Podcast Interview: Catherine Michael, Attorney at Law & Author

Catherine Michael, attorney & author

On November 4, 2020, I interviewed attorney and author, Catherine Michael, of Connell, Michael, Kerr, LLP, a special education law practice with offices in Indiana and Texas (https://cmklawfirm.com). Catherine’s book, The Exceptional Parent’s Guide to Special Education, will become available on December 1, 2020 and can be pre-ordered at https://amzn.to/38euWaD.

The following is the transcript from the interview (transcribed using Otter):

Anne Zachry 00:00

First of all, thank you so much for being on this podcast with me, I don’t get to interview folks very often, and it’s always fun when I get to. And it’s always very informative, because I think having all of us who do this kind of work, you know, talking these things through out loud, and just speaking to what’s going on and how we think that’s going to affect the the students that we work for, and the families that depend on us, I just think it’s a really constructive use of time. So I really appreciate you being here. If you could, just introduce yourself and give us just your background, your history of how you’ve come into this line of work and what it is that you do now.

Catherine Michael 00:33

Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, my name is Catherine Michael. I’m the managing partner of a law firm called Connell Michael Kerr. And we work in a multitude of states and have attorneys licensed in in several states as well. And what I do is, and for the past 20 years, I’ve worked in education, law or representation of children. And, and a lot of that involves filing educational due process cases against schools, personal injury, tort actions against schools, and sometimes group homes, residential facilities, and also advocating for children with special needs, for instance, the legislatures in several states, and at a national level. And, you know, I got into this line of work. My background had been in hospital risk management. And I got into this, because we were seeing a lot of children who had really substantial issues, whether they had a diagnosis of cancer, and we’re now getting cranial radiation or having a tumor removed. And we saw how uncooperative schools were. And back then it was really quite shocking to me that we would find a school district who wouldn’t want to provide a child a homebound program or a school district that would claim that cancer is not a disability, and this child doesn’t need to be eligible.

Anne Zachry 01:51

Oh, my gosh!

Catherine Michael 01:52

That was really – Right! That was really fascinating to me, because as someone who had not worked in education, at that point, and was working with hospital systems, that was really shocking, because I think all of us believe that our procedures, tools are supposed to be very pro child, they are there to ensure educational services for children. And, you know, the first case I took was a child who had cancer, and was just really, really surprised how hard it was to get that young man a program. And thereafter started taking cases involving children who had learning disabilities, and really finding how substantial a need this was. And it had a snowball effect and has kept me in it to this day.

Anne Zachry 02:36

Well, yeah. And a lot of us come into this, who are professionals from these paths where we encounter these challenges. And we’re like, “Wait a minute, what?” And then we see how the system is constructed, how it’s been designed, and what the rules actually are. And so I would imagine coming from a medical scenario, I mean, in the medical realm, you bought insurance billing rules, and all those kinds of things until there’s somewhat of a similarity in that you’ve got this compliance standard that has to be met, in order for things to happen. And when you look at what those rules are in special education, and, you know, and you understand what the intent may have been. But then, and you and I spoke briefly of this before we started the interview, that enforcement is really the question here. So if you could speak about that, that would be …

Catherine Michael 03:29

Yeah, enforcement is a huge issue. And I think that because there is so little enforcement of the laws on the books, we’ve have found that basically schools have run amok. And so for parents who are listening, the main law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and that is a federal law, which means that every state has to follow it. They can’t have a state law that restricts any of the rights under a federal law. And every state in the United States has basically what we call “codified” that law into their own state laws, the only thing that they can do is add additional rights for parents. For instance, the state of Michigan actually extended how long the student can be in special ed. So it is age 22 under the federal law. Michigan made it 26. Other states change, for instance, when a parent requests an independent educational evaluation. California, basically has that if a parent request an independent educational evaluation, that the school gets a reasonable time to respond. Other states like Indiana say a school has to respond within 10 days. So there’s some of these minor changes in the law that are that are supposed to in some states like Indiana or Michigan, give those parents additional rights. But also the way these laws are designed, is that the only enforcers of them are parents. That means the parents are basically their own private attorneys general; that parents are the equivalent of the cops on the road with the radar to catch the speeding cars. Your State Department of Education is not going to be looking over your child’s IEP and saying, “Wow, your child has a lot of issues and they only have one goal,” or “They’re not receiving any direct speech services,” or “They’re not receiving any direct special educational services,” or “Your child shouldn’t be in a special education room all day long; that there’s something called the ‘least restrictive environment,’ which says we need, to the maximum extent we can, have them with their general education peers.’ So what I think a lot of parents don’t realize is, your State Department of Education isn’t doing that. Your federal Department of Education isn’t doing that. No one has that obligation to enforce these laws, other than the parent bringing a private action called an educational due process complaint. So schools have all of these laws under IDEA. And just to give, you know, for parent, I’m sure if if you’re listening to this podcast, you probably have a basic overview of it. But IDEA has requirements for what’s called a free appropriate education. And that basically encompasses that your child is going to have an IEP, that has challenging ambitious goals, in light of their circumstances, that has related services. Related services would be counseling, social work services, parent training, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy. The least restrictive environment: That if your child needs a one on one aide in order to be in a general education environment, they’re supposed to do that versus moving your child to a resource room. If your child needs a therapeutic day placement or residential placement, that’s also to be provided by the school. There are all sorts of procedural safeguards. If a school refuses your request, let’s say for a one on one aide, or a specialized program for dyslexia, they actually have to provide you written notice saying what data they’re relying upon to deny this, everything they’ve considered, and they have to provide this to you in writing. So there are all these laws on the books, okay. And regardless of where you live, when we say IDEA, it’s that federal law, this applies to you, and it applies to your child in a public school. And as you know, going back again, but the only enforcer of this law, the only enforcer who can actually call a school to tap on it is you as a parent and that mechanism, as I said a second ago, it’s what’s called an educational due process complaint. And that’s a complaint that is filed with your State Department of Education, a state appoints a hearing officer to determine if that program is in place. And you know, something we discussed before we started as well is that most parents have no idea that they have these rights. And that most of these laws are right now not being enforced. There are some states where there is less than one due process case a year. So when schools are developing these IEPs, being that there’s no real enforcement mechanism, other than in some states like the timeline, they have to have it a yearly meeting, we’re seeing really horrible consequences of that, I think across the states.

