Making Special Education Actually Work

Mysterious Special Ed Accountability Report Published in California

January 15, 2022

On January 13, 2022, after staying up late to finish my last post/podcast, I woke up to find a message in my inbox from the CAPCAA listserv that included a very comprehensive-looking report published by a group referring to itself as "The Office of Administrative Hearings Special Education Task Force," with the email address of The members of this task force are not identified in the report. The report identifies its authors as follows:

Authors/Contributors: This accountability report is provided by the Office for Administrative Hearings Special Education Task Force, a coalition of concerned attorneys, advocates and parents. Many of these contributors conducted research, collected and organized the information, and assisted in the writing of this report.

Bias, Noncompliance and Misconduct In Special Education Due Process: An Accountability Report on the California Office of Administrative Hearings Special Education Division, January 2022

Given the degree of retaliation that anybody calling out the California Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) could easily face in the current anti-democratic climate of American politics, these days, I can't say I'm entirely surprised that the individuals responsible for this report have not named themselves in it. That could be really a good way to find some "good ol' boys" burning crosses in their yards and planting pipe bombs in their hedges on behalf of some tax-fattened, suit-wearing carpetbaggers.

So, I can't discount the report for lack of identified authors. That leaves nothing but the content of the report with which to judge its legitimacy, but that's almost better. It's like a blind audition on The Voice; it doesn't matter what you look like if you have a good voice. What you have to say and how you say it matters more than what your name is or what you look like. So, that's how I'm looking at this report.

In these troubling times, I'm willing to accept verifiable facts from anonymous authors truly fearing for their own safety if they dare to speak the truth. I will not accept unverifiable assertions being openly spewed by people saying whatever will get them attention. So, let's examine the assertions being made by this report.

This Task Force's report follows a professional format for organization and presentation of its information, but it's not a legal brief or scientific paper. Not every assertion is supported by black-and-white evidence, but the assertions not supported by evidence are nonetheless consistent with those assertions that are supported by evidence.

Additionally, because I work extensively in the very areas of concern targeted by this report, all of it rings true with the experiences that I've lived as a professional over the period of time discussed in this report. That which is not outright supported by evidence in this report is nonetheless credible to me given the evidence that is presented and what I already know to be true from real-life experience.

While anecdotal accounts were added to the report to bolster the authors' positions, the identity of those offering these accounts are unknown, so verifying them is impossible. Again, concerns about retaliation and privacy are legitimate, so I don't want to discount the privacy concerns of the authors, but one of the first rules of proving the veracity of a document is authenticating its content with its authors. That's just a basic rule of evidence. At some point, for this document to be taken seriously by regulators and/or legislators, its authors will have to reveal themselves.

Putting aside the authorship issues for the moment and delving into the actual content of this report, what this report is basically asserting is that OAH, which is a division of the California Department of General Services (DGS), is organizationally compromised relative to its obligations to try special education cases pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The report supports these arguments with references to a collection of publicly available documents.

These arguments appear sound and supported by credible evidence, in my opinion. Of particular note to me were its references to the November 15, 2021 study conducted by CDE titled, California Special Education Governance and Accountability Study, as well as news that the courts finally resolved the issue of continued distance learning for medically vulnerable children on IEPs. This latter issue affects one of our families and I've been waiting to hear about this situation.

The Task Force's assertions in its report are also consistent with my experiences dealing with OAH since it took over the hearings in 2005. In fact, I first became a paralegal in 2005 and witnessed the very shenanigans reported by the Task Force with the change-over from the Special Education Hearing Office (SEHO) to OAH that same year. It was a dumpster fire inside of a clown car that had crashed into a train wreck, to put it mildly.

OAH underbid SEHO in terms of the costs of conducting special education mediations and hearings by failing to include the costs of administrative support and sending mediators and judges around the State to handle each case in its local community, which allowed OAH to come under SEHO's bid by several million dollars, as memory serves. The moment it opened its doors for business, it was already millions of dollars over-budget from what it had bid to get the business from SEHO.

The quality of the judges from OAH was atrocious out of the gate. One then-new judge went down in California special education parent/student legal history for the angrily and stupidly stated words, "Ms. [Attorney], what does autism have to do with behavior!?!"

When you have people who have no idea what anybody is talking about deciding the futures of children who have no voice of their own in the process, those of us who are trying to protect these children become almost as powerless as the children we're trying to protect. We were, and continue to be, faced with people entrusted with responsibilities that are clearly light years beyond their actual skills and knowledge, and the authorities and powers that go with those responsibilities.

What is the point of having the rule of law if the people responsible for enforcing it are personally incentivized to break it or are otherwise too dumb to know how to enforce it? We're paying these people to implement the regulations, not to invent excuses as to why they don't have to and bully the rest of us if we dare to question them.

