Making Special Education Actually Work

Making Special Education Actually Work

The Fundamental Flow of IEP Creation

Image credit: Justin Lincoln


Trying to piece together the actual special education process from the implementing federal regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a lot like trying to create origami from paper shredder cuttings. However, it's been done and, when laid out in proper order, the special education process totally makes sense.


When followed as intended, the special education regulations are a marriage of law and science. It is further assumed that procedural compliance with the regulations is likely to result in the provision of the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) promised to each special education student by the IDEA. The specific language comes from what is known in special education circles as "The Rowley Decision," which specifically states, "the Act's emphasis on procedural safeguards demonstrates the legislative conviction that adequate compliance with prescribed procedures will in most cases assure much, if not all, of what Congress wished in the way of substantive content in an IEP. "


In order to understand why the regulations require the things in special education they do, it helps to first understand the history of the language in the regulations. Prior to Congress enacting the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975, which ultimately became the IDEA during a later reauthorization, there were no laws that specifically promised any kind of education to children with special needs.


Prior to the EAHCA, children with disabilities were routinely denied enrollment into the public schools. In the beginning, it was an accomplishment just to get a public school to open its doors to a child with special needs, and there was nothing that made it mandatory to educate the child according to any particular standards once the doors had been opened.


Then, in 1971, disability advocates took the matter of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the U.S. District Court. The settlement and resulting consent decree produced much of the language that is now found in the implementing regulations of the IDEA, particularly with respect to FAPE and individualized educational program development.


In PARC v. Pennsylvania, a class of individuals who all had intellectual disabilities (IDs), which at the time were described as "mental retardation," were being denied access to public school on the basis of their diagnosed "mental retardation." They were either languishing without any education or receiving privately funded education at their parents' personal expense. PARC filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of itself and the child members of the class, sued for injunctive relief, settled with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and obtained a consent decree overseen by the U.S. District Court, which it later enforced through the Courts to compel Pennsylvania to enroll children with IDs into its public schools and provide them with appropriate programs.


Quoting page 8 of the May 5, 1972 Opinion, Order and Injunction from PARC v. Pennsylvania, "The lengthy Consent Agreement concludes by stating that '[every] retarded person between the ages of six and twenty-one shall be provided access to a free public program of education and training appropriate to his capacities as soon as possible but in no event later than September 1, 1972 ...' To implement the agreed upon relief and assure that it would be extended to all members of this class, Dennis E. Haggerty, Esq., a distinguished member of the Pennsylvania Bar who has devoted much of his energy to the welfare of retarded children, and Dr. Herbert Goldstein, an eminent expert in the education of retarded children who is Professor and Director of the Curriculum Research and Development Center in Mental Retardation at the Ferkaus Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Yeshiva University, were appointed Masters at the expense of the Commonwealth ... Next, the Consent Agreement charges defendants with the duty within 30 days, to formulate and submit to the Masters a plan to locate, evaluate and give notice to all members of the plaintiff class ... Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Agreement states that: 'The defendants shall formulate and submit to the Masters for their approval a plan to be effectuated by September 1, 1972, to commence or recommence a free public program of education and training for all mentally retarded persons . . . aged between four and twenty-one years as of the date of this Order, and for all mentally retarded persons of such ages hereafter. The plan shall specify the range of programs of education and training, there [sic] kind and number, necessary to provide an appropriate program of education and training to all mentally retarded children, where they shall be conducted, arrangements for their financing, and, if additional teachers are found to be necessary, the plan shall specify recruitment, hiring, and training arrangements.'" [emphasis added; internal citations omitted]


Here, we see the language of FAPE (34 CFR Sec. 300.17), the marriage of law and science in the creation of the program design, the precursor to the federal "child find" requirements (34 CFR Sec. 300.111), and language that effectively describes creating what amounts to an IEP. PARC v. Pennsylvania laid the foundation for what ultimately became the IDEA, which specifically mandates that the peer-reviewed research be applied to the delivery of special education to the degree it's practicable to do so (34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4)).