Anne Zachry 08:27

Well and then now that with school closures and shutdowns, that certainly hasn’t improved things at all. And so what are you seeing?

Catherine Michael 08:36

It hasn’t.

Anne Zachry 08:36

What are you seeing now, that’s different than before the shutdown started?

Catherine Michael 08:40

I think the biggest problem I’m seeing is a complete lack of services. And that is where school districts, for instance, that have gone entirely virtual, have students who are just not able to access the services, they may be so cognitively impaired, they’re not able to do a computer program

Anne Zachry 09:01

Right.

Catherine Michael 09:01

In some of those cases, I’m seeing schools basically just throw up their hands and say, “Well, you know, when we come up with a program, we’ll let you know.” And that’s really contrary to law. And there are a lot of things that parents need to be doing right now. That is one of the biggest problems. The other one is where parents whose children are getting, for instance, speech therapy. The school’s saying, “Sorry, we can’t provide that right now.” And in fact, they really can. I mean, virtual speech therapy has been done for years and it’s something that should be being done.

Anne Zachry 09:35

Right.

Catherine Michael 09:36

And then lastly, I mean, we’re seeing schools where kids are coming back to school, but we’ll have a school that that, you know, I think for good reason has a mask mandate, but they don’t understand that there are clearly going to be children who cannot wear masks, right?

Anne Zachry 09:52

Right.

Catherine Michael 09:52

They are too cognitively impaired or they have really significant health issues. And I’ve definitely seen a lot of those issues crop up, which is really quite shocking to me. Because some of these situations, you know, quite honestly, when we look at a child who for instance, has a tube down their throat, the fact that a school would even argue with a parent as to whether they’re going to try and put a mask on this child is shocking.

Anne Zachry 10:21

Right.

Catherine Michael 10:21

They’ll tell a parent that a child can’t come to school. So that I think has been another one of the really big issues.

Anne Zachry 10:28

Yeah. And we’ve what we’ve run into out here in California is it’s hit or miss, it depends on the school district as to whether they’re going to do the right thing or not. And but we have some school districts that are just flat out refusing to do any in-person services at all, under any circumstances, even though we have the governor’s order that came out in April that said that any student that required in-person services in order to continue to learn and to receive educational benefits, just as a matter of FAPE, that those in-person services still had to be provided and the people who would do it would be considered essential infrastructure workers. But we have districts saying that, “Oh, no, there’s something else that came out in July that says we don’t have to do that.” And it doesn’t say that at all. And so they’re just waiting until they get court ordered to actually do it before they’ll comply. They’re waiting for somebody to pull that trigger. They’re not willing to assume the risk. It’s a risk management decision. They don’t want to assume the liability of choosing to do it, and then have somebody gets sick and say, “You made me go to work, and then then I got COVID.” And then they’re going to turn around and sue the school district as the employer. And so what we’re seeing is that a lot of it has to do with human resources issues, and unionized employees and, you know, rightfully insisting on safe ways of getting things done, and satisfaction not being achieved at that level, which then impairs the system’s ability to carry out its mandate, because the workers it relies upon, there’s no agreement as to how they’re going to do it. Until they get court ordered, they’re just not gonna. And so that’s what we’re seeing out here. And it’s weird. And I’ve also got OCR complaints and state compliance complaints as well pending because the due process system is now so flooded that, you know, the attorneys I work with can’t file anything new until March. And so it’s like, Okay, well, we got to find other avenues to still somehow enforce all of this and a compliance investigation, or an OCR investigation has a 60 day timeline. So at least that’s something.

Catherine Michael 12:27

Yeah, well, and I think that is, again, part of the big problem, here. It’s just when we have schools that they know that the consequences to them are going to be really minimal, that’s why we’ll often see them wait for court orders versus getting creative. So when I say getting creative, we’re seeing two are not able to serve, for instance, cognitively impaired kids, they have problems where they are not able to get the personnel in and not keep them safe. They can actually pay for a private therapeutic day placement, they can offer a parent sort of what we would call a continuum of services and placements …

Anne Zachry 13:02

Right.

