Quarantine

April 14, 2020

 

Photo Credit: Dan Gaken

 

One of the many populations of individuals directly negatively impacted by the current quarantine is the special education population. Among those students are those whose impairments are significant enough that any significant disruption in their school routines will cause them to regress, which is to lose learning they had previously acquired.

 

Regression happens for students such as these during lengthy breaks, like summer, which is why we give them Extended School Year (ESY). By extending the school year through periods of normal breaks, we prevent them from losing ground. When kids regress from disrupted instruction, once the instruction resumes, that time has to be spent on recoupment, which means re-teaching what was forgotten. That means time spent re-teaching previously known information instead of adding onto it with new information. For kids already behind in the first place, this puts them even further behind.

 

Compensatory education can be used to make up for regression and can take different forms. Sometimes its intensive services over a summer break so the student is where they should have been by the time school starts back in the fall. Other times, it's supplemental services being provided outside of the regular school day in addition to the instruction being provided during school, though that can be pretty tough on a lot of kids. Sometimes, it takes putting the student into a more restrictive, but more intensive instructional placement for a period of time so they can catch up in their learning before being returned to the public school setting with services in place that will prevent them from regressing again.

 

Compensatory services can be provided in other contexts, as well, regardless of whether regression has occurred or not. When families find it necessary to take their Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to due process to achieve remedies for the deprivation of educational benefits, compensatory education is the likely remedy, though the form it takes varies from case to case.

 

From a procedural standpoint, if an IEP calls for a specified number of service minutes for a particular intervention and not all of those services minutes are provided as they should be, a minute-for-minute compensatory remedy is due simply as a matter of procedure. The regulatory procedures require that IEPs be implemented as written and, if they aren't, whatever services that weren't provided according to their mandatory statements of frequency and duration remain due to the student.

 

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a legally binding contract that obligates LEAs to deliver on it as written, so if they don't, they have to make up the services minutes to which they committed themselves as described by the affected student's IEP. When compensatory minutes are ordered following a state-level compliance complaint or due process case on the basis of procedural violations, the compensatory services are minute-for-minute as described by the IEP because the number of service minutes the student should have received are documented in the IEP, which the LEA is legally obligated to implement as written as a matter of procedure.

 

However, compensatory education can also be ordered by a judge in due process on the basis of substantively inadequate IEPs. In such instances, a student's IEP does not contain services that it should, so they can't be enforced as a matter of procedure. When necessary services are left out of an IEP such that the student suffers a deprivation of educational benefit, or when services in the IEP are not delivered as the result of a procedural violation and the student then regresses, now you're talking about substantive harm.

 

Failing to follow the rules and owing something previously promised is one thing, but causing further loss of learning by failing to implement the IEP as written such that regression occurs is a much bigger issue. Failing to teach necessary instruction because it was left out of the IEP is just as big of an issue, if not bigger.

 

When special education students are deprived of educational benefits by their LEAs, how much of what kind of services they get to make up for those deprivations has to be figured out on a case-by-case basis. Judges rely on expert testimony and evidence, usually assessment reports, to figure things out when these cases go to hearing. How well a student's attorney argues the case has a lot to do with how much compensatory education that student will get for any sustained allegations of substantive harm.

 

Those are the basics of how and when compensatory education can be ordered. Compensatory education can also be negotiated as conditions of settlement to prevent any kind of regulatory and/or judicial intervention. I've even had situations in which procedurally owed compensatory service minutes are written into IEPs at IEP meetings without lawyers and lawsuits even coming up in the conversation. This latter action has usually occurred when there was a temporary lack of a qualified provider and the service minutes had to be made up once the position was filled.

 

All of this is based on how things were before the quarantine and, at least for right now, no waivers of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) have been authorized by Congress. Parents and educators are still waiting to find out if any waivers will be passed in the near future (sign our petition to ask Congress to not authorize waivers), but for now, the law still stands as it always has.

 

Any child whose IEP is not currently being implemented as written, right now, is going to be owed compensatory minutes purely on the basis of procedure. If a kid's IEP calls for 30 minutes per week of speech/language services and that kid has been in quarantine for six weeks without those services, that kid is now due 180 minutes of back-due speech/language minutes, and that number will continue to grow for so long as that kid continues to go without those speech/language services.

 

Dealing with procedurally required compensatory services along these lines is going to be burdensome enough on LEAs after people adjust to quarantine and new ways of doing things are put into place, as well as once the quarantine is over. Both state and federal education agency officials have already started talking about how they're going to tackle that.

 

Dealing with kids who are due compensatory remedy because they were deprived of educational benefits during quarantine because necessary services weren't in their IEPs in the first place and/or they regressed in the absence of services that were written into their IEPs but not provided, is going to be a whole other thing that is likely to burden our due process mechanisms and take money out of the classroom, virtual or otherwise, to pay lawyers. The substantive compensatory education claims are going to be significant and the reality is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

 

Compensatory remedies are never as effective as the instruction students receive as a matter of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). For one thing, IEPs are based on present levels of performance when they are written. Those present levels establish where the student was performing at the time the IEP was written and the IEP goals target learning outcomes for a year down the road, relative to the baselines established by the present levels.

 

When kids regress from lack of instruction, their present levels of performance move backwards, not forwards. When kids fail to learn for lack of appropriate IEP goals and, thus, a lack of appropriate IEP services, further deficits are induced on top of the deficits that were already there as a result of their disability. When these same kids sit at home not getting appropriate special education, they fall further behind and no amount of compensatory services will ever restore them to where they should have been had their services been appropriately provided in the first place.

 

Many special education students were facing IEP implementation failures and/or poorly constructed IEPs before the quarantine. Now, many more are joining them in the "Deprivation of Educational Benefits Club," as they sit at home without adequate services to see their IEP goals met and/or without adequate IEP goals to drive the provision of necessary services. Further, because their learning environments have dramatically changed, many of these children now have new needs specific to learning at home that are not addressed by their IEPs.

 

Behaviors in response to parents' attempts at instruction top the list. Parents without any kind of training in delivering specialized instruction are attempting to nonetheless do so without the support of behaviorists that would otherwise be provided to credentialed special education teachers. Most parents give up in exasperation because they have to decide between the lesser of two evils: behavioral regression or academic regression.

 

Recoupment of academics is usually a lot easier to achieve than remediating a big behavior problem. Remediating a behavior problem requires the student to unlearn maladaptive strategies and replace them with adaptive ones that have to be taught.

 

Remedial academics just involves new learning; kids generally don't have to unlearn something inaccurate, first. At worst, they'll have to be retaught something they learned previously but forgot, before they can pick up with new stuff, again.

 

Parents who have the means, right now, are working their health insurance to get online speech/language services, consultations with specialists like Occupational Therapists (OTs), and online social skills groups. They are paying out of pocket for online tutors and classes to give their kids some kind of academic routine. Many of those out-of-pocket costs are going to be recoverable as a matter of compensatory education.

 

There are two ways that compensatory education gets funded:

 

  • If it is agreed-to or ordered first, it is provided thereafter at the expense of the LEA. Either the LEA pays for it directly or the parents pay for it and the LEA reimburses them, as agreed to by the parties or as ordered by the judge in due process.
  • If it is not agreed-to or ordered first, parents pay out of pocket for the services, then request reimbursement after the fact. If that's the case, either their LEA will agree to reimburse them, usually via a confidential settlement agreement, or the parents will have to file for due process and prove to a judge that they had to pay out-of-pocket for the services because the LEA failed to provide them, they were educationally necessary, and their child would have likely regressed or otherwise been denied a FAPE without them.

 

That's something that some families should seriously think about, right now. Not everyone is out of work. Not everyone is without resources. If savings or lines of credit can be used to provide services in the home, now, while waiting for the local LEA to get its act together, parents can sit on their reimbursement claims until the dust settles. Due process claims come with a two-year statute of limitations. A denial of a FAPE that began on March 1, 2020 will remain viable until February 28, 2022, for example.

 

Families that have the means to privately fund what their children with special education needs are not currently getting should do so just because it needs to be done, regardless of whether they can recover those monies from their local LEAs or not. But, because the taxpaying public has already paid the LEAs to render a FAPE but they aren't, parents should still keep their receipts in case they are able to recover their out-of-pocket later. The focus should be on keeping your kids moving forward in their learning and preventing regression. You can worry about the money later, given that you've got two years to act on your reimbursement claims.

 

However, for families that do not have the means to pay out-of-pocket for now, there is a tremendous need for immediate intervention. As LEAs scramble to come up with solutions, one that seems obvious to me but which might not occur to others is to open up the provision of related services by private providers that are not currently licensed as Non-Public Agencies (NPAs).

 

There are more qualified providers that are not licensed as NPAs than there are providers that are licensed as such. The barriers to entry into the NPA arena are ridiculous and multitudinous, plus they get paid at Medicaid rates, which is usually less than what it costs to deliver the services, so providers can't keep their doors open by operating as NPAs.

 

Most NPAs are also set up to do business with other agencies and private insurance, which offsets the shortfall created by their NPA business. In many states, becoming an NPA is more of a marketing expense to get the agency's name out there in front of people, build up a trusted reputation as a provider, and then dump the NPA status to carry on with private insurance and other agency contracts in exchange for payments that actually keep their doors open.

 

While NPA licensing requirements may have been created to keep the sketchy people out, they actually achieve keeping most of the really good people out, too. Now is the time to reform that process so that we have more providers that can reach into the homes via whatever safe means possible of the special education students who are currently being denied a FAPE and regressing at this very moment.

 

In-person services can be provided with adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and safety protocols. Not every special education student is able access instruction online. Those who can, should, but that still takes a lot of skill and expertise to facilitate. When you've got a kid at home with a parent refusing to participate and no in-home behavioral services to facilitate their participation, the parent sits there helpless as the parent/child relationship suffers and no learning occurs.

 

By relaxing the NPA licensing rules and letting non-NPA providers that are otherwise qualified with the proper professional certifications, such as Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) and OTs who are medically certified, a great many students can still receive services at home who otherwise wouldn't due to LEA staffing limitations.

 

The goals that were determined to be educationally necessary by each child's respective IEP team are still educationally necessary. The services determined necessary to see those goals met in a year's time are still necessary.

