Making Special Education Actually Work
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.

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.

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.

Advocate’s Insider: The Separation of Cognition from Autism

Advocate’s Insider: The Separation of Cognition from Autism

March 14, 2020



Welcome to Advocate's Insider, an online publication of KPS4Parents. KPS4Parents is a non-profit special education and disability resource organization. My name is Anne Zachry, and I'm our organization's CEO, as well as the host of this patron podcast. I have been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys representing individuals with disabilities since 2005, and an educational psychologist and behavior analyst since 2013.


Advocate's Insider is a patron-only program intended to assist special education and disability resource advocates around the United States develop their advocacy skills and increase their chances of achieving appropriate outcomes for the individuals with disabilities whose rights they work to protect. The content published on Advocate's Insider is based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues regarding special education and disability resource advocacy in the public sector.


None of the content on Advocate's Insider should be considered as formal legal advice. If you require formal legal advice, please seek the counsel of a qualified attorney. 


If you are a parent, educator, or activist looking to improve your knowledge and approaches to advocating for individuals with disabilities from a technical standpoint, then Advocate's Insider is an appropriate resource for you. Professional and volunteer advocates alike can always stand to improve their skills, and we seek to add to the body of resources available in this unique, specialized field.


Patron proceeds generated by Advocate's Insider are used to support our public education efforts via social media. Your patronage is genuinely appreciated and is used to help individuals with disabilities and their families throughout the United States through education and technical assistance.


If you are listening to this podcast, please be aware that there is a text-only transcript on the PodBean post for this podcast that includes hyperlinks to online resources that can serve as additional useful information. Whenever such a resource comes up in the course of the podcast, you'll hear a sound like a bell that cues you to where in the transcript you can find each link.



Today is March 13, 2020


This is Volume 1, Episode 3

The title of today's episode is, "The Separation of Cognition from Autism."


I recently had to testify in a special education due process hearing for one of my former students who has autism and severe speech/language delays. One of the arguments that the involved school district was trying to make was that my student's cognition was so low that his parents' expectations of what he could achieve in school were unrealistic and that they were just in denial about how intellectually disabled he really was.


The argument the school district was asserting was, and still is, disgusting because the school district's lawyer was attempting to twist scientific data to mean something it didn't, primarily with respect to cognition, in order to paint an inaccurate picture of a nonverbal child who lacked the means to contradict her. She was literally taking advantage of the fact that he was voiceless to misrepresent his situation to the judge.


The district's lawyer was making a technically weak argument and, if the judge realized what she was doing, it's only going to end up making her look pathetic on the record. Hopefully, my testimony was helpful in shutting her down. The hearing has only just recently ended and the decision hasn't come out, yet, so how helpful my testimony has been remains to be seen. 


Nonetheless, it got me to thinking about an issue that has come up more than once over the course of my career. It's one I've seen other experts, one mentor in particular, address on rare occasions in IEP meetings or from the witness stand, but I don't really hear people talking about it that much, otherwise.


This is a topic about which advocates should have a more robust knowledge to apply in the field. That realization has been informed by a previous realization that most people working for public education agencies often understand the nuances of this topic even less than parents, advocates, and attorneys, which was a point driven home once more in another case that I'm working right now for another autistic student who is nonverbal.


Pretty much most stakeholders in special education fail to understand the relationship between autism and cognition, to the degree it's currently understood. As advocates, it's our job to, among other things, promote the application of evidence-based practices supported by peer-reviewed research in the design and delivery of special education. It's what the IDEA requires and what professional ethics demand.


We can't promote what we don't know. What we do know is that the folks at the school districts usually don't know this stuff, either. That puts it on us as advocates to basically provide professional development services to the school district folks in the course of advocating for our students. 


It is so much easier to resolve things for a kid if you can spoon feed the correct answers to the district and just ask them to do it, than to expect the district to figure out a decent plan on its own, sometimes. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. Before I became an educational psychologist, I had to ask for school districts to provide things I knew they didn't know how to provide and them sue them for not delivering. That forced them to hire experts that they should have hired in the first place, but at a cost several times greater than it would have cost if they had just hired experts in the first place.


It's gotten much easier for me over time because, now, I'm the expert and I can just call it like I see it. I've pursued the education necessary to understand how to take all the multidisciplinary data and weave them together to accurately describe a student as an individual learner and create individualized programming around those identified needs.


I have also gained experience and pursued additional training to inform my knowledge of the legal requirements of special education, having provided paralegal support to attorneys in due process cases, federal district court appeals, and federal circuit court appeals. The only place I haven't provided paralegal support in a special education matter is the U.S. Supreme Court.


I realize I come at advocacy from a fairly unique perspective, but if you can develop your own advocacy skills enough to work in a similar fashion, even if you have to rely on other people who are experts to support your arguments, you can be equally effective. You just need to know enough of what the experts know to ask them the right questions so that everyone understands their explanations. If you're sitting in an IEP meeting with an expert, that's the best time to ask a million questions. Chances are, other people wanted to ask them, too, but were afraid to ask or didn't know how to quite formulate their questions to get at what they wanted to know.


Public education is institutionally biased from the outset and will allocate resources according to its own convenience rather than student need without realizing it. A school district is large enough of an institution to exist for its own benefit, in which students are the means to perpetuating the district. A lot of people become financially dependent on keeping the school district going such that it serves their financial purposes more than it serves those for whom it was created to serve.


I have seen few aspects of special education in which the science is so far disconnected from actual practice that it results in systemic failures harming a specific class of individuals, as I have with the measurement and interpretation of standardized, norm-referenced IQ tests as part of special education assessments. I have several hypotheses as to why such is the case, but for now I want to focus on the fact that this simply is the case, regardless of why, and we need to deal with it. Way too many people in special education have no idea how to use IQ scores in a scientifically valid way to drive IEP decisions.


It is the kids with autism, particularly those with comorbid speech/language delays, who can really get super screwed by this. This accounts for a whole lot of students for whom we all advocate, so I want to talk about the peer-reviewed research regarding what is known to date about cognition and autism, as well as the federal requirements for special education assessment, in this patron-only exclusive podcast. 


First, it has to be understood that autism and cognition both occur in the brain, but they are two separate things. Autism does not automatically result in disabling cognitive impairment, but it does impact cognition, sometimes in spectacular ways. It's not a question of whether autism has an impact on how someone thinks; it's a question of how it impacts the ways each person who has it thinks on an individual, case-by-case basis. 


Which gets me to a much subtler nuance of this issue: the grey-white matter junction. I'll try to sum this up as simply as possible because this is a complex area of neurological functioning and the details matter. First you have to understand what a neuron is and how it functions. Bear with me, those of you who already know this as I recap for those who don't.


A neuron is a nerve cell, any kind of nerve cell, and there are an unspeakable number of them throughout any human body. Neurons don't all look alike, but they have all the same kinds of parts that work in the same ways. The "torso" and "brain" of a neuron, if you will, makes up the main cell body and includes the nucleus. Sticking off of it in one direction are branches called dendrites that receive chemical signals from its neighboring neurons. Sticking off in the opposite direction are other types of branches called axons that carry outgoing messages to their tips, called axon terminal buttons, that, based on the messages being sent, release chemicals into the surrounding area to be picked up by the dendrites of its neighbors.


Neurons communicate with each other by releasing chemical messages and picking them up from each other. Neurons work together in nerve bundles and require each other in order to function. It's a naturally occuring gestalt in which the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. 


The grey-white matter junction of the brain is a space in which the axons of neuron bodies and dendrites located at the outermost edge of the grey matter of the brain reach out into and become part of the white matter of the brain. The grey-white matter junction is made up of specialized neurons that serve as the transition from the grey matter to the white matter. Cognition occurs in the grey matter, utilizing data passing through the white matter combined with pre-existing knowledge archived primarily in the grey matter. 


There aren't grey matter neurons and white matter neurons separated by a clean barrier that must be permeated. There are actual specialized nerve cells that are half grey and half white that bridge the transition. It is in this transition that autism is believed to occur.


In autistic individuals who have participated in neurological imaging studies, it has been observed that the grey-white matter junction is not as distinct as it is in typically developing individuals. It has also been observed that individuals with the genetic markers for autism have atypical proliferation, migration, and maturation of neurons, which appears to be happening in the subplates of the grey-white matter junctions of individuals with autism. (


The point, here, is that cognition does not occur in the grey-white matter junction where autism occurs. The grey-white matter junction is the link between the parts of the brain that control the body and the parts of the brain that actually think. The grey matter can be perfectly intact but influenced by white matter differences that rise to the level of defects if severe enough.


When the autism becomes severe enough, cognition may be still technically intact but functionally inaccessible, such that the individual functions as though cognition is impaired. This is one reason why trying to assess for cognition in individuals with autism can be so difficult. 


The complexity of it all is immense and I'm totally over-simplifying it here, but hopefully you get the basic idea that in neurotypical individuals, there is a more gradual transition between the grey and white matter than there is in autistic individuals. The gap between autistics and neurotypicals with respect to grey-white matter junction differences is widest in childhood and can close to varying degrees depending on the individual over the course of developmental maturation.


