Making Special Education Actually Work

Making Special Education Actually Work

The Basics of Special Education Assessments

Most people new to special education are quickly blindsided by the processes and procedures that have to be followed. Many parents new to the process don't exactly understand that customizing school for their children with special needs is what special education is supposed to do. Often they will say that they don't know what special education will be able to do for their children, in large part because they don't understand what special education actually is or how it works.


There is a huge need to demystify the special education process for those who don't fully understand it. The process starts at the very beginning with a referral for assessment, but before I launch into a discussion of special education assessments, I first want to map out the special education process in general so the role that assessments play in that process becomes clear.



Because special education can only be given to students who meet specific eligibility criteria, a process had to be developed to determine who meets those criteria. The basis for a referral for a special education assessment is "suspected disability." If the parents, teachers, or other involved professionals have a reason to suspect that a disability might be responsible for why a student is struggling in school academically, communicatively, socially, physically, and/or behaviorally, it's enough to trigger the assessment process.


Sometimes, special education assessments end up ruling out disabilities and identifying other challenges that are interfering with student learning that require solutions other than special education. It is never a bad thing when a child who is struggling in school gets help, regardless of what types of help may be needed.


Federal law mandates that public education agencies conduct a process called "child find" in which they actively seek out and identify those students who can be suspected of possibly needing special education (34 CFR Sec. 300.111). A great many special education lawsuits have been filed over the years on behalf of students who were never identified through "child find," but should have been.


I have worked as a paralegal on several cases in which there was enough evidence to suspect a disability was responsible for a student's struggles but it failed to trigger the "child find" process. When students who are eligible for special education are denied eligibility, including from a failure to conduct "child find" that denies them the chance to be found eligible in the first place, they are usually due compensatory education to make up for the education they should have gotten but didn't. "Child find" failures are no small things, but they occur systematically everywhere.


Very often, children of color, children from households with low incomes, children in single-parent families, and children who have immigrated here from other countries are the ones most often missed by "child find." In many instances, they are instead blamed for their challenges and end up funneled into the juvenile justice system, thereby greasing the wheels of the School-to-Prison Pipeline.


It often takes a parent referral to see a student properly identified for special education. Struggles over homework, tears shed over grades, disciplinary problems at school, and other obvious signs of trouble will prompt many parents to look into their options for help from their local schools and some will stumble upon some basic information about special education and the referral process. If it makes enough sense to them, they will write a letter requesting that their child be tested for learning problems that might require special education, which triggers the assessment process.


Depending on what State parents are in, the laws vary as to whether their local education agencies are legally obligated to act on their referrals for special education assessment. Some States give parent referrals equal weight to those made by school personnel and other States do not. The federal laws leave it up to the States to decide, by default making it such that education agencies can decline parent referrals for assessment with Prior Written Notice (PWN) explaining why the referral is being declined (34 CFR Sec. 300.503).


California law, however, gives parent referrals equal weight to those made by education agency personnel (EDC 56029) and mandates that an assessment plan be provided to parents for their consent within 15 calendar days of any referral for assessment being made (EDC 56043(a)). States can add protections to the IDEA, they just can't reduce them to anything below the minimum standards of the IDEA. Not all States provide the same kind of protection of parent referrals that California provides.


Even when a parent referral is accepted, many school districts will still limit assessment in a way the parents don't realize is happening in order to prevent students from being found eligible for special education and thereby prevent special education expenditures and a host of additional legal obligations. For far too many families, just getting that initial evaluation can become a legal battle, but then the question becomes whether the assessment they got was any good.


I want to focus on what happens once the assessment process actually gets going, though. Eventually, most families of eligible children who are pushing for appropriate services will get an initial assessment that is used by the IEP team to determine whether the student is eligible for special education or not. If the student is found eligible, re-assessments will then occur at least once every three years, or triennially, to update the data available to the IEP team for ongoing IEP development.


The purpose of special education assessment is to determine 1) if the student is eligible for special education and, if so, 2) what the content of the student's IEP should be. Needless to say that if the data gathered by the assessment is inaccurate, incomplete, or incompetently interpreted, things can go horribly wrong. And, they do. A lot of special education litigation arises over education agency failures to competently assess in all areas of suspected disability.


For example, if a child is verbal but can't read people's facial expressions or tone of voice, there still needs to be a speech-language evaluation that looks at not only articulation, receptive language, and expressive language, but also at pragmatic (social) language. Pragmatic language includes the ability to read nonverbal body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.


Children with autism tend to be very literal with words and miss the nuances that tone of voice, facial expression, and body language can contribute to conveying someone else's communicative intent, so they may misunderstand sarcasm or idioms and cliches. They can similarly struggle to make their own faces match what they are trying to say in a way that makes sense to most other people. Students with other types of handicapping conditions can also have similar challenges for various reasons related to their disabilities.


