Tag Archives: advocacy

Confronting “Alternative Facts” in Special Education

Recent events at the national level have exposed the mainstream public to the over-the-top misrepresentations that some public servants make. I’ve been witnessing the unbelievable spin jobs carried out by such individuals within the public education system for over 25 years, so none of this is new to me.

In truth, I’m glad the rest of the American public finally now understands what I’ve been dealing with this whole time. It used to be that when I’d explain what I do for a living and the behaviors I’d encounter on the part of some public education agency personnel and their contractors, people would think I was melodramatically making it all up. Honestly, as creative as I may be, I couldn’t make up stuff like that if I wanted to; no sane person’s imagination is that rich. Now, I can point to the White House saying, “It’s like that,” and people finally get it.

What the current administration has done for us is provide us with a new vocabulary used by its staffs who are utterly divorced from the truth, and that language helps us navigate their communicative intent. It’s language that they, themselves, have most usefully described as “alternative facts.” For the purpose of this post and future posts in which references to “alternative facts” are made, I am operationally defining “alternative facts” as untruths that are preferred by their speakers to the truth.

The pervasiveness of “alternative facts” in special education is so widespread and diverse that no single post could possibly capture our analyses thus far of their use. Because these governmental abuses of authority are woven so deeply into the fabric of public education, including special education, it is worthy of significant discourse.

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OMG, How Do We Protect Our Students, Now?

As we quickly approach the end of 2016, and the next Presidential inauguration in January 2017, those of us who have been protecting the educational and civil rights of students with disabilities already thought this effort was daunting, but now many of us are looking ahead at 2017 through 2021 in absolute horror. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse.

In part, we are floored by the reality that someone actively manifesting the symptoms of a personality disorder has been elected into the office of President of the United States. Based on our country’s voting behaviors, half the American public is made up of people who lack adult-level reasoning and perspective-taking abilities; that is, con artists and their regular victims.

On one hand, this could be viewed as a victory for those of us who seek to support and facilitate the integration and inclusion of those challenged by serious mental illness into mainstream society. However, even if we want to dress up this situation as a victory for the mentally ill, it’s going to take the rest of us to keep the current administration from running the ship of democracy onto a rocky reef, thereby ripping open its hull and dissipating our hard-earned freedoms into a sea of melodrama and destruction. We have all suddenly been forced to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, if for no other reason than damage control.

Personality disorders and developmental delays in social-emotional functioning have taken center stage in this last election and will continue to do so once the newly elected and appointed are sworn in. Impairments in judgment, deductive reasoning, and emotional stability – in other words, the symptoms of significant handicapping conditions – are posing a direct threat to the programs and services that help people with disabilities function in their communities with as much independence as possible. I keep hearing Morpheus from The Matrix in my head saying, “Fate, it would seem, is not without a sense of irony.”

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20 Important Tips to Good Advocacy

Click here to listen to the podcast version of this post.

I’ve recently had to come to the terms with the reality that’s there is only one me, there are only 24 hours in a day, and each lifetime is a unique thing that will never happen again once it has ended. I realized that I had made so many personal sacrifices to single-handedly pursue KPS4Parents’s mission with very little hands-on support (though tons of emotional support, the value of which I truly appreciate) because of our limited resources, that I was going to eventually put myself in harm’s way if things didn’t change.

This organization was never meant to be a “one-man band.” It started out with two of us; our founder, Nyanza Cook, and me. However, in 2006, Nyanza became ill and I took over her caseload. She remained ill and I took over the organization. She’s okay now and remains the chair of our board of directors.

In 2006, I had 40 kids on my caseload and several of their cases went to due process and on to federal court appeals after that. My daughter was in 5th grade and I was involved with Girl Scouts. I have no idea how I survived the 2006-07 school year. My pace was frenetic at the time, something I just can’t do anymore.

KPS4Parents is now undergoing a reorganization to account for the changes that have happened since we first opened our virtual doors in 2003. Next fiscal year (starting July 1, 2012) will begin our tenth year of operations, which is hard to believe.

The changes we’re making are necessary to adapt to the changing needs of our clients, blog followers, and the public education system as its evolution starts to finally build some momentum. It’s only a matter of time, now, until technology finally takes hold of public education the way it revolutionized large-scale business and industry 30 years ago.