The appointment of the masters in PARC v. Pennsylvania is important to note because it marks from the outset the need to combine the efforts of legal professionals and psychologists to come up with evidence-based approaches to special education instruction that conform with the regulations. While there have been many efforts over the years by those of a particular ilk within the public education system to minimize the science and place undue emphasis on legal maneuvering, they have never been successful at eliminating the science.


Now, we are seeing the courts rely more and more on the dry, neutral facts of science rather than the hysterical budget shielding that typically goes on in special education. As more and more people become more fluent with using math and science in everyday life, the public is increasingly expecting to see science rather than politics in the delivery of public instruction.


It has always been the intent of the applicable law to use the applicable science in the delivery of special education. The arguments for relying on facts and evidence in designing and implementing IEPs are too compelling to be overcome by cronyistic politics altogether. Politically speaking, the science has never carried as much weight in special education as it does now, which is tragic in that it's taken this long but it's also inevitable. The truth is the truth and no amount of political spinning changes what a child's unique learning needs actually are or what research has proven actually works.


So, that being the case, when we look at the logical flow of how an IEP is supposed to go together, it's important to understand how the law and science become inextricably intertwined as the IEP process goes forward. To start, a child cannot be found eligible for special education without first being assessed. Assessment determines if the child has a qualifying disability and, if so, what to do about it.


Competent special education assessment is a highly scientific process. People with special credentials and licenses are brought in to collect expert data, analyze it, and provide expert opinions to the IEP team as to why a child is struggling in school and what can be done about it. This process can become compromised by internal public education agency politics, however. See our previous blog post, "The Basics of Special Education Assessments," for more information about this step of the process.


In an ideal world, a child's initial assessment for special education is thorough and competent. It measures all of the student's unique learning needs and assesses in all areas of suspected disability. The data it produces is then used with input from teachers and parents to create an IEP, presuming the child is eligible for an IEP. This is where things can get really messy.


There are two ways things can go badly at this stage:


  • The assessments were poorly done and now there isn't good data to inform the development of the IEP, or
  • The assessment data is fine but the IEP offered to the student doesn't match what the assessment data says the student needs


Parents need to understand what is supposed to happen at this stage of the process or they can be quickly bamboozled by seasoned bureaucrats with their own agendas. The information gathered by the IEP team about the student's learning strengths and needs is supposed to result in measurable annual goals that describe what the IEP is supposed to make happen in each area of unique learning need.


Where things often break down is in translating all of the baseline data into measurable annual goals that target appropriate learning outcomes in every single area of unique learning need. That's a tall order. It's one thing to measure what already is, but it's another thing to use that data to project where things should be in a year.


IEP teams often struggle to identify all the areas in which goals are needed, much less write the goals they come up with in a measurable manner. In my experience, the average special education professional would fail the 4th grade under the Common Core if their IEP goal-writing skills were used to measure their abilities to apply math and science to solving everyday problems.


A lot of the guidance given to special education professionals during the 1980s and 1990s about IEP goal-writing was a bunch of preemptive legal defense hooey that was utterly devoid of any kind of valid science or math. These approaches provided teachers with formulas and supposed hacks that they usually didn't understand and usually used incorrectly in the field.


There was no sincere effort that I ever observed back in the day to teach special education professionals the technical nuts and bolts of goal-writing, and I still assert now that the training being done is grossly inadequate. A half-day workshop for continuing education units is usually about it for most special ed staffs, and most of what such a workshop instructs is usually garbage.


These are the workshops that taught teachers to write the measurement for every goal as "... with 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 trials ..." even if it makes no sense. For example, it's highly inappropriate when used here: "By [annual due date], [Student] will cross the street safely with 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 trials as measured by observation."


First, try to make the math work, which you can't. Then ask yourself what an 80% accuracy rate of crossing the street safely must look like, however it might be calculated, and whether it could possibly be educationally appropriate. It's supposed to be a free and appropriate public education and there's nothing appropriate about being run over in the street like a bug as a result of participating in publicly funded instruction.