This isn't all people with autism, of course, but pragmatic language deficits are commonly occurring features of autism. It stands to reason that any child assessed for autism should also have a comprehensive speech-language evaluation that includes pragmatics. I've lost count of the number of students on the autism spectrum I've represented over the last 28+ years who have had huge problems with interpersonal communication but had never had their pragmatic language tested until I asked for it. It's one of those obvious things that shouldn't have to be specifically requested, but I often end up having to request it, anyway.


And, this example goes to why it's important that parents understand the critical nature of assessments and getting them done correctly the first time around, if at all possible. What happens if assessments are bad is that whatever IEPs are produced from them will also be bad. This can include an inappropriate denial of special education eligibility altogether at the initial IEP, as well as students being found eligible but then given weak IEPs that don't actually address their needs.


Simply giving a student a document that says "IEP" on it does not magically bestow educational benefits upon that student. The contents of the document matter and they should be informed by scientifically valid data in all areas of suspected disability and unique learning need. The IEP is supposed to be the blueprint by which the special education student's education is delivered according to that student's unique learning profile, which can only be ascertained through valid and sufficiently rigorous assessments that include teacher and parent input.


What tests should be administered to a given student depends on the student. Just as the special education program developed for each student must be individualized, so must the assessments conducted to inform that program. If a student doesn't present with any evidence of hearing loss, it makes no sense to test in the area of hearing. However, if a student reports that the words swim on the page when the student attempts to read, an assessment of visual processing is entirely in order.


Similarly, if the primary areas of concern are social and classroom participation but the student's grades are otherwise fine, you can conduct all the IQ and academic achievement tests in the world, but they will fail to give you relevant data about the actual source of the problem. At best, academic achievement testing may tell you the degree to which the social/behavioral challenges are interfering with classroom participation and work completion, but social/emotional and behavioral assessments are necessary to get to the bottom of social and classroom behavioral challenges, including lack of participation.


It is not uncommon for individuals with autism and/or anxiety disorders who are otherwise verbally and intellectually intact to do well in their academics, at least in the lower grades, but have a truly difficult time being a member of a classroom and/or being socially integrated with the rest of the students. School is supposed to teach more than academics; it's also supposed to give students the opportunity to learn and rehearse social skills that will ultimately allow them to become gainfully employed and fully functional within society in adulthood.


The thing to understand, here, is that a student does not automatically have to be struggling academically to need special education. A student needs to be struggling in any aspect of school as a result of a disability to such a marked degree that individualizing the student's educational experiences is necessary in order for the student to have opportunities to learn that are equal to the opportunities given to same-grade peers who do not have disabilities.


Our students with anxiety and depression will often miss a lot of school due to psychosomatic illnesses. This prevents them from accessing education altogether, but is not directly reflective of a specific challenge with academics. Very often, these kids can handle the academics okay, but they can't handle all the other people at school. That's a different special education problem to solve than accommodating dyslexia or an auditory processing disorder.


I can tell you that, as an educational psychologist and behavior analyst, there are student-specific lines of inquiry that an individualized assessment of each student should pursue. No two assessments should look exactly alike from one student to the next. The federally mandated requirement placed on schools is to assess in all areas of suspected disability and unique student need on an individualized basis (34 CFR Sec. 300.304).


That means social/emotional functioning, pragmatic language, and behavior are probably going to feature more prominently in an assessment of a student suspected of autism or certain types of social/emotional disorders. Measures of cognition and academic achievement, analysis of classroom work samples, parent and teacher interviews, and classroom observations are going to be more useful in troubleshooting a potential learning disability. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and adaptive physical education evaluations are going to be important for a student with an orthopedic impairment that impacts how the student navigates the school campus.


There is no "one-size-fits-all" assessment procedure in special education. There should be no "one-size-fits-all" anything in special education. The whole point of it is individualized instruction, which can only be individualized to the student if the IEP is informed by individualized assessment data.


The importance of individualizing assessment cannot be overemphasized, and I have an example from my past to drive that point home: Many years ago, a couple of years or so after I first became a paralegal, I was working a due process case in which, between the testimony of the school psychologist and the district's director of special education, it became clear that the only reason the school psychologist had used a particular verbal IQ test on our 7-year-old language delayed client with Down's Syndrome was because the district kept those tests in bulk in the supply closet, and it would take longer than the 60-day assessment timeline to order a more appropriate test through the district's purchase order process, as overseen by the special education director.


It is my recollection that the administrative law judge who tried the case had his own blistering line of questioning after those facts made it onto the record. He basically eviscerated the special education director for sneaky, underhanded abuses of the system to save a buck at the expense of assessment accuracy. The judge ended up ordering the school district to fund an outside assessment done by an expert who used the right kinds of tests.


The dad had already paid to have the outside expert assessment done, so we had it as evidence of how to do it right in hearing, plus the outside expert testified credibly as to his methods and findings. The district ended up having to reimburse the dad for the outside assessment and there was a huge training initiative throughout that district's special education department shortly after that hearing decision was published. Heads rolled and policies changed for the better, but it took exposing what was really going on in a hearing to effect significant changes.