Catherine Michael 13:03

… which is one of the requirements of federal law. And they can actually say to a parent, look, we do not have the infrastructure right now, or we don’t have the ability to serve this child, here are four or five private placements that we can contract with, if that’s something you’re interested in. So and we see that happen in some places, and we don’t see it happen in others.

Anne Zachry 13:22

We’re seeing that also with non-public agencies being able to provide in-home services like behavioral services.

Catherine Michael 13:28

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 13:28

Yeah, same thing.

Catherine Michael 13:30

Yeah, I’m actually a big fan of that happening. When I see school districts that are really willing to think outside of the box to say, “Well, we have an absolute obligation to serve these kids. How do we do it?” Right? Where they’re actually looking at it more along the lines of: “This is our job, this is our role, how do we perform it, even if we don’t have the personnel right now?”

Anne Zachry 13:52

Right.

Catherine Michael 13:52

And so when I, certainly when I see school districts going above and beyond like that, and situations where, you know, you can see how difficult it is. I mean, I’m looking at those districts and saying, you know, at least they’re making these attempts, but, you know, the, the problem we see over much of the country is school districts basically saying if a parent, if, after all this is done, brings a due process, our worst case scenario is we’re just going to have to provide compensatory education. So I’m seeing some school districts, really, you know, as I said a moment ago, not provide anything.

Anne Zachry 14:29

Right.

Catherine Michael 14:29

And so, you know, if you’re a parent who’s listening to this, and you’re saying, you know, my school district may be providing part of the program, or not any of it. I mean, the thing you need to be doing right now is documenting it.

Anne Zachry 14:41

Yes!

Catherine Michael 14:42

Because you are absolutely going to have a claim for those compensatory hours that your child should have been getting. So if your IEP had your child receiving 124 minutes a week of what we would call sort of direct special educational services like we would expect to see it you’re talking about a child with a specific learning disability, who is getting some of that one on one reading intervention or math intervention, those are the minutes that are going to be ordered. If you have a situation where your child’s not receiving that, or they were in a resource room, and we’re talking about full time special ed placement, they’re not able to access a computer, what you’re going to want to do is just really document those hours that you’re missing. Email the school, your child’s school, and ask, you know, again, if your child’s not receiving anything, what options are available? You know, if they don’t have the infrastructure, are they going to offer a private therapeutic day placement or a home based placement at this point? And that’s, you know, sending it for instance, a registered behavior technician, or if your child has autism, a BCBA, or you know, another individual who’s trained in that, you know, behavior modification into the home to work on the child’s behavioral goals, social skills goals, academic goals. What is the school able to do at this point? And you’re certainly going to want to ask those questions. And you’re going to want to push because, again, it’s their absolute duty to be providing this right now. To the extent that they are unable, there are rural areas where, you know, there are no ABA centers are out there …

Anne Zachry 16:14

Right.

Catherine Michael 16:15

… no spec ial day placements, there are no private placements, quite honestly. And we have schools that are saying, you know, “We don’t have enough staff,” you know? It’s really a very, very problematic situation for families in those places. And that’s where the parent just really needs to be documenting to the best extent they can you know, what skills their child is losing how many minutes that their child isn’t receiving, what they’re doing, any costs that they are right now incurring. Like for instance, for parents who are having to go out and buy educational items, these are all things that you’re going to want to keep track of as a parent so that as things return to normal, you can sit down initially with your school at an IEP meeting and say, we need to plan for the compensatory services, number one. Number two, here are the costs that I had to privately pay that I’m asking to be reimbursed for,

Anne Zachry 17:05

Right! Well, and I don’t know how other states are doing it, but in California, one of the things that we had a Senate bill pass over the summer, that now requires all IEPs to have a contingency plan and emergency plan for his schools shut down for emergency reasons for 10 or more days. And so now, and hindsight being 2020, obviously, that should something else ever arise, like another pandemic, or whatever that would, or, you know, a natural disaster that would require a school closure for 10 or more days, that there is already a backup plan of what to do for each kid …

Catherine Michael 17:40

Yes.

Anne Zachry 17:40

… on IEP. And so I don’t know that other states have codified anything like that. But California has. And I think that’s very valuable. And the same body of law that produced that I believe, also produced a requirement that there’s going to have to be an analysis of how much compensatory education every special ed kid in California is due, because it’s assumed that everybody will have suffered in some kind of way, and that everybody will have …

Catherine Michael 18:04

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 18:04

… lost services. And so it’s, the IEP teams are now legally beholden to calculate that, once things, you know, once the shutdown is over. That …