My brief advice to school district administrators is to not let your attorneys develop your employee training for any aspect of special education that requires scientific rigor. And, unless you are qualified yourself in the applicable sciences, if you are an administrator, don't think of developing that training yourself, either. Use actual experts; don't be a chump.


Doing sound assessments only to toss the science and math out the window when it comes time to write the IEP makes no sense whatsoever. But, there is a political game that sometimes get played with parents in which public education agencies will deliver a decent assessment, but then offer a garbage IEP and act like the garbage IEP is what the data and law say the agency can do for the student. It's a lie.


In reality, the IEP is based on how much the education agency is willing to spend on the student, but the agency's administrators can't admit that, so they try to run a con on the parents in which they use valid assessment data to argue for a garbage IEP. They're effectively gaslighting the parents because the data doesn't support the IEP at all, but the parents are usually too confused to understand what is really happening and just let it go, thereby allowing the education agency to get away with shortchanging a kid.


The parents get an assessment report that describes their kid, but then they get offered an IEP that is weak relative to the kid's actual needs and they figure that's the most the schools must be able to do for them. In truth, their kid is getting robbed. If the IEP doesn't match the assessment data, something is really wrong. This can be particularly the case with IEP goals.


The data can make clear what the areas are in which goals are needed, but then only a few goals get put into the IEP by school personnel. This is a problem because the services that are offered to a special education student are supposed to be driven by what is necessary to meet the goals. If you don't have goals in each area of need, there's nothing to compel all of the services that are needed. Missing goals mean missing services. Schools that want to prevent spending on services can accomplish this by leaving goals out of IEPs.


Goals describe what the IEP is supposed to make happen. Services describe what it takes to meet the goals. This includes service frequency, duration, and location. For example, a student may receive 30 minutes per week of individual speech/language services to address their communication goals.


Accommodations are tools and strategies that make access to the grade-level content possible for a child with special needs. They are not the same things as modifications. Modifications actually change the learning expectations for the student to something less rigorous than the grade-level standards so that the instruction is accessible to the student.


For example, the accommodation of being able to dictate one's answers rather than write them down doesn't change the nature of the material being studied or the questions that have to be answered. The only thing that changes is how the response is produced, but a grade-level response is still expected.


In another example by contrast, a student with developmental delays may participate part of the time in general education math where students are calculating the hypotenuses of triangles, but the work is modified to cutting out different sized triangles for the student with developmental delays. In this example, the instruction has been scaffolded towards the grade-level expectations by modifying it to the student's level of learning.


Before one can understand what a hypotenuse is, one must first understand what a triangle is, so instruction on triangles in general lays a foundation for the eventual instruction of the calculation of hypotenuses. Scaffolding towards the grade level standards and developmental norms is a critical method used in special education as per the peer-reviewed research to adapt the instruction to learners who cannot perform at grade level because of their disabilities. There still has to be a way to measure their learning and push them as close to grade level as possible.


Once goals, services, and accommodations are identified, the IEP team then determines the student's educational placement. This is usually not a specific classroom or campus; it's the type of classroom and/or campus required. Placement is decided at the end of the process because it is impossible to know where is the best place to deliver the services and accommodations such that the goals are met if the goals haven't been written and services and accommodations haven't yet been determined.


In addition to these critical steps, an IEP can also include an Individualized Transition Plan (ITP), which is basically a plan within a plan that describes what will be done for a teenager or young adult with an IEP to prepare them for life after high school. Students exit special education either by graduating with a regular diploma or aging out, usually at age 21 or 22, The ITP is supposed to be the driving force of their IEPs from at least age 16 forward, though nothing prevents IEP teams from starting younger.


Another component that an IEP may include is some kind of Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). They can go by a variety of names, but they're all basically the same thing, and usually loosely based on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). This is another science that gets grossly watered down in special education, sometimes to the point of becoming ineffective if not harmful.