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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. Continue reading

Parents in Crisis Can Be Vulnerable to Predators

There has been a tremendous movement among a group of special education lay advocates across the United States and beyond to get to the bottom of a very troubling situation involving an individual who claims to be a highly successful and renowned special education advocate but whose claims cannot be substantiated and, in fact, appears to have defrauded a number of parents of children with special needs, particularly targeting high-profile autism-related seclusion and restraint cases. This individual, who goes by the name of Michael E. Robinson, Sr., is suspected of being located in Redding, California, based on the physical location where the phone numbers he gives out are installed.

Robinson was previously located in Hawaii, so it seems. He claims to be located in Washington, DC, Arizona, Hawaii, and California. He has claimed to be a lobbyist (not registered); a special education lay advocate and/or attorney (he’s claimed both) with years of experience with due process cases and litigation going all the way to federal court (no record of him involved in any special education due process or court cases could be found); a medical doctor (there is an autism specialist also named Michael Robinson whose work Michael E. Robinson, Sr. has attempted to claim as his own); and, of all things, a NASCAR racer.

He’s also claimed that he has epilepsy and was given a wolf as a service animal because wolves can allegedly detect the onset of a seizure before it happens, thereby making them superior service animals – forget the fact that it’s not legal to have a wolf as a service animal. And on and on. His behavior seems indicative of a narcissistic personality disorder and an absolute disregard for the consequences of what he is doing.

It’s easy now that so many people have come out of the woodwork to share their Michael E. Robinson, Sr. stories and much of his story has now been pieced together to look at the big picture and reach the conclusion that Robinson is up to no good. He’s solicited money from several parents, apparently. He’s also requested copies of legal documents in individual student’s cases from parents to allegedly use for his “lobbying” efforts, only to turn around and copy and paste from these documents to attempt to misrepresent the work of other advocates and attorneys as his own to his next set of victims.

His M.O. is apparently to collect enough information from past cases to be able to initially convince parents in newly developing cases – usually horrific situations in which the parents are in dire need of technical assistance – that he is experienced and can help them. He commiserates with them over the injustices they have suffered and tells them not to worry because he’s going to take care of things for them. Then he takes whatever money they’ve given him and copies of their records and is never heard from by them again. He seems to particularly seek out single mothers who are emotionally vulnerable as they fight to protect their children with disabilities from harm and have little to no support from their children’s fathers.

As a special education lay advocate for over 18 years and a paralegal in special education-related litigation for the last 5 years, I have to say that the prospect of someone using special education lay advocacy as a vehicle for running a con is particularly disturbing. While it’s expected that different advocates have different styles and ways of going about things, this is well beyond anything like that.

What is so damaging is that the child who was in such dire need that his/her case caught Robinson’s eye continues to go unserved. Robinson’s advocacy, such as it is, fails to achieve appropriate outcomes, based on the reports coming in from families who claim to have been taken advantage of by him.

This hurts children with special needs overall by undermining the credibility of lay advocates everywhere. Every time I go into a school district in which I’ve never advocated before, I find myself having to prove that I’m not some crazy person or someone with an axe to grind. The expectation maintained by many school districts is that all advocates are adversarial jerks and a righteous pain in the keister. It usually takes months of working with an IEP team in a district to which I am new before people finally figure out that I’m just trying to solve problems and facilitate a rebuilding of trust between the school district and the student’s family and that I’m only going to pursue accountability if the school district personnel keep failing to perform their mandated duties.

But, when I have to follow behind someone calling him- or herself an advocate who has behaved disreputably, demonstrated a clear lack of knowledge regarding what constitutes an appropriate IEP, and antagonized the situation to such an extent that a power struggle has ensued between him/her and the school district, I am put at a tremendous disadvantage. The time I have to invest in proving that I’m not going to do the same thing is time that could have otherwise been invested in properly educating my client.

I want to make clear, though, that very few advocates are so lacking in knowledge and so adversarial that they do more harm than good. Mr. Robinson is the exception, not the rule. Nonetheless, parents need to be diligent about making sure that whoever represents them is on the up and up. When I meet with parents for the first time, they will often tell me that they Googled me beforehand. I’m totally okay with that; there’s a pretty good chance that I Googled them, too. Advocates have to protect themselves from shiesters, as well.

To read more about the evidence compiled against Michael E. Robinson, Sr., see:

Professionalism in Lay Advocacy

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.

Click here to download the podcast version of this blog article.