This posting and podcast are directed at school district administrators, the people farthest removed from the classroom yet whose decisions can contribute to the achievement of appropriate educational outcomes or ruin lives. First, I want to acknowledge the tremendous responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the people who choose to undertake administrative positions. Getting the job done at all is a sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenge, and yet it still has to get done.
But, there are always those people who are seeking status rather than responsibility when they pursue high-ranking positions, and as a result, their decision-making isn’t always focused on the right things. On the rare occasion when it is focused on appropriate outcomes, it’s usually because they perceive these outcomes as beneficial to themselves in some way and are motivated purely by their own self-interests (or what they perceive to be their own self-interests). This isn’t unique to government. Look no further than former Governor Blagojevich of Illinois for proof of that.
While there are a lot of dedicated, responsible people working in public education administration, there is an unfortunately large number of people who look at school administration as nothing other than a career path. Those who are climbing ladders for their own reasons without care or consideration for the students they’re supposed to be serving are dangerous, particularly to children with special needs.
As we go through this current series of blog articles and podcasts, which identifies the sources of negative influence in the special education process so that they can be addressed and overcome, it’s necessary to shine a very bright light into the dark corners of school administrator malfeasance. This is a very serious cause of problems in the special education system and it is hardly rare.
To illustrate my point, I’ll share a couple of examples from my own experiences. My point here isn’t to call the bad guys out in a public venue. That’s actually already been done plenty enough by others. My point is to use their actions to illustrate a what I mean.
Our founder, Nyanza Cook, was inspired to create KPS4Parents based on her own experiences attempting to advocate for her eldest child who has special needs. He was misidentified as having mental retardation when he actually had a normal IQ but had a severe language impairment. For years he languished in special day classes for children with cognitive impairments and failed to receive grade-level instruction or speech-language services of any kind. In fact, the District had refused to assess his speech-language needs.
She and I met when she hired me as a freelance advocate to help her with his case. We ended up settling the matter in mediation and he finally ended up getting properly identified. She started KPS4Parents and brought me on board shortly thereafter. That was July 2003.
In November 2003, she made a written referral for special education assessment of her second child. He started out in school just fine but as he advanced from grade to grade, school became more and more of a struggle for him. In January 2004, once the assessments had been completed, an IEP meeting was held to go over the results as required by law. She and I attended the IEP meeting, as did a program coordinator from the District. This woman had been the same program coordinator involved with Nyanza’s older child. Not only had they involved the same program coordinator who had been responsible for her older son’s special education fiasco, they also involved the same school psychologist.
From the very beginning, the situation was contentious. As it turned out, he had multiple handicapping conditions; none of them were terribly severe individually, but all of them collectively together compounded into quite a situation. The District’s administration was resentful that Nyanza was back again asking for more, this time for another child. They were not only angry over the previous case for her eldest child, but they were particularly peeved that she had started KPS4Parents in response to their misconduct and made no bones about what had inspired her to start our organization.
They did everything they could to undermine the IEP process, treating most of her parent requests as though they were excessive demands though she never asked for anything that wasn’t based on the facts or evident need. Additionally, she was never hostile or hysterical in any of her son’s IEP meetings. She would respectfully disagree and put the district on notice as required by law regarding certain things, but she was never inappropriate.
In the end, the district spent tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars fighting her tooth and nail over the basic elements of an IEP – assessment in all areas of suspected disability, measurable annual goals in all areas of need, services, and placement. They fought her over accommodations. They fought her over behavior assessment and intervention. They fought her over assistive technology.
Ultimately, it wasn’t worth it. She pulled him out of the district and enrolled him in another school. The administration was gunning for her the entire time, more than willing to harm her child in the process, just to show her who was in charge. It was one of the most unseemly situations I’ve ever seen. Sometimes parents have to make a judgment call as to whether to stick it out and force the issue to compel their school district to do the right thing or to protect their children from harassment and educational neglect by getting the hell out of Dodge.
There was no reason for her son to be caught up in such an acrimonious situation and even though the school site personnel didn’t actually buy into what the District’s administration was doing – they were appalled, actually – they couldn’t do a whole lot to stop it. They were given their marching orders from the head office and were put in a very awkward position.
Several times the principals – there were two wonderful ladies who were principals of his school during each of the two years that all of this went on – would deliberately take a course of action different from what they had been told by the District’s administration to do because what they had been ordered to do was just wrong. And, they caught a lot of grief from their superiors for handling things not exactly as they’d been ordered. They walked a fine line and Nyanza and I felt terrible about the positions they were put in and appreciated everything they did to try to minimize the negative impact on her son. They were beautiful people who cared about children and wanted their students to learn.
It became an entirely untenable situation, nonetheless. When Nyanza finally threw in the towel and moved her son to another school, we felt defeated in a way, but relieved in another because we knew where he was going to have a clean start without an administration that was already pissed off at his mother for something that had nothing directly to do with him. He would not be used as the administration’s vehicle for revenge against his mother.
In other situations I’ve been involved with, it’s been the school site administration that’s gotten its knickers in a knot. The familiar scenario is the parent who stops by to drop of a forgotten lunch box only to find something horrible going on in the classroom involving his/her child. I’m talking about children being locked in bathrooms during behavioral outbursts, given “sensory breaks” in trash bins, tied to their chairs to prevent elopement, or screamed at and manhandled by teachers or aides who have completely lost it.
The parents complain to the administration who immediately go on the defensive, though they promise to fix the problem. The parents decide that they’re going to conduct unscheduled drop-in visits just to keep an eye on the situation. But they show up for a drop-in and are told that, unlike the informal just-sign-in-and-go-to-the-classroom procedure they are used to, they are now required to schedule their visits in advance with the principal, can only have a total of 30 minutes of on-campus time a month, and must be accompanied by school site personnel at all times during their visits.
These could be the same parents who had been volunteering on campus for three hours a week and suddenly they’re told that it’s district policy to allow parents on campus for only 30 minutes total per month. And, they’re being told this just as a parent volunteer comes in for the fifth time that week to put in a couple of hours in the school library.
In many cases, it turns out that the strict visitation policy is actually the district’s policy. It’s just selectively enforced by school site administrators who see their campuses as their own little fiefdoms in which they can apply or ignore the rules according to their own personal preferences. However, I had one case in which it wasn’t the district’s policy at the time it was told to the parents; the principal/superintendent of the tiny, rural one-school district proposed the policy change to the board after she had already prohibited the parents access to the campus, where the visitation policy at the time had permitted drop-in visits.
This is the kind of game-playing that hurts kids and undermines the special education process. When administrators go on power-trips and become obsessed with showing everybody who is in charge, they’ve completely lost sight of why they were hired in the first place. They aren’t performing their mandated duties. They’re putting their public agencies at risk of costly litigation. But, most importantly, they’re failing to ensure that their students receive appropriate instruction, which is the whole reason why they are there.
The legitimate duties of a public education agency administrator are incredibly challenging. Yet, anyone who accepts the challenge is expected to take it on and figure out a way to make all the right things happen, not make excuses as to why the challenges can’t be met. If the challenges can’t be met, then we as a society need to reconsider devoting public resources to meeting them. The reality, however, is that the challenges can be met. There are innovators and brilliant problem-solvers in public education who set a shining example of how to overcome the obstacles to appropriate student outcomes, making it clear that, no matter how hard the job may be, there’s no legitimate excuse for not getting it done.
Click here to download the podcast version of this article.