The narrowing of that gap in autistic individuals for whom grey-white matter junction differences present difficult, but not insurmountable, challenges can be facilitated through appropriately targeted instruction and therapies. The ability to accurately process incoming data and output in a manner that is effective in the immediate environment is highly sophisticated and the neurological resources that are necessary to make it happen for any individual are substantial.


When a person's neurology is such that the environment cannot be easily understood and/or the person is unable to act upon it in an effective manner, the person's very survival is threatened. At that point, what is otherwise just a difference in neurology becomes a disability. Disability occurs in degrees of severity and, because no two brains are alike, how such neurological defects manifest in one brain will differ from how they manifest in others.


Further, not all brain differences are impairments. Some are improvements. It is commonly known that, in general, individuals with autism often have strengths in visual-spatial processing. Studies are finding that autistic individuals often have areas of processing that are enhanced by atypical neuron proliferation, migration, and maturation. This is supported by research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the parts of the brain processing fluid intelligence tasks on both autistic and neurotypical individuals. (


If you've ever seen the movie, Temple Grandin, about the autistic PhD professor, animal husbandry expert, and world-renowned public speaker by the same name, the visual processing aspects of how she thinks is wonderfully illustrated through computer animation. Dr. Grandin has authored a number of books about living with autism, one of them titled, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, which describes Dr. Grandin's enhanced visual-spatial skills and experiences using them to navigate life, including excel at professional endeavors, while still dealing with the challenges of autism.


I met Dr. Grandin once at an event in which she was the keynote speaker and as totally autistic as she was, she was also totally confident and in control of her situation. I was impressed by her strength of character and ability to not just survive, build something amazing for herself and the rest of the world through her work using her highly unique brain to her advantage, and in a time with both women and people with neurological differences were generally exploited, abused, and neglected by society. She rather stood the Patriarchy on its ear just by being herself.


One of my favorite quotes from Jiddu Krishnamurthi is, "It's no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." I think of it every time I think of trail blazers like Dr. Grandin and, now, Greta Thunberg. Greta refers to her autism as a superpower. She is able to focus on climate change as a topic by way of autistic perseverative thought and ignore harassment by way of autistic pragmatic language differences. Being oblivious to social cues makes it easier to ignore haters and afford little weight to what they have to say. If all they have is emotional hyperbole that makes no logical sense, and they can't rebut her with facts, she has no reason to take them seriously.


The tendency towards being literal, which is very common among autistics, also comes with a tendency to not lie or see benefit in lying. As such, autistics aren't very good at engaging in denial when they encounter a problem that needs to be solved. They become singularly focused on solving it, if they have the necessary skills, or they perseveratively worry about it if they don't have the skills to solve it. 


At its most fundamental level, if you want to compare the human brain to a computer, the grey matter that makes up the cerebral cortex is a bunch of processors connected together and connected to and integrated with input and output devices by way of the white matter. The white matter routes and conveys incoming data from the sensory organs to various processing centers of the cerebral cortex, internally shared data among the processing centers of the cerebral cortex, and output data from the cerebral cortex driving communication and behavior to act upon the environment. Where the grey matter is made up of the processors, the white matter is the cabling and routers that connect the processors up to each other and to the sensory organs, and route data into, out of, and among the processors.


This is why we see so many autistic children with sensory processing differences, sometimes to a such a marked degree that they become sensory-avoidant and/or sensory-seeking in a way that interferes with living safely. The connectivity between auditory processing, language processing, speech production, reading, and written output goes all over the cerebral cortex, involving multiple processing centers. They rely on the white matter to convey their communications between and among each other. When the grey-white matter junction is compromised, they are challenged to do so. For some autistic learners, reading with comprehension can be an enormous challenge.


Unlike processing disorders, which generally occur in specific processing centers of the cerebral cortex, the processing centers can be perfectly intact in an autistic brain but unable to communicate effectively with other processing centers because of white matter differences that rise to the level of defects. There is an argument being made these days by the autistic community that their increasing numbers reflect that our species is trying to evolve a more rational and responsible version of itself, hence the Dr. Grandins an Greta Thunbergs out there.


Evolution involves a great deal of trial and error. If the argument being asserted by many in the autism community is true that their contribution to neurodiversity reflects an evolutionary leap that is currently in progress for our species, then the sheer breadth of the autism spectrum makes sense. Nature is indifferent and cruel in many ways. According to this theory, in an effort to achieve an improved version of ourselves, we are creating many new humans who are severely impaired rather than enhanced or are otherwise trapped in nervous systems that prevent them from communicating just how intact they otherwise are on the inside.


It's a spectrum disorder, so there is every degree of severity possible, the most extreme of which is disabling. For those individuals who are relatively only gently kissed by autism and their cognitive hardware is sufficient for accurately reading the environment and acting upon it, their autism is as Greta says: a superpower. These are the individuals with autism who are most likely to pass on their genetic material and contribute to humanity's evolution into a more rational, responsible version of itself than it has been to date.


Greta points out the very things that make her autistic and how they work to her advantage. She is also not without a sense of humor and the ability to throw shade. She's become famous for adopting language from a Tweet by President Trump in which he disparaged her as her profile description on Twitter, effectively mocking him with his own words. It was brilliant dry wit.


Greta is literally the child pointing out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. And, she's describing his Imperial Junk in no uncertain terms, just to be clear that we're all looking at the same thing. She's singularly focused, as any hero on an issue this big would have to be. She's not impressed by flattery. She has no motive or inclination to lie or sell out her cause.


Greta is unable to adhere to certain social norms, which are not healthy norms in the first place, so it gives her a social/emotional advantage over her neurotypical elders. She's not able to be suckered into a "keeping up with the Jones" mentality because it is immediately obvious to her for what it is, serves no useful purpose, is therefore stupid, and is automatically dismissed. It is counter to the outcome on which she is singularly focused, which is saving everybody, including the neurotypicals, from the consequences of the behaviors of the neurotypicals over the last century-and-a-half, which is destroying ecosystems and making the planet increasingly uninhabitable by our species in the long term.


Greta is a poor candidate for bribery. She is not well adjusted to a profoundly sick society, at all. Her literal way of interpreting everything cannot be appealed to with flowery compliments and gifts. She sees right through things like that. Social norms are largely about social manipulation, which is not something that comes naturally to many autistics. They may see how neurotypicals are behaving and understand what the social expectations are, but they may also fail to see logic in any of it, determine neurotypicals are primitive morons, and fail to take anything neurotypicals say very seriously. 


Humans say "please" and "thank you" as social lubricant to get what we want and maintain our social relationships, in addition to as a matter of respect. That's easy enough to learn. But, many people also say things that are not true to get what they want; lie to themselves about things that matter as a method of avoiding dealing with their problems; project their fantasies onto other people rather than appreciate other people for who they each are; and a host of other things that a literal, honest, autistic mind simply cannot do. 


The world needs minds like Dr. Grandin's and Greta's, who are unable to fall for a cockamamie story about golden threads being woven into a magic cloak for the Emperor that can only be seen by the competent. In the fable, no one could see this supposed cloak, but they didn't want to admit it because it could only supposedly be seen by people who were competent in their responsibilities and admitting not seeing it was presumably admitting incompetence.


A point driven home by this fable is that the Emperor and his subjects proved their incompetence by falling for the ruse rather than seeing right through it. They were willing to perpetuate a lie and facilitate a con job just to maintain the favorable opinions of others. They were also so dumb with fear that they were worried maybe the only reason they couldn't see the invisible cloak was because they really were incompetent and didn't want anyone to find out, lest they lose their positions and posts.


Self-deceit and self-doubt are very closely related. For this reason, autistic individuals perseveratively focused on a mission according to the facts and rules-based thinking are generally not likely to experience self-deceit or self-doubt. In a world in which maintaining appearances is more important than solving problems, the literal minds of autistics like Greta are incredulous at and stymied by the emotionally dysfunctional priorities of neurotypicals. Like small, but very well informed, children, autistics like Greta have never mastered the ability to engage in self-deceit and the facts speak for themselves, so concluding the Emperor is butt-naked is plainly obvious to them. 


It is that difference in the grey-white matter junction between autistics and neurotypicals that alters how data flows into, out of, and among the processing centers of autistic brains from that of neurotypicals. No norm-referenced IQ test is designed for those conditions. As such, no norm-referenced IQ test is entirely reliable when it comes to measuring cognition among individuals with autism. In many cases, norm-referenced IQ tests cannot be relied upon at all, particularly among autistics who also have language delays.


IQ tests are meant to measure what happens in the grey matter. They aren't designed to measure for grey-white matter junction differences among autistics compared to neurotypicals. 34 CFR Sec. 300.304 is significant with respect to these considerations. 


Norm-referenced IQ tests do not purport to measure grey-white matter junction functionality or language processing, but impairments in either or both can impact how an individual performs on a norm-referenced IQ test. In such instances, scores reflect the presence of autism and/or language impairment, which IQ tests do not purport to measure. When that happens, the scores cannot be used to describe intelligence because they describe something else.


Collectively, the regulations require that assessments be individualized to the student being assessed and that different kinds of tests be used to make sure the data is valid. There is also the provision for using adaptable testing methods rather than norm-referenced ones where possible, and that goes to what makes norm-referenced IQ tests so often inappropriate for use with autistic students.