Catherine Michael 18:12

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 18:12

… varies from community to community. And I, we now have like, I’m in Ventura County, where districts are not intending to open until January, at the soonest. And then you know, you go down into other counties, and they’ve already got campuses partially opened down in Orange County. And so and some campuses are reopening for their most severely impacted students who desperately need that in-person support. And so the families have to sign all kinds of waivers and everything, but then they can go back and they’ve got all of these empty classrooms that they can spread everybody out. Because not it’s just a small number of students. And then those kids can get that individualized support. But that is like, you know, how much of this was working on social skills? And if they’re all spread apart, can we really do that? You know, and so it’s, it’s still the challenge of how do we work on the goals. And what I’ve seen too, is some kind of distance learning program where, you know, the parents are expected to be the one-on-one aide and help their students login. And they do some kind of something on the internet, but it doesn’t have anything to do with anybody’s goals. It’s just something to do. It’s just to give them a sense of routine in the absence of, you know, an actual plan, and then they get very confused. And then eventually, the goals get worked in because enough people you know, make a fuss about it, then it starts to happen. And now you switched everything up on them again. Now, the instruction is a whole new novel experience, and you’re transitioning them again, into something new that is unfamiliar. And so it just seems to me that it’s very disruptive. And it’s disheartening to see that there’s this little coordination. I mean, as many milestones have been achieved, and as many things that have been accomplished with making some of the system work, this piece of it falling down is a real disappointment, you know? And …

Catherine Michael 19:53

Yeah!

Anne Zachry 19:53

… and it’s disheartening, but I think that parents need to know that there are people like you and me out there who understand it, and we’re trying to fight it, we’re trying to help them. And it’s not a lost cause; that there is help out there. If you could share about your practice, once again, that would be very helpful.

Catherine Michael 20:12

Yeah, so my law firm is Connell, Michael, Kerr, and I am licensed in Michigan, Indiana, and Texas. And our website is www.cmklawfirm.com, and I also have recently, and I believe it’s due out either in December or January, I’m not sure on the date. But I do know that we’re having pre-orders. That’s the Exceptional Parent’s Guide to Special Education, where I basically have, you know, put all of my advice on how parents should navigate this system in one place. Everything that I go over with parents in consultations, how the process works, I’ve put that together and created that as a book. And so that will be due out, again, it’s either in December or January, but parents can get it through Amazon, Kindle, I believe Barnes and Noble, a couple of the others. But I know that should be available shortly. And I’ll send a link for that as well. (Note: It will become available on December 1, 2020, at https://amzn.to/38euWaD.)

Anne Zachry 21:08

Very cool. Yeah, we’ll include the link with our post so that people can access that. That’s a good thing to know.

Catherine Michael 21:14

Yeah. Because I, you know, I think the thing that parents need to remember is that they actually have power. When, you know, when I use the term, private attorney general, that parents are basically acting as though, you know, that is the main message I want to impart to families is that most accountability is going to come from families standing up together and saying,”No, we are entitled to appropriate services for our children,” and doing their research and coming to unders tand the system and asking for the things they’re supposed to be getting.

Anne Zachry 21:47

Right.

Catherine Michael 21:47

And it’s only by asking for it, and schools really being held accountable that we’re going going to see the system change. And I think a lot of parents, right, and this is all of us, right? It’s difficult to challenge people that we want to like us and parents often want the teachers to like them, they want school staff to like them. And most people who go into teaching are very, very good people, but they’re not taught the education laws, they’re not …

Anne Zachry 22:11

Exactly.

Catherine Michael 22:12

… in a lot of situations, we find, you know, teachers don’t know how to design the school for an IEP, they don’t … You know, I had a teacher in a due process hearing last week, they they didn’t know that parent training, or counseling could even be part of an IEP. So it’s really important for parents to take the horse by the reins, and learn how to navigate the system and start asking these things in a way that’s diplomatic and kind. But at the same time is assertive enough that your child is going to get what they need, because quite honestly, you are your child’s only advocate in the system.

Anne Zachry 22:48

Right.

Catherine Michael 22:48

And unless you’re asking for these things, the schools simply aren’t going to provide them. And in many, many situations,

Anne Zachry 22:55

it’s just a sad reality of it. But I mean, this also goes to the fact that in a democracy, we’re of the people, for the people, and by the people, and the parents are the people, the students are the people and we shouldn’t be afraid to take ownership of that responsibility. It’s what we all agreed we wanted to live under. That’s …

Catherine Michael 23:13

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 23:13

… the model we’ve chosen. And so I think, for me, what makes me upset most about the way it’s designed, it’s not just that it forces parents into litigation, because that’s what the rules require, in order to resolve the dispute. It’s the attitude that parents get from the school district personnel when they actually exercise that right. And the “How dare you?” and “Oh, you think you’re …” you know, whatever. And all of a sudden, the parent becomes the bad guy for simply exercising a right and following the rules, because that’s the only mechanism available to them, not because they want to. Nobody wants to do that. But if they do, you know, as someone who works with families, if somebody comes to me and says, “I cannot wait to go to court,” I’m like, “Well, okay, I hope you find somebody to help you with that, because it’s not going to be me,” You know, it’s that you shouldn’t be eager to go to court. It should be the last resort. And so when parents are forced into that corner, and that’s the only option they have left, and they exercise that right, and then they catch grief for it, like somehow they’re the bad guy, I think that’s what bothers me the most. Because it’s like you …

Catherine Michael 24:18

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 24:18

… said, you know, that the parents can be made out as, “Oh, they’re just this this disgruntled person and they just aren’t happy with anything. They’re sad about being the parent of a special needs child.” I’ve heard that one a lot. “They’re having a hard time coping and they they’re angry and they need someone to take it out on, so they’re suing the school district.” No, you broke the law and you harmed their child. That’s why they’re suing you. You know, it’s frustrating.

