Achieving Wisdom from the Special Ed Process

The 2009-2010 school year has come to an end for most families whose schools follow a traditional calendar.  I’m taking a big, deep sigh of relief myself as I wrap up all of the paperwork generated by the flurry of activity that always happens right before the end of the year as everybody tries to cram in as much as they can at the last minute.

This weekend, for once, I didn’t review any IEPs or go pouring through student records, or write letters to school districts.  I actually cleaned my house, worked on some sewing projects left over from last summer, studied for the GRE (I’m going back and getting my master’s degree in educational psychology over the next 2-3 years), and took naps.

In all of that, I had the time and mental energy to reflect back over this past school year and compare it to the school years prior since KPS4Parents first opened its doors in July 2003.  The end of this month marks the end of our 7th year of working with families and public education agencies to improve educational outcomes for public education students with disabilities.  It’s amazing to me that so much time has passed, and yet I think of the hundreds of children we’ve served at this point and realize that it really has been seven years.

A lot has changed since we first started.  In the beginning, school districts didn’t always take us very seriously and we had cases going to due process all the time.  Most settled in mediation, but a few made it all the way to a judge.  In 2004, the IDEA got reauthorized and all the implementing regulations changed in 2005.  At the same time, the Special Education Hearing Office (“SEHO”) that had tried special ed cases in California for the 15 years up to that point lost its contract with the State of California and all special education due process cases were transferred to the Office of Administrative Hearings (“OAH”).? The due process mechanism in California has been a disastrous joke for the most part ever since.

All of the changes in 2005 became a huge billing opportunity for the law firms representing school districts in California.  We had a bunch of new judges who did know the first thing about children with disabilities, special education, or special education law and special education law had just been revised and there was utter pandemonium over what was in force and what was not.  Cases were being tried that were under the prior regulations during the first part of the statutory period and under the new regulations for the latter part of the statutory period.

To say it was a mess is a gross understatement.   We saw cases that should have never even made it past mediation go all the way to federal court.  And lose.  Where the new Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”) knew next to nothing about special education, federal court judges knew even less.  The ALJs were supposed to specialize in special education law and the federal courts would defer to their judgment because it was easier than going through all the evidence and actually reading the briefs.  It was eye-opening to see just how poorly the due process mechanism works.

But, then OAH and the State of California got sued in a class action lawsuit over the bungling ineptitude that plagued the special education process.  The case didn’t go all the way to court, but OAH cleaned up its act a little bit in response.

What changed for KPS4Parents over the years, however, was that as we took our cases as far as they needed to go, referring families to ethical attorneys when due process became necessary, and providing paralegal support on some of those cases and testifying as lay advocates as to what had gone on prior to pulling in the lawyers, school districts started to realize that it made more sense to work with us than against us, particularly since we were never asking for anything other than what they were legally obligated to provide in the first place.  We started to develop positive, collaborative working relationships with special education directors and superintendents of school districts who realized that we were a resource rather than an adversary.

I’m thinking back to all the IEP meetings I’ve attended where a parent made an innocent request for something that was not within the scope of what the involved school district could legally do, and I’d turn to the parent and say “Actually, it can’t be done that way because the regulations require …” only to have the school district administrator’s jaw drop in amazement.  I was just trying to move things along and keep everyone focused on what was reasonably achievable at the time, but what ended up happening was that the school district administrators started to realize that I wasn’t there to pound the table and demand crazy stuff that wasn’t permitted under the law; I was there to facilitate an appropriate outcome.

I knew the turning point had been achieved in my relationships with some of these districts when the administrator would say things like, “Well, now that you bring that up, I’m really glad Anne is here because she can explain it as well or better than I can that …”  I was able to prevent an argument from happening in the first place over something that was pointless to argue over.  I was able to facilitate an appropriate outcome and watch the students I’d represented blossom once their new IEPs were implemented.

Most people hope that they can make a difference in the lives of others.   If I die tomorrow, I will die happy knowing that I already have made a difference, though there is still so great a need that I can hardly say I’m done.  For myself, personally, knowing that I’ve already made a difference in the lives of so many children has put me in a place mentally and emotionally that makes me want to do more. There’s a sense of accomplishment, but more importantly, there’s the taste of success on my tongue and I want more.  I want to make bigger things happen that positively impact the lives of more children and empower thousands of parents at once.

What has come of this journey so far has been a building and refining of my “bullshit detector,” my diplomacy skills, my problem-solving skills, my network of experts who I can rely on, and my relationships with the public education officials who are there for the right reasons and truly care about kids.  With all of this has come a certain degree of wisdom.  And, that wisdom has brought me to the simple truth that special education will work if everyone involved just uses common sense and follows the procedures.

