Making Special Education Actually Work

Recent Uptick in Behavioral Challenges

December 23, 2021

 

Now that the Fall 2021 half of the regular school year has come to an end and all the students on my caseload are on Winter Break, I'm taking advantage of the break from back-to-back Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings to reflect on the most serious issues I've had to deal with so far during this first half of the current school year.

 

While I've had to deal with a lot of different challenges, it is the impact that the lack of appropriate services during shutdown, from March of 2020 to August or September of 2021, that has hit hardest. It's been the absolute most hardest on my students with intensive behavioral services in their IEPs who have suffered the most regression and lost educational benefits. School districts all over Southern California, and likely elsewhere throughout the State and beyond, refused to provide in-person services to children on IEPs who required them in order to continue learning during shutdown.

 

This was in spite of explicit changes to State law that mandated in-person services for those special education students who needed it and compensatory education for any special education students who lost educational benefits during shutdown. Not only were in-person services denied, compensatory services are still being denied as school districts act like their students' regression has nothing to do with the fact that the districts failed to provide in-person services to these children during shutdown.

 

What was done instead? Aides employed originally to provide direct, in-person support to these students in the classroom setting were put on Zoom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, or whatever else platform their employers were using for distance learning as remote participants. How in the Hell an aide on Zoom was supposed to provide the supports necessary to facilitate the student's participation in online learning via Zoom was anyone's guess. It consistently failed to work.

 

Further, even though the new laws clearly made it an option, only one of my students' districts hired a non-public agency (NPA) to provide in-person behavioral support services in the student's home during distance learning so the student's behaviors could not be permitted to allow him to escape/avoid the instruction. Instead, they rewarded his participation and prompted him to return to task when his attention wandered, so he was able to make excellent academic progress during distance learning.

 

What he wasn't able to work on was his social skills with peers and adults in normal everyday settings. When he returned to on-campus learning, his classroom behaviors became increasingly challenging and the behaviors of the other students in the class became escalated in response. It eventually got so bad that the other students in his non-public school (NPS) classroom assaulted his NPA behavior aide because they blamed her for keeping him in their class. He triggered them that badly.

 

We ultimately changed his placement right before Winter Break started and a due process case for the involved district's utter failure to offer or deliver a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for the last two years is now pending. Settlement is entirely possible, which I can't discuss in detail, and the IEP team has come up with a strategy to hopefully salvage his education for the moment, but this is a student who is able to meet academic standards in spite of his grossly impaired social skills.

 

Our concern is that he will graduate with a diploma and get arrested the next day for acting out in public. His behavioral needs have been exacerbated by shutdown because he didn't get any instruction or practice in behaving in socially appropriate ways when in-person with peers or adults at school. In part, this was because the NPS he had attended had a “philosophy” that failed to conform with the evidence-based scientifically valid practices of the NPA that was providing his behavioral interventions.

 

As such, NPS staff regularly failed to abide by the Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP) in the student's IEP, much to the frustration of the NPA experts who had designed it and much to the danger of the Behavioral Intervention Implementation (BII) staff who was assaulted by my student's classmates because he made them so upset. Rather than work collaboratively with the experts hired to address his behaviors using methods proven to work by science, the NPS staff would engage in ad hoc interventions based on whatever ideas popped into their science-denying minds in the given moment, none of which worked.

 

Most of the students in the NPS had mental and emotional health needs, many of which arising from past trauma, but our student had autism and just didn't know how to read the room. It was dubious as an appropriate placement from the outset, but the ecological factors of the on-campus setting weren't a problem during distance learning.

 

It wasn't until our student, who not only has autism, but also ADHD, started attending on-campus, which required him to be in transport between home and school for a total of five hours per day, and then attempt to behave in a socially appropriate manner among other students with serious mental and emotional health needs, that things really fell apart. He might as well have been put into a rocking chair in a room full of long-tailed cats.

 

The harm was inevitable. And, as always, he's being blamed and vilified while no one from his school district offers something appropriate to his needs. We're hoping the interim placement he has for now will benefit him more than where he's been, but it's still less than ideal. It may take a judge to figure it all out.

 

I've had two other students on my caseload face expulsion just within the last few weeks. One student's case just recently settled after the involved school district attempted to assert that behaviors that were clearly associated with the student's disabilities somehow magically were not, during a Manifestation Determination (MD) IEP meeting.

 

The only way for a parent to appeal an MD IEP meeting outcome is to file for due process. Because the student is facing expulsion, the hearing is automatically expedited. This gives parents very little time to prepare for hearing, much less find adequate representation.

 

I was able to refer this family to an attorney right away who was able to handle the MD appeal via due process. We were lucky to find a really good attorney who could take the case right away and handle it. Most of my attorney colleagues are overwhelmed with the volume of cases they are getting, right now. The violations are everywhere, evidently, and this failure to provide in-person services during shutdown when they truly were needed seems to be a recurring theme.

