Case in Review: A Comedy of Errors Can Have Tragic Consequences

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

As a member of KPS4Parents’ Board of Directors, I am constantly reminded of why this organization exists.? Our CEO, Anne Zachry, reports on our organization’s caseload to the rest of the Board and time and time again I am left incredulous at what actually goes on.  But I am also appreciative of the opportunity that we all collectively have to make a difference in the lives of the individual children and their families that KPS4Parents serves and the communities that benefit from our efforts.

In this post and podcast, I want to focus on one of our cases involving a special education director who has integrity, compassion, and professional expertise, but who has inherited a department staffed by people chosen and trained by his corrupt predecessor over which he apparently has little control.

Up until recently, this special education director had been either oblivious to or in denial of the degree to which his staff make serious mistakes and cover them up or just plain don’t think about how their actions impact the students they are supposed to serve to such a marked degree that they actually put the District out of compliance and cause substantive harm to the District’s special education students.

The dynamic has occurred quite a bit in the last few years, according to the reports the Board has received from the field, in which new administrators who are progressive, right-minded, and ethical are coming into high-ranking special education positions to replace corrupt, self-serving administrators left over from the prior era of good old boy politics. Tenure still results in more promotions and retention in public education than job performance, but results-driven promotion standards are starting to make inroads into public education HR policy, a change for which we advocate. There are “growing pains” associated with this evolution and transition which are creating challenges in special education that are different from many of the challenges we have faced in the past.

In this particular case, the student we represent has some specialized assessment needs due to medical issues involving her vision and visual processing systems. The standard cookie-cutter assessment tools were insufficient to measure all of her present levels of performance in all areas related to her suspected disabilities and the IEP team needed more expert assessment where her visual processing issues are concerned.

Anne assisted the family in pursuing an Independent Educational Evaluation (“IEE”) at public expense in the area of visual processing. The District agreed to the assessment, though it insisted on using a specific assessor, which was technically unlawful.

However, the special education director hadn’t insisted upon using this particular assessor as a condition of agreeing to the IEE. He had simply recommended this assessor to the District program coordinator assigned to this child’s case to suggest to Anne and the family because he’d had gotten good data from this assessor in the past. It was the program coordinator who asserted on behalf of the District in a letter to Anne that the District would only fund the IEE if this particular assessor was used. The special ed director was unaware of what the program coordinator had done until well after the fact.

Then the program coordinator left the District to take a position with another school district and the child’s case was assigned to a different program coordinator. Both program coordinators involved in this child’s case had been with the District for many years, having been hired and trained by the prior administrator who had cost the District a fortune in unnecessary litigation over many, many years of tyranny. The newest program coordinator to the child’s case did not take it seriously and compromised the assessment timelines for the IEE.

Anne contacted the special ed director’s office to try and get the situation resolved, but the special ed director was busy putting out so many fires that he asked his secretary to work things out with Anne, not realizing how involved the situation was becoming. His secretary didn’t know enough about what the regulations required to understand the severity of the situation.

Anne wrote a letter to the special ed director’s secretary explaining the situation to her, including the ramifications of non-compliance, with the full expectation that the secretary was going to have to take the letter to either the program coordinator, the special ed director, or both. She said so in her letter to the secretary, explaining that she didn’t expect the secretary to be able to address all of the problems that had developed involving this child’s case because it was incredibly complicated by this point and she spelled out in the letter what the issues were so that the secretary could hand it off to someone more qualified to handle them.

What Anne didn’t know at the time, however, was that the secretary was close friends with the newest program coordinator. The secretary realized that the situation described in Anne’s letter made clear that the program coordinator had screwed up. Not wanting her friend to get in trouble, the secretary withheld the letter from her boss, the director of special education. We remain unclear as to whether she shared the letter with the program coordinator.

What is clear is that two more weeks went by with no response of any kind from the District. Anne had done her job. She had put the District on notice of the problems arising from its non-compliance and asked for remedy. The District failed to even respond.

Anne filed a compliance complaint with the California Department of Education (“CDE”), which opened an investigation. However, she offered to negotiate Local Resolution with the District and, ultimately, the special education director took her up on this offer.

When Anne met with the special ed director to negotiate the terms of Local Resolution, it was he who told her that the secretary had withheld the letter from him in order to protect her friend, the program coordinator. He was not pleased with the situation at all. He actually thanked Anne, saying that while he didn’t desire to be investigated by the State, her complaint had made him aware of a very serious problem within his department – something that all of us appreciated hearing.

The terms of Local Resolution were worked out and we all thought that things were finally coming together for this little girl. The District coordinated what was supposed to be a visual processing assessment, the child was assessed, and the assessment report came back.

Upon reviewing the report, however, Anne realized that it contained information that the IEP team already had about the child’s vision system but no information about visual processing. Anne contacted the assessor, a developmental optometrist, and found out that the District had not asked her to do a visual processing assessment. The assessor read the language of the District’s referral to Anne over the phone, which only requested a vision assessment, and emailed Anne advising that she could do another assessment, this time for visual processing, if the District authorized it.

As it turns out, administrative staff in the District offices had not submitted proper paperwork to the assessor once the Local Resolution had been signed. So, once again, the special ed director had given his staff instructions and expected them to carry them out appropriately, only for his staff to blow it.

Only this time, it was while under direct oversight of the Focused Monitoring and Technical Assistance Unit of CDE, to which the District must provide proof of the corrective actions agreed to in the Local Resolution. His staff’s failure resulted in a breach of the Local Resolution Agreement.

And then Winter Break hit. This whole attempt at getting proper present levels of performance of this child’s visual processing began in June 2010. The District screwed up the timeline and she didn’t actually get assessed until November 2010. Now here it is January 2011, and the IEP team still doesn’t have appropriate information regarding this child’s visual processing issues and needs.

The special ed director is, once again, mortified. He has continued to work with Anne over the Winter Break to get this situation resolved, resorting to contacting the assessor himself while visiting his family for the holidays to coordinate a make-up assessment date.

The thing here is that the special ed director has had to commit far more District resources to cleaning up this mess than what it would have taken to do the job right in the first place. And, what is painfully apparent is that he can’t rely on his staff to do the right thing. He is crippled by staff who don’t take their obligations seriously and cover up for each other when they do something wrong at the expense of the District’s students.

At no point has this special ed director ever gotten angry with KPS4Parents about any of this, which is what some administrators do when their people are caught messing up, and we very much appreciate his candor and willingness to work with us to solve these problems. But, the bigger issue here is a public education agency spending money it shouldn’t have to spend to fix problems that never should have happened while a child with fairly significant disabilities continues to go without appropriate intervention.

Moving forward, the challenge before KPS4Parents and our Board ?of Directors is what we can do about this. As it stands, the only real tool in our toolbox for situations like these thus far has been holding public education agencies accountable for making mistakes, but we’d rather help prevent mistakes in the first place, if at all possible.

We’re exploring grant opportunities to fund training and outreach programs to public education agencies, but we’re starting to realize that training alone isn’t going to get the job done and are toying with the idea of seeking funding to provide efficiency experts and technology solutions to public education agencies to help streamline their operations and eliminate the bottlenecks that develop when people take actions based on their own selfish and political motivations rather than what is required to render a Free and Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) to a qualified student with special needs.

Click here to download the podcast version of this article.

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KPS4Parents is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, tax ID 65-1195513.
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