 

The only thing that has changed is placement, and now IEP teams need to figure out how to deliver services in the current placement such that the goals are still met. This is the same line of inquiry every IEP team has to pursue when normally making placement decisions. Placement is driven by what learning environment is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in which the services can be delivered such that the goals are met. That's best practices according to educational science, plus it's the law.

 

Now that placement changes have been forced on everyone because of quarantine, it's time to back up the conversation to that point, again, where services necessary to see the goals met in the current placement have to be identified. That said, new goals may actually be needed to address how the student functions in the home learning environment. New evaluations may be needed to inform what those goals should look like.

 

One thing is certainly clear from all of this: the next time the IDEA gets reauthorized, it will need to include language that describes how it will be implemented during a national crisis. The absence of any such language automatically puts LEAs out of compliance when disaster hits, which benefits no one; leaves students stranded without a contingency plan, deprived of a FAPE and actively regressing with each passing day; and creates compensatory education claims that will become a greater burden on the public education system than serving these students appropriately during a crisis in the first place.

What About Kids with FAPE Claims that Pre-Date Quarantine?

What About Kids with FAPE Claims that Pre-Date Quarantine?

April 6, 2020

 

 

As much as special education in general is all up in the air in most quarantined school districts, with unlawful conduct being perpetrated by school officials who have never believed in the IDEA seeing this as an opportunity to get rid of its obligations while still collecting federal special education dollars, there is a subpopulation within special education that is even more affected by this than others. That subpopulation is made up of the students whose educational and civil rights were already being violated by their local education agencies (LEAs) prior to the quarantine.

 

There is huge debate going on right now about Betsy DeVos, the Trump Administration's appointed Secretary of Education, and the waiver power she does and does not have under the law to exempt school districts from delivering a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. Congress has now asked her to testify as to what parts of the IDEA she thinks needs to be waived and we don't know how it will vote on the matter.

 

More and more comes out on this topic each day. The Council of Parent Advocates and Attorneys (COPAA), the national nonprofit professional organization that advocates and, where necessary, litigates on a national level on topics like these has published its own policy statement about the current situation, which can be found on the COPAA website.

 

Currently, there are no waivers of the IDEA in place. The only exemption right now is that LEAs that are not providing distance learning options to their general education students don't have to provide education to their special education students, either. Until there are actual Congressionally approved waivers, nothing has changed with respect to implementing the IDEA for those special education students served by LEAs that are currently providing distance learning to their general education students.

 

Nonetheless, I have four families with students in one particular school district that is currently providing distance learning to its general education students and something half-baked in terms of online options for its special education students. All four of these families received generic Prior Written Notices (PWNs) over this last weekend advising that it's impossible to implement IEPs under the current circumstances, even though it very often is possible and the administrator sending these things out has a decades-long history of throwing money at lawyers to defend her decisions instead of actual services for students. Three of those families already have due process cases filed or about to be filed.

 

Just like everything in special education, PWNs are supposed to be individualized to each student, but she sent the same PWN to the families of everybody in her district in special education, telling them all that implementing their IEPs under the circumstances is impossible with no examination of each student's unique, individual situations. She may have finally dug herself into a hole that she can't get back out of.

 

This administrator made unilateral decisions on behalf of her district outside of the IEP process during a time when the IDEA has not been waived in any kind of way, in part or in whole. It's a systemic violation of the law memorialized in writing on district letterhead to the family of every special education student in her district. She may have well just created a class action lawsuit against her employer.

 

Children with disabilities from low-income, single parent, immigrant, and non-white households were already getting the short end of the stick when it comes to special education. Being white and affluent doesn't necessarily protect you, but it does increase your odds of avoiding at least some FAPE violations.

 

That said, the aforementioned administrator sending out PWNs that break the law on her employer's behalf worked most of her career for an affluent school district where the only way to get a decent IEP was to sue the crap out of her district. Her department would play to the egos of affluent parents and tell them special education was a welfare service and they would be better off privately paying for services, thereby collecting federal IDEA dollars without actually having to spend them on services.

 

Now she's working for a district in an economically depressed community with a largely Latino population and is preying on low-income, non-English speaking, families of color. Maybe she thinks they aren't going to stand up to her taking advantage of the pandemic to bring in IDEA dollars without having to deliver on IDEA obligations. She's wrong.

 

I already had cases that were pending due process on my caseload when this pandemic hit. The students involved in those cases were already being under-served, if served at all, and now they're sitting at home with even more nothing. One student's parent has an elderly parent in a nursing home she can't visit and is working from home (or at least trying to) while her adult autistic child who is still eligible for special education has one meltdown after another because of the sudden disruption in routine and her inability to go out and do anything (trips into the community were being used as reinforcers as part of her behavior program, as well as community-based instructional opportunities, before all of this hit).

 

This parent is understandably furious. All that she's gotten so far from her daughter's teachers is a useless Google classroom link that takes her to a page full of nothing to do with her daughter's IEP goals. And, while her daughter's IEP makes clear that she requires "highly trained staff" to meet her goals, all she's got right now is her frustrated mom and useless downloaded worksheets that her mother doesn't know how to teach to her and she doesn't know how to complete. There is no support from the teaching staffs to help this parent engage her daughter in the distance learning option, such as it is, that they've been given.

 

This student is from the same district mentioned above that is sending unlawful F-You letters on PWN forms to its special education families. I have three other students in this district, two of them already with litigation pending for violations that occurred before the quarantine. They were already being denied a FAPE before quarantine, and they sure as hell aren't getting a FAPE now.

 

I've already written about the impact of the quarantine on special education before to some extent, but I want to hammer a particular point once again: Many special education students are at risk of significant regression, which is the loss of previously learned knowledge and skills, during lengthy breaks from instruction. These students are eligible for Extended School Year (ESY) services for this very reason; summer breaks, and sometimes winter breaks, are just too long for them to go without services or they have to make up for lost ground once they return to school, which makes them unavailable for learning anything new.

 

The impact of the current situation on these students in particular stands to compound an already egregious denial of FAPE. If they were already being denied a FAPE before this all happened, additional regression on top of that will create deficits that will never be overcome.

 

As of right now, no IDEA waivers have been permitted. Congress is waiting for Mrs. DeVos to tell it what waivers she wants to push through in response to the pandemic and mass quarantines. There is significant fear that the waivers Mrs. DeVos will request will include exemptions from implementing all or part of the IDEA.

 

The consequences to students if Mrs. DeVos is successful in getting IDEA waivers are obvious. What is not quite so obvious is what becomes of federal special education dollars to school districts if she manages to get any or all of the IDEA waived. While some school districts may be ready to embrace reduced duty and accountability, do they realize that IDEA dollars are tied to complying with the law? Does Mrs. DeVos intend to use IDEA waivers to not only reduce accountability for the public schools, but to also reduce their special education funding? How many school districts are willing to walk away from special education dollars in order to get out of having to implement IEPs?

 

Parents of children with disabilities, their extended families, their friends, and any taxpayers who otherwise get it need to act on this right now. You need to reach out to your representatives in Congress to tell them that any IDEA waivers are unacceptable. There is a way to deliver a FAPE to most special education students right now; it just takes cleverness and ingenuity, things most government agencies are not particularly known for. Clever problem-solving is generally unaccepted in institutions built on political corruption.

 

So, here's your call to action: Contact your Congressional representatives and tell them that no IDEA waivers are acceptable or necessary. Look up your Senators here, and your Representatives here. You can also use our easy-to-use form letter generator or sign our online petition. If you are listening to this as a podcast rather than reading it as a blog, you can find the links in the text-only portion of this post.

 

It shouldn't be necessary to have to fight to keep civil and educational rights in place for our nation's children, but it is. Many LEAs are pushing compulsory education laws by threatening families with truancy proceedings if they don't participate in distance learning options, but then are looking for any and all excuses to not actually deliver a real education, particularly to their special education students.

 

These distance learning options are all about keeping those Average Daily Attendance dollars coming in, I assure you. LEAs can't live without that money and its based on attendance, which is why they are threatening to criminally prosecute parents who don't implement their half-assed distance learning options for truancy. But, to actually deliver a real education in exchange for those dollars seems too much to ask, and it's a thousand times worse for students with special needs.

 

It may quickly become the case that the only way for families of special education students to protect themselves against unjustified truancy charges, which are tried by local superior court judges who know nothing about how special education is actually supposed to be delivered, is to file for due process and make the record that the education being offered to those special education students during quarantine is inappropriate to their needs and they are unable to access learning as a result.

 

Parents should not feel forced to make their kids do something that will not help or just make things worse out of fear of being criminally prosecuted for truancy if they don't. The sad reality, however, is that so long as they log or call in every day to whatever distance learning platform has been made available to them, even if their kids aren't learning anything, they will not be prosecuted for truancy because those logs will be used as proof of attendance so schools can get their Average Daily Attendance dollars. That still does nothing to ensure their receipt of a FAPE, though.

 

Now is the time to reach out to advocates and attorneys if your child with special education needs isn't getting appropriate instruction and related services while sheltering in place. You can find people to help you by searching online for “special education advocates near me” and “special education attorneys near me.”

 

Just be careful of the con artists out there, though. There are lawyers who will claim to represent families but then cut backroom deals with the attorneys representing the LEAs in which they convince the family to sign settlement agreements that short-changes their kids and eliminates their claims against the LEAs. There are also lay advocates who mean well, but don't know the applicable science or law.

 

You should be leery of lawyers who have been in practice for years but have no litigation history. If they could actually litigate, they'd do it. But, if they can't, they'll get a few thousands dollars in fees for selling out their clients via backroom deals cut with school district lawyers and administrators. There are sleazy people on both sides, so parents do have to be choosy about who represents them.

 

Your state should have some kind of online database of due process decisions that you can search by an attorney's name. If no due process decisions come up with that attorney's name, and they've been in practice for years, that's a red flag. If you search the decisions by attorney name and the results produce only cases that the attorney has lost, that's another kind of red flag.

 

The good lawyers' caseloads already get impacted by this time of the school year, but this situation just takes it to a whole different level, so parents should find someone fast if they think they even might need the help. One source that helps parents find advocates and attorneys is COPAA. It has guidelines to parents for choosing a special education attorney and/or advocate, as well as a searchable directory of COPAA members by location.