 

This case settled because we were able to move quickly through the process and find a good attorney who could handle going to an expedited hearing if necessary or otherwise negotiate an appropriate settlement. Not everybody is having that same experience, these days. This family was lucky. The violations in this student's case were pretty egregious and the attorney was able to convince the involved school district that it wasn't worth going to hearing.

 

My other student facing expulsion still awaits a decision from school site administration as to whether the principal should just let the IEP team effect a change in placement for special education reasons rather than subject this student to expulsion proceedings. Again, the involved school district tried to claim that the student's disability had nothing to do with the behaviors, which was simply ridiculous.

 

The student already had behavioral interventions built into his IEP to address the very kinds of behaviors for which he was in trouble. He had a history of escalating to the most outlandish behaviors he could think of to come right up to the line and just barely cross it enough to get himself kicked out of school to avoid the instruction. He hated it that much.

 

He had transitioned to his current placement in a Special Day Class (SDC) for special education students with behavioral challenges from a special school where all the students had behavioral challenges at the start of the 2019-20 school year and had been largely successful for most of that school year, until the shutdown started in March 2020. During that time, his targeted behaviors of work refusals and avoiding the classroom setting altogether were entirely reinforced by being stuck at home on the computer while the aides from his SDC were also in their own homes using their district's online meeting platform.

 

There was no one in his home trained in the interventions that were necessary to compel his compliance with teacher directions. There was no one who could make him even login. He had a baby sister at home and his mother was not about to have him triggered into angry outbursts in the home by trying to convince him to participate in the instruction with a baby in the house. Further, his mother was medically fragile and required multiple surgeries throughout the shutdown and afterwards. She was in no position to handle the angry outburst of a frustrated teenager with no impulse control due to ADHD struggling with the work because of a co-morbid learning disability.

 

We have a complaint pending before one of his school district's regulatory agencies in response to its mishandling of his behavioral needs to date. He is now pending expulsion for a behavior we're fairly convinced he engaged in so as to be kicked out of school. We don't believe he ever had any intent to hurt anyone, but he did enough wrong for someone who doesn't understand the function of his behaviors to think he might pose a credible threat. Law enforcement determined he posed no threat. It appears that district personnel may have exaggerated the severity of the behavior on purpose to justify expulsion.

 

All that said, the expulsion case may be dismissed if the district agrees to simply let the IEP team refer this student back to his previous placement at the special school. It was successful in preparing him for his transition to a comprehensive high school placement before shutdown; it should be able to return him to that state and help him transition back, again, with success. We also have a ton of new assessments pending to figure out what the most appropriate IEP for him should be, going forward.

 

This situation may deescalate before it has time to turn into a full kerfuffle. If we can all just agree to work together to address this student's serious behavioral regression through the IEP process and avoid the expulsion process altogether, particularly given that this district is being looked at very closely by one of its regulators right now for failing to adequately support this student thus far, already, we can implement a solution that will eliminate the parent's need to pursue accountability.

 

The goal isn't to nail the school district's hide to the wall; the goal is to get the student appropriately served as quickly as possible. Nailing hides to walls should only take place if it's absolutely necessary to get a student appropriately served as quickly as possible. It's a last resort option.

 

I have yet another student whose case is pending settlement, hopefully. It would be foolish on the part of his school district to allow it to go to hearing. I can't discuss much about it while it's pending settlement, but suffice it to say his school district totally blew it by failing to provide in-person behavioral services and supports during shutdown.

 

He has a host of learning challenges including partial vision loss, severe autism, intellectual disability, a seizure disorder, extremely limited communication skills, and self-injurious behaviors that frequently result in property damage in his home. His windows now have Plexiglas® panes and the dry wall in his home has been replaced so often, his family has lost count. He has made frequent trips to the emergency room and urgent care for medical treatment after hurting himself during an outburst. He has hurt his petite mother by accident.

 

He's now a young adult who is still eligible for special education and he's had these behavioral challenges his entire life. He's been a student of the same school district his entire public education career. It's not like they don't know what he needs. Before shutdown, he received intensive 1:1 and 2:1 behavioral supports throughout the school day to keep him safe and engaged in the instruction. He got none of that at home during shutdown.

 

His mother was left to be his 1:1 aide support during distance learning over a computer while his actual aide support staff stared back at him from the screen from their own homes. He was immediately triggered into violent outbursts because he didn't understand why he wasn't at school with these people instead of looking at them on a computer screen. His participation in distance learning had to stop immediately for his own safety and that of his mother. It's been a struggle ever since to get an offer of appropriate services in his IEP as a prospective matter of FAPE, much less with respect to all of the compensatory remedies he's due.

