October 4, 2012: Update – Download these two recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rulings (PDF format) that counter “blame the parents” strategies used by school districts:
As an advocate who represents children and their parents in the special education process, it’s hard for me to call out parents who make things difficult. For the most part, whether or not a parent is “difficult” is a matter of subjective interpretation.
Many public education agency personnel tend to view any parents who don’t just nod their heads and sign whatever is put in front of them as difficult. I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s closer to the truth to say that situations are difficult and that parents are supposed to give informed consent, so if they don’t understand something, they shouldn’t sign it.
It is most often the case that parents are simply clueless about, and overwhelmed by, the special education process. Under such circumstances, public education agency personnel are either compassionate and understanding about that or they exploit it to no constructive end.
The parents I regard as truly being difficult come in several varieties:
- The well-intended parent who knows just enough about special education to make legally significant statements on the record but doesn’t really understand the full ramifications of what he/she is doing and can inadvertently do more harm than good.
- The emotional parent who is overwhelmed by the process and frequently breaks down during IEP meetings such that they can’t be finished and forward movement is undermined.
- The parent with disabilities who has post-traumatic flashbacks whenever he/she sets foot onto a public school campus, much less when his/her child’s troubles at school are being discussed with him/her by people with advanced degrees who, without even intending to, intimidate the hell out of the parent such that he/she can’t effectively participate in the IEP process.
- The indifferent parent who doesn’t take the IEP process seriously and doesn’t care whether or not his/her child receives educational benefit.
- The suspicious parent who doesn’t want the “school people” to get into his/her family’s business and thus refuses to participate in the IEP process.
- The parent in denial who doesn’t want to acknowledge that his/her child has a handicapping condition and refuses to participate in the IEP process.
- The emotionally unstable parent (not to be confused with a parent who is simply emotional about his/her child’s education). This is the parent who:
- Engages in antagonistic behaviors with public education agency personnel;
- Repeatedly changes his/her mind about what he/she wants as remedy mid-process;
- Carries on hysterically in IEP meetings and at impromptu drop-in visits to school sites or the district offices;
- Puts his/her child through one unnecessary assessment after another in an effort to prove he/she was right when he/she actually was wrong;
- Disparages public education agency personnel to his/her child and/or encourages his/her child to “give the teacher a hard time”;
- Instructs his/her child to deliberately under-perform in school to “prove” negative educational impact; and/or
- Files one unfounded complaint after another, convinced that there is a conspiracy all the way up to the top of the “food chain” to undermine his/her advocacy efforts and deprive his/her child of educational benefit (though with parents like these, whether their child actually receives educational benefit is not as high a priority as being proven right).
Needless to say, a parent can fall into more than one of the categories above. These are the parents that make the special education process difficult for all parents of children with special needs because public agency personnel are quick to presume that any parent bucking the system falls into at least one of these categories, which is not only unfair, it’s untrue.
As an advocate, who you represent is entirely up to you. Many people who go into special education advocacy or law to represent students and families feel like they have to represent everyone who comes to them for help. I agree that you have to do what is in the best interests of the involved child to the best of your ability, but you have to establish boundaries about what you’re willing to tolerate and you have to know how to handle delicate and difficult situations with aplomb so that you can achieve an effective outcome for a child, sometimes in spite of their parents.
If the parents really do want what’s best for their children, as an advocate you sometimes have to jump through a number of hoops to educate the parents on their rights so that they understand what is really going on, what is really a violation of the law, what their real options are, and what is really somebody from the education agency really being a jerk. Parents who make your job difficult are often mistaken about what is really going on, what they can legitimately ask for, and what is reasonable to expect under the circumstances.
With parents who know just enough to get themselves in trouble, part of your job as an advocate is damage control. You have to first go through the student’s records, figure out where things currently stand, explain to the parent exactly where the student’s case is at, and explain what you’re going to have to do to course-correct.
Depending on the parent, you may need to insist that all communications go through you. They should, anyway, since you’re the designated representative, but sometimes if the situation isn’t particularly contentious, I have the parents coordinate IEP meeting dates and simpler things like that rather than force the issue with all communications coming through me.