Norm-referenced tests require every test-taker to take the measure under the same test conditions as every other test-taker in order for the scores to mean anything. The test-taker has to conform to standardized testing conditions. No modifications or accommodations are allowed. For many students, this prevents them from demonstrating what they actually know. They need accommodations in order for educators to get at their existing knowledge.


Criterion-referenced measures are more reliable in that regard and the regulations provide for these kinds of assessment tools. One such useful measure is the Southern California Ordinal Scales of Development (SCOSD)


There needs to be a great deal more professional development done among public school assessment personnel regarding the individualization of special education evaluations. In particular, there needs to be a tremendous amount of attention focused on how cognition is being measured and how the scores are being used to drive IEP decisions. If cognition is being underestimated on the basis of improper evaluations, then the student is being grossly educationally neglected.


Thank you for supporting our patron-only content and helping us benefit individuals with disabilities and their families throughout the United States. Please subscribe as a patron supporter to get automatic access to all the episodes of Advocate's Insider. If you have any questions about special education and disability resource advocacy, please email us at or post a comment to this podcast.


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Advocate’s Insider: Revisiting the “Pyramid of Retaliation” in the 21st Century

Advocate’s Insider: Revisiting the “Pyramid of Retaliation” in the 21st Century

March 3, 2020



Welcome to Advocate's Insider, an online publication of KPS4Parents. KPS4Parents is a non-profit special education and disability resource organization. My name is Anne Zachry, and I'm our organization's CEO, as well as the host of this patron podcast. I have been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys representing individuals with disabilities since 2005, and an educational psychologist and behavior analyst since 2013.


Advocate's Insider is a patron-only program intended to assist special education and disability resource advocates around the United States develop their advocacy skills and increase their chances of achieving appropriate outcomes for the individuals with disabilities whose rights they work to protect. The content published on Advocate's Insider is based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues regarding special education and disability resource advocacy in the public sector.


None of the content on Advocate's Insider should be considered as formal legal advice. If you require formal legal advice, please seek the counsel of a qualified attorney. 


If you are a parent, educator, or activist looking to improve your knowledge and approaches to advocating for individuals with disabilities from a technical standpoint, then Advocate's Insider is an appropriate resource for you. Professional and volunteer advocates alike can always stand to improve their skills, and we seek to add to the body of resources available in this unique, specialized field.


Patron proceeds generated by Advocate's Insider are used to support our public education efforts via social media. Your patronage is genuinely appreciated and is used to help individuals with disabilities and their families throughout the United States through education and technical assistance.


If you are listening to this podcast, please be aware that there is a text-only transcript on the PodBean post for this podcast that includes hyperlinks to online resources that can serve as additional useful information and to illustrate the points I'm making. Whenever such a resource comes up in the course of the podcast, you'll hear a sound like a bell that cues you to where in the transcript you can find each link.



Today is March 2, 2020


This is Volume 1, Episode 2

The title of today's episode is, "Revisiting the 'Pyramid of Retaliation' in the 21st Century."


Many years ago, rumor has it that there was a professional development conference for conservative public education administrators and their attorneys run by an organization that provides guidance to these individuals by way of professional publications, conferences, and trainings. This population of individuals has generally asserted since the passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children's Act (EAHCA) in 1975, which ultimately became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that the Act in any form places too onerous of a burden on the public education system.


These were the individuals who were successful in establishing the Rowley Standard in 1982, limiting the definition of "meaningful educational benefits" as a legal matter of FAPE, to a "basic floor of opportunity," and with the explicit understanding that true equal access was unachievable and, therefore, expecting it was unrealistic. They hobbled the Act by way of appealing to a Supreme Court made up of individuals who knew nothing of educational psychology, human development as a science, and what was legitimately achievable with the right resources in a classroom. The language from the resulting case law of that era described FAPE as not being the "Cadillac" of an education, but "a serviceable Chevy."


That is, until the Endrew F. decision in 2017, which raised the standard of defining "educational benefits" as a matter of FAPE as "appropriately ambitious" in light of each student's unique circumstances, meaning as close to grade-level or developmental norms as possible, depending on the age of the student. In the period of time that has passed since the Act was enacted in 1975 to now, a lot has changed.  Further, the current version of the Act requires the application of the peer-reviewed research to the design and implementation of IEPs on an individualized basis for each special education student. We're now basically talking about a serviceable Prius instead of a Tesla.


Not only has the peer-reviewed research revealed what is achievable when done right, society is evolving into a more feasible construct of individuals collaborating with each other towards common goals rather than competing with each other over resources. The turmoil our species is currently experiencing is, in my opinion, a matter of social and behavior analytic psychology that was both inevitable and predictable. 


Piaget's Stages of Development is also a model that works for me to express the concepts that I'm trying to communicate, here, so bear with me as I go down the rabbit hole of a particular theorist's lingo. The real divide in our species, today, isn't between conservatives and liberals, though it can look that way on the surface as a result of correlations mistaken for causative relationships by those who are not skilled at discerning correlation from causation. That is something mastered with respect to physically observable phenomenon at the Piagetian Stage of Concrete Operations, and on an abstract level necessary for adult-level problem-solving and critical thinking at Formal Operations.


Mastering the discernement between correlation and causation using things you can see, touch, manipulate, and operate, on a physical level, gives you metaphors and analogies that help you understand abstract concepts later on, which is why Concrete Operations must always be sufficiently mastered before you can think at the level of Formal Operations. For example, the idea that making decisions on the basis of emotions is like building a house out of smoke, but making decisions on the basis of facts is like building a house out of bricks is driven home by the references to physical equivalents that illustrate the abstract concept being explained about adult-level decision-making.


Formal Operations are triggered by the last brain growth spurt of childhood, the onset of which occurs at puberty. This is why teenagers suddenly think they know everything; a part of their brain has come online that allows them to think abstractly and start putting two and two together to arrive at four on their own, which hadn't occurred to them before. It's purely the result of a part of the brain that wasn't previously being used coming online and suddenly adding a way of thinking that the child didn't have before.


Teens also start to see through all of the BS being put out there by the adults around them and can stop trusting what adults say if exposed to too many assertions that contradict what can be observed, which has more to do with where the species is developmentally, right now, than with individual development, per se, though it's fair to conclude that individual development is inextricably intertwined with the development of the species as a whole. This becomes particularly troublesome when their parents have not achieved Formal Operations, themselves. That's a topic worthy of detailed discussion of its own, but I'll save that for another time.


Bottom line with respect to today's topic is that developmentally intact teenagers have adult cognitive hardware but lack the experience to inform it's proper use. Each developmental stage is bled into from the one before it, with some skills emerging at the higher level at the same time that skills at the lower level become mastered. Formal Operations creeps up on those who achieve it, slowly coming online and eventually freaking them out as they proceed through adolescence. Some folks never finish the stage. Some folks never make it to Formal Operations in the first place. These considerations go to today's topic.


Everybody moves forward through the same stages in the same order, but not at the same pace. Everybody's developmental profile is unique as a result of genetic, experiential, and environmental factors. No two people have identical brains or developmental profiles, just like fingerprints and retinal patterns. We're that way by design; it's the design that works to give our consciousnesses living machines to occupy and act upon this physical reality as it currently exists, which is also ever-evolving.


Darwin explained that environmental factors drive the development of physical and mental traits in each species over the course of its evolution. Skinner took that realization one step further and determined that environments drive the development of specific behaviors in individuals over the course of their lifetimes. We do what we do because it's the most successful way we know how to act upon our individual environments, whatever they may be. We are physically configured as we are because, on the average, how we are built has become the most efficient design to date to act upon the types of environments in which we live.


The evolution of a species can only occur over extended periods of time and is driven by reproduction; each new birth is an opportunity to improve upon the design. There is trial and error involved. Not every design change works out, hence fatal genetic disorders and traits that make one more vulnerable to unsafe or unhealthy environmental factors that increase the chances of death. It's a process.


The evolution of an individual follows a predictable path but at a pace in each area of development unique to that individual. It, too, is a process. Certain ways of thinking have to be mastered before a person can master more complex types of thinking. What we learn and master is connected to what we already knew and had mastered at the time.


Knowledge is cumulative and we make sense of new information by associating it with the things we already know. We become more skilled at assimilating new information in with what we already know as we age, if we develop in a healthy way. Not everybody develops in a healthy way, however.


Regardless of whether someone is doing harm out of incompetence or malice, it doesn't change that harm is being done. Nonetheless, the people engaging in harmful behavior are doing their best to function successfully in the environments in which they are doing harm. They're doing what they think they have to do, and that's a hard pill to swallow, sometimes. This is where their thought processes took them and, in their minds, it was the right course of action for them to take at the time. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, they will see the error of their ways, but in the moment, what they had to do seemed very clear to them.


It's hard to be empathetic of someone abusing their authority under the color of public office to intimidate a parent, for example, because they are panicking over mistakes they've made and for which they could be held accountable and they are trying to protect their own interests without regard to how their behaviors impact other people. These are individuals who lack perspective-taking abilities and are socially/emotionally underdeveloped.


