"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Special Needs Schooling Especially Challenging

The assault on parental responsibility and parental rights just keeps getting notched up. Parents of special needs children may have been in the trenches longer than anyone else, and the battle there is very fierce.  They know they need to be their child's advocate, but finding the line between being an advocate and being a pain in the b*** seems to be very difficult.  Unfortunately, at the end of the day the decisions appear to be made on the basis of money.  With falling school budgets and the tight economy, the battle for money has become intense, and the children are the ones losing.

Take the case of Chuka Chibuogwu and the Alief Independent School District in Houston, TX. Chuka has autism and was in middle school when his parents, immigrants to this country, began asking the district to give him the services they felt he needed and was entitled to. The following details come from MyFoxHouston.

"When I went there I saw things no mother would want to see," says Neka of her visits to Chuka's middle school.

"My wife went to observe, found him squashed in the corner and nobody cared," says Kenneth.

"There was nothing I could do but cry because I was so shocked that such a thing could go on in this country," added Neka of the repeated conferences with Alief administrators ending in stalemate."

The family spent most of their life savings on "due process" which resulted in a stalemate.  The Chibuogwus eventually took their son out of school and began home schooling him.  It would be a sad case if it ended there, but it didn't.  The school district turned around and sued the Chibuogwus for the cost of the due process to the district, at the time $170,000.

The story became even more egregious when it was revealed that none of the school board members of Alief were even aware of this legal effort.  It was all done as a deal between the Superintendent and a lawyer, Erik Nichols, who had promoted a legal seminar entitled “Show Me the Money” – a how-to guide for extracting cash penalties from parents who challenge their public schools.

FOX 26 News obtained invoices which show the district’s taxpayers have compensated Erik Nikols and his law firm Rogers, Morris and Grover as much as $12,000 in a single month for waging the three-and-a-half year courthouse campaign against the Chibuogwus. Ultimately the district spent over $200,000 going after this family who was trying to advocate for their son. Why?  Well once the Federal 5th Circuit court threw out the district's case ruling that the district had no legal right to collect money from the Chibuogwus, the district's next action shed light on the reason why they fought so hard.

In January the district demanded, as a condition of settlement, that Nneka and Kenneth Chibuogwu sign a pre-drafted apology. In it the Chibuogwus would have to admit their actions were “reprehensible” and that they “bullied” and “harassed” teachers and staff. They would also have to confess they were coerced to attack the district by the news media and that Alief provided their son with all the educational support he needed.  In short, they wanted to humiliate these parents as a warning to other parents who might dare to advocate for their children. At the end of the day, the district felt they literally couldn't afford to set the precedent with this family about providing special needs services.  In order to stem the tide of demands from other parents, they had to show that, "you don't go up against the district."

This case is not isolated. A similar case worked its way through the Bethlehem PA school district.  The court once again ruled that the district had no right to receive compensation from the family seeking special ed services.  In this case, the facts begin to show the blurry line that currently exists between advocating and harassing.
"The school district sued Zhou in 2009, alleging she engaged in "vexatious" behavior by refusing to approve special education plans for her sons, identified by the initials M.Z. and J.Z. The suit alleged Zhou demanded a series of due process hearings for her sons between 2001 and 2009, allegedly walking out of one and refusing to participate in another.

Zhou also demanded the district pay for a Mandarin interpreter for her children at the special education meetings, even though the family speaks English, the suit says.

The district demanded damages under a provision of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that allows school districts to sue to recoup legal fees when it can show a parent has abused the system by requesting unnecessary or frivolous hearings." mcall.com
The Bethlehem District claimed the Zhou's purposely drove up the cost of their son's special education so that it would be more in line with the private academy they wanted the district to pay for. That's if you believe, as the district did, that the case was about money.

Such was not the case in Kansas City where a parent with a deaf child was seeking special education services for her child but was meeting with resistance from the district. In that case, having the district pay for tuition to a nearby school that specialized in educating deaf children would have meant a $5,000 savings to the district. Of course public school money is never that clear. Losing the special needs student would have impacted their costs for teachers already hired to provide special education who now had one less student to teach, even though those teachers did not have the special training necessary to deal with a deaf child who wanted to speak instead of use sign language. At the end of the day the district's actions were based more on money than ideology or concern for the student.

Those parents decided to move to a district that had a better school for the deaf that was affordable for the family. This decision reaffirmed the parents as the ultimate decision makers for the child and showed that they were able to make a decision that took into account the needs of the child as well as the realities of available funding.

It would be unfair not to take the school district's position into account as well in this battle. It would not be out of line to claim that every Special Education teacher knows of at least one instance (and maybe more) where parents have pushed for more than their child actually needed or was entitled to. Take the case of the child who came from the elementary school with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for reading and writing. By the time this child reached middle school he was getting all A's in advanced classes, but the parents would not allow the district to drop his IEP and argued for every service they believed he needed. This meant that special ed teachers had to spend X number of minutes a day with a child who clearly did not need their services, at the expense of other children who did. Every district deals with these cases individually and worries about the precedents being set. Do they cave to the wishes of these parents because in the long run it will be easier and less expensive, or do they risk, by doing that, that other parents will seek similar services, stretching the available staff even further?

What motivates the parents?  Primarily it is concern for their children, but in some cases it is to game the system.

There is a misconception among parents with students who receive special services from public schools. A child who can maintain an IEP through high school may  get a special accommodations for the SAT or ACT,  which can include additional time, an alternate testing environment, and alternative ways to provide answers. These factors could improve their score.  For a child with mild cognitive impairment these accommodations could mean the difference between getting in to college or not.  That's quite an incentive for parents to push the system.  The reality, however, is that these accommodations are rarely granted by the ACT and SAT services. A child must be severely impaired to get extended time (e.g. reading at the 4th grade level in 10th grade). Meanwhile, children who have matured and learned to compensate for their disability are being told daily that they cannot do the work on their own.

When they enter college these kids are no longer covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) which means no more IEPs or guarantees to education. Instead they are considered an adult for whom education is an opportunity. They are covered only by accommodations provide by the Americans with Disabilities Act. ADA's impact on those with learning disabilities, ADHD, low spectrum Autism disorder and other things that could be accommodated in K-12 is limited so parents with special needs kids need to do a lot of research about the programs available for their son or daughter at the various institutions of higher learning.

Meanwhile our system struggles to find that line between being the only voice for your children and just being a big loudmouth.

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