It’s that simple.  If you don’t have the answers, go find someone who does.  Why this is so hard for school district personnel is beyond me, but there is this inclination for school district personnel to assume that they are the top of the food chain, that if they don’t have the answers then there are no answers, and that it’s absolute heresy to pull in an outside expert.? Of course, a lot of it has to do with money.  Districts don’t want to have to pay for outside experts.  But, bringing in an outside expert for a limited time to solve a specific problem is so less costly than the litigation that will follow when the child fails to receive educational benefit because the school personnel had no idea what they were doing.

And, parents usually have no idea how to judge when the school district personnel are telling them the truth or yanking their chains.  When their children fail to receive educational benefit, they just stop trusting everything that comes out of the District, presuming that the entire agency is staffed by corrupt bastards.  Sometimes, that presumption isn’t all that inaccurate, but usually it’s way off base.

It’s gotten to the point where KPS4Parents almost never has a case that results in a due process filing and when we do, it settles in mediation if not before hand.  It’s nice to have gotten to the point where we don’t have to resort to litigation to solve so many problems.

That said, I would be giving us too much credit if I didn’t mention the fact that with all the recent budget cuts to education in California at the State level, school districts don’t have the money for lawyers that they used to have but the federal special education funds, which are categorical funds that can’t be spent on anything other than special ed services, are still the same.  For once, schools in California have more money for providing special ed than they have to pay for lawyers to fight parents over special ed services.  That’s nice for the families we serve, as well.

The downside to working yourself out of a job is loss of income, of course.  Not that we have ever been about capitalizing on others’ misfortunes, but it’s true that an awful lot of billable hours went into our paralegal work.  Plus, it was money that ultimately came out of the offending school district’s pockets rather than the parents’ and I’m all about the responsible party being the one to pay for cleaning up its own mess.

Parents should not have to privately pay anyone to help them fix problems caused by a public entity funded by taxpayer dollars, though the reality is that they sometimes do.  This is the reason why we were established as a non-profit organization.  We have to bill to cover our costs, but we don’t mark up our rate to generate a profit and rest assured that we have never turned a profit; far from it.

That means that in order to keep working with the families we serve, many of which are low income, we’ve got to step up our donation efforts and seek more grants.? My summer is going to be all about grant writing, this year.  If any of you are aware of any grants that might apply to what we do, please email us at grants@kps4parents.org and let us know.  If you can make a donation, even if it’s just a dollar, please click on the Donation button on our blog or main web site.  In fact, visit our main site as you’re thinking of grants we might apply for to see the different types of work we do.

We’ve “leveled up” as it were in our 7th year of operation.  We’re ready to take on bigger challenges and collaborate with other organizations to benefit many children at once.  Starting this blog back in November 2008 was a step in that direction, actually.  It’s grown to the point that tens of thousands of visitors a month hit this blog and we have to believe that children with disabilities and their families and educators are finding it useful or we wouldn’t have the traffic and the comments that we get.

I read something profound in the book, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, MD.  Dr. Peck said something to the effect that love is not a feeling, it’s a verb.  It’s an action verb – something you do.  Love is doing what is in the best interests of everyone involved in a given situation.  Dr. Peck also speaks to the importance of having an intact moral compass and a true sense of integrity – that is, doing what you know to be right even if it means you could suffer an unpleasant consequence.

In the short term, the consequence might be uncomfortable or even painful.  But, in the long term, you will have stood your ground and risen above that short-term consequence to a point where you have the power to make lasting, positive changes in the world and people will respect you for it.  When children see the adults in their lives making those kinds of difficult choices on their behalves, it sets an example for how they should conduct themselves and influences their own decisions for the rest of their lives, thereby perpetuating the good.

I think about this whenever I am about to go into any kind of meeting, whether it’s an IEP meeting or a meeting of our board of directors.  I think about it when I meet with colleagues and vendors.  I think about it when I speak privately with school district administrators.  I have suffered unpleasant, if not downright painful, short-term consequences as a result of standing my ground.  And, I have reaped the long-term benefits of having done so.  At this point, I’m no longer intimidated by short-term pain and I don’t steer away from it when I know that I have to face it in order to do the right thing.  Eventually, the pain will have been worth it.

So, now here I am leading KPS4Parents into a new fiscal year facing the short-term pain of seeing one source of income dramatically reduced, as a result of our success in achieving appropriate student outcomes without having to resort to litigation hardly ever, with the knowledge that something bigger and far more positive will replace it.  And, I am encouraging all of you to embrace the challenges before you, which means embracing the unknown to a certain extent, and passing through any short-term pain to achieve long-term benefit.  It feels good to do the right thing.

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

Leave a Reply