The function that assessments serve in the special education process is to set it all in motion and inform all the other steps that will follow. An IEP must include a statement of a student's present levels of performance at the time the IEP was written, thereby establishing baselines. An IEP must also include annual, measurable goals that target learning outcomes to be achieved in one year's time from the date the IEP is written that move the student forward from those baseline positions in each area of unique learning need.


There is no way to realistically identify the target outcomes to be met with one year's worth of work in each area of unique student need without valid assessment data to inform that analysis. How much is realistic for an individual student to learn in a year's time comes down to a combination of variables that should have all been measured and described by the assessment data.


Goals target the outcomes intended by a student's IEP. What services are included in an IEP, including the frequency, duration, and location of those services, are determined on the basis of what will be necessary to meet the IEP goals. Placement is the last decision made by an IEP team and is determined by what is the least restrictive setting or combination of settings that allows the services to be delivered such that the goals are met without unnecessarily segregating the student away from the general education population.


You can't decide where a special education student can be most appropriately educated until you first determine what you're going to have to do in that setting or combination of settings. What needs to be done is determined by what you want to make happen. You don't know what to make happen until you understand where things already stand and what you are still missing. You don't know what is already intact and available, or what is missing, without first doing an assessment.


So, everything in the IEP process depends on the assessments being done right in the first place, or the entire IEP process falls apart from the outset. If an assessment is done badly, there aren't adequate baseline data to inform an IEP's present levels of performance or inform decisions about how aggressive each measurable annual goal should be in terms of its targeted outcomes. Further, if it's done badly, there's no guarantee there's enough data to identify all the areas in which goals are actually needed.


"What can the student already do in a given area of need?" and "What is realistic to expect from this student after one year's worth of work in this given area of need?" are the two key questions that have to be answered by special education assessment reports. That's because those two very questions have to be answered when crafting a new IEP.


If you can't get that far with the data from the assessments, you're off to a really, really bad start. If you can't lay a proper foundation, your whole construct will fall down. Competent, reasonably thorough assessment is the very foundation of a sound IEP, so it is important for parents to take this step of the IEP process very seriously and hold everyone else on the team to their respective professional standards.


Federal law mandates the application of the peer-reviewed research and the professional standards of any experts involved to the delivery of special education (34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4)). That includes during the special education assessment process. Any standardized tests used must be administered and scored according to the instructions provided by the producers of each test, which must be scientifically valid for the purposes for which they are used (34 CFR Sec. 300.304(c)(1)). The enforceable law does not skirt the applicable science, and there is no legally justifiable reason why any publicly funded education agency and/or any of its contractors should be skirting it.


This can be difficult for many parents who have no background in science or law. However, an interesting phenomenon is starting to occur on a societal level that is worth noting.


Millennials are becoming an increasingly represented generational cohort among parents of children with special needs. They use their smartphones ubiquitously to call BS on a host of issues by looking up the truth, and collaborate with each other to address shared concerns. Special education advocacy today is becoming something entirely different than what it was when I started 28 years ago.


When I was a young, beginning advocate, I represented a number of housewives who could bake some mean cupcakes but would nearly faint at the presentation of a bell curve graph and deferred to their husbands on any big decisions. Now, I've got young moms and dads taking their own behavior data, charting it, and presenting it to their kids' IEP teams with a written list of questions, concerns, and requests, all based on their own common sense with no formal prior exposure to the applicable sciences or law.


Where things get interesting is how school district administrations are currently configured. Many of the old-timers that I've been dealing with over the last two decades or more have retired and run off with their pension money before there isn't any pension money to be had, anymore. Millennials are now starting to take the retired old-timers' vacant job positions and, where that has happened, I've found that I don't have such an uphill battle when making scientifically research-based requests in conformity with the regulations on behalf of my students and their families.


The biggest challenges I'm seeing now are Millennial parents armed with knowledge attempting to advocate for their children to public education agencies still run by the old-timers. The old-timers run things according to cronyistic politics, by and large, which has no scientific support whatsoever. In fact, cronyistic politics have been supported by a great deal of science as being impediments to the implementation of effective educational programming (Coco, G. & Lagravinese, R. "Cronyism and education performance," Economic Modeling, Feb 2014, 38 443-450; Shaker, P. & Heilman, E. "The new common sense of education: Advocacy research versus academic authority," Teachers College Record, Jul 2004, 106:7 1444-1470) and the impetus behind the mishandling of education dollars that take money out of the classroom that could otherwise fund effective instruction and undermine a community's investments in education (Eicher, T., García-Peñalosa, C., & van Ypersele, T. "Education, corruption, and the distribution of income," Journal of Economic Growth, Sep 2009 14:3 205-231).


When knowledgeable parents go up against cronyistic old-timers, the old-timers resort to their familiar bag of power-mongering tricks. But, trying to intimidate a mom who was educated under the Common Core to use math and science to solve real-life problems is a world apart from trying to intimidate a housewife whose science and math skills are limited to following recipes in a cookbook and balancing a checkbook.