In a case involving a parent who has made requests or included legally significant language in letters to a public education agency that he/she didn’t fully understand, you’re going to have to write a letter to the public education agency and retract whatever didn’t make any sense on behalf of the parent and assert new requests in an effort to steer things back onto the right path. And, you’re going to have to stay on top of the situation from that point forward until you get into the clear.
You will often find in a situation like this that the public education agency is greatly relieved that you have become involved. The public education agency may have been up to no good, or simply not devoting enough attention to the student’s needs, prior to your involvement, which prompted the parent to try and fix things him- or herself, but by the time you get involved, the parent may have accidentally made things much messier and caused so many problems, that the education agency is at a loss as to how to set things straight.
With you there to help pick up the pieces and able speak the lingo with the education agency personnel, which you can then translate into plain language for the parent, you can help negotiate a resolution that benefits the student and restores order to the Universe. That’s an outcome everyone should be able to live with.
It’s a similar situation for parents who become emotional during IEP meetings and derail the IEP process. Usually these are parents who are overwhelmed by the fact that their child has a handicapping condition, is having emotional flashbacks to his/her troubles as a student, who feels judged by school personnel (rightly or not), and/or understands very little of what is being discussed by the IEP team and feels incompetent to effectively advocate for his/her child.
In situations like this, I’ve had education agency personnel call me after an IEP meeting that’s gone well for once to thank me profusely for helping the parent get through the IEP meeting without losing it. I do this by frequently checking for understanding as well as stopping the discussion and turning to the parent, saying, “What this means is …” or “You have several options here: you can do X, you can do Y, or you can do Z. Here are the pros and cons of each option…” I also ask questions that I know the parent wouldn’t know to ask, the answers to which are entirely relevant to the decision-making process.
I do everything in my power to ensure that the parent fully understands what is going on and give the parent however much time is necessary to process everything without feeling pressured to make a decision right on the spot. I want the parent’s consent to be fully informed. I never want to go back to the education agency and say, “I’m sorry, but Mrs. Smith actually thought we meant X when we really meant Y and now she’s changed her mind,” though I will if I’ve failed to properly educate Mrs. Smith and she’s made an uninformed decision that she comes to regret.
The indifferent parents and parents in denial don’t come to me for help, so I’m not in a position to do much about that. This is a particular problem that I’ve had described to me by teachers. They try to communicate to these parents that their children are struggling in school and need help, but the parents don’t seem to care. At the most extreme end of that spectrum, there would be cause to suspect that the involved children are being educationally neglected by their parents, which is something that a mandated reporter must report to local child protective services.
The suspicious parent is usually cause for suspicion him- or herself, though this can be wrongfully manipulated by school agency personnel with ill intent. Just because someone is suspicious or paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get him or her.
Suspicious parents don’t want to disclose personal family business to anyone. That means they will refuse to fill out the personal history questionnaires meant to collect the health history of the student. Very often, there is fear that they will be judged harshly and disrespected by school personnel. This perception is usually founded in reality.
Suspicious parents in my experience have mostly been poorly educated, low-income parents who don’t trust anyone in a higher socio-economic status than their own. They have the perception that others look down their noses at them, which is very often true. I’m thinking specifically of children from marginalized populations in the Deep South where racism, classism, and discrimination against the handicapped, particularly against those with disabilities of the mind, still thrive.
It’s not just the minority children and their parents who are discriminated against; the parents themselves are very often racist and classist towards school personnel. Each side justifies its own bigotry by pointing to the unjust conduct of the other and the cycle never ends.
So, for these parents to give “outsiders” insight into their private lives is absolutely out of the question, even if it deprives those who are legitimately trying to help of an understanding of their child’s needs. And, it’s not a question of these parents not wanting what is best for their children. They often simply don’t understand what is best for their children or who they can trust to get it. In their minds, they are protecting their children by keeping “those people” away from them and out of their lives, choosing to “take care of it” themselves, even though they have no idea what to do.