 

You will note that I am not listed. I am not a COPAA member and with good reason. As much as I appreciate what COPAA does on a national level, particularly with respect to its amicus briefs, it has no membership options for paralegals. This isn't about bashing COPAA because there are things about it that I genuinely love, but there's also things about it that I find wholly unacceptable.

 

I'm speaking to my truth, not disparaging an organization that I am, here, deliberately telling parents they should check out as a valuable resource. My issues with COPAA are mine, but I'm sharing them here for the benefit of those who search the database I've referred them to, don't find me on it, and wonder why.

 

If I go to the COPAA conferences, I can only attend the workshops for parents and other advocates, where I spend the whole time either biting my tongue or correcting the presenters because they're disseminating misinformation, and I never learn anything I didn't already know. I'm not allowed to attend any of the attorney sessions, even though I totally could use the MCLEs for my paralegal status.

 

I can't even subscribe to the COPAA listserv for attorneys, even when it contains information that would benefit my supervising attorneys for me to have access to it. My supervising attorneys are not even allowed to share it with me, even if it pertains to a task they are delegating to me. Until COPAA makes a space for me and people who work in the profession as I do, I can't justify the expense of a COPAA membership or its conferences.

 

Besides, when I've gone to the conferences, I've walked through the tables and booths between sessions and, every year, there sits a table set up by a non-public school that broke one of my student's arms during an unlawful restraint several years ago. When this issue was raised with COPAA the first time I saw this bunch at a conference, they ignored my supervising attorney on that case and continued to take money from these child abusers for the table space each year after that. I'm not okay with that.

 

Given the poor instruction options available to me at the COPAA conferences, the presence of known child abusers at the conferences, and the overwhelming evidence I've observed that far too many people only attend it so they can drink to excess and cheat on their spouses for a week, I don't find the COPAA conferences worth the thousands of dollars in fees, hotel and travel costs, and lost billable time to be worth it. Plus, they hold it in the middle of the busiest time of the school year, which makes no sense at all. I've always got way too much work happening when the conferences are held to attend, anyway.

 

So, while I don't have a high opinion of the COPAA conferences, I have a very high opinion of the brilliant legal minds that write COPAA's amicus briefs and I've agreed with every one of them I've ever read 100%. Nothing is perfect and COPAA is a good resource for many. The actual work COPAA does, aside from its annual conferences, is stellar and I can look past the conferences for the sake of the bigger picture, which is legally protecting children with disabilities from educational and civil rights violations.

 

COPAA has taken on the U.S. Department of Education with bold, accurate words in legal proceedings that make my heart want to burst with pride in our profession. That's what matters to me about what COPAA does. That is, in my opinion, the most important thing COPAA does.

 

If you are looking for an attorney or advocate, the COPAA membership directory can be a good resource for many parents. Just know that there are a lot of other professionals out there who are really good at their jobs who are not members, there are members who aren't that good at their jobs, and there a non-members who haven't signed up because they're crooked and don't want to get caught by those of us who are doing this work for the right reasons. Like everything else in life, it's a mixed bag.

 

Being on the COPAA membership directory doesn't automatically mean someone is good and not being on it doesn't mean someone is bad. It's just a list of people who work in this field and pay membership fees to COPAA, but it's the only national directory of advocates and attorneys that I know of and it's foolish to not regard it as a valuable resource. Just take it for what it is and don't think that hiring a COPAA member automatically means you don't have to put much thought into it.

 

As I stated before, the membership directory page includes links to COPAA's guidelines for finding a qualified attorney or advocate, which is pretty sound advice. Regardless of whether an advocate or attorney is a COPAA member or not, COPAA's guidance as to how to vet attorneys and advocates is still good.

 

If you are the parent of a child with special needs who is not receiving a FAPE while in quarantine and your LEA is providing alternative learning options to its general education students, as of the time of this writing, there are no waivers of any part of the IDEA and it is still fully in force. This isn't about kicking your LEA while it's down; this is about protecting your child from being kicked by his/her LEA while your child is down. LEAs have millions apiece of taxpayer dollars intended to pay for the education of our children and that damn sure better be what it's spent on, regardless of the situation.

 

Students who were already being denied a FAPE before the pandemic are now further compromised. How this is going to play out in litigation remains to be seen. If the rule of law is followed, there are no exceptions to providing a FAPE right now. Any FAPE violations that were already going on before quarantine have not been made better by it and families in those situations very likely need to consult with a qualified special education attorney sooner rather than later, if they haven't already.

 

This is a difficult time for everyone, but the true measure of a society's health is how well it takes care of its most vulnerable members during times of crisis. While some fascist LEA administrators may see this as an opportunity to finally carry out their bigoted agendas and terminate special education like they've been wanting to since 1975, those of us who still prefer democracy to fascism have to stand up and enforce the laws that have been part of the fabric of our country for the last 45 years.

 

As soon as one civil rights law falls, all the rest of them fall, the tenuous thread that our democracy is holding onto right now will snap, and we will find ourselves suddenly living in a real oligarchic regime. The moment it becomes okay to violate the civil and educational rights of children with disabilities, it will become okay to violate everyone else's rights, too. Every protected class – women, minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, low-income families, single-parent households, etc. – will lose rights one by one thereafter until no one has freedom anymore, except the wealthy oligarchs.

 

While I am focused on the individual needs of the children and families involved, I can't help but appreciate the over-arching ramifications for democracy at large. We protect everyone's rights, or we protect no one's. True democracy means everyone is equal, including special education students.

 

And, regardless of whether IDEA waivers get approved, no one is contemplating waivers of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If the IDEA is no longer enforceable, those laws still are and Betsy DeVos has no control over them. So, if she manages to get IDEA waivers passed by Congress, families will still have recourse under 504 and the ADA, which can have harsher ramifications than the IDEA on LEAs.

 

The IDEA diminishes “equal access to education” but expects no expense to be spared in the pursuit of that watered down version of equal access; the ADA says “equal access” must be 100% equal, unless it creates an undue burden on the responsible party, which it has to prove. We've not had civil rights litigation under 504 or the ADA since either of them passed that sets a precedent for what we're dealing with right now, but I can promise you that what special education students are getting at home during quarantine doesn't come close to equal access to education as that being given to their non-disabled peers.

 

These are uncharted waters and only time will tell how this is going to play out, but it's up to those of us who do this work and the families we serve to do everything we can to protect our children with special needs. Please contact your Senators and Representatives, tell them that no IDEA waivers should be granted, and let's all keep the pressure on until we have an answer. In the meantime, nothing has changed and the law is still enforceable, so we need to enforce it.

 

While many courts have moved to a work-from-home model (I recently watched a federal court trial in which Google was accused of aiding and abetting the Taliban that allowed me to see into the homes of three federal court judges and the Plaintiffs' attorney), some state special education hearing offices have closed down, ceased operations except to issue continuances and stays, and are accruing a backlog during quarantine that is going to explode with new cases from all the FAPE claims arising from school district misconduct currently going on. Parents may need to use this time to find an attorney, start organizing their evidence, and file to preserve their timelines, even if they aren't going to get in front of a judge right away.

 

For families that were already facing due process before the quarantine, if their states are operating their complaints and due process hearings according to a work-from-home model, which Texas is doing, then there should be some kind of mitigation in place to prevent that huge of a backlog. If three federal court judges on a panel can hold a trial to determine if Google was complicit in the Taliban's use of its technologies to engage in acts of terrorism from their homes, special education due process cases can be tried the same way.

 

If you have a due process case that was pending before the quarantine, then you've likely already been communicating with your attorney about what is going on. If you haven't, yet, do it now. You need your attorney looking into what due process mechanisms remain intact in your state and what the procedures currently are. Any competent attorney will have already done this, but may be so overwhelmed by the sudden explosion of casework that is starting to happen that they haven't had a chance to talk with you about it, yet. Don't overwhelm them by stalker dialing ever 5 minutes, but do reach out and make an appointment to discuss how all of this impacts your case.

 

There is never a good time to participate in litigation. For most parents, "litigation" and "good time" generally don't go together. But, this is definitely a worse time to be pursuing due process in a system that was already glutted with cases. The sooner you act, the better.

Special Education Still Has to Be Individualized During Quarantine

Special Education Still Has to Be Individualized During Quarantine

April 1, 2020

 

 

During these unprecedented times of both urgency and delay, I'm finding that the ways in which I share relevant information with our audiences depends on the nature of the information that needs to be shared. Nuanced issues in which science and law become inextricably intertwined and live on as continuing issues, whether we're in quarantine or not, remain appropriate for our Patreon patron-supported video channel, The Nexus of Special Education Science and Law, while time-sensitive updates and guidance to our audiences as to how to respond to various developments as they happen are more appropriate for our blog and corresponding podcast, Making Special Education Actually Work.

 

The reality is that producing the videos are way more involved than producing blog posts and podcasts. If we're going to invest our limited resources into making a video, it has to address an issue that will remain an issue for some time to come and live a long and purposeful life before having to be replaced with a more current version. This is why our most involved video productions are only for our patrons on Patreon.

 

That's fine for what it is. It's highly technical stuff for a highly technical audience. Similarly, we have a podcast specifically for serious lay advocates to build their representation skills, but that is again highly specialized for a specific audience and patron-supported by its paying subscribers.

 

For information that is too time-sensitive to take days to be made into a decent video around my busy caseload and needs immediate attention from all our audience members for the sake of the general good, our regular blog posts and podcasts through Making Special Education Actually Work are much faster methods of getting the word out, and a great deal of that content is free. So, with all that in mind, today I find it necessary to use Making Special Education Actually Work serve as our most immediate method of getting the following information to the front lines as soon as possible. Some of my worst fears are being realized across my caseload and, presumably, across the country.

 

It's necessary for me to remind everybody that special education is individualized to the unique needs of each student. Now, suddenly, hundreds of thousands of special education students have experienced radical changes to their educational programs that each require an individualized response. How they continue to make progress towards their IEP goals while sheltering in place must be individualized just like all the rest of their respective IEPs.