I'm watching old-timers retire in droves nowadays because their weapons of choice against parents aren't effective anymore and the courts are increasingly relying on the applicable science to inform how the law applies to each special education student on an individual basis. Law is supposed to be evidence-based, as is science. Education science allows special education law to be as black-and-white as possible. Everything else, particularly in a cronyistic system, is subjective opinion and hearsay. The environment no longer reinforces the old-timers' behaviors like it used to, and their behaviors are starting to become extinct.


So, parents going forth into special education, especially those of you who know how to use your smartphones to look things up and fact-check, fall back on the science and lean on it hard, starting with the assessment process. When you are first given that assessment plan to sign, don't sign anything until you understand what it means and the language of it is clear.


Very often, assessment plans will say vague things like "social/emotional evaluation by psychologist," which can sound a whole lot like a mental health evaluation by a clinician to a lay person. In reality, what it usually means is rating scales filled out by parents, teachers, and sometimes the student that are scored and interpreted by a credentialed school psychologist, not a licensed clinician. Rating scales scored and interpreted by a school psychologist is not the same thing as a mental health evaluation by a licensed clinician.


But, how is a parent unfamiliar with the process supposed to know that? Would any reasonable layperson just assume this language meant a mental health evaluation by a clinician? I've seen this happen more than once involving youth with significant mental health issues for which consideration was being requested by the parent of the rest of the IEP team of residential placement via the student's IEP. The parents would be given an assessment plan that said "social/emotional evaluation by psychologist," think they were getting an evaluation to explore residential placement, and only find out 60 days later that they had been given the run-around while their child continued to fall apart. Residential placement is the most restrictive placement possible through the special education system, but it is possible for those students whose needs are that dire.


In these cases, the students' needs were absolutely that dire and the responsible school districts attempted to delay the costs of residential placement by first doing rating scales by their school psychologist as part of a 60-day evaluation process, who then recommended a mental health evaluation, sometimes including a residential placement evaluation but sometimes not, thereby triggering a new 60-day assessment timeline. If a residential placement evaluation was not included with the mental health evaluation, the mental health evaluation could then conclude that the student should be considered for residential placement, triggering yet another new 60-day evaluation timeline.


Or, worse, the mental health evaluation could be silent on the issue of residential placement, leaving it to the parents to know to keep asking for such an evaluation; but, by this point, most parents erroneously conclude that residential placement isn't an option so they drop it. There are youth in immediate crises who need instant mental health services, and their school districts are stalling the process by adding an unnecessary layer of assessment that gives it another 60 to 120 days before it has to act on the data (i.e., foot the tab for services).


Each of the students from my caseload who have shared this experience, in different school districts mind you, ended up either hospitalized and/or incarcerated at some point before finally getting the help that they needed. In most of those cases, the issue had to be forced with lawsuits that ultimately resulted in confidential settlement agreements. In each instance, the unnecessary delays in receiving immediate help contributed to self-injurious behavior, attempted suicide, and unlawful conduct that could have otherwise been avoided.


In my first case like this, I actually took it to due process myself back in the day when advocates could do that in California, and prevailed. In that case' decision, the hearing officer made it clear that it defies the entire purpose of the IDEA, which requires that children with qualifying disabilities be identified and served via IEPs in all areas of need as quickly as possible, to subject our most vulnerable children to double or triple the amount of assessment time of a normal special education evaluation before getting the help they need.


I don't know of any authority that has come out since then that contradicts this interpretation, though it was a long time ago and I'm not an attorney, but I think most people will agree, that it was not likely Congress' intent to make our most severely impacted students suffer without appropriate supports and services for months longer than it takes other special education students to get what they need. These include, but are not exclusively, students with tendencies towards violence, running away, property destruction, self-injurious behaviors, and other non-social behaviors that require a great deal of expert intervention. These are not the students who should be waiting twice to triple the time to get the services they need to keep themselves and everyone else safe and focused on learning at school.


If it looks like a critical area of need is being excluded from your child's assessment, don't sign the assessment plan until the public education agency adds what is missing. If the agency refuses to add it, note on the assessment plan that you are consenting to what is offered, but you still think the assessment is deficient based on what they are excluding, which you should list in your note. That way, the record is clear that you aren't delaying the other testing by withholding your consent, but you're also not agreeing it was appropriate to leave out what you requested.


If the matter ever goes to hearing, the fact that you documented your disagreement with the exclusions on the actual assessment plan will become part of the evidence and the agency will have to explain its refusals of your requests to a judge or hearing officer. I've seen agencies change their minds after parents have written such feedback on assessment plans because the agencies don't want to have to explain those documents to judges or hearing officers down the line.


Often, the best way to prevent litigation is to prepare for it. The parents who understand the value of making the record in the right way are the most successful self-advocates out there. But, there are still enough cronyistic old-timers still entrenched in the system who think they can still get away with intimidation tactics, lies, and subterfuge. It's getting harder and harder for them to get away with these behaviors, and parents who push for the truth from the very beginning, starting with the assessment process, have a greater chance of getting appropriate services for their children than not.

Fee Shifting in Special Education

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I've had several cases in the last few years that have made apparent to me an unseemly practice that is evidently being used by some school districts: fee shifting. Fee shifting occurs in special education when a school district passes the costs of students' needs onto other agencies by unscrupulous means.