Very often, their cognition may be a little higher than their social/emotional functioning, but often not by much. It's been my experience that there are a lot of people who have learned how to socially engineer situations up to a point, but when it comes right down to it, they have weak abstract reasoning skills and are knee-jerk emotional decision-makers. Deductive reasoning escapes them, but they understand what forms need to be filled out for anything you might need and what their respective timelines are.


It's important to understand that cognitive development can only speak to so much of a person's overall development. It's one piece of a very complex puzzle and it's critical to other areas of development, but not the single most important consideration. All of it together is the most important consideration; each area of development is worthy of its own detailed exploration when you're trying to get to the bottom of what is going on with a student with special needs, and it's no different when we examine the behaviors of the adults involved in the IEP process.


Cognition, communication, social/emotional functioning, sensorimotor development, and physical development are all areas that have to be considered when looking at an individual's overall development. Nobody is evenly developed across each domain. Each domain has subcategories of developmental areas that make it up, which each develop at their own respective rates.


The unspeakable millions of developmental factors, which could each be measured if we devoted enough time to measuring them, emerge at their own respective paces, creating a unique portrait of each person. If graphed, no two profiles would be identical.


It is entirely possible for someone to have intact cognition and communication skills, but have social/emotional development that is way below the norm. That accounts for most of the men I dated when I was younger and a fair number of my redneck relatives. It also accounts for a fair number of the individuals responsible for denying a FAPE to my students over the years.


I've come to realize over the years that far too many people entrusted with great responsibilities lack the cognitive hardware to conceptualize those responsibilities and, as a result, fail to properly attend to them. When it comes out that they did something wrong, they play victim and/or try to cover it up. When what logically should have happened is pointed out relative to what they actually did, they become angry and defensive rather than remorseful and conciliatory. This causes them to do foolish, awful things to other people, who are more collateral damage in the pursuit of a self-serving purpose than the intended targets, but harm is harm.


The individuals in public education who have been undermining the Act since it passed in 1975 concocted elaborate strategies to undermine its legal protections afforded to students with disabilities and their parents. In the Rowley years, these strategies were playbook consistent from one school district to another. And one day during the Rowley era, at some gathering of what today would be considered Alt-Right individuals employed in public education administration and their attorneys, the "Inverted Pyramid of Retaliation" was born.


Inverted Pyramid of Retaliation


I've included a graphic of the Inverted Pyramid of Retaliation in the text-only portion of this post, which I borrowed from Wrightslaw and its article: "Retaliation: A Primer." I won't belabor everything that Wrightslaw has shared on this subject. You can read its article for more information. It was actually originally published by a chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) in Sacramento after it was leaked from the aforementioned Rowley era professional development conference of school administrators and their lawyers to this parent  and child advocacy group.


The outrage on the part of the involved public school administrators and their attorneys on having their conference "infiltrated" (the pyramid strategy could have just as easily been disclosed by a horrified a whistleblower from the inside) was intended to drown out the outrage of parents and taxpayers who were disgusted by this behavior. It was a black eye on the public education system when it came out that public servants and their taxpayer-funded attorneys were organizing like this against their constituents.


But, it only got traction among parents of students with special needs and their advocates and attorneys, at the time. It was still a time when disability rights was considered a special interest issue instead of a basic human rights issue. All of this political drama was relatively fresh when I first started as a lay advocate in 1991.


So, now, here I am in 2020 and I am still dealing with this. Last month, a new family came to us looking for help. Their child had been assessed for special education eligibility, but their school district determined that he did not qualify. It didn't sound right to the parents, so they went looking for help and found us. In early February, shortly after disagreeing with the school district at an IEP meeting in late January, their school district suspended their son, who had never gotten into trouble before, after another child aggressed against him and he responded defensively; the other student who initiated the incident was not suspended.


We were hired and I gave notice of representation of February 11. I reviewed the initial evaluation report, which was a tragedy of errors, and requested IEEs on February 12. On the pretense of sharing a possible homework solution with the mom, the male school psychologist who had produced said tragedy of errors scheduled a meeting with the mom on February 18. When she arrived at the school, the male principal of the school greeted her at the door and escorted her to the school psychologist's office where he and the male RSP teacher were waiting for her. The female special education program coordinator assigned to that campus was nowhere to be seen.


Once they had the mom alone in the room with them, the school psychologist proceeded to describe his "sure fire" homework solution, which turned out to be a behavioral strategy for kids who refused to do homework as a matter of poor parent/child relations, not anything to address the fact that her 5th grader can't read with comprehension and doesn't understand the reading material being assigned to him as homework.


The school psychologist already knew this was the concern about homework from conducting the evaluation and participating as an IEP team member. He already knew his "sure fire" method for getting homework done wasn't applicable to this family's situation.


It was a trap. The school psychologist tricked the mother into coming into his office, whereupon she was alone with three men suddenly pressuring her into signing the IEP document to which she had already signed her disagreement. 


Take this in for a minute: three men who are public servants acting under the color of public office, lured a woman into a situation in which she was alone with them in a room wherein they attempted to coerce her into acquiescing on a matter of consent. That's pretty rapey. It's entirely inappropriate. I nearly ruptured a blood vessel when she told me what had happened, afterwards.


There is no way, as a behavior analyst, I can follow the events as she described them and not just crawl in my skin. Any woman who has ever had the misfortune of being sexually assaulted and/or harassed knows the feeling all to well when that unspoken threat of male dominance is being made.


I've already filed a Uniform Complaint with the District. I am beyond outraged. Just as the world starts to finally become more feminist, a bunch of knuckle-dragging throwbacks pop up and do something as outrageous and idiotic as this. I haven't even met this family face-to-face, yet, and a whole "Jerry Springer shit show" is already going down.


I have it on good authority that there may very well be a female contingent within this same school district that is sick and tired of the good ol' boy politics in this district's outdated male-dominated cowboy culture that will be quietly cheering us on and greasing the wheels in our favor from within if we push the issue. They may have felt powerless to do anything, but I'm not them. I don't answer to the school district. If they think I can do something as an outsider bringing on the accountability, it's my understanding that they are unlikely to stand in my way.


I can exclaim the Emperor is wearing no clothes. And, just to be sure people know I'm not making it up, I can describe his Imperial junk in detail so they know I am seeing the same exact things that they are seeing. On the record. To which I can later testify as a fact and expert witness if any of it ever goes to trial.


The school district has screwed itself so badly, so this is just a process playing out for me. It's not that difficult of a fight. These bozos are their own worst enemies. 


I don't know how the dad hasn't come out of his skin and throttled the sorry lot of them. I have to give him credit for holding it together and taking the higher road. I just have visions of how my dad would react if he found out three guys had ganged up on my mom like that and it always boils down to me and my sister having to come up with bail money or take a trip to the emergency room.


It's not like my dad is uncouth. He's a retired engineering professional. But, it that was my mom, my dad would likely either transform into a gladiator and take heads, or stroke out from the effort of restraining himself and walking the higher road. 


It takes an enormous strength of character for any couple to stand firm in the face of that kind of inappropriate threatening behavior. I'm nothing but impressed with how this family is handling this situation. Talking about getting to know each other right away. We've still not met in person and yet we've handled something of this magnitude, so far, as a team, with dignity and professionalism. 


IEEs are now agreed-to and pending. The school district now has just under 60 days to investigate the Uniform Complaint that we filed. We've asked the district to revisit the gender sensitivity training, if any, provided to its staffs. I've made the record as an expert and advocate for the family as to the overarching big problems with its initial evaluation of their child and indicated my willingness to testify as a fact and expert witness to all of its shortcomings, if the matter were to go to hearing. That was articulated in the request for IEEs at public expense that I submitted and which were subsequently granted. 


The LEP conducting the psychoeducational IEE is a former school psychologist of this same district. She left because of the cowboy culture, worked for five more years for the local county office of education, before getting her license and going into private practice conducting IEEs. She's amazing. I cannot wait to see what she has to say about this case, once she sees that initial psychoeducational evaluation. I already know in advance she will be just as appalled as I was when I first saw it. I also know she will throw down for this kid and figure out what is really going on. She rocks. I also got a great SLP to do the speech/language IEE.  


Now, it's just a matter of getting the IEEs done and reconvening the IEP team to review their results, revisit the question of eligibility, and create an appropriate IEP for the student, presuming he qualifies. Once we have valid data, if it indicates that he's eligible, we can use it to develop an appropriate individualized program of instruction for him. After that, the question becomes whether the district should have figured this out on its own a long time ago and, if so, if the parents want to pursue compensatory remedy via due process.


Given the egregiousness of what has already gone on and been documented thus far, while it's never impossible that a case like this will go to trial, it is very highly unlikely to go to trial because of the misconduct it would expose to a trier of fact. Certainly with respect to meaningful parent participation in the IEP process, there is an enormous FAPE claim arising from the February 18 informal meeting outside of the IEP process; without the mom's representation aware of the meeting or present, three men from the school district attempted to pressure her into signing a legally significant IEP document to which her disagreement had already previously been documented and confirmed by her signature.