I've been saying for the last 30+ years that special education issues are civil rights issues, and if our babies aren't truly protected, then none of us really are. The national political landscape appears to support my conclusions, not that I'm happy to be right about that. Marginalized groups with specifically identified protected rights are always the first ones targeted by fascists, so special education is really a "canary in the coal mine" when it comes to American democracy. Clearly, we're not doing that well and this Task Force is seeing a lot of the same things I'm seeing.

Regardless of the authorship issue, which I suspect will be resolved in due time, the evidence cited in this report and the consistency of what it describes with what I live and breathe everyday inclines me to treat it as credible, though if anyone can find an inaccurate assertion in it, please post a comment and let me know. At minimum, another federal investigation is warranted based on this report, but I don't know that going to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is the right way to go, now.

As the report discloses, there was already an OCR investigation in 2014 of the California Department of Education (CDE) as it pertains to making its hearings accessible to individuals with disabilities. I won't repeat the anecdotal account of what that was all about, here; you can read it yourself in the report. But, I warn you, it's upsetting. I wish I could say it was too outlandish to be true, but it sounds just about right for OAH and CDE, based on my own experiences.

Last year, just to give you an example from my own caseload, I filed a compliance complaint with CDE against a local school district for failing to implement all of a student's IEP during the pandemic-related shutdown. The most critical element of the complaint was the district's failure to provide in-person 1:1 aide services, as required by the child's IEP.

Instead, the district put the aide for this non-verbal, inattentive, prompt-dependent child with autism on Zoom, requiring the child's mother to be the in-person aide helping her child access Zoom, constantly cueing him attend to the online instruction, and prompting him through all of his work tasks to completion. The aide could only sit there, staring at them through the screen, completely useless ... at taxpayer expense.

The aide was willing to provide in-person support and the non-public agency (NPA) that employed the aide was ready to send her to the student's house in a mask for in-person services during distance learning, but the district wouldn't permit any in-person services during shutdown. This single parent ended up selling her condo and moving, with her children, in with family friends, in no small part because she couldn't work a paid job while sitting at home serving as the free aide for her child with special needs throughout each school day while the paid aide sat in her own home on Zoom, unable to do her actual job.

This was a blatant violation of State and federal law that the district kept blaming on the county's health department. I challenge anybody to find a legal authority that gives a county health department the authority to tell a school district that it doesn't have to abide by the IDEA. After attempting to get the district to do the right thing by way of written correspondence and the IEP process to no avail, I filed a regulatory complaint with CDE.

CDE opened an investigation based on what I alleged through its complaint intake unit, but then the investigator subsequently assigned to the complaint materially altered the nature of the investigation and cited the district for a different violation of the law than what I had originally alleged, and failed to issue a finding regarding the original allegation I'd made about the aide. The investigator's findings then went to yet another unit within CDE that developed the order for corrective actions, which included compensatory special education instruction for lost service minutes, but it was silent regarding aide support during those compensatory services.

Think about this for a minute. I alleged in my complaint that the district failed to provide aide support during distance learning. The intake unit opened an investigation in response to my complaint based on the allegation of the district's failure to implement the IEP as written, specifically with regard to 1:1 aide support. The investigator found that the district failed to implement all of the instructional minutes in the IEP, but issued no finding regarding the 1:1 aide support. The corrective actions unit ordered compensatory instruction to make up for lost service minutes, but there was no mention of aide support.

Once corrective actions have been ordered by CDE and its findings are sent out to the parties, the offending education agency has to provide proof of corrective actions to yet another unit of CDE. When I called that unit to get clarification as to whether the compensatory service minutes were supposed to include the 1:1 aide support called for by the IEP, that unit's response was, "Yes."

The offending district's attorneys (definitely of the Rudy Guilliani/Syndey Powell variety), however, said, "No." They then tried to fight with CDE over whether or not the compensatory service minutes had to include the same 1:1 aide support the student required throughout the school day in every other instructional setting, as per his IEP, likely billing the district by the hour the whole time.

What ensued turned into an internal feud within CDE. The unit at CDE responsible for collecting proof of corrective action from the district insisted that, because the IEP called for 1:1 aide support during any and all instruction, it was understood that 1:1 aide support also had to be provided during the compensatory services ordered. But, not everybody involved with the investigation at CDE agreed.

What I came to suspect was that the investigator and legal department at CDE had deliberately steered my complaint away from its original allegations for presumably fiscal and/or political reasons. It certainly had nothing to do with CDE abiding by its obligations or making the district comply with the law. It had absolutely nothing to do with protecting the educational and civil rights of a little boy with autism who can barely talk and needs an aide to access his education.

Reading through this Task Force's report, I'm now seeing that experience again through new eyes. The argument the CDE is fiscally motivated to find it does nothing wrong and neither do its districts, regardless of the facts, as asserted by the Task Force, resonates with me as true.