Good ABA is a wonderful thing, but there are way too many programs operating these days that are "ABA-based," meaning they aren't fully adhering to the science and only have borrowed those parts from it that they find most easy to use. They take a fluid science, try to turn it into something formulaic, and ruin the whole damn thing. It's right up there with crossing the street safely with 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 trials.


To be clear, when I talk about ABA in this blog/podcast, I'm talking about the actual science, not some hokey fly-by-night scam trying to take advantage of the autism community. I have plenty of colleagues who operate completely legitimate, scientifically rigorous ABA programs that save and change lives for the better, and they are just as disgusted as I am by the charlatans ruining the good name of a credible science for the sake of making a buck off of autism. These charlatans who have corrupted the legitimate science are the ones with whom the autism community takes such issue when they complain about ABA.


There is no way to have a conversation about the IEP process and the degree to which science plays a role in it without discussing ABA. ABA is the most reliable method of data collection currently used in special education, even when not done that well. This is because the field is dominated with people teaching their students to cross the street safely with 80% accuracy in 4 out of 5 trials as measured by observation. Even shoddily done ABA-type data collection is usually better than that.


It's my argument that, if the science has to be applied to the degree it's practicable to do so, and ABA-type data collection is the most reliable, then IEP goals should be based on ABA-type data collection methods. If IEP goals were actually written according to scientific method like they were supposed to have been from the start, we would naturally default to ABA-type methods of data collection because that's the only thing that will work.


This becomes particularly important for IEPs with BIPs. Real ABA, not the half-baked version that is peddled by some agencies, should be used to develop measurable annual goals and any BIP in an IEP. This will allow for legitimate measurement of actual progress. Here, it's not exactly about the instructional approaches of ABA so much as how to accurately measure learning. By using ABA-based teaching and measuring approaches, it's a lot easier to tell if a student is actually learning anything or not, which is the whole point of measurable annual goals and measurable BIP criteria.


When you understand that there is a logical order to the sequence of the special education process that the law describes from what it has taken from science, the parts of an IEP start to make more sense. An IEP is not an arbitrary document. It's an enforceable contract that describes what a public education agency is supposed to do to tailor the instruction to a student with special needs. It includes what it includes for logical reasons.


Congress organized how IEPs are supposed to go together based on the advice of attorneys and psychologists who worked very hard to come with with a marriage of law and science that will work so long as the public education system pays equal attention to both the science and the law. There needs to be more training for professionals in the special education community as to the scientific origins of IEP design and the scientific rigor actually necessary to deliver special education according to Congress' intent.


Parents need to understand the importance of the science, as well. They are the most important members of any IEP team and if they don't understand what the data means, they can't give informed consent to anything.


Parent education is a related service that can be added to an IEP to help the parents understand their child's special needs as well as help them better participate in the IEP process (34 CFR Sec. 300.34(a)). If you feel as a parent like you don't have enough information to be an equal member of the IEP team, it's your right to request parent training as a related service so that your rights to meaningful parent participation in the IEP process and informed consent are honored.

Parents Who “School-Hop” Risk Making Things Worse

Posted by KPS4Parents in Technically Speaking

Image credit: Alan Levine


One of the situations I commonly encounter in working with students with special needs and their families in the public education system is a phenomenon that I've come to refer to as "school-hopping." Sometimes, parents who do not understand why their children are struggling assume that the problem is with the school, and, very often, there is a problem at school. But, quite often, the real issue is that the school is responding poorly to a disability-related need experienced by the student, so it's not just that there is something wrong at the school, there's something wrong with how it is responding to a special need that requires unique accommodations.


Put another way, there are two problems to resolve: 1) how to address the student's unique needs in an educationally appropriate and legally compliant way, and 2) how to address the internal problems at the school that are preventing this from happening. Parents will sometimes jump from a charter school to a district-run independent study program to a home-school group to a ... you name it ... trying to find the right fit for their child.


The problem with doing that is, unless a parent knows what specifically to ask any school to do for their child, they're just rolling the dice with every school change and hoping this one will finally be the one that fits. The whole purpose of special education is to impose structure on how education is tailored to each individual student. That way, it shouldn't matter so much where they are so long as the supports and services described by the student's individualized program are being delivered in that setting.