There is no way that can be construed as meaningful parent participation in the IEP process. It was meant to circumvent the IEP process and deny meaningful parent participation. The total ewwey creep factor aside, it was procedurally noncompliant, and a procedural violation of the parent's right to meaningful participation in the IEP process is an automatic denial of FAPE, regardless of the appropriateness of the IEP produced without the parent's meaningful participation.


That's a critical thing to understand in a situation like this. It potentially creates more than one type of legal claim, and whether or not the IEP is any good isn't part of the legal analysis when it comes to the denial of FAPE arising from a denial of meaningful parent participation in the IEP process.


The point in the "meaningful parent participation" claim arising here is that the parent was prevented from participating meaningfully in the IEP's construction such that the IEP document asserts things she and her husband do not believe to be true, accurate, or appropriate. Further, she had her rights regarding informed consent to the IEP document infringed upon by the school district, by way of its idiot goon squad that tried to pressure her into signing the IEP outside of the IEP process after luring her to the school to talk about a homework solution they already knew in advance to be inapplicable to her child's situation.


Regardless of whether this student turns out to be eligible for special education or not, because the initial evaluation process is part of the IEP process, the parents have a protected right to meaningful participation in the IEP process for so long as the IEP process continues to be open and ongoing. They did not consent to the initial IEP that stated their son was not eligible for special education. They disagreed with that assertion and withheld their consent to it, as is their right.


Until that dispute gets resolved, which involves IEEs at this point, the IEP process is still open and ongoing, they continue to have a protected right to meaningful parent participation in the IEP process. The school district has no excuse for the stunt it pulled with having three of its male personnel lure the mom into a room alone under false pretenses and then use it as an opportunity to pressure her to sign a legally significant IEP document outside of the IEP process. As you can probably tell, my blood still starts to boil whenever I think about it. It's hard for me to not perseverate on it, these days, honestly. 


I'd like to think that these kinds of things are rare, but I'm in Southern California, supposedly one of the most progressive places on Earth, and, yet, here we are dealing with this kind of barbaric behavior from public servants against their own constituents, targeting children with disabilities and their mothers. Gross! Just so gross! I can only imagine what must be going on in the Midwest, inner cities, and rural Deep South. If it's this bad here, and it's always worse in those places, the probabilities churn my stomach.


These strategies used by old-timers in public education to undermine parent advocacy efforts are not extinct, yet. But, we can't allow them to continue to be reinforced or they will continue. The school district cannot achieve its intended ends of intimidating parents and getting them to acquiesce on matters of consent to legally significant documents that affect their children's development and future, or it will succeed at undermining the intent of the Act and harming children systematically without consequence. It's already happening here, obviously, or this family wouldn't have become caught up in it. 


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California Charter Schools & Special Education

California Charter Schools & Special Education

February 14, 2020


Every state has its own rules and regulations regarding charter school organization, configuration, and authorization. In California, charter schools are public schools that take Average Daily Attendance (ADA) dollars away from the school districts their students would otherwise attend. It is unlawful for charter schools in California to charge tuition to their students for this reason.


Like all other public schools in California, charters are obligated to abide by the same standards of compliance as any traditional local education agency (LEA) with respect to civil rights and special education law. While charters often like to think of themselves as "schools without rules," that really isn't true.


The truth is that some regulations are made easier for charter schools in California, while others are exactly the same as those that school districts are required to follow. The problem is that a lot of charter operators and their contracted vendors either don't know that, or they know it but don't care.


Understanding the charter rules for a single state, much less all states and territories, is confusing enough. Recognizing the abuse of those rules can be even harder for parents of students with special needs who require accommodations as a matter of civil rights, which can include an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In my experience, trying to enforce procedure in California's charter school universe usually ends in inter-agency political backstabbing and lawsuits.


To understand charter school compliance versus the climate of charter school politics in California, one needs examples. The one that most recently prompted my return to this issue was recently covered by The Camarillo Acorn in its February 7, 2020 article, "Online charter school faces laundry list of violations."


Online charter schools are even more challenged to comply with education law than brick-and-mortar charter schools. That said, for the chartering LEA in this particular case, Pleasant Valley School District (PVSD), to squawk about a lack of legal compliance on the part of the school to which it issued a charter, that being Peak Prep Pleasant Valley, is a grievous instance of the pot calling the kettle "black." 


I can imagine Peak Prep's violations must be pretty egregious for PVSD to make a fuss about them in the media, and there is truly a fuss to be made as you can see from the article. But, the reality is that the Doctrine of Unclean Hands, at least as I understand it as a lay person, may preclude PVSD from saying a whole lot, which is possibly why it's addressing this situation in the media rather than a courtroom. So basically, black pots throwing stones at black kettles in glass houses, to mix metaphors.


I've had four cases from my advocacy caseload in the last couple of school years that have required due process filings, and three of them have been in PVSD. I have an active caseload that averages 20 students throughout the State, mostly in Southern California, at any given time.  These are raw statistics; take them for what you will.  But, to think these amoral jamokes are concerned about anything with this charter situation other than going down with the ship is foolish.


Read the article and you'll see there isn't a single, solitary concern expressed by PVSD for the welfare of students, parents, and community members. The only sentiment expressed is on behalf of allegedly overworked and underpaid district administrators who don't have time to clean up messes made by their charters. Not that imposing on district personnel to do what a granted charter requires of the charter school's staff is okay, but I get the same arguments from PVSD in response to asking it to give a kid with disabilities a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). 


This district gets itself into enough trouble on its own. A visibly non-compliant charter that won't get its act together, for which the district is ultimately responsible as the chartering LEA, can only shine a stronger spotlight of scrutiny upon the chartering district. In California, the chartering LEA is ultimately responsible for the conduct of its chartered entities.


In special education in California, if you have to file a compliance complaint or due process request for a charter school student, you have to name the complaint against the chartering LEA, not the actual charter school. This is because the LEA is ultimately responsible for the charter school's procedural compliance with special education law and providing FAPE to its special education students, regardless of how the charter school configures its special education services.


In California, when it comes to special education, charters can either be "schools of the district" for the purposes of special education, in which case the chartering LEA delivers all special education, or charters can be "LEAs" for the purpose of special education and take care of it themselves. Even if they organize themselves as LEAs for the purposes of special education, there is supposed to be oversight by the chartering LEA to make sure its obligations are met, but I've never seen that happen proactively. It's always a knee-jerk fit of hysterics on the part of the chartering LEA that had no idea what the charter school people were doing until a complaint came over the transom.


Based on the sordid history of charters in California thus far, I'd think that any school board reviewing a charter application that claims to organize the school as an LEA for the purposes of special education would exercise ten times the scrutiny as it would if the charter application sought to remain a school of the district for special education purposes. In my experience, the charters organized as LEAs for special education are only organized that way to keep the eyes of their chartering LEA out of their business.


Organizing the charter as an LEA for the purposes of special education is, in my experience, an effort to reduce oversight, not increase compliance. I've heard more than one charter operator claim over the years that they didn't want to be taken down by a non-compliant school district's special education department, so they chose to do it themselves, but then they have fewer resources than their chartering LEAs and can't actually deliver.


These are the charters that tell parents to take their kids with special needs back to their districts of residence instead of ponying up the resources to actually deliver on functioning as an LEA for the purposes of special education. Nothing prevents a charter from going to its chartering LEA and saying, "We have a unique situation and need your help," to address unusually demanding special education services, such as full-time nursing support for a medically fragile student, for example, but I've never seen a charter organized as an LEA for special education purposes do anything of the sort.


When you as a parent are jumping ship to a charter school because your kid with special needs is already getting shafted by your district of residence, this really doesn't help you out. Parents changing schools to avoid having to litigate their children's special education cases often find themselves tumbling over the edge of the frying pan and falling into a blazing fire. It's usually a lateral move at best, and a downgrade at worst. See our previous post, "Parents Who 'School-Hop' Risk Making Things Worse," for more on that.


However, PVSD seems to be the one shining the light on Peak Prep, here, which in my experience, usually means there is a fair amount of misdirection going on. By acting as the accuser, PVSD is diverting eyes away from its initial decision to charter Peak Prep in the first place. The last thing any school district wants, including this one, is an official inquiry into how they conduct their business, so when a charter draws this kind of attention, it's usually not good for the LEA that issued the charter.


But, it's not like Peak Prep's organizers' questionable history was unknown or that the quality of the charter application wasn't apparent at the time it was made. To quote PVSD's superintendent, "... the cast of characters is not new by any stretch .... The same group has done this before. They should and do know better." I say the same thing to myself every time I help an attorney draft language for a due processing pleading against PVSD on behalf of a child with disabilities.


The District's hypocrisy, here, is absolutely wretch-worthy, for sure, but this whole public display over proper education agency conduct is critically informative, and voters should be paying close attention to it. While the PVSD/Peak Prep situation is just one more log on the blazing fire of charter school politics in California, it's also a loud message for voters in Camarillo who are looking at the school board and wondering what it thought it could gain for the local community by chartering an online charter school in the current charter climate. Based on the behaviors of other districts, chartering online schools is about generating charter fees from students in other communities, not improving the options for local families.