 

The scope of this issue is unprecedented. Suddenly, every kid in America on an IEP in a quarantined community needs an IEP meeting to modify their respective IEPs to fit the current circumstances. Conforming to the IEP timelines under the circumstances is going to be incredibly challenging for school districts and they may end up engaging in the educational equivalent of triage, figuring out who is at most risk of regression and allocating resources to those students first before moving on to the kids who are likely to recover lost educational benefits by way of compensatory services later on and aren't at risk for as great an amount of regression as those that require the most immediate attention.

 

Chances are, the kids with the most costly and involved programs are going to be the ones most at risk of regression if their services get interrupted, so starting with those students is probably the most logical place to begin. These are also the cases in which local education agencies are most at risk of doing something that denies a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), simply because the needs of our most severely impacted students are so significant and any small exclusion can create significant harm, even if accidental.

 

The most severely impacted students tend to be a relatively small number and figuring out how to deliver individualized services to them that can be reasonably calculated to achieve their respective IEP goals can be resolved first, when the most flexibility among the available resources is necessary. Then, students with less intensive needs can follow, stepping down to the students with the least demanding special education and related service needs at the end of the process.

 

Trying to shoe-horn a student with severe special needs into a solution using whatever is left over after everyone else has picked the resources clean is discriminatory. Solving the hardest problems first also creates conduits through which other solutions can be implemented, making it easier to solve the more numerous less challenging tasks, and makes them even less challenging to solve. Local education agency dollars previously spent on facilities may need to be reinvested in technology, additional personnel, and plenty of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to keep up with the federal mandates to provide a FAPE to every eligible student.

 

How much leniency the various triers of fact will be willing to give to local education agencies in special education due process hearings and appeals over the two years that follow this pandemic will depend on the unique factors of each situation, including the reasons for any delays that occurred, as well as the unique needs of the student for which individualized responses were necessary but for which resources were not readily available. Regardless of how much leniency is reasonable under the circumstances, the expectation is still that a FAPE will be provided to each eligible student, in accordance with both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

 

Congress did not build any specific contingency plans into the IDEA or Section 504 with respect to implementation during times of emergency, and certainly none that make it acceptable to suspend the protections offered by either Act. There is nothing that says these civil rights laws, or any other civil rights laws that protect people with disabilities, cease to be in force under any circumstances. They are in force at all times, even times such as now.

 

Anything less is humanity devolving into the Lord of the Flies, and there is absolutely no need for that, but advocates for people with disabilities are having to argue for equality in health care, right now, which is reprehensible! At this moment, the shortages of medical supplies in the areas most severely impacted by COVID-19 are forcing health care providers to decide who lives and who dies, just like in a war zone. The elderly and disabled are the least likely to receive life-saving care, at this point, and it's unacceptable that our health care providers are being put in the position to have to think this way. Whether or not a person has autism should not determine whether or not they receive life-saving care.

 

We're going to lose tens to hundreds of thousands of Americans unnecessarily because of the poor federal response to this situation since it first began. Disability and/or a complex medical history doesn't automatically make a person unemployed or unemployable. We are losing great minds and true talents to this disease among younger individuals who were compromised by pre-existing conditions. Further, we're losing people of all ages who had no pre-existing conditions at all, making the unfair distribution of resources in favor of those without disabilities even less justified.

 

The fact that we are having to actively enforce civil rights law through litigation and formal complaints with respect to access to healthcare during a global pandemic is disheartening. It means that, now more than ever, we can't neglect the other areas in which civil rights violations against people with disabilities are also occurring, which includes special education. There has to be a unified voice on behalf of individuals with disabilities across all domains to stand firm on the civil rights protections that are already on the books and expect everybody else to also play by the rules. This is no time for anarchy.

 

With respect to individualized instruction and specialist services, I have to point out that very few students with significant special needs are going to benefit from online instruction. As medical supply production starts to ramp up, now that various industries are retooling their assembly lines to produce enough masks, gowns, latex gloves, etc., to keep all necessary personnel adequately protected and safe, it's going to have to be accepted as fact that some students simply require in-person services in order to receive educational benefits under the current circumstances, and the staffs who need to provide such in-person services will require adequate protection to stay well and prevent the spread of disease.

 

Given the immediate shortage of PPE, it's understandable that this time right now can probably best be used to lay the administrative foundation for how in-person special education services will be deployed once the protective equipment becomes available. But, it also means that many students will be due compensatory service minutes for any time lost, particularly if they are already showing signs of regression by the time in-person services finally start.

 

Given that states are deciding to close down their schools through the end of the Summer 2020 break and start again in the Fall of 2020, this is going to be a long-term temporary period of interim special education and related services that will have to be tailored to each individual student affected, just as it was supposed to have been done for each student in their normal school settings. If school districts move quickly and strategically enough, they can get something in place and make up lost service minutes before way too many compensatory service minutes are owed to each student.

 

The good news is that the only things that should have to be changed, provided the goals already tackle every area of unique student learning need and are written in a measurable manner, are services and placement. The goals shouldn't change. The learning outcomes that the IEP has been pursuing shouldn't suddenly become inappropriate because of a forced change in placement in response to a national emergency. The quarantine has nothing to do with whether a student's IEP goals target appropriate learning outcomes.

 

If you are a parent doing an IEP meeting (by phone or video conference, please!) and somebody from the school suggests eliminating a goal or putting it on hold, don't go for it. Your child didn't suddenly experience a reduction in the need to learn what that goal targeted. If they're trying to get rid of it, it's because they are struggling to come up with an inexpensive way to teach or provide therapy to it and they don't want to have to pay what it's going to cost to legitimately pursue it, which is not cool. It's also totally unlawful.

 

It is my sincere hope that public education agencies will respond to the needs of their special education students timely enough to prevent regression and the need for compensatory services as much as possible. The faster and smarter they move on this, the less responsible for compensatory education they will be. If the education agencies go straight to each child's IEP goals and ask, “Given the limitations with which we are currently faced, what services are going to have to be delivered either in home or in some other 1:1 instructional situation in order to still see these goals met?” they'll cut to the chase and be as efficient as anyone can be under the circumstances.

 

IEP teams don't have to start over at the beginning. They just have to go back to the point where they are trying to decide what services are necessary to meet the goals and how they can be delivered in the placement options currently available. When this conversation was last had for each student on an IEP, the placement options were more plentiful, so that conversation fit what was then the context. But, the context has now changed, so IEP teams need to return to the services and placement portion of the IEP process to address the fact that placement options are now very limited and a fair amount of creativity is going to be needed to work around the limitations that are now imposed by this quarantine.

 

The current situation also requires school nurses to come up with health care plans to go into each student's IEP and tailor them on a case-by-case basis for students with unique needs that may require hands-on support for medical equipment, physical positioning, hand-over-hand instruction, and other close contact instructional methods and support services for which PPE will be critically necessary. It is important to include guidance to anyone having to implement an IEP in person as to how to conform to appropriate safety practices in the health care plan section of each special education student's IEP.

 

Now is the time for strategic thinking. It's all hands on deck for those of us who have critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and some of us are way better at things like that than others. I gladly defer to those who can understand things that are way beyond me, like sophisticated mathematical models. We need to defer to those who come up with the most effective and efficient methods of meeting public agency obligations regardless of their titles or training. We need to be working collaboratively rather than competitively. All of us who are trying to make public education work, regardless of the roles we each individually play, have to keep the timbers of the system from being rent apart, right now.

 

I know one of my students is, thankfully, already receiving in-home instruction from a credentialed special education teacher supported by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) for three hours a day, using safety protocols as per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). However, I also know another one of my students is sitting at home having one meltdown after another while her mother pointlessly tries to access Google Classroom in the absence of any special education instructional or behavioral support services.

 

These students need specialist supports and services from experts with advanced degrees. Almost no parents knows how to deliver this kind of highly specialized instruction. When it comes to specialist-provided related services, like speech/language services or occupational therapy (OT), parents are even more at a loss.

 

The educational needs of most special education students, because of their increased risk of regression during lengthy breaks from effective instruction, are as significant to their development as is their medical health. Particularly when you are talking about students with developmental disabilities, disruptions in routines and services are likely to lead to educational losses that will take time to recoup; the longer the period of disruption, the longer the period of recoupment.

 

Recoupment comes at the cost of new learning. Time spent relearning lost knowledge is time not spent learning new information. Regression and recoupment always mean a student falling even more behind same-grade peers, even after lost learning is recovered. Further, developmental windows of childhood development narrow and close as time goes on. When children miss developmental milestones because they are kept in deprived environments, it stunts their developmental growth and it is very difficult to overcome the knowledge deficits later in life.

 

There are adults everywhere today who are maxed out at Concrete Operations, according to Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development, and that's enough to get them by for the most part, but they don't understand big picture concepts and tend to subscribe to magical thinking when it comes to things they can't deduce from direct observation of physical objects and phenomenon.

 

Adults like these may be very accomplished at things that involve the manipulation of tangible items, such as using tools to make and/or repair things, or representations of tangible items, such as visual computer models. But, try to get them to explain the differences between democracy and fascism, or love and need, and they can't do it. These are abstract concepts that require a fully functional pre-frontal cortex, which they don't have.

 

And, that is the kind of thing that has me worried about all the students doing some kind of home school thing during this quarantine. We have inexpert parents, the older bunch of which were raised during a time prior to the Common Core and without the types of cognitive stimulation that come with it.

 

I'm middle aged and I can remember that, in my early adult years, adult literacy was still a big deal. Illiterate but employed adults bemoaned the idea of employers requiring a high school diploma for a job like carpenter, cook, truck driver, or factory worker, which were the types of jobs that large numbers of Americans were pursuing and occupying at the time. A high school drop out could make a truly comfortable living plucking chickens at the local chicken plant, back when I was a teenager and young adult, especially if working the graveyard shift. That was $20 per hour back in the late 1980s.

 

So, when I say that there are parents out there who are ill-equipped to home school their children right now, I'm not just whistlin' “Dixie.” There are still a fair number of people my age or close to it who grew up surrounded by adults with a gross under-appreciation of the value of education and now have school age kids or grand-kids for whom they are responsible. They may appreciate the value of a good education, but since they never got one, they don't have the knowledge necessary to home-school their children.