There are two types of fee shifting that I have repeatedly encountered over the years. One takes the form of the School to Prison Pipeline in which the behaviors of students with disabilities are criminalized and prosecuted rather than addressed through positive behavioral interventions via the Individualized Education Program ("IEP") process. The other takes the form of the misidentification of students, usually those with Autistic Spectrum Disorders ("ASDs") and/or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders ("ADHDs"), as children with serious mental health disorders who are then referred to their local County mental health agencies for treatment of disorders they don't actually have and neglect of their actual conditions.


One of the eligibility categories for special education is "Emotional Disturbance" ("ED"), which is meant to address the needs of students with mental and emotional health disorders. While emotional problems will surely occur among students with other disabilities whose needs go unmet, this is a response to circumstance, not an innate disorder unto itself. In both of the fee shifting scenarios I've repeatedly seen over the years, the emotional challenges my law enforcement-involved and/or misidentified students have are largely the consequences of not getting support for their actual handicapping conditions.


That isn't to say that none of my students are legitimately ED, but many of them didn't start out that way. Post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") can arise from traumatic experiences in and out of school, but still can qualify a student as ED. What breaks my heart are the kids with other conditions who acquire PTSD from repeated neglect and/or abuse in response to their original conditions, particularly at school.


One school district in which I have been supporting students has a history of misidentifying little boys with ASDs as having mysterious mental health disorders that their local County mental health agency can't quite seem to identify according to diagnostic criteria. This same mental health agency openly admits that it doesn't diagnose or treat ASDs.


This is made further evident by their assessment reports because they clearly have no idea what they are looking at and render non-specific diagnoses, like, "Unspecified emotional disorder of childhood and adolescence." This is basically a catch-all term for "We have no idea what is going on with this child," when the ASD is plainly obvious to anyone who knows autism. In one of my cases, the student had already received a DSM-5 autism diagnosis and the County mental health agency still missed it.


For our children and youth that end up in our local juvenile hall, the moment they are incarcerated, they usually immediately cease to be students of their districts of residence, which is based on where their parents live, because California law causes students' local education agencies to change whenever they are placed outside of their local communities by the courts. For example, in Ventura County, California, it is the Ventura County Office of Education ("VCOE") that operates the schools in juvenile hall. So, the moment a student is locked up, that student ceases to be a student of the district where that student's parents live and becomes a student of VCOE.


That creates huge complications for students who were in the process of being assessed when they became incarcerated or for whom referral for assessment was made while they were incarcerated but they get released before the 60-day assessment timeline has run. Switching local education agencies while mid-assessment is a bureaucratic nightmare. The procedures may have to be started all over again.


We hope and pray as advocates when working with criminal justice-involved students that we can get them through the 60-day assessment timeline before they "reoffend" and get locked back up again, once again disrupting the timeline and potentially starting it over with VCOE. Unless we've involved an attorney and litigation is pending, this can quickly turn into a vicious loop.


Most of the local school districts will partner with VCOE to finish any assessments that have been started in one location or the other because it is usually anticipated that the student will return home in a matter of weeks or months, at which point, the student will live within the attendance area of the school district, again, which will resume responsibility. Nonetheless, making this work takes Herculean effort and with as many kids as there are passing through the system, the time necessary to provide Herculean effort to each of them isn't really available. It most often happens when people like me and my colleagues show up.


The motivation for fee shifting is obviously money. Special education is grossly underfunded, but like all the rest of public education, it's also poorly managed. High paid administrators strip resources out of the classroom and then give themselves raises to reward themselves for how smart they've been about saving their school districts' money. Every teacher who buys supplies for their classrooms out of their own pockets each school year knows exactly what I'm talking about.


What money the public schools get should be mostly spent on students. School district administration exists to support the instruction, not usurp its funding, but some statistics reflect that there is usually one administrative position for each teaching position, and I have yet to meet a teacher who has a personal secretary, so that's obviously not how administrative resources are being used.


Fee shifting schemes very often target children from low-income households that can't afford to hire attorneys to hold their local schools accountable. There are not enough attorneys who represent low-income parents of students with special needs to meet the demand, even though they can recover their fees from the offending school districts upon prevailing in hearing or as a condition of settlement. Those who take on these cases have overflowing caseloads that they can barely manage.


Because of this, it is often children from single-parent households, families of color, immigrant families, and families with parents who also have disabilities that are targeted by these fee-shifting schemes. This means that children with disabilities who were already disadvantaged by their actual disabilities and socio-economic situations are then further abused by a system in which their needs get misidentified in order to shove them off onto other agencies. The interventions they receive, if any, once they get shifted to the wrong agency are inappropriate to their needs, and nothing in that breaks the cycle of poverty.


Basically, fee shifting happens in special education because public education agency administrators get away with it far more often than they get caught, and they avoid getting caught most frequently by targeting children from families who they think won't fight back. When parents do try to advocate for their children to get appropriate interventions in these situations, they are met with resistance from public education agency administrators and their lawyers. Public education may be underfunded, but a school district is far better financially equipped to wage war against a low-income parent than a low-income parent is usually equipped to fight back.