There are two directions in which this story takes my mind, both of which are relevant and equal in importance. First, there is the litigation of the charter school wars that played out in the Santa Clarita Valley a couple of years ago. But, also, there is a privately owned outfit based out of the San Diego area that claims to help charter schools comply with special education law. In my experience, that's not actually what they do. When we start getting into the history of this issue, you will see San Diego come back up again later in this discussion.


First, I have to point out what happened in the Santa Clarita Valley, citing the publicly available evidence, but also sharing some first-hand information. That matter involved Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District (AADUSD) as the chartering LEA and Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts, and Sciences (AEALAS) as the charter school, which has no website because it went out of business due to fiscal insolvency at the end of the 2017-18 school year.


During the period of the Santa Clarita Valley charter school debacle, one of the students on my caseload was an AEALAS student, and nothing in the articles I can find online will ever come close to describing the hell that student and his family went through. All of the articles online are about fiscal mismanagement, which aren't untrue, but none of them speak to the horrific special education violations that were going on. We had to involve an attorney who, over several years, had to file for due process against AADUSD for AEALAS's improper conduct on multiple occasions.


The Santa Clarita Valley story is revealing and opens up many lines of inquiry for voters of all stripes. These issues affect the lives of our children, families, communities, and public education officials throughout the State. One of the most informative articles I've seen on that whole mess is, "How a tiny California school district sparked calls for a charter crackdown," by


Rather than belabor all of it here, I encourage you to read the article. The infographic it includes is incredibly helpful. While it doesn't go into details about the special education issues per se, they aren't left ignored. The charter's inadequacies with respect to special education planning briefly identified in the article played out into absolute travesties in real life, before AEALAS ultimately closed down.


For example, none of the articles mention the AEALAS official who drank too much at his place of worship one night early during the school's first year, and basically told everyone there, most of whom were AEALAS charter school families, that our student's special education program was going to bankrupt the charter school and close its doors in the first year. This prompted the other charter parents from the same place of worship to send anonymous hate mail (signed with simply "Albert Einstein parents") to our student's family telling them they should pull out so his special education program wouldn't cost all their kids their charter school. So, way to go, religious people, for scapegoating a handicapped child to cover corrupt charter administrative fiscal mismanagement.


Clearly, no one had explained to the drunken administrator's constituents that categorical special education dollars can only be spent on special education costs, and none of that money could be spent on general education students in the first place. Our kid came with extra money above and beyond the ADA dollars that all students bring to a charter or LEA on a per-pupil basis, specifically to defray his special education costs.


What was really happening was that AEALAS was financially mismanaged from the start. That's why it couldn't get chartered by the six districts and two county offices of education to which it had applied before AADUSD granted it a charter. So they targeted a kid with costlier than normal special education needs, blamed the lack of funding on him, and sicced a pack of misinformed, emotionally underdeveloped adults on him and his family. It was an act of misdirection to make the charter's supporters think AEALAS was otherwise financially solvent all but for our student's special education program, when the evidence is pretty clear that it never was financially solvent at all.


Our anti-bullying efforts had to start with the adults at AEALAS, not the students. A non-public agency (NPA) bowed out early on and refused to do further business with AEALAS because the assistant principal at that time refused to abide by the scientifically designed behavior plan created for our student by the NPA, preferring instead to tackle him to the ground and scream in his face (our student was 7 at the time). He then attempted to treat the NPA's professional staffs in much the same way when they tried to get the charter to use positive behavioral intervention strategies, instead.


After the NPA's Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) tried to explain the science of what they were trying to do, the assistant principal became verbally abusive of them and physically threatening. He scared the crap out of them, actually. They took the matter to their NPA's ethics committee, which wrote a letter withdrawing from service on the basis of AEALAS's ethics violations, of which the NPA refused to be a part. I've never seen anything like it before or since in my entire career.


The real issue was cost. An NPA-designed and -implemented behavior program isn't cheap, though it's a heck of a lot cheaper than a lawsuit, and the taxpayers had already funded it. AEALAS was just woefully fiscally mismanaged; it was all about playing games with taxpayer monies provided for the purpose of educating children - a point that keeps getting lost in all the inter-agency infighting that's going on.


Also helpful, and linked-to in the article, is a report published by the California State Auditor in October 2017, in which the players in the Santa Clarita mess featured prominently, titled, "Charter Schools: Some School Districts Improperly Authorized and Inadequately Monitored Out‑of‑District Charter Schools." I mean, they don't even wait until the opening summary of their report; they call it all out in the title.


You would think that other school districts in the State would have taken better notice of these developments and the outcomes they've produced. Maybe, however, that's one compelling reason why PVSD is reacting so strongly, now. If so, I have to give PVSD some credit for dealing with the situation within less than a year of issuing the charter, even if it does add to the smarmy politics of the issue.


These things, among many others, need to be sorted in public education. Ideally, PVSD wouldn't have issued a charter to an outfit capable of performing this poorly in the first place, but second best is admitting your mistake before it's too far gone, which PVSD appears to be doing, now.


Secondly are my concerns about the bad things creeping out the San Diego area with respect to charter school non-compliance with special education law. These charter violations place chartering LEAs in violation, whether the LEAs realize it or not.


In the PVSD/Peak Prep matter, one of the players in the current matter from the charter school was previously employed by another charter school that was shut down last year following charges filed against the owners of its parent organization, A3 Education, for pocketing $50M in taxpayer funds by the San Diego district attorney's office. For more information on that, see "How an alleged charter school conspiracy netted $50 million."


And, here's where it gets super creepy/interesting, depending upon your point of view. If you look on the Peak Prep website, it opens up by telling you that enrollment is closed. I would imagine so, because another page on the site lists all of the schools shut down by the court-appointed Receiver following the A3 lawsuit.


Now, supposedly, Peak Prep has nothing to do with A3, which is the company busted in the $50M charter scam. But, the Peak Prep Pleasant Valley principal, Shalen Bishop, is listed as the principal of University Prep, which is one of the schools listed as closed on the Peak Prep site. It and the other schools listed are A3 schools.


So, if that case isn't related to Peak Prep, why is that information on their site? That creates a link between shenanigans in the San Diego area to what's happening in PVSD. This supports PVSD's superintendent's previously quoted statement about this particular "cast of characters" having done this before and knowing better.


But, it gets richer. Also in the San Diego area is a privately owned company called Special Education Assistance and Technical Support (SEATS). SEATS doesn't have a website. The closest thing I could find was the LinkedIn profile for the wife of the husband/wife team that own and operate SEATS. There are also some job listing sites that come up when you do a search for SEATS, indicating that the agency is looking to hire resource specialists and speech-language pathologists.


But applicants be warned, SEATS reportedly does not cover travel time or mileage to dispatch their special education staffs all over Kingdom Come to serve students in independent studies and online charters. Even if a school is virtual, if a special education student of such a school still needs 1:1 specialist support to participate in instruction, or otherwise needs specialist services in person, the law requires the school to meet the needs of the child, not expect the child to warp themselves to fit the charter school's pedagogy. The whole point of special education is to individualize the program to meet the unique needs of the student.


SEATS has a reputation for making special education service decisions on the basis of how much they are willing to spend rather than individual student need. They also have a reputation of short-paying their vendors and speaking to them disrespectfully in IEP meetings and/or screaming at them outside of the meetings if they dare to recommend anything SEATS hadn't already approved for expenditure in advance of the meeting.


Needless to say, none of SEATS's employees are in a union of any kind. It's also not a coincidence that the teachers' unions in California are backing current efforts in Sacramento to take on this whole charter mess. Most of the charters in California, virtual or otherwise, do not have unionized certificated personnel, which has contributed to high turnover rates and disclosures among professionals about what they have been experiencing.


In the course of developing this post, I spoke with a colleague still employed by a virtual charter and she's just waiting for the State to come after her employer. All of the virtual charters are apparently starting to freak out because of all the accountability that is now coming their way. While she needs a job, she is also morally outraged by what she sees on a daily basis.


The stress of working for this charter is affecting her health and she has no union to turn to, but she also recently had to take her local school district to due process on behalf of her own child with special needs and it's not like they're going to hire her to work for them, after that. I've received similar feedback regarding work-related stress from former contractors of SEATS over the years that mirror what my colleague at the virtual charter was expressing to me the other day.


SEATS alleges to help charter schools comply with the special education regulatory requirements, but I've seen them mostly help charter schools try to dodge the special education regulatory requirements. SEATS personnel have been alleged to tell families that the charter school they chose cannot support their children's special education needs because they don't offer "those" kinds of services, so the families need to go back to their regular school districts.


The owners of SEATS once emailed me while they were on a cruise to tell me that the charter school in the case we were discussing didn't have the money to pay for the services we were requesting. Forget that the charter was paying SEATS to make sure they were provided.


As best as I understand it, SEATS basically tells its charter school clients, "Give us your entire special education budget for the year, and we'll make sure you don't get in trouble." However, the owners pay themselves out of that money, they have multiple charter clients, and they go on a whole lot of trips and cruises while kids with disabilities go without special education services that SEATS is supposed to provide, but "can't" because their charter clients don't have the money to pay for them.


From what I've seen, it's not that SEATS is trying to keep charter schools from making mistakes; it's that SEATS is participating in and profiting from the same charter money scams that are going on all over the State to hide mistakes, if not outright corruption, from authorities. They simply occupy the special education niche within this whole shameful legislative disaster.