Catherine Michael 24:46

Yeah, and, to that end, like, I want, you know, schools as well as parents to I you know, I would so love if we could even stop thinking of due process as litigation or suing or something like that, because these parents cannot get damages under IDEA claims.

Anne Zachry 25:04

Exactly.

Catherine Michael 25:05

What you can get, right? You can recover your attorneys fees. But in these cases, I mean, if we look at them in their most simplistic nature, it’s simply the parents asking their state Department of Education to appoint an independent hearing officer to make a decision as to the appropriateness of their child’s program.

Anne Zachry 25:23

Right.

Catherine Michael 25:23

A parent doesn’t need, although I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, but a parent doesn’t need an attorney. So, you know, I will often hear from schools that, you know, this is the litigious parent who filed a suit. And I’m thinking, number one, this person hasn’t filed a suit against you. Right? A suit, you know, traditionally is a claim we would file in civil or federal court.

Anne Zachry 25:46

Right.

Catherine Michael 25:47

This is an administrative action that they filed with an administrative agency. It’s not even … so, and then we hear, you know, “a litigious parent.” Parent’s not asking for money, you know. They may be asking for what we call an “in lieu of FAPE” type of agreement where they can actually get the funds to place their child in an appropriate program.

Anne Zachry 26:05

Right.

Catherine Michael 26:06

But I think that is a mindset that we really need to have get schools over and also get parents again, thinking that if you have a problem with Social Security, or you had a problem with your child’s Medicaid, you file an administrative action to get that corrected. Right? You file with, you know, your federal Social Security office, “Here, I need to get this adjudicated,” or somebody who’s disabled. We don’t think about it the same way.

Anne Zachry 26:31

No, not at all.

Catherine Michael 26:32

I think if we could … right? And so to me, that has always been fascinating as somebody who does this, when, you know, I have one that’s in a hearing right now, where the, you know, the parents, quite honestly only asking for an appropriate IEP, and then assorted related services for her child. And now, you know, when the school’s attorney is speaking to us, they’re saying, you know, this is simply a litigious parent. And I’m thinking, you know, she’s not asking for a dollar.

Anne Zachry 27:00

Right.

Catherine Michael 27:00

Just write an appropriate program. So I really want to even reframe how parents think about these things. Again, schools are basically performing a government function.

Anne Zachry 27:14

Yep.

Catherine Michael 27:14

When we ask for the enforcement of these laws, it’s an administrative action. And you’re asking, you know, someone from your state simply to make that decision. Certainly, they can be appealed to federal court. And there’s all you know, all of the things that you and I often see.

Anne Zachry 27:31

Yeah. Which Yeah, I’ve gone all the way to the Ninth Circuit on some of these things and it’s just like, “Are you kidding me?” And something that you had said before we got started, as well as that how much money school districts are sometimes willing to throw in attorneys that they would never throw at services, I mean, hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight over a $7500 education service.

Catherine Michael 27:50

Yeah. And you know, I’ve even seen that when a parent requests an independent educational evaluation. In most states, those can go for around $3500. Some states that we’re looking at California and New York, it can be higher. So I’ve seen schools go through an entire due process, arguing that their evaluation is appropriate, where they spent triple, quadruple, what it would have cost them to provide the parents the evaluation. And when you look at that, you’re really what you’re seeing is a school district saying, “We want to make this process so hard on parents that they don’t even bother to ask.” And they talk to their friends and they’re like, “Yeah, this is what happened.” And that’s not the role of a government entity, right? We shouldn’t have government entities making it so difficult for individuals to get their, you know, their legal rights met.

Anne Zachry 28:23

Right. Right.

Catherine Michael 28:38

They don’t even want to start that process. And that’s why I think it’s really important for parents to feel empowered, and to realize that what they’re asking for is supposed to already be being provided to their child. And again, it becomes their job to enforce that. And you can do so in a diplomatic way.

Anne Zachry 28:55

Exactly.

Catherine Michael 28:56

There are a lot of you know, yeah. And there are a lot of things you can do even outside of due process. But I don’t want parents to be afraid of due process.

Anne Zachry 29:03

Right.

Catherine Michael 29:03

And, I want to reframe their thinking on that topic.

Anne Zachry 29:07

I think that’s a really healthy perspective. I wish we could reframe the thinking of the folks from the school district who come in and deliberately try to make it toxic in those instances where they do. And you know, when it isn’t always that case, you’re right. I have been in situations where we’ve had to file for due process. And it’s almost one of these things where everybody in the IEP team knows that it was coming, and nobody’s surprised by it. And they’re waiting to see what happens. And it’s almost like the administration is hoping the parent will file because then they can go to the school board and say, “Look, now will you listen to me?” And because, sometimes it’s not that the department doesn’t want to do it, it’s that their hands are tied by, you know, whoever holds the purse strings, who’s not part of the IEP process, even though the team is the one vested with the authority to make those decisions. So, the politics that are going on behind the scenes become a toxifying effect. And …

Catherine Michael 29:59

Right.