The consequences of this dynamic disproportionately fall on children of color, who are already marginalized by institutionalized biases that incline them to more likely live in poverty. But, affluent children of color get targeted in affluent school districts simply because of their color, which is made worse if they also have handicapping conditions, particularly those that affect behavior, or have been educationally neglected for so long that they have developed psychological problems around school that eventually lead to problem behaviors.


All behavior is communication, so what is a kid who has behavioral challenges at school trying to communicate? Is it that the curriculum is too demanding? The instruction doesn't make sense? There are other things going on in that kid's life that are taking a higher priority than school, such as homelessness and/or hunger? Is the child the victim of abuse? Is it something else? What is really going on?


There are a million reasons why a child may behave inappropriately at school, and disordered thought brought on by trauma, impairment, and/or duress is frequently involved, which is paired with the fact that we're talking about children who are not mature enough to reason like adults. Without proper assessment, how can we know what the appropriate response is to a student's challenges?


Many people also don't understand that the costs to taxpayers caused by fee shifting are greater than the costs of doing the job right in the first place. For the price of one student's tuition and board for a 4-year Harvard undergraduate education, you can incarcerate one youth in California for one year. Even if you had to put such a student into residential psychiatric treatment for a year as a matter of special education, that's a quarter to one-third the cost of incarceration for the same amount of time and with a much higher likelihood of success.


It's not just about how much money is spent; it's also about how many benefits the money buys for students, families, and taxpayers. Getting more benefits for less taxpayer dollars seems like the most reasonable outcome to pursue, but many public agencies have this "not out of my budget" mentality that takes performing their mandates right out of the equation and makes it about how little money actually gets spent.


Those students with ASDs and/or ADHDs who are initially misidentified as having mental health disorders will very likely develop mental health disorders and the behaviors that go with them. This is a consequence of being surrounded in their programs by people with legitimate mental health disorders who model inappropriate behaviors and treatment programs that are inappropriate to their actual ASD- or ADHD-related needs. Poor social role models in addition to a lack of ASD-specific instruction on social pragmatics and behavior, paired with therapeutic techniques that are ineffective in the treatment of ASDs, compound to ruin lives, tear families apart, and undermine the cohesiveness of communities. Similar programming deficits improperly impact students with ADHDs.


It's the students in juvenile hall and Department of Juvenile Justice ("DJJ") facilities who are often in most need of mental health services as a matter of special education, but are least likely to get anything sufficient to their needs. The lack of adult mental health treatment facilities resulting in our jails and prisons taking the overflow is already a known problem in this country. What is less commonly known is how early the process of shifting mental health costs onto the criminal justice system actually starts with diverting kids out of special education services, very often those meant to address mental health issues and/or behaviors, and into the School to Prison Pipeline.


I certainly don't endorse the idea that fee shifting is behind every special education violation. Fee shifting is behind some special education violations. Violations occur for a plethora of reasons; fee shifting is just one of many ways things can go wrong. But, parents, advocates, and educators need to be aware of practices that can create fee shifting, even if by accident.


In truth, a great many school-site professionals have no idea what their employers' legal obligations are to students with disabilities and just do what they're told in exchange for a paycheck and benefits. They care about their students, but they are often largely in the dark about what they can actually do to meet their students' needs and they are unaware of the resources they are supposed to be making available to these students per the law.


They can't incur the costs of intervention if they don't provide intervention, so if they don't know about interventions, they won't make them available, thereby avoiding the costs of intervention. It's often those who hold higher positions within the public education agency who are aware of the agency's obligations but decide not to promote certain things among their staffs in the name of cost control that undermines the learning of children with disabilities.


It is in this climate that a School to Prison Pipeline develops. School site staff are unfamiliar with the actual rules of special education, particularly "child find." Alternative methods of intervention will often be tried without success under the premise that having to refer a kid to special education is tantamount to failure and all other options must first be exhausted.


It's actually the other way around. You at least rule out disability by conducting comprehensive assessment on the basis of suspected disability. Assessment will otherwise identify that there is a disability and why it's causing so many problems. If it's not a disability, assessment will prove that; competent assessment will explain what is actually going on, which will help parents and educators decide together what can nonetheless be done even if the student doesn't qualify for special education.


The bottom line is to figure out what is really going on so the parents and educators can find the right solutions, whether they are special education or something else. You don't make kids languish in a hokey, half-baked rip-off of Response to Intervention ("RtI") for years until they psychologically break and then prosecute them for truancy when their school anxiety becomes so great that the thought of going to school makes them sick every morning.


Every year, we get new kids on our caseload who are hugging porcelain or sitting on it for extended periods every morning because the school-related anxiety rips their digestive systems apart. And, in almost every case, truancy proceedings are involved for untreated symptoms that are causing health-related absences. Panic attacks are treated as criminal acts.


