The importance of humility on the part of all the adults involved in special education matters is huge, but is also one of those things that often gets sacrificed along the way. Egos, competing personal agendas, petty politicking, fear, anxiety, impulsivity, apathy … all of these emotional components undermine a person’s ability to remain humble. And, it doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, an educator, or the designated representative of either the student or the education agency. Everyone in the process should be humbled by the magnitude of what they are trying to do.
Unfortunately, it seems to be human nature that humility only comes after we’ve managed to humiliate ourselves. Even a relatively minor error that’s easy to fix can make you stop and check yourself. But, sometimes a huge, glaring error isn’t enough for some people to be humbled and only compels them to do even more damage by denying they did anything wrong and insisting that the erroneous way of doing things be continued, as though they can somehow force a bad decision to be right through adamant denial.
I had to fire a parent recently. I haven’t had to do that in many years. I hate it. But, the parent was doing more harm than the school was by engaging in hostile behaviors and throwing tantrums when she didn’t get what she wanted. And what she wanted wasn’t something she was legally entitled to. She wanted me to try and use the school district’s errors as leverage to get it to agree to things that it wasn’t legally obligated to do, as though having dirt on the district regarding special education violations was a free ticket to ride.
That’s not what we do around here. To make matters worse, when I explained what we actually do here, she either ignored me and returned to the issue she wanted me to pursue or got upset. Despite my explanations that I’m in back-to-back meetings, preparing for due process, and doing work on the cases of the 30 other children I’m actively representing right now and didn’t have time to take every one of her phone calls in person, she continued to stalker-dial and text me throughout each day for a week-and-a-half, refusing to talk to my assistant as I’d requested, and started texting hostile messages to me towards the end. Bear in mind that when we take on a case, the client hires the whole agency, not just me, so insisting that I was the only person she could talk to was actually in contradiction to the Service Agreement she’d signed.
In the end, she and I both were humbled in our own ways by this experience. She’s now represented by an attorney, which is just as well because her case is so far gone that due process is pretty much the only way out. The District was completely unwilling to engage in good faith negotiations with me as a lay advocate. I don’t know that this would have necessarily been the case had the parent not acted like such a belligerent jerk before she hired us and left nothing but scorched earth behind her wherever in the District she had gone, but it is what it is, now.
That the District couldn’t rise above the situation and conduct itself appropriately in the service of its constituent student regardless of the parent’s behavior is still the more egregious failure in this whole mess. While the parent has a moral obligation to her child, the District has a statutory obligation to her child, to her, and to the taxpaying public that it is failing to meet.
Being terminated as a client was an attention-getting consequence. She de-escalated quickly and even after what we went through, is respectful and appreciative of the work we did for her while we were representing her. But, we have to stand by that consequence in order for it to mean anything.
Were we to take her back as a client after having let her go, it would be like a battered wife taking her husband back after he’d mistreated her; the only message we’d be sending is that terminating the working relationship isn’t really a true consequence and that her behavior would be ultimately forgiven and condoned, thereby resetting the cycle of abuse to repeat itself. She’d have no incentive to change and her child is the one who is ultimately suffering from all of this the most. He’s still stuck in his present inappropriate educational program so long as his mother is caught up in a vicious cycle, successfully using his case as an excuse to engage others in an adversarial manner.
In letting her go, we gave her constructive feedback to help her have a more collaborative working relationship with whomever might represent her and her child next. We made it clear that she still had a case but that we couldn’t continue to work for her under the conditions she imposed.
We took issue with the situation more so than with her personally, though we made it clear that her conduct was what had created such an untenable situation. Hopefully she will be able to work with her attorney in an effective manner now that she realizes that biting the hand that feeds her is a really bad idea.
The humility that I got out of this situation came from several directions. I was reminded that as diligent as we are with our intake procedures, nothing is ever 100% effective at screening for all possible problems and I had become overly reliant on our intake procedures to filter out and identify all possible red flags. I trusted that I knew what was going on when I actually didn’t have all the facts.
That led to a related error, which was taking everything this parent said initially at face value without asking enough questions. It is common in the field of special education advocacy for lay advocates to immediately believe everything a parent tells us about all the horrible things that are happening at their children’s schools because we know for a fact that some pretty horrible things really do go on.? But, parents’ stories of what has happened are skewed based on how much they really understand about the process and their perceptions of the motivations of others.
Advocates are easily accused of being “bleeding hearts” who are so sympathetic to parents of children with special needs that they get sucked into the drama as first class co-dependent enablers who then make the case for the child based on the parents’ perceptions rather than the facts and how the law must be applied to the facts.? I meet advocates all the time who will tell me, “Well, I’m not so much into the legal or regulatory side of things. I’m just there to help the parents make their case for what is right.”
