On more than one occasion I have had school district administrators tell me that they wished that one or more of their students were being represented by KPS4Parents than the lay advocates (or, sometimes, even the attorneys) representing them at that time. That can be taken more than one way, so my eyebrows tend to shoot up when school district administrators say things like that to me.
There are a handful of ethical administrators with whom I regularly deal who have confided in me their frustrations with personnel who don’t get it and don’t want to; parents with emotional problems with whom communications are incredibly difficult; law firms giving bad advice to school districts on purpose so that problems will develop for which they will ultimately be able to put in billable hours; and lay advocates who, by all accounts, have lost their freaking minds.
I know that the landscape of special education is extremely varied and that “bad guys” can pop up anywhere at any time. The whole “us versus them” mentality that often develops when there isn’t a meeting of the minds between parents and school personnel only makes things worse, creating windows of opportunity for the “bad guys” to do their damage.
To be clear, when I say “bad guys,” I’m not necessarily talking about people with malicious intent. I’m also talking about people who just don’t care and wreak havoc simply because they’re not trying or being conscientious about what they’re doing. It’s an inadvertent outcome of them pursuing their own agenda without thought as to how their actions might impact other people, including children with special needs.
Then there are those who are just simply nuts and there is no rhyme nor reason to what they are doing. I have dealt with many school district administrators, teachers, and administrative support personnel who clearly meet this definition. I’ve encountered hearing officers and federal court judges of have clearly taken leave of their senses or are just incredibly apathetic and unwilling to put forth a legitimate effort. I have also met advocates who are unethical and/or dangerously unknowledgeable, as well. The point is that “bad guys” crop up on both the public agency and parent representation sides of the equation.
“Bad buys” in special education lay advocacy is the consequence of the field being unregulated. There are no licensure or certification requirements. Indeed, there is no licensure or certification offered. Like the term “counselor,” anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves an advocate. “Advocate” is a generic term referring to a person who actively communicates with others with the intent of achieving a particular outcome for a particular cause.
As a result, lay advocates come in varying degrees of competence and ability. Some are very knowledgeable of the technical requirements of the IDEA and its implementing regulations and others are not. Some are accomplished communicators and facilitators of resolution while others are not. It’s a mixed bag.
To do the job well, you have to understand an incredibly complex system of rules and regulations within the context of the psychology of learning and memory, language development, behavior, and motor skills. You don’t have to be an expert in these areas, but you have to possess enough knowledge to know what to ask of whom if you don’t have the answers yourself.
You also have to exercise professionalism. That doesn’t mean you have to be uptight and stoic in all of your dealings with public agency personnel or your clients. I’ve broken the tension in many an IEP meeting by making a well-timed wisecrack, myself. Certainly don’t lose your sense of humor; just use it appropriately.
The value of professionalism in your dealings with public agency officials is the credibility it earns you. On the rare occasion when one of my cases has gone to due process and I’ve had to testify, it is the quality of my work on the record that precedes me. The letters I’ve written on behalf of our clients do not make wild, emotional accusations or leap to conclusions unsupported by the evidence. The compliance complaints I’ve filed are neatly organized with exhibits attached to support the allegations I’ve made. The due process filing documents I’ve prepared tell the story as reflected by the record and include itemizations of the procedural violations that have occurred and the substantive claims that the student has against the offending public agency.
By the time I make it to the witness stand, I’ve created a body of evidence that pretty much makes the case for the most part. The purpose of my testimony is largely just to authenticate my documents submitted as evidence for the record so that the hearing officer can consider them in trying the case. Of course, once I’m on the stand, opposing counsel will do everything possible to try and discredit me – sometimes to ridiculous extremes – so I get questioned about everything under the sun. But, once my documents are admitted into evidence, they speak for themselves.
While it’s always a gamble as to who you will get as an investigator on a complaint or a hearing officer in a due process case, the more effort you put in to producing quality work, the more seriously you are taken. This goes for your conduct during IEP meetings, as well.
Given that I audio record every IEP meeting that I attend, I always make a point to remind the parents I’m representing that if anyone is going to sound like a jerk on the record, it’s not going to be us. If it ever becomes necessary to transcribe that recording for due process, I want the record to reflect that we followed the process and stuck to the point as we worked our way through the issues that had to get resolved.
Audio recording an IEP meeting, for me, is intended to maintain a verbatim record of what was discussed so if people later can’t remember what happened, or remember it differently, we have a way of going back and clarifying what was actually said. It also tends to keep people honest and encourages diplomacy. Sensible people do not want to be recorded carrying on like lunatics.
But, once in a while, I find myself collecting evidence rather than legitimately participating in the IEP process because the school district personnel involved have gone off the deep end. Those are the moments when I’m compelled to push the audio recorder towards them and say, “Reeealllly? Tell me more!” I don’t, but I’m compelled to. Instead I say things like “Perhaps I don’t understand what you’re saying. Could you please explain what you mean?” I don’t need to push the recorder closer for dramatic effect. It’s a good recorder that picks up everyone in the room.
Dramatic effect has rarely served me well in an IEP meeting. Stating the facts and the regulatory requirements gets me farther, even if only to make the record so that a trier of fact can sort everything out later.
This is why I am horrified to hear of advocates who show up at IEP meetings wearing top hats and spats and carrying a cane with a brass knob on the top, carrying on like some kind of whacko and failing entirely to take the IEP process seriously; who try to get what they want by screaming and yelling during IEP meetings to no constructive end; who meet with administrators privately in the belief that they are schmoozing when they don’t understand the regulations, are being manipulated by these same administrators, and are only making fools of themselves and wasting their clients’ financial investment in their time; or who attend IEP meetings with their clients to insist on outcomes that their clients don’t actually want and interfere with the resolution of disputes, leaving the parents not knowing who to trust at all.
The acquisition of power is not the point. Achieving appropriate student outcomes is the point. Power, to the degree that is needed to achieve appropriate student outcomes, comes from knowledge and skill, not pounding tabletops and acting like a weirdo. You fail your clients tremendously when you skimp on your research, disregard the evidence, and attempt to effect change through extreme behavior. If you don’t know what you’re doing, either figure out how to do it or find someone else who can.
Join COPAA and/or other advocate organizations so you can become part of a network of professionals who pursue appropriate student outcomes and collaborate with each other on the best ways to see that happen. (I’ll be attending the March 2010 COPAA Conference, myself, and hope to see you there!)
Most importantly, dedicate yourself to diplomacy, tact, and making fact-based assertions on behalf of your clients. Take your responsibilities seriously. The futures of our most vulnerable children are in your hands and their parents are trusting you to protect those futures with every fiber of your being.
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