Students and parents can be fined and placed on probation for truancy; public education agencies want their average daily attendance ("ADA") dollars and they don't get them if kids aren't there. They use their local District Attorney's ("DA's") office to prosecute kids with disability-related absences and their parents, which ushers kids with disabilities into the School to Prison Pipeline and away from quality education.


Some school site administrators will refer students to truancy proceedings without even asking themselves if there may be a disability involved that warrants immediate special education assessment, instead. They either can't grasp or don't care about the harm they are doing. They are eliminating costs and headaches from their own agencies, and that's evidently as far as their analyses go.


It is very important that parents and advocates in these situations choose their actions carefully to make sure that any assessments that are needed to figure out what is really going on and what to do about it are actually done. If they are done poorly, skewed to support the argument the public education agency has been asserting all along, or are missing vital components, the parents will likely have grounds to disagree and request outside assessments, Independent Educational Evaluations ("IEEs"), at public expense, which is to say at the cost of the public education agency.


Basically, the district has to pay for outside second opinions if the parents disagree with the district's assessments for any reason, which the law does not require the parents to explain. The only way that the public education agency can decline requests for IEEs is to send Prior Written Notice ("PWN") declining the request (basically a letter to the parents explaining why the request is denied), filing for due process, and proving to a judge that the education agency's assessments are good such that second opinions aren't necessary.


Sometimes it's not second opinions so much as getting additional testing done that the education agency failed to perform when it should have. Those are still IEEs. The point is that, in any situation in which you suspect fee shifting may be happening, assessments - good assessments - will tell you what is really going on with enough detail that a group of reasonably intelligent adults with intact ethics and morals can figure out something that will make sure a kid learns, regardless of what type of obstacles may be in the way.


It is my hope that, by shining light on public education agency administration "fee shifting," the public becomes informed and more diligent about holding public servants accountable to spending taxpayer dollars on services that actually benefit the public in conformity with the law. This is something to be taken up town-by-town, county-by-county, and state-by-state by voters who expect public agency accountability to the taxpaying public and further expect agencies to legitimately serve the purposes for which they were created and funded. It's also something important for parents and advocates to understand when pursuing appropriate outcomes for individual students.


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The Return of our Blog (and Podcast)

Image Credit:  Christian Schnettelker ( Photo Credit: Christian Schnettelker

In 2008, I launched our first blog, writing about special education regulations, case law, education research, and my experiences over my career as a lay advocate, which started in 1991, and paralegal, which I also became in 2005. 


Over the years that our blog was online, the laws changed, new case law was published, new research came out, and I was eventually faced with the daunting challenge of curating all of our old blog articles and updating them according to all the things that had changed over time.


Then our web host changed us to a new server early last year and we had to overhaul our site, so I took our blog down until I could get to it, again. Coming back to all that old blog content and updating it was easier said than done. Also, in the last few years, a lot of other things changed with our evolving organization.


In 2011, I went back to university and, in 2013, graduated with a master’s degree in Educational Psychology. During that time, I took a required course called, “Instructional Design,” in which I and my classmates had to each create an instructional product based on a teaching need. Basically, it was how to turn a lesson plan into something that could be sold as a product or otherwise used to promote the goals of an organization.


Given that I was already the CEO of KPS4Parents and had an organization that could truly do something with an instructional product, I figured it made no sense to simply create one for a grade and the Learn & Grow Educational SeriesSM was born. We now have approximately 30,000 learners around the world following our online instructional content via social media and will be launching in-person classes in our local area later this Spring that we hope to expand to locations around the world over the next few years.


This has caused us to rethink how we are organized because Learn & Grow is a food security and sustainable living curriculum, which can certainly be related to children with disabilities, but it’s not specifically targeting the same outcomes that we target as special education advocates. It makes more sense to turn KPS4Parents and its special education advocacy services into a division of a new parent organization with Learn & Grow as another division unto itself, so we’re in the process of making that happen. This pending reorganization also has bearing on how we communicate with our respective online audiences, including the followers of this blog.


My specific master’s degree program was called “DLI&E,” which stood for “Development, Learning, Instruction, and Evaluation.” I also took additional coursework in Applied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”), which is a much richer science than most people in special education realize and is in no way limited to behavioral interventions for students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (“ASDs”), though it certainly can benefit such students when properly used. The data collection methods used in ABA are the most reliable identified to date for measuring individual student progress, which goes to how instruction can be delivered and progress towards goals can be measured.


I pursued this particular course of study because it spoke to all the important facets of special education intervention in the pursuit of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) for every student I had ever represented and of those I intended to represent going forward. It was the right thing for me to do, student loan debt notwithstanding.


Human development throughout the lifetime, the science of how people learn and remember things, the instructional practices that have been proven to work, and evaluating the efficacy of educational program designs are all germane to my work advocating for students with special needs. A significant but often underappreciated part of the implementing regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) has been in my corner, that being 34 CFR § 300.320(a)(4), which is part of the regulation that defines what constitutes an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) and states that an IEP must contain:  “A statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services, based on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable, to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child …” [Emphasis Added]


My DLI&E program was all about applying the peer-reviewed research to the provision of quality education, and the knowledge I gained from that course of study about how to comply with 34 CFR § 300.320(a)(4) has been priceless. What still threatens to get in my way at times is the language, “to the extent practicable,” because what is or is not practicable has not been litigated nor has it been clarified in the professional literature as to how such a determination is supposed to be made. This was the topic of the first paper I wrote for my culminating experience from graduate school and nothing much has changed in this regard since I wrote it in late 2013.