Suspicious parents who do not come from impoverished, uneducated backgrounds are, in my experience either victims of a terrible series of events that have left them traumatized or they’re mentally ill. Presuming a parent is the former, depending on how traumatizing the past experiences were and how resilient he/she is, it is possible to do a lot of hand-holding as you would with any other emotional parent and take the lead as you would with a parent who really doesn’t understand his/her rights, and turn the ship around. With a mentally ill parent, it’s a whole different ball game.
Which brings us to the last type of difficult parent – the emotionally unstable parent. Mental illness and emotional instability are like anything else in life: there are ranges of severity and how the problems manifest. No two people are alike, including people with mental and emotional health issues. So, you can’t lump every parent with a mental or emotional health problem into the same group, really.
Parents with relatively mild problems can be dealt with much as described above. It’s the more extreme cases that you have to worry about. They come to you for help with a legitimate grievance and then it all falls apart from there. Public education agencies are advised strongly to ensure that parents like these are given no legitimate reasons to take issue with them. While no child should be denied a FAPE for any reason, a public education agency that denies a FAPE to the child of an unstable parent is just asking for problems.
As an advocate representing students and parents, it takes a certain gift to manage a case involving an unstable parent, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I worked with one legal guardian who had found her ward as a 4-year-old behind a dumpster, abandoned by his abusive, drug-addicted birth parents. She went on to become an emergency foster parent and took this child into her home before ultimately becoming his legal guardian.
But, as her own grown daughter described her, this woman was a hammer and the rest of the world was a nail. When people didn’t agree with her or perform to her satisfaction, she would blow up and resort to tantrumming. By her own admission, it was frustration over not knowing what to do to solve the problem at hand and the knowledge that her child was suffering that really got her going, but she was still highly inappropriate when she became upset and, unfortunately, the school district had given her plenty to be upset about.
More unfortunately for the boy’s case, the district had stockpiled detailed written accounts of every blowup to use as evidence against her and impeach her credibility as a witness should the boy’s case have gone to hearing. I was able to present his case in a non-hysterical manner and, when you looked at the facts of his case and applied the law to them, it was pretty clear that a FAPE had been denied. I was then able to negotiate an IEE by a very well-respected independent assessor in light of the procedural violations and substantive claims the child had, regardless of what his guardian had said or done.
At first, even though I had made it very clear that all communications were to go through me, the child’s guardian became impatient with the time it was taking to go through the proper channels and made some angry phone calls to the school district. I explained to her, again, that becoming upset and verbally abusive of school district staff was hurting more than helping, but I was fortunate to have a pre-existing working relationship with the special education director who understood that her hysterics aside, she still had a viable case against the district, and he and I soldiered on.
Now, things are in a very different place and the guardian couldn’t be happier. What she was asking for all along was totally appropriate; it was how she was asking for it that made things difficult. The point is that so long as what the parent is asking for makes sense, a dedicated advocate with enough patience can usually compensate for the inappropriate behaviors until the problem is solved.
It’s when nothing you do as an advocate, no matter how much you contort yourself to maintain diplomatic relations and move a case forward, is good enough for a parent and the parent comes up with something new everyday to be upset about no matter how trivial it may be, that you have to make a decision whether to continue on as the child’s advocate. If you suspect the parent is harming his/her child, as a mandated reporter, you are obligated to report the parent to child protective services.
The same can be said for school personnel. Their positions in situations like these are even harder because, unlike an advocate or attorney, the education agency can’t “fire” the parent. However, if there is legitimate reason to suspect that the parents actions are resulting in harm to the child, mandated reporters are obligated to make reports to local child protective services.
And, though I’ve mentioned child protective services reports in this article several times, I want to make clear here that the child protective services system is ten thousand times more broken than special education and I’m not a fan of it at all. I volunteer with incarcerated youth and foster children and can tell you horror stories about what happens when children are removed from their homes and put into foster care or are institutionalized. Often, it’s just as bad or worse than what was happening to them at home. My point is that the law requires mandated reporters to report suspected abuse and neglect. That’s what “mandated” means.
These are tough decisions for advocates and educators alike. No one said the job was easy. Of course, going in, no one said it was this difficult, either.
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