 

And, that doesn't even begin to take into account all of the dysfunctional parents with actively manifesting mental health issues, which can include drug and alcohol addiction, who are now stuck at home with their poor kids and expected to teach them skills they never mastered, themselves. How many of them are actively using in front of their kids to deal with the stress of this situation? How many of them have lost income because of the current circumstances, can't afford to re-up, and are now experiencing withdrawals while stuck at home with their kids?

 

You add special needs on top of an already weak family system and then put that family unit through a quarantine made necessary by a global pandemic, and something bad is bound to happen. For a lot of these families, their kids going to school every day is good for everybody involved. It gets the kids away from toxic adult behaviors and around more appropriate role models during the majority of their waking hours, while giving their parents a break that can facilitate peaceable interactions later when the whole family unit is together. For those kids from difficult situations at home who also have special needs, school-based specialist services and individualized instruction can be their lifeline to a better future and they need that lifeline now more than ever.

 

To the degree parents can be effective parts of an IEP implementation team under the current circumstances, parent counseling and training as related services are going to become increasingly necessary. Whether it's done online, in person, or a hybrid delivery model of both, the parent has to be trained on how to implement those portions of the IEP for which he/she can assume responsibility during quarantine, which is an IEP team decision. 34 CFR Sec. 300.34 lists parent counseling and training as a related service that can be provided by an IEP.

 

Qualified personnel will have to make up the balance of the IEP services that cannot be delivered by a parent in consultation with special education and related service personnel. It is not educationally appropriate to delegate 100% of the implementation of an IEP to an inexpert parent. Specialist personnel are still required in some capacity and that has to be determined on a student-by-student basis, just as with any other aspect of an IEP.

 

While the IDEA does not include a contingency plan specifically for pandemics, it does have rules that provide structure as to the outcomes public agencies are expected to achieve and the mechanisms by which they can be achieved, even as they adapt to ever-changing situations. Public education agencies are just having to rely on these rules and tools to respond in a way never before anticipated. The fact that we can keep these institutions going under the current circumstances speaks to the construction of the enforceable laws, the tenacity of the American people, and the collective belief of our majority in preserving our institutions.

 

This is not the worst that things could be, as bad as it is for some people, right now. The majority of us will survive the virus, though those of us who survive are likely to lose people we know before it's over. It's up to those of us who are not willing to descend into anarchy to continue enforcing the laws that make us who we are, even under these distressing circumstances. We're needed now more than ever. Human lives, whether they are disabled or not, are worth more than money, and we need to make sure that message remains resoundingly clear in the times ahead to come.

Special Education Timelines During Quarantine

Special Education Timelines During Quarantine

March 23, 2020

 

Avoiding the spread of disease is obviously the most important consideration, these days, but life hasn't ground to a halt; it's just changed. Everyone is doing what they can, right now, to curtail the spread of disease so that we can all live our lives in peace, which doesn't mean stopping the living of lives while we ride this out.

 

The whole point of the measures we're all collectively taking as a planet right now is to preserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, with all of these sudden changes, there is a lot up in the air, right now, with respect to our students with disabilities who require services during extended breaks so as not to regress in their learning.

 

Even more concerning are our students with special needs that affect their behaviors who are cooped up at home with their parents, who are likely on the verge, already, without any behavioral support services. Those parents are at an increased risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from this whole shelter in place situation.

 

There are funny memes going around right now about parents trying to home-school their general education children and learning to appreciate their general education teachers, but nobody is making a meme about the mom of an autistic young woman who enjoys regular outings into the community as part of her special education program and is melting down on a regular basis, now, because she can't leave the house, go to school, hang out with friends, or visit her grandmother in a nursing home. These are the families that are already slipping into crisis while all the rest of us are riding this out and complaining about inconveniences.

 

For our students with developmental disabilities who require ongoing services in order to make reasonable strides towards a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), disruptions in services mean developmental stagnation and regression. That means the current school closures are particularly impactful.

 

Staying at home is important. If you can stay at home, you should. But, as millions of Americans figure out that they can actually still do their jobs, or at least a significant portion of their jobs, from home, and continue to work remotely, our society is finding a way to adapt on the fly to this situation in ways heretofore not possible because of our technology.

 

As awesome as that is for many private and public entities that are actively figuring this out, one area in which it has evidently not yet been figured out is special education services, or at least a triage solution for our kiddos who will regress, lose significant ground, and miss critical windows of developmental opportunity in the absence of ongoing special education services. Once again, our kids with the most demanding special needs are the last ones to get consideration by stakeholders in this situation.

 

I've been doing this long enough to know how the system tends to respond to certain things. There are predictable patterns in the behaviors of public education agency personnel in response to certain types of situational factors.

 

Sometimes, when the people in charge don't know what to do, you just have to give them suggestions about what they could do to get them jump-started. It's something similar to “Bystander Effect.”

 

In situations in which the Bystander Effect, occurs, if there are lots of people around when something horrible happens, everybody expects someone else to step up with a solution, so no one does anything. When there isn't anyone else to respond or just a few people, individuals are more likely to respond in the moment to a crisis.

 

Here, it appears that everyone is frozen in place waiting for someone else to do something when it comes to meeting the needs of our students with special needs during this current crisis. Rather than waiting for someone to step up and do something, I'm choosing to do what science says we should do when the Bystander Effect has gripped the crowd and everyone seems frozen in place – impose structure.

 

Imposing structure to overcome something like this isn't about telling people what to do so much as to signal their brains that the time of waiting for someone else to do something is over and they need to act, as well. Right now. Proposing a solution in a situation like this isn't about cramming a particular agenda down anyone's throat; it's about snapping people out of it so they stop looking at the car crash by the side of the road as they slowly drive by and actually stop their car to get out and help.

 

We can't ignore the needs of our students who are at risk of regression and loss of windows of developmental opportunity to learn because of factors beyond their control. These students are the least able to do anything about the deprivations they are experiencing at the moment. They are at our mercy and we can't afford to be bouncing off of each other like a bunch of hysterical ninnies in panic because we don't know what to do to help them. We do know what to do. Each child in this situation needs his/her respective village to get its act together and work in a coordinated fashion.

 

So, in the interest of imposing some structure onto the conversation and planning that now needs to happen, here's what I am proposing for our students who may need or who already receive special education, so as to prevent a denial of FAPE:

 

  1. Pending Referrals & Assessments

    1. Child Find [34 CFR Sec. 300.111] – This one is going to be difficult because most public schools are terrible at child find, in general, and most parents don't even know about it.  

      1. Teachers identifying the kids who may need to be referred for special education assessment on the basis of suspected disability will be even more difficult under the current circumstances, depending on how school officials are providing instruction, if at all, during this time of sheltering in place.
      2. Parents may have increased cause for suspecting disabilities when they attempt to assist their children with their school work at home and discover their kids have challenges in processing certain types of information, but they aren't necessarily expert enough to recognize those challenges as evidence of suspected disability. Further, emotional trauma can cause a child to become eligible for special education under the Emotional Disturbance (ED) category. Parents may find it necessary to refer their children for special education evaluation if they perceive challenges with mastering certain types of concepts in their children while attempting to assist them at home with instruction and/or if their children experience emotional trauma that interferes with their access to education now or upon returning to school once it is safe to do so, again.
    2. Pending Referrals - None of the timelines applicable to referrals for special education assessments plans should be disrupted by the current state of affairs. The only thing that needs to happen in response to any referral is the provision of an assessment plan, pursuant to 34 CFR Sec. 300.9 and 300.300. This is a document-driven administrative process. This has no in-person requirements that would otherwise delay processing. Given that so many people in administrative positions are able to still do their jobs if given the proper tools, there is no physical barrier to carrying out the duties of this step of the process and, therefore, there should be no delay in the applicable timelines just because of the current shelter in place situation.
      1. If a referral was made in writing prior to a student's school shutting down, an assessment plan should still be provided to the parents within the mandated timeline. Erring by one to five business days may be understandably forgivable given the circumstances and may result in a procedural violation that nonetheless results in harmless error, so parents shouldn't be threatening lawsuits over something like this.
      2. If a referral is submitted in writing via a manner that is accessible by school personnel, such as via email or through a web portal, during this period of sheltering in place, the local education agency should still act on the referral within the applicable mandated timeline. As a purely document-driven administrative process, this isn't going to put human beings into physical contact with each other in way that holds up the timeline for the provision of an assessment plan. Parents who want to make such referrals can use our free form letter generator on our site.
    3. Pending Assessments – If a referral for assessment has already been made, an assessment plan has already been signed by a parent, and now the assessment timeline is ticking down, some public education agencies may declare that the timeline is disrupted by the break from instruction due to everyone staying home and sheltering in place. However, that's not entirely true. For example, the assessment timelines are disrupted under California law for regularly scheduled school breaks and vacations of five or more days, but this shelter in place business isn't regularly scheduled or a vacation.
      1. Understand that assessment, whether it's an initial evaluation or a re-evaluation, is considered a related service pursuant to 34 CFR Sec. 300.34. Both 34 CFR Sec. 300.103 and 300.323(c) make clear that a related service cannot be subjected to any unnecessary delays as a matter of legal procedure, as this would delay the provision of services according to an IEP, and, thus, deny a FAPE.