Another compelling argument asserted by this report that also rings true for me is that DGS exists for the purpose of cutting costs, not ensuring the State's compliance with federal mandates or protecting the rights of citizens. The report further argues that, as an integral part of DGS, OAH also exists for no reason other than to control costs and not to protect the rights of California's citizens. As such, the Special Education division of OAH is not organized in a manner consistent with the requirements of the IDEA that special education hearings and mediations be conducted by impartial parties whose only function is to protect the educational and civil rights of students with disabilities.

A State employee who is being told their primary function is to save money should not be in charge of making sure the State abides by the IDEA. It's an outright conflict of interest, which this Task Force asserts in its report. This isn't just a philosophical assertion; it's a regulatory requirement. The IDEA requires education agencies to design and implement individualized programs of instruction that confer appropriately ambitious educational benefits upon each student according to his/her/their unique circumstances, regardless of cost.

A State agency that exists to cut costs should not be making programming decisions in situations in which it is unlawful for cost considerations to be used to determine who will get what. That, to me, explains a lot of the hyper-Republicanism (in the present-day fascist sense of the term, not the former "Party of Lincoln" sense of it) going on in California's special education system.

And, I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that, back in 2005, right-wing grifters were responsible for giving the special education due process business back to OAH. One of the sleaziest special ed law firms there ever was, which happened to be the largest special ed law firm representing school districts in California at the time, was Lozano Smith. It was instrumentally involved in getting the due process hearings switched to OAH in 2005. All of this came on the heels of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2004, which resulted in changes to the IDEA. Those changes created an opportunity for anti-student and anti-parent forces to lobby for changes to how California handled its special education matters, from changes to State law, to changing who enforced the laws from SEHO to OAH.

However, in 2005, something else big happened involving Lozano Smith, right after OAH took the special education hearings back over. Lozano Smith will live on in infamy, at least in my mind, for decades to come following two public displays of anti-democratic behavior.

The first was its epic 2005 faceplant in the matter of Moser v. Bret Harte Union High Sch. Dist. (366 F. Supp. 2d 944 (E.D. Cal. 2005)), which made the news. The second public example that stands out in my mind was its 2014 amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court opposing protections for special education students under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the matter of K.M. v. Tustin Unified Sch. Dist., 78 F. Supp. 3d 1289 (C.D. Cal. 2015). This second example didn't steal headlines, but the actual outcome of the case was huge for students with special needs regarding their disability-related communication needs.

If special education advocacy has been the "canary in the coal mine" of American democracy, Lozano Smith has been one of the Mitch McConnell-esque specters of obstructive fascism that has been trying to snuff the voices of "canaries" like me for decades. I'm convinced that every single unrepentant person who had a hand in the Bret Harte mess and anything else like it will have a special place waiting for them in Trump Tower Hell, when they die; perhaps it will be named the Lozano Smith Suite.

In the present, all of the concerns raised by this Task Force's report are grounded in the realities I deal with every day. The fact that the authors fear to reveal their identities is also grounded in the harsh reality that the fascists aren't even trying to hide the fact that they are coming for us, anymore. Anybody who stands up for civil rights, these days, is a target, and I realize that includes me just by saying so.

Here's the thing, though. Those of us accustomed to dealing with special education issues who understand Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) also know an Extinction Burst when we see one. So long as those of us who see this Extinction Burst for what it is continue to abide by our professional ethics, stand our ground, and stick to the applicable science and rule of law, none of the self-serving histrionics of those with anti-democratic tendencies within our government will overcome our fact-based arguments. We have to keep acting like we live in a democracy or it stops being one.

We may lose battles on occasion, particularly in those States currently permeated by maskless, unvaccinated seditionists spreading COVID as readily as their lies, but the only way we lose the overall initiative is if democracy fully collapses in the United States. All of us "canaries" need to start beating our wings and squawking loudly as the voices of experience when it comes to fighting fascism within America's government, or it's curtains for all of us.

It's not shocking news to any of us that the fascists are targeting local government, including school boards, as a means of seizing control of the country. That's nothing new! That's what all of us working in special education advocacy have been up against since the original laws that protect our children were passed in the 1970s. To the rest of the Country, it's unfortunate that it's now happening to you, too, but we welcome you to the front lines and look forward to working with you to win this soft civil war currently being fought over basic rights and the rule of law in America.

To our colleagues fighting similar battles on behalf of other marginalized groups, we look to unify with you. When it comes right down to it, those of us who exist in marginalized groups collectively outnumber the few individuals at the center who put us in their margins.

In a democracy, majority rules. The minority of individuals who want to rob the rest of us of our rights cannot oppress a unified majority. Special education rights are human rights, just like ethnic rights, gender rights, sexual orientation rights, relationship rights, etc. If all of us whose rights are being infringed upon join forces instead of competing for the crumbs that fall from the would-be oligarchs' tables, we can be sitting at the table eating meals full of freedom with everybody else, instead.

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