I was recently approached by John Haughey, writer and editor for LRP Publications, for our input regarding a due process decision arising from a case in Chicago. For those of you unfamiliar with LRP, it is the publication powerhouse that supplies information regarding special education law, policy, and practices to public education agencies and the attorneys who represent them.
LRP maintains, through its website http://www.specialedconnection.com/, the most comprehensive database of special education due process decisions from around the country, as well as state and federal appeal cases. With a subscription rate for full access at around $2500 per year, only the well-financed generally have access to this otherwise difficult to access public information.
Even so, many attorneys who represent students with special needs and their families will choke down this subscription fee for access to case decisions that provide appropriate authorities for their own work. Other products of LRP Publications are reviews of special education decisions and articles that discuss the subtle or not so subtle nuances of special education law.
Which brings me to the Chicago case about which Mr. Haughey, who is a very nice man, asked to interview me. KPS4Parents very much appreciates the opportunity to lend perspective from the child and parent side of the issue to LRP’s work. For many who work with families of children with disabilities, and who are leery of LRP because of its strong affiliation with the public education agencies and their attorneys, we hope you appreciate that LRP was actively reaching out to hear the child and family side of the issue.
While the way our comments were reported doesn’t provide the full context in which what was quoted was said, we stand behind what Mr. Haughey wrote of our input. Unfortunately, because this article is copyrighted by LRP Publications and you have to be a subscriber to their site to see it, we can’t give you access to the whole thing. However, LRP was kind enough to agree to let us audio record my interview with Mr. Haughey and we were given consent to quote Mr. Haughey’s quotation of me from his article.
The Chicago case was one in which a special education student was awarded compensatory education in the form of placement in a private school for children with learning disabilities at public expense after his school district was found to have denied a free and appropriate public education, or FAPE, to him. In this case, it seems, the school district had placed so much of an emphasis on placing this student in the least restrictive environment, or LRE, that it had failed to consider whether he could actually receive educational benefit in a general education setting.
I was one of several people from around the country interviewed for Mr. Haughey’s article. Also interviewed were a public school principal in Wisconsin and a special education attorney in New Hampshire. While I had the benefit of reading the decision issued by the Illinois Hearing Officer, I did not have access to the transcript of the hearing or the evidence, so I have to take the decision at face value. That said, I know from personal experience that hearing officers are extremely challenged to get all the fact exactly right, so I was still left with some unanswered questions after reading the decision.
It was an interesting read, nonetheless, and what I want to focus on here is the case as represented by the hearing decision. I offer our sincere respect to the family involved in this case, particularly considering that the case reflected in the decision is probably not exactly reflective of the case the family attempted to have tried. I also offer our most emphatic support of the student in this case because it was this young man’s life about which this case resolved. He is the one who will have to live with the consequences of what this case did and did not yield on his behalf. So, to the extent that I’m about to talk about this case as though the decision is 100% reflective of the facts, and I’m about to use it as a generic example for the benefit of others, please do know that we very much understand that this was really about one boy and his right to learn to read, write, and do math and very much appreciate that this family stuck its neck out in an effort to effect change.
The decision in the case at issue here reflected a number of shortcomings that the LRP article, which was brief, did not go into. One of the issues was that the assessment data fell far short of the mark and this young man’s IEP teams were without the data necessary to make informed decisions regarding what was or was not a legitimate offer of a FAPE based on his unique learning needs. So, there was this first undermining of the process that ultimately made it impossible for the rest of the process to be properly executed.
The decision doesn’t specifically speak to whether the parents’ participation was meaningful in the IEP process, but I would argue that an IEP meeting denies meaningful parental participation if the information necessary – that is, data that explains what the student’s needs are – is not made available to the parents so that they can make informed decisions. Likewise, most parents are clueless regarding what data is necessary and how that data should be used. They are left to trust the judgment of school officials who may or may not understand their obligations under the law to special education students.
What was implied by this decision was that the school officials believed it was more important to place a child with an above-average IQ in the general education setting regardless of what his actual learning needs were than to examine the full continuum of placement. The decision suggests, and LRP’s article comes right out and asserts, that there was an emphasis placed on the LRE requirements more so than on what constituted a legitimate offer of a FAPE. I have to question this interpretation to a certain degree. That’s not exactly what I got out of reading this decision.
Yes, it’s true that, according to the decision, the District asserted that it only offered placement in the general education setting because it perceived that setting to be the LRE and that the student didn’t require a more restrictive placement. That may have actually been true.? Where the District may have fallen down was not necessarily?where the services were being provided but whether the proper services were being provided at all. The decision doesn’t address this consideration.
If you go back and look at our blog posts of the past and read the articles regarding the IEP process, you quickly come to understand – if you didn’t already know this – that services and placement are the last things discussed by the IEP team. What drives the selection of services and placement is the goals. The goals describe your intended outcomes of intervention and services and placement are the vehicles by which the goals are meant to be achieved. To the extent that the child can receive services such that his goals can be achieved in the general education setting, placement in the general education setting with non-disabled peers should occur.
In the Chicago case, it was not clear from the decision that there was any examination of what services could have been provided in the general education setting that could have seen the child benefit from his education. The decision reflects that only accommodations and modifications were made in the general education setting, not that services were pushed in or provided as supplemental supports.