        1. Unnecessary delays include sitting around and freaking out instead of acting. If public education agency officials claim to be working on a solution and weeks go by, they're not working on a solution; they're freaking out and wasting everyone's time. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has already set up mechanisms to keep its complaint and due process systems going; evidently it understands that each State is ultimately responsible for making sure its students get educated, even if their local education agencies waffle under the pressure. If State education agencies can keep their systems going by having their personnel work from home on these administrative duties, the schools they regulate have no excuse for not doing the same, and I suspect State officials will see it that way, too.
        2. Necessary delays would include taking measures in order to otherwise comply with the regulations under the current unique circumstances. If it takes a week or two to put the necessary resources into place, that's forgivable. Any longer than that without additional extenuating circumstances and all you've got is poor leadership within the agency creating unnecessary, and potentially actionable, delays.
      2. It is entirely possible to assess a student who is not medically fragile using the everyday preventative actions being recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
        1. Most special education assessments require at least some standardized testing that is administered in a 1:1 testing situation. An assessor can arrange to conduct standardized assessments in a 1:1 testing location at a school site via prior arrangement without risking an entire classroom or exposing an assessor to either an entire classroom of potentially infected students or household of potentially infected family members of the student being assessed.
        2. Acceptable reasons for delays of any component of assessment in these instances can include illness within the student's family or that of the assessor that puts them at risk of exposing each other to COVID-19 and a shortage of other assessors to otherwise conduct the assessments or other unique circumstances that might otherwise make a substitute assessor educationally inappropriate, but the delay should not be greater than what the situation actually requires based on what is known at the time.
        3. Public education agencies may need to enlist the support of assessors in the local community to stay on top of assessments as much as possible, and States may need to waive non-public agency licensing requirements under the current circumstances just to make sure everybody who needs ongoing speech/language services, for example, actually gets it.
        4. Classroom observations are going to be the obvious problem for many assessments. Even if an assessor comes to observe a student who is sheltering in place at home, that will not be entirely representative of how that same student functions in a classroom under normal circumstances. It may make more sense to wait until the student returns to school, but the assessment timeline may be ticking down while the child re-acclimates to the school setting, which could include emotional factors that were not present before but which could continue and are, therefore, relevant to the assessment process. Consultations with teachers and parents regarding in-class performance before and after quarantine will become imperative to supply accurate information for the assessment report. Regardless of how a student functioned in the classroom before quarantine, going forward post-quarantine is going to look and feel different for everybody after all of this. Post-quarantine classroom observation data is probably going to be more useful than pre-quarantine classroom observation data.
        5. In an effort to achieve compliance to the degree possible, but with the understanding that some unavoidable delays in the assessment process can legitimately occur because of the current situation, I am strongly recommending to parents and public education officials that short-term individualized response-to-crisis assessment schedules be developed using available technologies to arrive at a plan for each student who is pending assessment so that parents know what to expect by when, school personnel know how to allocate assessment resources, and the process can be kept moving along in a relatively timely manner so that, by the time students return to school, if they need an IEP, the IEP team can have an appropriate one in place for them upon their return. Otherwise, the team can finalize the assessment process once the student returns to school so that IEP team decisions can then be made as intended.
        6. It may be necessary for parents to negotiate timeline extensions with their local education agencies as part of an individualized response-to-crisis assessment schedule, but I am strongly advising parents against agreeing to any such extensions without also including something in writing that describes exactly what is being delayed that necessitates such an extension. For example, if all of the standardized testing can be conducted prior to a student returning to school, but the IEP team agrees that a classroom observation shouldn't happen until two weeks after the student returns, then the team can agree to keep the assessment process open until the observations can be done, shortly after which the report can be finalized and the IEP team can convene to discuss the results. It may be appropriate for some students in situations like these to complete the evaluation report during this period of quarantine based on what is available so that an appropriate IEP offer is made to the student as soon as possible, with the understanding that classroom observation data will be collected once the student has settled back in and may be used to amend the IEP if it reveals something not already otherwise identified by all the other assessment data on record. So long as parents and schools document their arrangements to get through pending assessments during this situation and the parents give informed consent to any such alternative arrangements, parents will not be inclined to file lawsuits, nor will they have the evidence necessary to argue against delays to which they have, knowingly and with full understanding, consented. Taking these steps will reduce a lot of anxiety about loose ends and what comes next for everybody involved.
  2. Pending IEP meetings – This stands to be one of the biggest procedural challenges simply because of all the IEP meetings that were already on calendar and subject to mandatory timelines at the time that everyone started sheltering in place, but it is still nonetheless one of the easiest situations to solve. 34 CFR Sec. 300.322(c) and Sec. 300.328 require that local education agencies facilitate meaningful parent participation in the IEP meeting process, even if that means using alternative means of participating other than attending meetings in person, such as telephone and video conferencing. While some delay as education agencies get their people set up with the technologies necessary to work this way from home might be within reason, this isn't something that should cause an IEP meeting scheduled for two weeks from now from not being held at its originally scheduled time without IEP team member agreement. It doesn't take that much technology to do a conference call and email the paperwork to meeting participants. The law already provides for accommodating the fact that parents and educators can't always meet in person to conduct IEP meetings, and those laws remain in force, right now.
  3. IEP implementation – This is the grand-daddy of all special education issues facing families of students with special needs, right now. And, it's a hotbed for lawsuits if local education agencies don't respond appropriately to the situation.
    1. Online learning options – These options are being proposed for general education students and will work for many special education students, as well, at least in some areas of learning.

      1. Where it will usually not work is with students who have:

        1. Poor task initiation, task maintenance, and/or task completion
        2. Impaired executive functioning and/or attention
        3. Severely delayed communication skills
        4. Severely delayed cognitive development
        5. Vision loss or severe visual disabilities that prevent them from accessing what is on the screen (for students with these challenges who are also receiving speech/language services via a virtual model, it might still work so long as the therapist can see their mouths when they speak, depending on the nature of the therapy)
        6. The forms it can take include:
          1. Video conferencing with teachers and/or therapists
          2. Using online learning games and apps
          3. Conducting research
          4. Watching educational videos
      2. Direct in-home instruction – It may be necessary for teachers to provide home/hospital instruction to students at serious risk of regression on a 1:1 basis in their homes. The law already provides for this option, as well. If it is medically inadvisable for a child on an IEP to go to school, home/hospital is an appropriate placement option under normal circumstances. However, it's probably fair to say that a judge would not find the current times normal and that every special education student cannot be reasonably provided with in-home 1:1 instruction. This is going to be the area in which education agencies are most likely to get themselves into trouble. If there is any way for teaching staff to use the everyday preventative actions recommended by the CDC to provide 1:1 instruction to those students most at risk of regression, it should be done. Small group instruction of no more than 8 students is still achievable, even if done for fewer hours of the day than normal. One teacher could instruct two or three different groups of no more than 8 students for a couple of hours each day in rotation at a school site and manage to stave off regression and actually continue progress towards FAPE. Individual and small group therapies could also be provided while special education students are on campus, rotating students out so that there are never more than ten people in one place at a time.
      3. Transportation & Other Related Services – Some related services may become unnecessary during alternative teaching arrangements. For example, a student may not need a 1:1 behavior aide to receive 1:1 in-home instruction, but would totally need the aide at school while trying to participate among all the other students. Transportation may not be needed for students who are being served at home but would be needed for those who need to travel to a school site for any direct instruction and/or therapies that cannot be provided any other way. If alternative arrangements are made to serve special education students at risk of significantly regressing while sheltering in place, unusual but temporary transportation services may become necessary in order to implement such an alternative plan. Local education agencies cannot place the burden on parents to transport their children with special needs to school for alternative services during this time, particularly if parents have no way of transporting them. The whole point of special education transportation as a related service is to overcome that very obstacle. If special arrangements have to be made to prevent a student with an IEP from regressing during these current times, those arrangements will have to, by necessity, include an offer of transportation services if the parents cannot otherwise transport the student. Whether or not such related services are necessary really comes down to the individual needs of the child, as always. It's not like somebody bombed the bus lot; the vehicles are there and the drivers still need their jobs, so, as long as everyone follows proper sanitation and social distancing protocols, transportation services can be provided.

This is by no means a comprehensive plan. That's more than one advocate sitting at home on lock-down can develop. It will take State agencies working with their local education agencies to come up with a comprehensive plan. At this point, I have to believe that people are scrambling behind the scenes all over the place to come up with a plan, but the public is still waiting to hear what it is. The families I represent are sitting at home wondering what is going to happen over the next few months. All the information about the schools going around is general in nature and none of it is specific to their children with special education needs. 

 

To the extent that what I've shared can impose some structure on the dialog that needs to be happening right now between parents and special educators, my contribution, here, is food for thought. It's not my intent, here, to tell anybody what to do. My intent is to break the frozen stance of this quasi-Bystander Effect and stop waiting for someone else to say or do something. 

 

In a real Bystander Effect situation, if you're in a crowd and someone suddenly falls to the ground or otherwise experience harm that requires intervention, most people will freeze and look around to see if anybody else is going to do something. In those moments, people who understand what is really happening have to snap out of it and do something. 

 

The guidance that psychologists are given if we find ourselves in such a situation is to point at the person right in front of us and say, “You! Call 911!” then approach the person in trouble with appropriate caution and, if they are conscious, tell them help is on the way. There's something magically triggering about issue a command like that because, unless the person you just commanded to make the call has no phone, the call will be made. Suddenly, instead of frozen with uncertainty, that person has a job to do. There's an action he/she can take to make things move in the right direction.

 

Initially, until someone barks a command, everybody is either a deer in headlights or otherwise assumes someone else will take care of it and don't think they have a role to play. There's something about barking that initial command that gets everybody working together in unison and it usually doesn't take more than that. Humans just sometimes need an environmental cue before we know whether, when, and how to act. 

 

So, that's basically what I'm doing. Me barking “Call 911!” to someone standing on the other side of a fallen human body isn't me being bossy. The suggestions I've made in this post isn't me being bossy, either. This is my effort snap all the stakeholders and decision makers out of it so they aren't standing in a virtual crowd waiting for someone else to say or do something. It's now been said, public education system. So act.

Prior Written Notice Requirements When Denying Parent Requests in Special Education Matters

Prior Written Notice Requirements When Denying Parent Requests in Special Education Matters

March 16, 2020

 

 

 

 

Prior Written Notice (PWN) pursuant to 34 CFR Sec. 300.503 gets a fair amount of general discussion among special education stake-holders, but, in today's post/podcast, I want to look at it more in-depth. Today's discussion looks more closely at the regulatory requirements and the types of special education contexts in which PWN becomes necessary.

 

I pulled a couple of examples from old case files that I can use to illustrate a number of points. These are old, closed cases from school districts where I currently have no active casework that happened years ago, but one of them involves bad players that I know are still out there.

 

The first one involved a student of an independent study charter school that had contracted with a third-party provider to deliver its special education and related services. Charter schools are often the worst at special education compliance, and online and independent study charters are usually the worst of the worst; for more information about that, see our prior post, "California Charter Schools & Special Education." This case was no exception.

 

To put this example PWN into context, first I have to explain what was going on at the time. Our autistic student with high cognition also had debilitating anxiety that, combined with his autistic perseverative thoughts, could spiral his behaviors out of control, requiring intensive Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) services.