Effectively, whether the applicable science is considered practicable or not comes down to school district policy and administrator and/or school board opinion, which can quickly turn it into a matter of politics rather than law and science. This is entirely distasteful to me, but the things I find distasteful in life are not the point, here.


The point, here, is that the regulations attempt to promote the use of methods proven to work according to evidence-based practices, which is to say, “facts,” and the rule of law is supposed to be evidence-based, itself. Applying the law to the facts is the basis of the entire American system of government. The real fight that has been going on in special education in the United States since it was created in 1975, and which continues at the national level today on a wide variety of topics, is that of the People to keep our system of government adhering to the process of applying the law to the facts for the benefit of the People.


To date, I’ve not had a school district come back at me with a Prior Written Notice (“PWN”) pursuant to 34 CFR § 300.503 that says it is denying an evidence-based request because doing so is not practicable. Most of the PWNs I get when my requests for evidence-based interventions are being denied are full of Orwellian doublespeak that don’t say much of anything at all.


In my experience, when public officials use their letterhead to say a whole lot of nothing, politics are driving the process and not science or law. Also in my experience, arguing against these types of public agency responses requires the same approach as dealing individually with someone challenged by a personality disorder: stick to the facts and the rules, and don’t get sucked into an emotional tantrum being thrown by someone who doesn’t understand or care about facts or rules.


So, with all of this in mind, I’ve decided that instead of trying to go back and update old articles going back as far as eleven years to fit the current times, I’m just going to start over with our blog. In 2008, I wasn’t an educational psychologist and behavior analyst. In 2008, Endrew had not altered the legal meaning of FAPE. 


The landscape continues to shift as civil rights for all people continue to come under attack and historically disenfranchised persons, including those with disabilities, increasingly stand up to those attacks. American democracy is facing an unprecedented crisis in the face of open attempts to turn us into a fascist state based on misinformation campaigns intended to divide us as a people so that an elite minority can hoard resources at the expense of everyone else.


This is basically what I’ve been dealing with in special education since I became an advocate in 1991, so none of this is new to me; it’s just finally coming to a head on a national scale with global impact. At least, now, no one thinks I’m making things up when I tell them what I experience in special education because they see similar behaviors happening within the American government on a daily basis.


Being or becoming disadvantaged is no longer a “special interest” issue; almost every member of the general public is in the crosshairs of losing rights in one way or another, now. For those of us who have been giving a voice to exploited and neglected people with unheard voices for our entire careers, we suddenly now find ourselves arm-in-arm with people who previously thought they had nothing in common with us.


When being targeted is the one thing most of us have in common, why we are each being targeted becomes less relevant to the conversation. The ones doing the targeting become the minority and the rest of us become a unified majority. And, while there are definite threats to democracy in this country, right now, the true greatness and strength of American democracy is in its people and most Americans are standing up to the unfounded fear-mongering being promoted by those who are on the brink of losing their power over the rest of us.


The fact that people of color, people from the LGBTQA+ community, people with disabilities, people of various religious beliefs, people of low socioeconomic status, people who speak languages other than English, and people who have come here from other countries are all being targeted by the same minority of individuals makes clear that we have never been “special interests.” We’ve been the majority of the People all along and have more in common than the things that make us different.


So, while this blog is devoted to special education practices and solutions, it is within this larger landscape that we bring it to you as a piece of the puzzle. We encounter mixed issues of ethnicity, primary language, socioeconomic status, and disability. We encounter single parents and same-sex parents who face discrimination when they attempt to advocate for their children with special needs. We also encounter politically conservative parents who are shocked to see how they are treated once they attempt to advocate for their children with disabilities, finding themselves grappling to reconcile their conservative political beliefs against the violations of their children’s civil rights.


While the unmet needs of children with disabilities is the common thread from each of our families to the next, there is great diversity among the families we serve in every other regard, and that can’t be ignored. Being sensitive to all of the challenges that each family faces includes appreciating the unique gobsmacking epiphanies that each family experiences as it seeks appropriate special education interventions for its eligible children, which varies according to which “isms” are being applied to each family. 


It is the fact that “isms” of one or more kind are being applied to all of our families that unifies them, regardless of what otherwise makes them different. So, while we have to individualize our support for each of our families, individualization is what special education is all about and both science and law give us guidance as to how to make that happen.


Please look forward to our future posts as we build a new repository of advocacy guidance, policy updates, research developments, and other news that can help you as a parent, professional, and/or self-advocate to navigate the bureaucracy of special education in the United States. We are thinking of every family of children with special needs as we bring this content to you and look forward to re-engaging our audience with fresh new material.


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