The guidance to the school site personnel as to how to do this comes in the form of a legally enforceable document called an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is created by a team of individuals described by federal law (34 CFR Sec. 300.321) according to specific criteria, also described by federal law (34 CFR Sec. 300.324). What the IEP says it what the responsible public education agency must do for the student for whom it is written.


It doesn't matter how many times a student with special needs changes schools if the IEP that follows them is garbage. Even when a student changes to an entirely different public education agency, the incoming IEP is what informs the new school team as to how to support the newly incoming student with special needs. If the IEP does not describe appropriate supports and services, then the new school is legally obligated to implement the garbage that the IEP describes, instead.


My point, here, is that changing schools under these kinds of conditions tends to just make things worse. Every school change means at least some part of a kid's file, if not the whole thing, gets lost in transit between one public education agency and the next. Assessment reports and old IEPs disappear from the record with frequent moves and school changes, so those items aren't there to inform a records review like they normally would as part of a new assessment conducted by a new education agency.


That makes it very hard for the new school to know where to begin with a new student with special needs. The parents are hoping the new school will somehow magically fix everything but each successive new school gets put further and further at a disadvantage as to where to even begin every time a new change in schools happens and records have to be shuffled around again.


I have yet to figure out why so many people start at the end rather than the beginning when it comes to individualized student planning. Placement - that is, the type of classroom setting(s) in which a special education student receives instruction - is determined by the IEP team as the last matter of properly conducted IEP planning for very important, logical reasons. There are a whole lot of other decisions that have to be made, first, before a placement determination can be made.


IEPs start out with identifying a student's present levels of performance, which seek to answer the questions, "What can the student already do?" and "What does the student still need to be taught relative to the grade-level standards and/or developmental norms?" On the basis of the answers to those two questions, goals are written that target measurable, annual outcomes.


The goals describe what the IEP is supposed to make happen. Until you know that, you don't know what all you need to actually educate the student.


For this reason, the IEP team next determines what services are necessary to see the goals met. On the basis of the frequency, duration, and location of the services necessary to meet the goals, in combination with the student's right to experience the least amount of segregation away from the general education population as possible, educational placement is then determined.


Parents who school-hop interfere with how the federally mandated process is supposed to work, usually without realizing the harm they are doing. Until the IEP describes goals in each area of unique student learning need in meaningfully measurable ways, it doesn't matter where the student goes to school; following a bad IEP in a new, good setting will still go wrong.


That said, I've seen plenty of situations where changing schools, even moving to entirely new school districts, has saved a kid's life. The challenge, though, was to get the IEP as good as we could get it before the student changed schools so the new, receiving school had something worth implementing once the student started attending there.


And, in California, where I do most of my work, whether a special education student moves during the school year or summer break has bearing on what is enforceable in terms of a transfer IEP. This added layer of complexity, which isn't the same in all the other States, makes the timing of everything that much more imperative when it comes to changing to a different school district or charter school. Parents who school-hop in California can do even more harm than they realize because of the odd State laws about transfer IEPs.


What's often more heartbreaking are families that are school-hopping because their child has never been offered an IEP and when they've asked about it, they've been shot down by school personnel who insist that their child would never qualify. In reality, it can be the case that the school personnel are just waiting for the family to pick up and move the student, again, at which point whether or not the student needs an IEP won't be that particular school's problem, anymore. There are unfortunately those in public education who will facilitate eliminating a problem rather than solving it, even if it comes at the expense of a child.


Parents who school-hop can call unnecessary attention to themselves as easily exploited by school staffs who would rather see them move along to the next school than stick around and insist that the current school do its job. At some point, school-hopping parents have to figure out that the school-hopping isn't working and, instead, they need to stand in one spot, dig in their heels, and get a decent IEP from whatever agency is responsible right at that moment. That might mean filing a lawsuit just to get an initial assessment, but if that's what it takes, that's what it takes.