 

This student also needed interventions to address his anxiety, for which the parents, through me as their advocate from our agency, had requested a referral for a mental health evaluation as part of the IEP process. At the time, what we were requesting was provided by the local County Behavioral Health (CBH) agency under contract with the local Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), of which the chartering school district was a member.

 

So, while we were requesting a referral to the local CBH, it was under the auspices of an IEP-related assessment for the determination of IEP goals and services. In response, the third party special education contractor, using the local SELPA's PWN form, replied with the following:

 

  1. Description of action proposed or refused by district: In a letter dated [DATE] and received by the charter on [DATE] the parents requested the school refer [STUDENT] to [CBH]
  2. Explanation of reason for proposal or refusal: Parents can make individual referrals themselves without the involvement of the school.

 

The PWN goes on to explain how parents can make their own community-based referral outside of the IEP process to the local CBH. In an effort to try and make it look like it was complying with the law by replying with official forms and filling in the blanks with words, what the charter's third-party contractor actually did was commit a substantive violation of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

 

First of all, the request was for an IEP-related mental health evaluation and possible IEP goals and services. Going through the community-based referral process does not tie any mental health services provided to IEP goals and the delivery of a FAPE. Regardless of what our student may have or have not received by way of community-based mental health supports, none of that alleviated the IEP team from the mandated responsibilities of assessing for and providing any needed special education-related mental health services.

 

Further, the charter's response on official SELPA forms was issued by its third-party contractor, which had no direct legal obligation to our student to offer and deliver a FAPE. The third-party contractor issued PWN on behalf of the charter, which was supposed to be acting on behalf of its chartering district, the latter of which being the entity that was actually legally responsible for FAPE but had no idea any of this was going on.

 

What this was really about was the charter's third-party contractor not wanting any other entities involved over which it couldn't exercise any kind of control. Because CBH would have been directly funded by SELPA and the State, the charter's third-party special education contractor couldn't lord payment over its head to control how it conducted itself like it did with its contracted teaching personnel and service providers.

 

If anything, it put the third-party contractor's questionable conduct in the path of scrutiny to have an outside agency like the local CBH get involved. The third-party contractor denied the referral and pushed it back onto the parents in order to prevent CBH from becoming part of this student's IEP and implementation teams. It was out of fear of accountability that the third-party contractor denied the referral and pushed it back onto the parents to pursue through community-based resources outside of the IEP process.

 

Measurable annual mental health IEP goals with the local CBH as the responsible provider would have likely meant CBH personnel in the home, where additional special education services of all kinds were needed but not being provided. Having CBH come on board to provide mental health services under this student's IEP would have created outside, impartial witnesses to all of the other special education violations going on with this student's case at the hands of the charter's third-party contractor.

 

Adding CBH to this student's IEP would have made the chartering district answerable for making sure the mental health goals were implemented as written, which would have required CBH to actually do its job, putting the third-party contractor's scam operation at risk of exposure. Needless to say, this case ultimately went to a lawyer who filed for due process, the matter settled, and I can't talk about what happened after that.

 

Prior to and at the time of settlement, this kid was in no way ready to enter the brick-and-mortar school setting, which is far less restrictive than being educated at home. This was one of those situations where the independent studies charter school kept insisting that the student's living room was the general education setting because that's how it was for all of their students, without regard for the fact that the only reason his living room was the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for him was because he couldn't handle a traditional classroom.

 

If this student had been enrolled in a traditional school district at the time, but still was receiving instruction at home, it would have been regarded as one of the most restrictive placement options possible. His in-home placement was light years from a general education classroom in a brick-and-mortar setting, which everybody knew he couldn't handle. It was a technicality that in-home instruction was the norm for independent studies charters, such as his. His situation wasn't about family educational choice; it was about individual educational need.

 

Educating him at home was an accommodation. His parents would have preferred to send him to school, in all honesty, but they made the choice to home-school because of his demanding special needs. He needed intensive autism and mental health services to get to the point where he was able to access the world outside his home with success.

 

The charter was effectively trying to turn him into a well-educated hermit, which often seems to be the case with students with these types of needs in independent study programs. Bringing the instruction to students who are challenged to function successfully outside of the home may seem to be prudent, but if it doesn't include related services meant to increase the student's independence and access to less restrictive learning environments, it's not a FAPE.

 

Preventing the provision of such services in order to avoid accountability is a despicable breach of ethics, as well as a monstrous denial of FAPE. First, in this case, the denial to refer for IEP-related mental health services as requested by the parents interfered with meaningful parent participation in the IEP process, in addition to violating procedure with respect to referrals for evaluations and reevaluations.

 

Secondly, it denied a FAPE because it meant the student's IEP was informed by insufficient assessment data. As a matter of FAPE, the student had a federally protected right to assessment in all areas of suspected disability and learning need. That right was denied when the charter's contractor chose to deny the mental health assessment referral and push the burden back onto the parents to pursue through community-based resources unrelated to the IEP process.

 

Further, the contractor's efforts to circumvent the IEP process not only undermined meaningful parent participation in the IEP process as promised by federal law, it also meant that the student's IEP was not reasonably calculated to render meaningful educational benefits in all areas of unique student need, which also denied a FAPE. As such, the student was being deprived of meaningful educational benefits in the areas of mental and emotional health, which was negatively impacting his behavior and, thus, access to education, which also denied a FAPE.

 

So, just on the basis of this misuse of an official PWN form, the charter's third-party contractor made the record of its efforts to circumvent the IEP process, indirectly on behalf of its charter school client's chartering district, thereby denying a FAPE in at least four different ways:

 

  1. Denial of meaningful parent participation in the IEP process
  2. Failure to assess in all areas of suspected disability
  3. Failure to design IEPs that are reasonably calculated to render meaningful educational benefits in all areas of unique student need
  4. Failure to deliver meaningful educational benefits in all areas of unique student need

 

The point I want to get across is that, just because you get a PWN on official paperwork, it doesn't mean the education agency has actually followed the law. It's not just the matter of complying with procedure by sending something out titled "Prior Written Notice." What is written in the notice matters, and is regulated by federal law.

 

In my second example, also from years ago, and also ultimately settled after the family brought in an attorney, the situation was different. Our student had lived with his parents in the attendance area of a school district near the Southern border of California. Shortly before I became involved, this child's mother had passed away, leaving his father alone to provide all of the in-home support his autistic son with demanding needs required while holding down a job as a traveling engineer.

 

As difficult as it was, the most sensible thing to do under the circumstances was for the student to live most of the week with his grandmother in another community far to the north in the San Joaquin Valley. The student's grandmother, his late mother's mother, was available to be a full-time primary caregiver and his uncle, his late mother's brother, was available to help with any kind of important decision-making, such as with IEPs and regional center services. The student's father shared his educational decision-making authority with his mother-in-law and brother-in-law so that they could take on these serious responsibilities.

 

In anticipation of the student moving to his grandmother's and becoming a student of the local school district, his uncle went to enroll him and shared with the District the student's IEP. The IEP from his incoming school district included a significant amount of Non-Public Agency (NPA) services that were provided during and outside of the school day because of the intensity of the student's needs.

 

These services were not typical for most IEPs, but IEPs are supposed to be individualized. Based on the evidence it had at the time, the IEP team at his previous school district had determined that these services were necessary based on his unique circumstances to provide him with a FAPE.

 

The receiving school district nearly had a fit when it saw this student's incoming IEP. It utilized every procedural tactic at its disposal to argue that it didn't have to implement the incoming IEP as written. That's one of the issues that was addressed by the settlement, so I can't talk about it, here, which is a bummer because the legal arguments around this issue were total fireworks.

 

The bigger point that almost got lost over the arguments over procedure, which was likely the District's intent by arguing over procedure, was what the student substantively required as a matter of FAPE. The receiving school district simply had no intention of paying for NPA services and insisted on stripping out all of the individualized supports described by the student's IEP, which had him placed in a general education setting with age-typical language and behavior models, and placing him in a Special Day Class (SDC) for students with autism.

 

This student was mainstreamed with a 1:1 NPA behavior aide to keep him involved in the instruction and facilitate his language, social, and classroom behavior skills development. The receiving school district proposed to put him in a full-time classroom filled with other students with needs like his own and no models of age-typical language and behavior. He was being successful in his previous placement with the configuration of services described by his IEP.

 

The receiving school district had never met the student, much less assessed him, and therefore had no educational or legal basis to place him in a more restrictive setting. Regardless of whether procedure required the receiving school district to implement the incoming IEP as written or not, it was still obligated to offer and provide a substantively appropriate FAPE. It had no data to inform its offer of services and placement, and certainly nothing that suggested his needs had changed such that a more restrictive placement was educationally necessary.

 

After articulating the request for the receiving school district to implement the incoming IEP as written, this was the District's response, crafted with the assistance of its attorney, as I understand it:

 

Description of the Action Proposed or Refused by the District

 

The [District] and [County Office of Education (COE)] are refusing to provide BCBA supervision of the BIP dated [Date]. The District and [COE] are denying the request for 1:1 instructional aide support to be provided by a NPA. The District and [COE] are also denying in home support, parent training, and direct speech and language services provided in the home. The District and [COE] continue to offer a [COE] operated special day classroom located at [Campus] as an interim placement for 30 days ...

 

Explanation Why the District Proposes or Refuses to Take Action

 

... you requested that [Student] be provided with a BCBA to oversee the BIP. The District and [COE] offered 60 minutes per month of consult behavior intervention services to address the implementation and training of the BIP ... to be provided by a [COE] program specialist with ... required training for Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBA) and BIP ... the District and [COE] feel that the program specialist would be able to implement the strategies and recommendations of the BIP.

 

... you requested that a NPA provide the direct 1:1 instructional aide services. At the meetings, you indicated that the NPA instructional aide is essential to the successful implementation of the current IEP. The District and [COE] recommend intensive individualized services daily ... Intensive individualized services are provided by [COE] instructional aides ... The District and [COE] feel that [COE's] trainings, in addition to the support and oversight provided by the program specialist, provide enough knowledge for [COE] to successfully support [Student] and fully implement the current IEP.

 

The District and [COE] are refusing to provide these additional services and continue to recommend 360 minutes per month of direct speech and language services and 30 minutes per month of consult speech and language services. Given that the in home services that are being requested are now embedded in the categorical program in a way that his prior placement in a non-categorical program did not provide, in home services are not needed.