I learned a long time ago that “what is right” is not necessarily what the regulations provide for and that I have to work within the regulations in order to achieve as appropriate an outcome as possible for each child I serve. Morality is not enforceable and most of us enter this field out of fully justified moral outrage over the crap that goes on, so it’s hard to set the desire for retribution aside and limit ourselves to just what the regulations call for.
So, when I felt myself becoming more and more emotionally uncomfortable and pressured to respond right away to the latest outrage by the parent we ended up firing, I knew something was wrong. I realized that she was creating most of the drama in her case and that she was attempting to engage me in a co-dependent relationship where she would stir up a catastrophe from which I could rescue her over and over again.
I’ve been down this path before in my personal life, many years ago. It’s taken a lot of self-discovery and healing for me as a person to overcome my childhood programming to comply with the demands and expectations of others at the expense of myself, but I am proud to say that my willingness to participate in that kind of dynamic is well behind me. I don’t generally attract people like that into my life anymore, which is another reason why this case caught me off guard.
I found myself on the verge of humiliating myself. I was creating correspondence on behalf of this parent to address her complaints and was laboring over finding the right words to assert her demands diplomatically but firmly, asserting the District’s duty, while ignoring the fact that she had just thrown a tantrum in a school district office before calling me to “kick their asses!” The further I got into the letter, the more uncomfortable I felt. While what the District had done was wrong, how this parent had responded was wrong as well and I was only encouraging her to keep acting that way by backing her up every time they pissed her off.
Every letter I wrote asserting the District’s duty, detailing how it had failed to meet it, and requesting remedy only served to confirm how right she had been in her assessment of the District’s failure to perform and, in her own mind, how justified she had been to drive down to the District offices and give “those people” a piece of her mind. I was validating her. So, she kept finding more things to get pissed off about, provoking District personnel into conducting themselves inappropriately through her own manipulative behaviors (not that they weren’t accountable for their own conduct, but still she was sucking them into her drama and engaging them in a power struggle rather than trying to actually solve the problems that were compromising her child’s education).
She took a situation that had made her feel powerless and, with my help, was turning it around into a situation where she was the dominant force. All of a sudden, rather than me representing the parent, I was getting dragged along for the ride on an out-of-control roller coaster of hysteria and anger. Rather than negotiating the resolution of a dispute, I was letting myself get dragged into a never-ending series of disputes that were more about creating dramatic situations in which this parent could convince herself that she was justified in being outraged and play the indignant victim than about actually solving any problems.
Essentially, I got played by a hysteric and I have to own my contribution to the situation. She couldn’t have gotten as far as she did without my complicit participation. Thankfully I pulled us out after only a few weeks, but I could have gotten so drawn in that I’d ended up going out on a limb making assertions based on the parent’s representations without any facts to back me up if I’d let the situation continue. That’s the direction she was trying to steer things towards and that’s a really dangerous place for any advocate to be.? When you get so emotionally involved that you’re not even fact-checking anymore, you’ve gone much, much too far.
But, it’s not just parents and advocates who get dealt doses of humility from time to time. I had a case not too long ago in which an elementary school principal started insisting that certain parents we represented had to comply with the District’s strict campus visitation policy after I gave notice of representation and informed her that her placement of our client on “30 day probation” (whatever that was) for behavior was not consistent with the behavior plan in his IEP and she was putting the District at risk of a procedural complaint. (See our past article, “Finding Solutions, Not Asserting Authority“.)
I had to write her another letter just a day or two later about her selective enforcement of the District’s campus visitation policy. I dressed her down pretty severely. She wasn’t taking the situation seriously and acted like she could do whatever she wanted with zero accountability. Granted, she was relatively inexperienced as a principal, but, frankly, that’s no excuse.
A week or so later, I was having coffee after hours with the director of special education of this principal’s district and the involved child’s mother. It was a fence-mending session that proved invaluable to rebuilding trust between the family and the District after all that had happened. The director of special education said that the latter piece of correspondence I’d written, which I’d copied to the school board, had been impactful.? The special ed director’s exact words were, “She was humbled,” by what I’d written (“she” being the principal). That case is now closed and the student is receiving appropriate programming. He’s doing much, much better now in his new placement.
The lesson in all of this is that your gut is going to tell you when you’re starting to head down the wrong path and it’s only a matter of you paying attention to that sinking feeling and making the conscious decision to course-correct and do the right thing. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself at a destination you had no desire to arrive at and a very long and uncomfortable path to travel to get back to the place where you want to be.
The obligations of meeting the educational needs of a child with special needs are grave and serious. If you aren’t taking them seriously – if you aren’t humbled by the magnitude of what it is you have to do and the incredible honor that has been bestowed upon you by the trust of others in you to do what has to be done – then you are a liability.? As the saying goes, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Nothing is more true in special education.
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