Without a legally enforceable IEP document that describes something worth enforcing, no placement can be made to work. Federal law mandates that the education rendered to a special education student be in conformity with that student's IEP (34 CFR Sec. 300.17). If the IEP is garbage, then the school is legally obligated to implement the garbage until such time as the IEP can be made more appropriate.


As a parent, your number one objective when it comes to advocating for your child with special needs is to make sure that the services and supports provided are actually appropriate to your child's needs. Just having a document that says "IEP" at the top of it doesn't magically bestow educational benefits onto anybody. The contents of the document matter and, as a parent, you need to know how to look out for language in an IEP that could undermine your child and any exclusions of language that are important to meeting your child's needs from the IEP. More harm can be done by what is left out of an IEP than what is put into it.


Once you understand why placement is the last decision that should be made by an IEP team, you can understand why changing placement when things aren't going right doesn't always make sense. Unless you've got an amazing IEP and the people at the school site just aren't implementing it as written, there's a really good chance your problem is with the plan more than the placement.


Plans of any kind fail for only one of two reasons: 1) design flaws, or 2) implementation failures. Design flaws can sometimes only be identified when you try to implement the plan and something goes wrong. If you never implement the plan according to its design, you'll never know if the design was flawed or not because you weren't following it in the first place. If the design is great, but no one is following it, what's the point?


This analysis of plan success and failure came to me by way of my training in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), which, by the way, is a science, not a treatment methodology. There are a lot of ABA-based treatment programs out there, but those programs are not what actual ABA is. They are based on ABA, some with more scientific rigor than others. The actual science of ABA can be applied to anything that behaves, including animals, plants, and computers.


From the absolute, parsimonious perspective of ABA as a science, everything is based on objectively identified behaviors, only, which are framed in quantifiable terms and rendered into emotionally neutral pieces of data. Further, not only is data taken on how the individual responds to efforts at changing its behaviors, data is taken on the fidelity with which those implementing the plan are actually adhering to it.


Taking data on the fidelity of the implementation of the program design is one of the most critical pieces of the science that often gets left out of school-based ABA-type programs. It's my assumption that this is for political and/or preemptive legal defense purposes because no school district that I know of wants data taken on the degree to which their staffs are actually adhering to any part of the IEP.


That's way too much accountability on the record and way too much risk of it capturing somebody doing it wrong that could then be used to prove a denial of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in hearing by the parents and achieve an order for compensatory education to make up for the lost instruction. Even though the science is abundantly clear that ABA data collection methods, when followed according to the science, are the most accurate, reliable, and valid data collected in the public education system for special education students (Drasgow, Yell, & Robinson, 2001; Kimball, 2002; Yell & Drasgow, 2000), I have yet to see that degree of scientific rigor applied to any part of a student's IEP in the public schools, whether it's through their measurable annual goals or any behavior plans that their IEP might contain.


As parents, your primary goal has to be the quality of the IEP's design because, if it doesn't describe what your child actually needs, it doesn't matter where you try to implement it and no placement will just magically fall in love with your child and imbue them with knowledge through emotional osmosis. Hope is not a strategy. Pursuing a scientifically informed, legally compliant IEP is a strategy that gives you way more likelihood of having a meaningful say in the quality of your child's education, regardless of where they attend school.




  • Drasgow, E., Yell, M.L., & Robinson, T.R. (2001). Developing legally correct and educationally appropriate IEPs. Remedial and Special Education 22(6), 359-373. doi: 10.1177/074193250102200606
  • Kimball, J. (2002). Behavior-analytic instruction for children with autism: Philosophy matters. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 17(2), 66-75.
  • Yell, M. & Drasgow, E. (2000). Litigating a free appropriate public education: The Lovaas hearings and cases. The Journal of Special Education, 33(4), 205-214. doi: 10.1177/002246690003300403

Fee Shifting in Special Education

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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The Return of our Blog (and Podcast)

Image Credit:  Christian Schnettelker ( Photo Credit: Christian Schnettelker

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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