Anne Zachry 29:59

… then you Have the attorneys that these individuals will hire and certain individuals, you know, birds of a feather flock together, and you’ll find people who are like minded in their view of these things. And I know that for from what I’ve seen the socioeconomic status of the community where the school district is, can have an influence over whether they will comply or not. In a school district where they don’t have the money to throw at lawyers, they’ll go ahead and pay for the service, they’re not going to fight over it …

Catherine Michael 30:27

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 30:27

… because they can’t afford to. But you get into an affluent community, especially when you’re talking Southern California where you got these little pockets of nouveau riche and their big McMansions. And they’re feeling all special because they have money and the school district people will tell them, “Oh, well, you don’t want to go through public special education services. That’s like a welfare service. You would do much better if you pay privately for the services yourself. You’ll get much better results than what we can give you because ours is publicly funded.” And so they play that …

Catherine Michael 30:58

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 30:58

… that mind trip on these wealthy parents whose identities are all wrapped up in their their newly accomplished wealth, and they play on that and these parents are taken for a ride, because then these parents are paying out of pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars for all of these specialists who were hovering, like vultures just waiting because they know it’s coming. So you’ve got, you know, you’ve got all of these parties that are financially invested in enabling that mechanism to play out the way that it does. And then you have parents who suddenly realize after, you know, they’ve broken the bank, and they don’t have all that money anymore, because it went all to private school and residential placement costs and things and to come to find out that they could have gotten all of that from the school district. But there’s …

Catherine Michael 31:40

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 31:40

… only a two year statute of limitations and they’ve been paying out of pocket for the last 10 years. And so not until they’re bankrupted by it that they realize the error in their judgment, and then they can’t go back and fully recover. And it just there’s all of these different games being played by people who seem to be similarly motivated to not serve, while taking public dollars to hold a public service position. And I think that this is as much a taxpayer issue as it is a parent issue, because like you said, we’ve already paid for these services to be provided. Those are our tax dollars. And in those are the laws that our Representatives passed in order to provide for these children. And yet, this is what we have instead. And so I think …

Catherine Michael 32:22

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 32:22

… that one of the parent advocates that I met a few years ago said she went up to Sacramento with a group of parents and sat down with state assembly members or state Senate, I’m not sure who all she met with. It was state officials, representatives. And said, you know, “When you take into account all of the people in California who have disabilities, and their immediate family members, like their parents, or you know, a spouse, do you consider them a constituency?” And he said, “No, the number is too small.” And she said, “Well, okay, what about all the people who are employed to support all of these people with disabilities and their families and their extended families? When you add all those people in, does that become a constituency to you?” And he said, “Yes …”

Catherine Michael 33:08

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 33:08

“… at that point, now you’re talking about a significant number of people.” And so what that really communicates is all of this divisiveness that we’ve been seeing in our culture where, you know, we’ve got people being pitted against each other for different ways of thinking about things and the things that make them unique from each other. And disability is no stranger to that experience. And what we’re starting to realize is that the people who are trying to divide us are a minority. And they’re easily identified, we all have a common group of individuals who are all trying to pit us against each other and turn us into special interest groups, when really we’re just the majority. And if we all …

Catherine Michael 33:49

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 33:49

… weave ourselves together and collectively advocate for each other, then we’re a constituency. And I think that …

Catherine Michael 33:57

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 33:57

… that is where we have to start thinking about these things now that it’s not, “Oh, my disability rights versus your LGBTQ+ rights.” It’s not my “My race rights versus your gender rights.” You know, it’s not a “versus.” It’s no, everybody. Everybody has equal rights. And that’s the whole point.

Catherine Michael 34:16

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 34:16

And so I think that our dialogue needs to shift in that direction. I know that I had this conversation in an IEP meeting the other day with a team, I had to file an OCR complaint. I’m like, “Look, this pandemic is not the apocalypse, you know? Zombies are not at the door.”

Catherine Michael 34:32

Right.

Anne Zachry 34:32

“Democracy has not fallen, the rule of law still applies. And at no point did public health usurp civil rights, they are equally important. So what are you guys gonna do?” And they’re just like “Uhhh!” because they don’t know. I mean, but they understood why I filed a complaint. They weren’t mad at me. They’re probably … they’re actually they’re like waiting to see what comes of it because maybe now they’ll be given permission to do their jobs. You know?

Catherine Michael 34:56

Right.

Anne Zachry 34:56

Nobody was angry about it. It was like “Okay, well, yeah,. That logically makes sense. We’ll just have to see what happens.” And so I’m not necessarily, in my situations … and of course, I have relationships with a lot of these people, because I see the same people in IEP meetings for different kids over the span of decades. So we all know each other. So it’s not like …

Catherine Michael 35:17

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 35:17

… you know, I’m going into a novel situation, and then some stranger coming in and telling them what to do. Because that can be, you know, people can become defensive and adversarial when that happens. So I have rapport, but, you know, even still, you know, the fact that I can say something like that, and everybody’s like, “Yeah, you know what, you’re right. We still are not empowered to do what you’re asking us to do.” And so that that, to me, is very frustrating, because I know that there’s people who want to do the right thing, and they can’t; they’re not being allowed to.

Catherine Michael 35:45

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 35:46

And I think that parents need to understand that too, that, you know, not everybody’s the enemy, but you got to be paying real close attention these days. I mean, would you agree, I mean, the parents just need to be …

Catherine Michael 35:56

I would.

