Applying ABA to Non-Compliant LEAs

Positive Reinforcer ChartApplied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”) has been around for decades, now. As one of the few scientifically research-based methodologies for providing instruction to individuals with autism, it has become regarded as an autism intervention. But ABA is not an autism-specific intervention at all. It is one approach to behavior modification that can be used with pretty much anybody.

Pure ABA has taken some criticism, and not necessarily without cause. Some practitioners have been overly reliant on Discrete Trial Training (“DTT”) to the point of training kids to be little robots without learning to understand or value?why social norms apply to them. The use of response-costs are also used inappropriately by far to many practitioners, particularly those who don’t really understand ABA. Response-costs are basically aversive consequences that are meted out when the individual engages in undesirable behavior.

From a purely scientific standpoint, response-costs can be delivered in a manner that facilitates the learning of more adaptive behavior. In our public schools, however, it far too often gets twisted into a justification to punish a kid for manifesting symptoms at school. (Of course, this presumes that there is any ABA being used in the school setting at all.)

Punishment is already epidemic and positive behavioral interventions are woefully lacking in our public schools. ?The idea of response-costs are far too appealing to school district administrators just looking for an excuse to punish a kid for displaying poor judgment or reacting to environmental antecedents because of a handicapping condition as though the kid is displaying willful defiance or misconduct.

These people don’t need any more ammunition to do the wrong thing. They can take the response-cost concept of pure ABA out of context and resort to reactive strategies in a knee-jerk fashion without putting forth the necessary effort to prevent the maladaptive behaviors and teach appropriate replacement behaviors in the first place.

In California where positive behavioral interventions are very regulated, there is at least some legal recourse for students who have been inappropriately subjected to reactive strategies, including response-costs, but the systems of accountability are far, far from perfect and way too many school districts still get away with harming children in the name of behavioral intervention.

But, like I said, ABA (including response-costs, when appropriate)?can be used effectively with anyone. I kind of look at our advocacy as behavioral intervention where the intent is to change the behavior of education agencies engaging in harmful, non-compliant behavior.

We do everything we can to reshape an education agency’s behavior into something appropriate, teaching replacement behaviors and reinforcing them with thanks and praise. But, if despite our best efforts they fail to grasp the point or the reinforcers we offer are not powerful enough to compel appropriate behavior, we resort to compliance complaints and referrals to attorneys for due process. These latter steps could be seen as reactive strategies in which we deliver response-costs.

Social media has now given us a new set of tools for encouraging appropriate behavior as well as inadvertently delivering response-costs. For example, the other day, I was following up on a complaint to the State Board of Educator Credentialing (“SBEC”) of the Texas Education Agency (“TEA”) in one of our cases.

In that case, back in February 2012, our client’s assistant principal launched into a screaming tirade during a lawfully audio recorded meeting in his office with her and her grandmother. As a mandated reporter in possession of hard evidence of verbal and emotional abuse of a child and a senior citizen, I had to report it to the Texas Department of Family Protective Services (“DFPS”). I also reported it as unethical misconduct on the part of the assistant principal to SBEC.

At the same time, I filed a compliance complaint against the District with TEA’s special education compliance investigations unit for procedural violations of special education law. I also filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) in Dallas.

TEA’s special education compliance investigation unit has since cited the District for procedural non-compliance and ordered corrective action. OCR is still conducting its investigation. DFPS finished its investigation but its findings are confidential.

The only agency I had yet to hear from was SBEC. I called and left voice mail messages but no one ever got back to me. Finally, the other day, it occurred to me that all of these state education agencies have created Twitter accounts, now. So, I went looking and, sure enough, TEA has a Twitter account (it’s @teainfo).

Rather than call again and leave a voice mail message, I sent a Tweet, which read: “@teainfo?Investigation unit of SBEC has failed to respond to child abuse complaint we filed in 3/12. Pls contact us off-list with status.” When you’re limited to only 140 characters, you have to be succinct.

Within 15 or 20 minutes, TEA tweeted back to advise that they couldn’t discuss the matter on Twitter and gave me the phone number for SBEC. I knew they couldn’t discuss the complaint on Twitter; that’s why I asked them to contact us “off-list.” I already had the phone number for SBEC; it’s the one I’d been calling with no response.

Tweets went back and forth a few times before I was given the name of the Director of Investigations for SBEC (his name is Doug Phillips). I called SBEC and sat on hold for over 15 minutes (call volumes were unusually high that day) before someone came on the line and told me that I couldn’t reach Mr. Phillips by calling the main SBEC number. I had to call his direct line (it’s ?512-936-8210).

I left a voice mail message for Mr. Phillips and within an hour, a very nice woman from SBEC called me back. Within 24 hours of speaking with her, I had a written response to our complaint.

After three months of attempting to prompt an acknowledgement of our complaint from SBEC via the conventional means, I had nothing while a reported child abuser remained credentialed and in the presence of children in a public school. Within 24 hours of taking my efforts public via Twitter, I had a written response to our complaint.

This case is far from over. The written response I got from SBEC was just the first step of many to move forward with having this individual’s credential reconsidered, but at least now the process is in motion.

The point with respect to ABA is that taking the matter public via Twitter and exposing SBEC’s failure to timely respond to our complaint of March 2012 was a response-cost that SBEC experienced when less public methods failed to produce the appropriate behavior. Evidently, responding timely to our complaint did not result in enough reinforcement for SBEC and a response-cost became necessary to prompt the appropriate behavior.

To be clear, the special education investigation unit of TEA was entirely responsive to our complaint. In fact, they were pretty awesome about getting things done in a timely manner. TEA evidently has some departments that are run better than others, so I don’t want to wrongly convey to the public that the whole agency is challenged to respond to complaints in a timely manner.

I think that, as time goes on, parents and advocates are going to increasingly find that social media is a powerful tool to hold our government accountable to its mandated duties. While some bemoan the loss of individual privacy (if not dignity – there’s a gross amount of TMI on the internet that is voluntarily placed there by people who should know better), the blade of transparency cuts both ways.

Government is supposed to be transparent. Public education agencies have to expect that, as a branch of the government, their shortcomings can be rightfully and lawfully exposed to anyone on the internet who happens to be looking. Twitter is one new way to let the public know when “the?emperor?is wearing no clothes.”

I remember when Web 2.0 first came to be and the business world was on its ear because now customers could vent on a blog somewhere about a crappy customer service experience, poor product quality, and other issues of dissatisfaction. There were the occasional nuts who just spammed over perceived injustices that were blown out of proportion or entirely imagined, but the wisdom of the crowd prevailed and most of us figured out which posts were justified and which were just hysterical rants.

Now, it’s normal day-to-day life and capitalism has far from died as the result of the public airing of customer grievances. The same forums have also allowed for public praise of jobs well done and quality products that truly solve consumers’ problems.

Government is always a million years behind industry in adopting technology, which is one of the reasons why public education is such a departmentalized, archaic bureaucracy. Fear of transparency is another deterrent for many public education agencies but it’s something that they’re just going to have to get over – just like the business world did.

If the business world, which is far less subject to mandatory transparency than the government is, can not only adapt to but embrace the exposure inherent in social media, then government has no excuse to run from it. It’s not going to be very pretty in the beginning as dissatisfied constituents come increasingly forth to tell their stories, but, as with the business world, their feedback can be used to improve flawed systems and give public agencies an opportunity to truly earn the respect of the taxpaying public. And, then we can heap them with positive reinforcement like verbal praise in the public eye.

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