One of the other charter systems being scrutinized, now, is the Inspire chain of charter schools. I had a student on my caseload a year or two ago who was an Inspire student. His online/independent study program was chartered by none other than AADUSD. Inspire also has programs chartered in the San Diego area, where the A3 $50M matter was tried. Now Inspire is under scrutiny for, among other things, lack of transparency, and I'm not the least bit surprised.


Like most of my other special education students accessing in-home instruction through independent study and/or online instruction, my Inspire student's situation wasn't about school of choice. The brick-and-mortar setting wasn't accessible to this student because of his disabilities, making his living room the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) in which he could receive and benefit from instruction. He had previously been in an independent study charter that used SEATS for special education and, when that didn't work out, they went to Inspire.


When things get so extreme that instruction in the home is the only way for a student to access education in a regular school district, you get a doctor's note stating that it's medically inadvisable for the student to attend a regular school and the IEP placement can be changed to home/hospital. The only placement more restrictive is a 24/7 residential facility with a school on its grounds. But, because every kid's living room is the general education classroom in an online or independent study program, it's not considered restrictive at all.


Because the general education "classroom" and special education "classroom" are the same thing in an online or independent study program, trying to write an IEP for a kid in such a program is generally a nightmare of technicalities and questions of procedure. Then there are the fights over where special education and related services will be provided.


Even though school districts will hire staffs to provide in-home services as needed to facilitate access to instruction, almost every online and independent study program I've ever encountered refuses to send anyone to the home for any special education purpose other than assessment, and even then, sometimes not. So, even if you've got a kid whose disabilities make it impossible to get them to participate in instruction and they need in-home BCBA support to overcome that behavioral challenge, most independent and online charters won't even think of sending over a BCBA or will only do it upon threat of complaints or litigation.


These online and independent study programs will try to get IEP services pushed out into the community rather than into the student's home, which mostly has to do with the insurance costs and the related liability of sending teachers and specialists into people's homes. They'll try to make the parents drive their kids to meet teachers and specialists in the community when these kids are only in home instruction because getting them out of the house is often so hard. One of my past clients would drive to the next town over with their kid to accommodate the fact that SEATS wouldn't pay their special education teacher mileage or time to drive to their community.


Instead of individualizing the instruction, online and independent study schools tend to use their pedagogy as their excuse for not tailoring the IEP to the individual student, as required by law. So, the bottom line to all of this is that parents of children with special needs in California need to think long and hard about whether a charter school is appropriate for those children, particularly an online or independent study charter.


It's not that charter schools, even the online and independent study ones, in theory, are a bad idea. It's that they are improperly regulated in California, so they are becoming something other than what they were intended to be. In no small part, this is because certain elements out there don't want their kids going to school with "those other kids," and are trying to twist the charter system into a system of segregation.


Whoever happens to be "other" relative to the parents practicing such bigotry and teaching it to their kids, with the help of the dysfunctional charter system for profit, depends on the parents. Sometimes it's racism. Sometimes it's religious extremism. Other times it's socio-economic classism. Sometimes it's people who don't want to be criminally prosecuted for not sending their kids to school and couldn't possibly care any less than they already do about education.


There are enough people out there who don't want to abide by public education's true intent and will try to twist the system to fit their ill-intentions to do obvious harm. Such has been the case with charter schools in California, which is finally prompting a louder call for more appropriate regulations. The concern for many is all kinds of vendors profiting from the existing dysfunctional system without delivering actual educational outcomes, which circles us around back to SEATS.


The situation with Peak Prep Pleasant Valley speaks to the running concerns I've had for years about how SEATS is funded. PVSD is asserting that Peak Prep violated the California Education Code and the State's labor laws by giving away its control of "hiring and termination decisions" to a third party contractor, called Educational Staffing Services (ESS). It is further asserting that Peak Prep "engaged in fiscal mismanagement" by giving over its administrative operations to yet another 3rd party contractor, Accel Schools, which is owned by the same guy who signed the contract between Peak Prep and ESS as ESS's CEO.


According to PVSD, Peak Prep gave Accel control of its funds and failed to complete requested financial documents. PVSD can't see how Peak Prep is using its funds because its operating budget is "obscured by a lump sum payment in exchange for the program services, all delivered by Accel." This is, to the best of my understanding, the same model as how SEATS gets funded.


Like Peak Prep giving its money to Accel in a lump sum, which then shows up in its budget as a single line item with no detail on how that money was spent, SEATS's clients are giving it lump sums that represent their entire special education budgets for the school year. I have to wonder just how many details they are sharing with their charters and how many of those details the charters are sharing with their chartering LEAs about where that money is going. I have reason to suspect that it's paying for cruises rather than special education services.


To be fair to vendors and contractors who serve charter schools in California, it's honest to say that the laws are a mess and even the most well-intended vendor is at risk of getting into trouble over finances just because of how poorly regulated charter schools are in California. Rabbi Mark Blazer, who spearheaded the failed AEALAS endeavor in the Santa Clarita Valley, was quick to point out "bad charter policy" in California, and he's not wrong that California's charter policies are bad.


It's just that most of the charters out there, in my experience, see the bad policies and weak regulations as exploitable opportunities for profit. The children and families horribly affected by their actions are just collateral damage, not the intended targets. Students are just a means to a financial end to these people. The harm done is all the same regardless of intent, and it's far-reaching.


A whole bunch of very crooked people have now stolen way too many taxpayer dollars in California that were invested by the public into education. California has created a charter school system that is more about moving money around, mostly into the pockets of the wrong people, than educating students. While Betsy De Vos may find that acceptable, most Californians - heck, most Americans - do not.


A system like this entices the least savory people on the planet to parasitically attach themselves to it wherever there is an exposed spot, such as the loophole-laden charter laws in California, and suck the system dry before it realizes how much it has hemorrhaged. The cases making it to media make that clear. The chief perpetrator in the $50M A3 scandal is an Australian national.


The unspeakable number of dollars spent on litigation, whether its families suing to get special education services or school districts suing each other over ADA dollars, takes funding out of the classroom and creates overworked and underpaid certificated personnel. This is a voter issue that isn't getting enough attention, but with the election coming up later this year, Californians will have the chance to hold the State and their local school boards accountable and elect or re-elect officials who will clean up these messes in a timely, responsible way.


Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in Special Education

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in Special Education

January 13, 2020

In memory of Cedric Napoleon


I wasn't going to write on this topic quite yet, but I'm working on a case right now that has me upset over public agency mismanagement and misconduct that has resulted in the physical abuse of our nonverbal student with severe special needs and God only knows how many other students within this public education agency. It reminded me of a lot of things, including our organization's founding and the protective purpose KPS4Parents has always served as student and family advocates.


I maintain my list of topics to write about as draft posts on the backend of our site, sometimes just as a title, sometimes with a brief description, as the ideas come to me and, when I go to write, I have them more or less organized in my head in the order I want to write them. But, sometimes, like now, something happens that makes one of the topics leap up to the top of the list.


I am currently providing paralegal support to an attorney on a case in which our student has gone for years without behavioral interventions in her IEPs after previous years of successfully benefitting from such IEP interventions. She has regressed to the point where she was behaviorally 10 years ago, before receiving any appropriate behavioral interventions at all.


The educational neglect in this case rises to the level of physical abuse. The school district's bumbling ineptitude at the expense of our student's welfare has been nothing short of galling. Our student is now sitting safely at home waiting for her case to be either adjudicated or settled but without the benefit of any instruction or related services until it's resolved.


Which takes me back to the founding of KPS4Parents and the event that was the last straw that compelled our founder, Nyanza Cook, to start KPS4Parents. In 2002, I was a lay advocate in private practice helping families of students with special needs, and Nyanza hired me to help her with her step-son's case, which is a story unto itself for another day. It's how we met and these were the early days. It was the context we were in at the time.


Nyanza hails from Killeen, Texas near Fort Hood, the largest U.S. Army base in the continental United States. While diversity has been tolerated, if not embraced, within the U.S. military in many instances, outside of the military base in the rural areas of Texas, diversity is not so much appreciated. Killeen Independent School District (KISD) has historically operated separate schools for students with "behavioral problems," most of whom have been African-American or Latino. The quality of special education in KISD has been historically abysmal, particularly for students of color, which is how it's misconduct led to our organization's founding.


In 2002, a young man named Cedric Napoleon was attending a Special Day Class (SDC) at one of KISD's special schools for students with "behavioral problems." Cedric was a foster child living with his foster mother, Toni Price. He had experienced severe trauma in early childhood, including deprivation of food for days that led to a food hoarding behavior and other behavioral challenges. He was in special education under the Emotional Disturbance (ED) category and his SDC was supposed to be configured specifically for students with ED issues.


Also in the classroom at the time was Nyanza's nephew. On one fateful day in March 2002, Cedric was suffocated to death by his classroom teacher during a prone restraint. He was not being violent towards others, trying to run out of the classroom, or hurting himself when she restrained him. He was being non-compliant and she took it as an affront to her authority. She pinned him face down on the floor out of hostile rage and when he said, "I can't breathe," she replied, "If you can speak, you can breathe." He expired shortly thereafter as Nyanza's nephew and his classmates watched on in horror.