Anne Zachry 35:56

… very discerning about who they can trust?

Catherine Michael 35:58

Well, absolutely. I think it’s, again, it’s being discerning. And it’s also it’s being educated as to what your child needs are, what you’re asking for. And then also, you know, again, understanding that you are going to be the only one who really has your child’s true best interests at heart. That’s not to say that there aren’t, you know, within school systems there are really dedicated teachers, dedicated administrators who are doing their very, very best to ensure children are being educated appropriately. But at the end of the day, and I don’t necessarily like that expression, but it really does come down to, you are always going to know your child best. And it is going to be up to you to enforce these laws.

Anne Zachry 36:43

Right.

Catherine Michael 36:43

You know, you may have a great teacher one year and not another. And again, the school’s interest isn’t going to be the same as yours, right? Theirs is going to be on their budgeting, the union, you know, everything going on, your interest is going to be on “Is my child getting an appropriate program?”

Anne Zachry 36:51

Exactly. Right. And, I mean, in terms of checks and balances, that’s why the parents are such an important part of the team, and are afforded so many rights and the protected right to meaningful parent participation and …

Catherine Michael 37:11

Right!

Anne Zachry 37:12

… informed consent. I mean, all of those privileges and rights are there, because that’s meant to be a check and balance against the rest of the system. And so, you know, if they if the parents are being bamboozled, and they are signing documents that they don’t actually understand, then those enforceable rights are not being honored. And, you know, it’s parents have to understand that they have recourse and they need to educate themselves as to what what that is.

Catherine Michael 37:36

Right.

Anne Zachry 37:36

And ask! I mean, my favorite thing is when parents say, “Okay, well, what are my rights under this circumstance?” and put it back on the school people … … to explain what their rights are, you know? And I think that that’s a good strategy, because it is the burden of the school district to explain to parents what their rights are. They’re supposed to be able to do that. And so you know, if they’ve put you the parent on the spot, the parents should feel comfortable saying, “Well, you know, what, I need to turn this around to put you on the spot for a minute, because I don’t understand my right. And I’m not sure what I can do here.” If you’re savvy enough to know, in some states, you know, how the rules play out are different. In California, all you have to do is give 24 hour written notice, minimum, and you can audio record your child’s IEP as a parent. You can’t video record, but you can audio record, and the school district can’t say no, but they also have to record as well so that there’s a backup copy. And you know …

Catherine Michael 37:42

Yes!

Anne Zachry 38:23

… just for authenticity reasons. So different states have different rules about audio recording, but, you know, I audio record every IEP meeting. One, because I have ADHD myself, and I don’t want to miss anything. And so it’s just a … it’s more of a safety net, because I very rarely have to go back and listen for …

Catherine Michael 38:23

Yeah. Yeah.

Anne Zachry 38:38

… my own account. But just to know that I can make me less anxious during the meeting, but also because, you know … … it ends up getting introduced into evidence if we do have to go to a due process hearing. And it’s been a very powerful tool.

Catherine Michael 38:44

Well, yeah. Right. And you can be clear as to what you asked for, why you asked for it, what the school’s response was.

Anne Zachry 38:58

Exactly,

Catherine Michael 38:59

I think that can be extremely helpful.

Anne Zachry 39:01

And if, you know, when you go into an IEP meeting and you do have the, you know, you’ve legally made it okay to audio record – given written notice or whatever is required – and you’re doing it lawfully, and then you go in and say, “I don’t understand my rights under the circumstance, please explain them to me,” and then the explanation they give you is either going to be a good one, or it’s going to be a bad one. And if it’s a bad one … … you know, the backup, you know, it’s like, “Okay, well, I didn’t get the right answer, but I got proof that they don’t know what they’re talking about. And I’m not crazy.” And so it becomes evidence and I think the parents and, certainly as an advocate, when I go into the to the IEP process, I’m trying to solve the problem for real in the moment but I’m also making the record along the way in case it doesn’t get resolved …

Catherine Michael 39:24

Yeah. Right.

Anne Zachry 39:28

… and so that by the time we arrive at due process, the trail … the evidence trail is clear. If when they say no their explanations are, you know, are whatever they are. And, going back to what you had said earlier about prior written notice one of the things that I’ve noticed out here is that I would say, a good third of the time when I get a prior written notice, in response to something I’ve submitted for a family, it won’t make a lick of sense. It will say prior written notice according to 300.503, blah, blah, blah …

Catherine Michael 40:14

Right.

Anne Zachry 40:14

… and have all that legalese at the top of it, and then they … it’s like a form and they’ll populate the form with a bunch of gibberish that’s just nonsense. It doesn’t even explain why they said, “No.” There’s no real explanation. I’m like, “Okay, well go ahead and make the record that this is what you’re sending out on a PWN form, and this is what you’re going to represent as PWN,” … because substantively, it is embarrassing. And just because you put “PWN” at the top, and you cite the code that you’re supposed to be following, the fact that you didn’t is reflected the document itself. And it just, it blows my mind what people will put into writing because they think they’re so clever. And it’s like, “Okay.” And so one of the things that I think is really valuable, that’s helpful for parents to know, too, is that the regulations, it’s 34 CFR section 300.320(a)(4) mandates the application of the peer reviewed research to the design and delivery of special education. When you have a bad IEP, you can say, “I want to understand the science that underpins this IEP. What peer reviewed research did you rely on to inform …”

Catherine Michael 40:34

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 41:20

… you know, and of course, they don’t have anything. And then when I ask for something specific, and I know, I can reasonably anticipate that they’re going to balk at it, because it’s something they’ve not done before. And it’s going to require them to create something new. I will cite the science that backs up the request that I am making and say specifically, the regulations require you to apply the peer reviewed research to the degree that it’s practicable. So if you’re not going to do this, when you send your prior written notice, please explain what it is about the science that is not practicable.