 

This student's case has been referred to a different attorney than the one mentioned above, but also an amazingly talented and smart one. Because settlement terms are still being discussed, I can't speak much further to the matter, but I think the point is made that this is happening way too much. We've got too many kids who didn't get what they needed during shutdown who are now owed compensatory remedies and they have until March 2022 to file for due process on their claims.

 

Special education attorneys who represent families are working at capacity with respect to their caseloads. That said, there have now been enough cases litigated and settled since the increase in claims began that openings are starting to come on many caseloads. Others are bogged down by appeals, which are largely occurring in the federal District Courts.

 

Some attorneys are having an easier time these days than others, just depending on whether they get good judges at the due process level, or have to work the appeals system before they get to someone willing to take the time to really listen to the arguments and examine the evidence relative to the rule of law and applicable science. That's always the chance that attorneys take with these cases, and it's not fun to work the appeals, I promise you.

 

I've provided paralegal support on cases all the way up to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and there is nothing more tedious than a Table of Uncontroverted Facts, because there are always facts that become controverted between the parties. The back-and-forth between the parties about what facts were agreed to, which ones were disputed, and all the references to the evidence and testimony on the existing record from the original due process case and previous appeal to the District Court that supposedly supported each party's asserted facts, became one of the most exhausting exercises I've ever engaged in as professional. I have ADHD – Inattentive Type, myself, so trust me when I say it was grueling.

 

Litigation should always be the very last resort to solving a special education problem, but these days it's been necessary. For those of you finding yourselves in similar circumstances, I'd like to share a decision from the California Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH).

 

I downloaded the PDF of this decision just in case it ever gets taken down in the future, and have uploaded it to our site. Click here to download the PDF of this due process decision from California in which the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found in favor of a student who was deprived of educationally necessary in-person behavior services during shutdown, if the link to the OAH site doesn't work. In this case, the ALJ ordered compensatory services as remedies to the student.

 

If this decision can help you argue for resolution to your own child's lost educational benefits during shutdown, whether via due process or just a sensible discussion with your school district's representatives, it will have served its purpose as a persuasive authority on the subject. If you find it necessary to hire an attorney to file for due process over shutdown-related deprivation of educational benefits, be sure to share this authority with your attorney. They may have very well already seen it, but if you can relate the facts of your own child's case to the facts of this due process case linked to here, you will help bring your attorney up to speed regarding your child's claims, so you can timely file your case before March 2022.

 

You may also choose to use this decision to support your arguments as you advocate for your own child in the IEP process as a parent. If you share this decision with your school district's IEP team members and relate the facts of your child's situation to the similar facts in this due process case, presuming your child's case follows a similar pattern of a denial of behavioral services from his/her IEP during shutdown, your school district may be compelled to work with you rather than have you lawyer up and then have to deal with the costs of a legal action.

 

Parents' attorneys' fees and costs can be recovered from the offending school districts as a condition of settlement or upon prevailing in due process or appeal. School districts are smart to work things out through Informal Dispute Resolution (IDR) Agreements or Confidential Settlement Agreements, if they can. The costs of due process and any subsequent litigation are far too great for taxpayers to fund when those dollars could be spent on educating children, instead. Spending education dollars on fights over the deprivation of educational benefits just adds insult to injury, honestly.

 

The evidence is increasingly making clear that far-right politics have way too much influence on public education at various levels of government, from local to state to federal education agencies. This is how public service was infiltrated at its weakest point. Extremists would get elected by an uniformed or misinformed electorate, then hire their cronies to work for them within their agencies, undermining the efficacy of local government while mishandling the finances in order to “prove” that government doesn't work while arguing for increased local control and reduced regulatory oversight.

 

Then they pay themselves more than they'd ever earn in the private sector where job performance matters as they slash resources to those expected to actually deliver on the agency's mandates who work beneath them. This is the climate in which special education violations occur. This is why public agencies defy the regulations to the detriment to some of our most vulnerable children, many of whom coming from low-income households whose parents are often at a loss as to how to fight back. Most parents won't do anything because they don't know what to do and don't realize how badly their children are being hurt in the long run.

 

If you are a parent whose child did not get appropriate services during shutdown, and who has regressed and may require compensatory services to be brought back to where he/she should be in school, right now, you're not alone. Whether you negotiate resolution on your own with you local education agency or hire someone to help you, know that many other parents have already started to fight this same fight before you, and some really helpful decisions are coming out of the various venues that can help bolster the arguments you and/or your representatives make on behalf of your child.

 

I hope this helps you put your own child's situation into perspective and gives you some ideas on how to go forward in the most constructive and least adversarial way possible. I can only imagine the other families' stories that out there similar to the ones I've described and the case captured by the decision linked to above. All of you are in my heart and I'm praying for you all.

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