Now, that said, this had apparently been going on for a while. As a result, the student had failed to receive educational benefit for years. By the time his case got to hearing, he was due compensatory education to make up for the years of lost educational opportunity and, at that point, the only real way to provide him with that kind of remedial support was to put him in a very restrictive setting, that being a private school for children with learning disabilities.
There very well may have been a time when placement in general education with appropriate supports and services would have rendered educational benefit and prevented all of this from ever happening. But, we’ll never know. The decision doesn’t speak to what would have been a FAPE for him in the past. It only speaks to the harm done by the District’s inappropriate offers of only accommodations and modifications in the general education setting for this student and the fact that compensatory education is now due to the student as a result of that harm.
This brings me to the next consideration: the use of the term “LRE.” As we’ve stated in blog articles before, the LRE?- the least restrictive environment – is the setting in which the student can receive educational benefit with the most exposure to typical peers and the typical school experience as possible. It’s relative to the student’s unique needs. This was the aspect on which I was quoted by Mr. Haughey in his article for LRP Publications.
Mr. Haughey wrote that I said, “LRE is relative — relative to the needs of the child,” which is true. Mr. Haughey went on to write: “Zachry advises parents to ask these questions in determining if the general ed placement is appropriate for their child: ‘Is it going to achieve the outcome you are looking for Are we leveling the playing field, or are we putting him on a completely different playing field?'” ?This advice actually was intended for the entire IEP team, not just parents.
Mr. Haughey also wrote that I said that parental pressure often can allow institutional bias for mainstreaming to go unchallenged, but did not include the context in which my statement to that effect was actually couched. This is something I want to clarify before my words are used to fuel the anti-parent bias that already pervades the public school community, and which some attorneys who represent public education agencies actually exploit for their own financial gain.
It is true, and I’ve written in our blog on this before, that most parents really do not understand the special education process. That’s one of the reasons we publish our blog in the first place. It’s also true that far too many professionals in special education really do not understand the special education process, either, which is another huge reason we publish our blog.
People on both the school and the parent sides tend to put placement before everything else, treating special education as a place rather than a service, even though placement is only one aspect of a special education student’s program and the last thing the IEP team should consider. So, again, we have this case out of Chicago and the attention that LRP is giving it that both focus on the placement more than anything else and I can’t help but wonder about the message this is sending to the folks in the public education community. Does this reinforce the false notion that placement is the only really important thing to talk about and that present levels of performance and goals are just procedural fluff?
It is also true that there are a great many parents out there who, in the process that parents follow in coming to terms with being told that their children have handicapping conditions, are in a stage of denial and, in their ignorance, think of special education as a place rather than a service to help their children learn. These parents view special education as a label – a “Scarlet Letter” – that will brand their children as though it is somehow advertised who and who is not on an IEP.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t insensitive clods in the public education system who have no sense of student confidentiality, but for the most part, public school employees do not go around blabbing students’ personal business to the other kids. Generally speaking, kids with learning disabilities and other “hidden” handicaps blend in with everyone else and no one knows they’re on IEPs unless they tell their peers themselves.
So, the parental fear of the child being labeled is often a rather irrational one. But, it’s also a natural stage of the process that every parent goes through. Sometimes it’s a fleeting moment before the parent moves to the next stage towards acceptance and proactive involvement, but sometimes parents get hung up at this stage for a while – or even indefinitely.
Like the stages of grief, how long a particular person spends at each stage of the process depends on that person’s individual growth and development as a human being. It’s unfair and inaccurate for school personnel to presume that all parents are in denial. Most parents of children with special needs experience at some point a great deal of relief of finally understanding what is going on with their child so they can start constructively coming up with a game plan. They get past the denial at some point.
But, while parents are in that denial phase, they are often resistant to the application of the term “special education” to their children, particularly if they are in denial at the time that their children are found eligible for special education services. They envision the proverbial “retard room” from their childhood educational experiences and can take any identification of eligibility for special education as a condemnation of their children’s potential. This is truly unfortunate. Within this context, it is true that parental pressure often can allow institutional bias for mainstreaming to go unchallenged, as Mr. Haughey reported.
Sometimes, however, it is the student’s bias that’s the problem, which Mr. Haughey and I discussed during the interview, as well. Sometimes the student doesn’t want to be placed in a more restrictive setting out of embarrassment, but is also embarrassed in the general education setting by not being able to keep up with peers. In a situation like this, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s a really hard problem to overcome and usually comes down to the parents telling the student, “Look, this is the way this is going to go down and you’re just going to have to deal with it,” regardless of what the placement determination turns out to be.
In other instances though, and from what I could gather from reading the Decision in the Chicago case such was the situation there, the parents don’t really care so much about where services are provided so long as their kids get the help they need. The Chicago case seemed to me to be about a family asking for help for their son and not getting it, and the denials for help by the District being based on an inappropriate application of the LRE requirements.
Truthfully, what I suspect but would need evidence to know for sure, is that the District probably didn’t want to pay for the intensive remedial services this student needed and used the LRE as an excuse to deny them. Otherwise, no one at the District had a clue about what LRE really means and requires. Special education noncompliance tends to arise out of ignorance, petty politicking, or a combination of both. As with any due process case, we’ll never really know all of the truth about this situation, but we appreciate the opportunity to examine it and hope that my analysis provokes thought on the part of others to make the special education system better.