 

So, that's a lot, but here again is an example of a school district complying with procedure by sending a PWN, but, in doing so, making the record regarding its substantive denials of a FAPE. As stated previously, the receiving school district had conducted absolutely no assessments that indicated that this student needed to be placed in an SDC instead of supported in general education with push-in supports. This was an LRE case.

 

Basically, what the receiving school district was doing was making a placement decision on the basis of what it was willing to spend rather than what was necessary to educate the student in the LRE. The only guidance it had as to what the student required was the incoming IEP. It had no idea whether what it was offering as a 30-day interim placement would completely derail this kid or not (which it would have).

 

The language that jumped out at me that really chapped my hide were the statements about what "the District and [COE] feel" is best in the absence of any evidence. Basically, this was the District and COE admitting to basing their decisions on opinions rather than the facts that the regulations require.

 

It's a violation of both the IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to to change the type of placement a student with disabilities receives without first assessing to determine that student's current placement needs. Placement decisions are based on what is the LRE in which the services can be rendered such that the goals are met. There was no data demonstrating that an SDC placement was suddenly the LRE for our student, after he had been successfully placed in general education with push-in supports under the IEP he already had.

 

Like I said, this case was ultimately settled and it happened several years ago. But, these kinds of things continue to go on all the time. I'm only citing old cases, here, because I don't want to talk about anything currently being litigated or potentially litigated. The regulations for PWN have been the same for a long, long time, so there's not some recent change in the law that would make older cases irrelevant.

 

As a parent, if you get a PWN in the mail denying a request you've made, don't assume that the explanation you're being given is a good one. Just because it's on official letterhead or official form doesn't automatically make it proper.

 

Really, it all boils down to 34 CFR Sec. 300.503(b)(2), which requires any PWN to include, "An explanation of why the agency proposes or refuses to take the action." The explanation as to why a parent request is being denied better be a good one, or all the District accomplishes is using a procedural requirement to document its substantive denials of a FAPE on the record. If that's the case, it's evidence that parents can use in due process to achieve appropriate educational outcomes for their children with special needs.

IEP Goals Determine Services & Placement

IEP Goals Determine Services & Placement

March 7, 2020

 

If you've read or listened to our past posts and podcasts, or have otherwise been educating yourself on the special education process, hopefully by now you understand that special education is supposed to follow a particular procedural flow. This is not only the method supported by best practices, but also the method required by federal law.

 

To recap, assessment data provides the present levels of performance and baselines necessary to formulate educationally appropriate IEP goals for an individual learner. The goals describe what the IEP is supposed to make happen. Once the enormous milestone of developing the IEP goals has been achieved, then it's time to figure out what services are going to be necessary and where they can be delivered in order for each goal to be met. This is where things can suddenly go off the rails.

 

It does no good to articulate sensible outcomes in measurable terms if effective services aren't put into place to actually work on them and make them happen. Goals are just hopes if you don't have a plan for the services you will need to meet them, and hope is not a strategy. But, this is often where things can get tricky in developing an IEP.

 

There are two common reasons for why things can go wrong at this stage: 1) everybody means well, but they don't know what they're doing; or, 2) something fishy is going on. In the first instance, it's usually a matter of training. In the second instance, somebody is gaming the system in pursuit of an agenda in which the student is ancillary, but not the point.

 

In many instances, where this process gets tripped up actually starts with the development of the IEP goals. When the IEP goals are improperly written and/or necessary goals are excluded altogether, determining what services are necessary to deliver appropriately ambitious educational benefits to each student becomes compromised.

 

I've had many parents come to me over the years saying things like, "My kid needs more speech and language. He doesn't know word meanings, can't follow instructions, and can't express himself, but he's only getting 20 minutes of speech per week." They look at increasing the service minutes in speech as though that's going to somehow magically translate into working on all areas of his speech/language needs, when the real issue is that there is only one speech goal in the IEP for articulation and the rest of their child's speech/language needs have no goals.

 

Because there are no goals for anything else, the number of speech/language service minutes is limited to how much time is reasonable to pursue the one goal that is there for articulation. 20 minutes per week to work on nothing but articulation isn't automatically off-base.

 

What these parents really mean, when they say their kids need more speech and language services, is that the IEP is not targeting all of their speech/language needs. If that's true, then the IEP team has to go back and look at the data to determine what other areas of speech and/or language should also be targeted by explicit intervention, then write goals to those specific areas of intervention need.

 

Once those new goals are written, the IEP team can then look at how many service minutes will be necessary to meet each goal. In addition to service minutes, which are expressed in terms of frequency and duration, the location of where the services will be delivered has to be determined.

 

It isn't automatic that related services, like speech/language or occupational therapy (OT), get delivered in a pull-out setting. The location of services, like all other parts of an IEP, must be individualized to the unique needs of the student.

 

Pull-out services require the student to be removed from the classroom, often during instruction, and can interfere with learning. It's a balancing act to find the right time to pull a student out of the regular class routine to go participate in direct pull-out services.

 

Push-in services bring the intervention into the student's classroom and make it part of the classroom experience. Sometimes, this can be small group instruction with a reading specialist when the general education class is broken into small reading groups as a normal matter of instruction. This weaves the special education into the general education situation so that students with reading challenges are facilitated in participating with everyone else.

 

Embedded services are much like push-in, but they are intertwined with the instruction throughout the entire school day as a matter of instructional design for the classroom. An example of this would be embedded speech/language instruction and Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) in the program design of a school specifically for students with autism who cannot successfully function and learn on an integrated campus.

 

In this example, because it can be reasonably expected that all of the students in such a special school will need these supports according to the research and evidence-based practices, they are woven into the instructional design of the program. They are part of how the instruction is delivered on a continual basis.

 

In such cases, the integration of speech/language and ABA have to be used to describe the placement rather than parsed out as individual related service minutes, because they are part of the placement design that makes that particular placement appropriate for certain students. In this instance, they are not discrete services provided outside of or in addition to what is otherwise happening in the classroom.

 

Which leads into the next phase of the process, which is placement. Placement is the last decision to be made by the IEP team. There's a really good reason for this. Placement is supposed to be determined by what is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in which the services can be delivered such that the goals are met.

 

Special education is a service, not a place. The whole point of the IEP is to meet the IEP, but it is discrimination on the basis of handicapping condition to automatically remove kids from the general education setting for instruction just because they have disabilities. Unless removal to a more restrictive setting is the only way for the goals to get met, it's not the LRE.

 

LRE is relative; what is restrictive for one student may be empowering for another. A student with autism who can nonetheless function in the general education setting with push-in ABA supports, for example, would be inappropriately placed in a school for students with autism.

 

Sometimes parents mistakenly think a special school is better because it's focused on the specific types of needs their child has. But, it's only better if the student cannot otherwise be successful in a less restrictive setting. Restrictiveness of setting is directly related to the severity of the student's needs and the intensity of instruction necessary to meet the IEP goals.

 

Sometimes, creating an appropriately hybridized placement offer for a student who needs some pull-out services, but can otherwise participate in general education the rest of the school day, is such a difficult thing to coordinating in a particular school's pre-existing culture that special ed staffs find it more convenient to put kids in more restrictive settings. This gives special ed staffs more control over the quality of the instruction and allows them to prevent their kids from being harmed by discriminatory general education practices, but it segregates their students on the basis of handicapping condition.

 

Sheltering students with disabilities from abuse by sequestering them from bigots inadvertently reinforces discriminatory practices that keep people with disabilities from equally accessing the world at large. Preventing the abuse of students with disabilities through diversity appreciation instruction, as well as proactive, research-based Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) on a schoolwide basis, makes far more sense.

 

The LRE laws exist for this reason. Rather than sequester students with traits in common to prevent them from being bullied by the rest of the students, it is more appropriate to teach all of the students how to get along with each other. Appropriate programming results in general education students looking out for their peers with special needs rather than picking on them and mocking them. It facilitates unity in the school community.

 

Because LRE is relative to each student, no parent should go into the IEP process demanding a placement because somebody else's kid got it and they're doing great there. Somebody else's kid is not your kid. You don't base IEP placement decisions for your child off of what somebody else needs or gets; you base it on your own child's unique, individual learning needs as targeted by the IEP goals.

 

Most school districts will tell you that the "continuum of placement" for special education is whatever they already have. That's only partly accurate. What the school district already has is part of the continuum of placement, but if the placement the student needs doesn't already exist within the district, the placement has to be outsourced or created.

 

It's appropriate for the school district to describe the types of placements it already has. These can include, but are not limited to: general education placement with push-in supports; pull-out to a special education class and/or therapies for part of the school day for targeted specialized support, with placement in general education for the rest of the school day; full-time placement in a special education class; and placement for all or part of the day in a non-public school.

 

But students are not limited to the types of placements already put in place within a school district. Sometimes, the closest appropriate school is so far away that the child and a family member live in a nearby apartment or other local housing arrangement during the week and go home on weekends, with their local school district funding the housing and travel expenses as related transportation services in the student's IEP. There's caselaw around this issue in favor of students (see, for example, Ojai vs. Jackson).

 

There is no master list of all the "types" of placements that can be offered to a special education student. Like every other part of an IEP, placement is supposed to be tailored to the student, only with the LRE requirements relative to what services it will take to meet the goals in mind. Sometimes, IEP teams have to get creative to meet highly unique individual student needs.

 

Other times, the types of supports a student needs are relatively common such that there are entire classrooms that provide those kinds of supports to all of their students. Resource Specialist Program (RSP) services are the most commonly delivered special education services. These are the least intensive forms of special education services provided.

 

Most students on IEPs have relatively mild learning disabilities that make RSP support a useful tool in helping them maintain grade-level performance. They are usually mostly in the general education setting with some special education supports and plenty of them go on to college and successful careers.

 

Many of these students glide through the K-12 system with an IEP that no one knows about but their families and teachers. Most of their peers have no idea and their closest friends realize it's no big deal and don't care.

 

Further, it is becoming less stigmatizing to be on an IEP than it used to be, so students are being more forthcoming with their peers about their special education statuses, just as matters of fact, without judgment entering the picture. If only the adults could follow their lead.

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