That night, Nyanza got a hysterical phone call from family members gathered at her parents' house in Killeen. They knew she was talking about starting a special education advocacy organization and had been advocating for her step-son in California. They put her nephew on the phone with her and all he could say in a dazed voice was, "They killed him, Auntie. They killed him." He was terrified to return to school after that, and never did. His life has been one of despair and tragedy ever since.


The day Nyanza's nephew witnessed Cedric's murder in his classroom by his teacher, he was already there because he had his own ED issues. To add the trauma of witnessing Cedric's murder to his own pre-existing special education needs, in the place that was supposed to help him overcome his pre-existing special education needs and at the hands of the person who was supposed to help him, was just too much.


More than one life was destroyed that day. Cedric's classmates witnessed his murder in that ED SDC and were affected for life in ways that could only lead to more suffering for them. The District's students most vulnerable to trauma were severely traumatized by one of the most grotesque abuses of their trust possible. They witnessed their teacher kill a classmate for daring to defy her authority.


Nyanza called me that night as soon as she got off the phone with her family and told me what they had told her. She and I agreed that when teachers were murdering our babies in plain sight of our other babies (we have an it-takes-a-village mentality, which makes all babies our babies), we couldn't stand idly by. The death of Cedric Napoleon was the final straw that compelled Nyanza to go through with starting our organization, she asked for my help, I said "Yes!" without hesitation, and we had our paperwork in order by June of 2003.


In Cedric's case, to make matters worse, once his life had ended, so had his foster mother's legal authority to act on his behalf as a parent. She could not pursue justice for him because she lacked the legal authority and the foster care system did little to nothing about it. Cedric's killer was never tried for murder. She was never subject to any disciplinary action by the public education system in Texas.


On May 19, 2009, Toni Price finally got her chance to do something about what had happened to Cedric. The Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was being presented with a report of the findings of an investigation the Committee had previously ordered to have done by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding the use of seclusion and restraints in public schools. There had been a fairly recent similar study conducted of private schools that produced shocking and horrifying disclosures as bad as Cedric's or worse, and the Committee had wanted to know if these problems were also pervasive in our nation's public schools.


The GAO report started circulating among those in my professional circle online shortly after the hearings and ultimately found its way to me. I remember reading through it and getting to the section describing what happened to Cedric and going, "Wait a minute. I've heard this story before ... OMG! This is the kid from Nyanza's nephew's class!" I immediately forwarded the report to Nyanza and either called or texted her to follow up. At some point we ended up on the phone and she was flabbergasted to see Cedric's story spelled out in the report. It was the same student she had told me about back in 2002.


In the course of conducting its investigation, out of all of the cases of problems with seclusions and restraints that GAO examined, Cedric's stood out as particularly horrifying, in no small part due to the fact that his killer had never faced any serious consequences for killing him at the time of the investigation. The investigators searched for this teacher when their investigation revealed that she had faced no consequences and, shortly before the date of their presentation to the Committee, found that she had relocated to Virginia and was running an SDC on a public school campus that was only a 45-minute drive away from where the Committee was convening to hear the presentation of their report.


There was no effort to conceal the outrage that several Committee members expressed over the fact that this woman had not only killed an ED student in the ED SDC where she was supposed to be helping him get better, but that she faced no consequences and was able to get credentialed in at least one other state because the fact that she had killed a student didn't follow her on her record. They openly referred to Cedric's death as a murder.


The Committee's disgust is exposed during the hearing (click here for video of the full 2-hour hearing), and I share that disgust. It is disgusting; disgust is the only healthy response to what this woman did. Rep. Rob Andrews (1:22:22 - 1:28:16 of the hearing video), Rep. Lynn Woolsey (1:53:02 - 1:54:18 of the hearing video), and Rep. George Miller, Committee Chair (1:55:21 - 1:57:44 of the hearing video) had particularly candid things to say and there was bipartisan heartsickness over the whole thing.


The only reason Cedric's killer was found was because of the GAO's investigation. Had it not conducted it, a known killer would have been allowed to remain as a fox in a henhouse, circulating among the same types of individuals upon whom she had preyed before. Their parents had no idea they were sending their vulnerable children off to a child killer each school day. Even now, almost 11 years later, the thought still makes me shudder with horror.


The Committee's take on the situation was influenced in no small part by the testimony of various witnesses produced by the investigators in support of its findings. Among those asked to testify was Toni Price, Cedric's foster mother. Her testimony was compelling; even now, it still makes me cry.


Toni argued for a national, if not global, directory of teachers found guilty of child abuse for education agencies to use for screening teaching applicants, and she did so from the most informed position possible. She spoke as the primary caregiver of a child with mental health needs killed by the person entrusted to address them every day at school, but with no legal recourse to do anything about it, leaving advocating for that child and protecting others like him to no one. Only the fluke of a Congressional investigation at the right time on the right topic exposed what happened, and Toni took the opportunity to say what needed to be said.


Which brings me back to the topic of this post and podcast, which is the use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in special education. Subsequent to the May 2009 hearing, GAO began gathering additional information and the U.S. Department of Education began promulgating guidance and technical information regarding PBIS. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education produced the Restraint and Seclusion Resource Document.


In February 2019, after 10 years of collecting data on the use of seclusion and restraints in our public schools, GAO produced another report and another hearing was held during which the last 10 years' worth of data collected and analyzed were presented to the Committee. Witnesses gave testimony, provided additional evidence, and answered questions. You now can look up the CRDC data for your own school district on the CRDC site.


Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Department of Education announced an initiative to address the inappropriate use of seclusions and restraints in our public schools. Just this last December, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a bill, HR 5325, referred to as the “Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma Act of 2019” or the “Ending PUSHOUT Act of 2019," which seems like way too poor of a word choice for a name just to create an acronym, but the body of the bill still nonetheless prohibits seclusions and restraints and includes other regulations pertaining to behavioral interventions.


HR 5325 is still a bill pending before the Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. It was introduced just last month, so obviously nothing has happened with it, yet. Congress has been a little busy lately and the last time the Committee tried to pass legislation to address seclusion and restraints in 2009, it passed in the House only to never see the light of day in the Senate. That's likely to happen again, now, with our current configuration of Congress, but the effort still needs to be made.


What GAO reported in the most recent hearing was that there wasn't enough data in, yet, regarding the efficacy of Education's efforts to promulgate PBIS technical information and guidance among the public schools or the degree to which the schools that availed themselves of it found it beneficial. In controlled research situations in which implementation fidelity was maintained, PBIS was proven to work, but how well public schools actually implement it with success in the absence of researcher oversight and fidelity checking remains to be seen.


What seems to be the case, and the whole reason this issue is before the House Education and Labor Committee, again, is that there is an obvious need for federal oversight and regulation, here. There is a lack of consistency from state to state as to how behavioral interventions are to be implemented in schools. Some states have regulations regarding seclusions and restraints in schools and others do not. Even those states that have laws in place don't provide for adequate enforcement of those laws.


The lack of built-in accountability has made it possible for horrible situations to happen. And, they continue to happen. The only way the public school system is held accountable in situations like these is when individual families take legal action. Hence, the case I'm now working on that has made these issues spring to life for me, once again, much to my deep disappointment.


Educator and support staff training, or a gross lack thereof, more specifically, is often at the heart of these cases. But, so is the lack of teacher accountability and the degree to which educators tend to cover up each other's tracks, even if it means a child dies in the process.


The fear of talking usually goes to fear of losing their jobs, fear of reprisals from their co-workers, fear of being held accountable for the actions of others, fear of getting in trouble for the same thing for which someone else is getting in trouble because they've done it, too, and has to come with a tremendous amount of internal conflict. Only sociopaths could smoothly walk that rocky landscape without being troubled by the experience.


The willingness of school administrators to let something as horrible as student traumatization, physical injury, and/or death by the hands of teaching staff and aides in the learning environment get swept under the rug and hope nobody notices, if not actively seek to conceal it, is repugnant. There is a lack of professional integrity in the public education system that can reach sickening proportions, and these cases are examples.


So, I really don't have an upbeat ending for this post and podcast. I'm pretty not okay with what I'm still seeing going on with respect to seclusion and restraints in public schools in California, which is supposed to be the most progressive state in the country. It's particularly bad in rural communities far away from specialists and adequate facilities, particularly when those communities are mostly made up of low-income households.


In some cases, like the one I'm working on now, the student has experienced nothing short of absolute barbarism. It shouldn't take people like me helping to hold the public education system accountable after the fact. The answer is prevention. In the absence of any guidance in the student's IEPs as to how to address her behaviors, she was repeatedly secluded and restrained by teachers and aides who didn't know what else to do.


This was all just up until a few weeks ago, which is why she's now safely at home but without any instruction or related services until her attorney, in collaboration with me as his paralegal and the experts we're bringing onto the team, can get this mess cleaned up. It just sickens my heart that after all the years that I've been doing this work - 29 years this coming June, mind you - this is where things are still at. In the most progressive state in the Union, we're still secluding and restraining non-verbal students who are struggling to communicate their wants and needs. It puts bile in the back of my throat.


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