Catherine Michael 41:20

Yeah. Yeah.

Anne Zachry 41:23

And then they’re, they’re stumped, because they don’t know how to reply to that. And again, it goes back to the fact that they don’t actually have access to the peer reviewed research. I’ll go ahead and …

Catherine Michael 42:02

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 42:02

… spend $70 on an article just to make my point, because I can …

Catherine Michael 42:06

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 42:06

… you know, but I shouldn’t have to do that. And that’s the problem, is that we have this paywall between our educators and the science that would tell them what to do. And what is the politics behind that? Why is there a paywall between our educators and the research that will tell them how to teach our kids right? How is that not part of the public domain? Why do teachers not have access to that? And then, especially when you have a legal mandate that requires it, you know?

Catherine Michael 42:31

Oh yeah, and …

Anne Zachry 42:32

It blows my mind.

Catherine Michael 42:34

It goes to the fact that, yeah, that because the laws are not enforced, right? We’re just not seeing, for instance, when we look at health care, right, we have, you know, standards of care, best practices, we see checklists for everything with the doctors getting weekly reports on different new procedures, medications, right? We don’t see that in education, because, again, there’s so little penalty. We’re not seeing teachers, sort of, you know, given a weekly mailer, you know, here are some of the programs that we’re seeing coming out. Here are some of the best practices for working with a specific learning disability, you know, can you update off on how you’re implementing this in your classroom? We don’t see that because, again, there’s so little importance level. Yeah, I really haven’t felt the need to do that.

Anne Zachry 43:23

Yeah, well, and I’m thinking we’re overdue for a reauthorization of the IDEA. And one of the things that I would like to see in there is beefing up of that enforcement arm because they’re supposed to be what 10 year audits or something like that? That we have some kind of audit procedure in California that every once in a while somebody pulls the short straw and ends up getting audited. And of course, every time they go through there and examine all the IEPs, it’s just a disaster, but then nothing ever gets fixed.

Catherine Michael 43:48

Right.

Anne Zachry 43:48

And so it doesn’t change anything. It’s like, Oh, they just documented that it’s a disaster and moved on to the next one. And nothing got rectified. And we need to speak to that. I mean, is we’re looking at all of these broken systems that are just cracked open and expose raw and wide for the whole world to see now that there’s no covering up that our social programs are flawed, and that we need to overhaul them. And we need to bring them kicking and screaming into the 21st century with best practices and not just best practices in teaching, but in best practices in operational standards, and efficiency, and … … and security and privacy. And I know I worked in IT for a few years in these huge enterprise class computing environments like Walmart and Sanyo, and Volkswagen and all of these big huge computing environments, where you have these global wide area networks in these supply chain automated pieces. Back in the day, I’m talking like 25-30 years ago, this technology has been around for a long time. And if you look at the degrees of efficiency, and the cost savings and the reduction in overhead that is experienced by the industries that adopt all of this ISO standards and these automated supply chain things and and the internal and the way they automate their internal business operations, that California is starting to head in that direction with respect to individualized person centered planning. That there is a pilot program that’s being developed. And I don’t know when exactly it’s going to be deployed. But I know Ventura County as part of it, where, whether you’re Department of Rehab, or you’re special ed, or you’re county mental health, or you’re welfare, or you’re food stamps, or you’re Medicaid, or whatever, it’s one individualized plan, one caseworker, and your plan calls out to all the different funding sources. So the consumer is not having to chase after the funding, the funding is following the consumer through a single individualized plan, which is only common sense. But it was only achievable by marrying all of these computer systems together, that all of these disparate agencies were working autonomously with, and making them able to talk to each other. And so now we’re getting to the point where we can stitch all of our our computing resources together to create this inter woven supply chain so that we can streamline how we deliver public services and do it more cost effectively. But then what that also means is that there are no there are no dark shadows to hide in where funds can be misappropriated. There will be such a stringent degree of accountability that the cronyism and the back scratching that has gone on will no longer be enabled. It won’t be possible. And so that also will free up a lot of resources. And that is another aspect of increasing the efficiency and the fiscal responsibility of the system and the fiscal management of it. And so there are people who financially benefit from the system being antiquated and broken right now. And they don’t want those kinds of changes coming in. Because there goes all of their opportunities to exploit. We’re starting to see that public service is going through this transformation that private industry went through when this happened decades ago, as these technologies come in. And as the public pushes for a greater accountability. And as we repair and we overhaul our systems, we’re going to be using the most modern tools we have. And so I think that we can be encouraged that the future does hold a lot of potential for a lot of corrective action, and a lot of prevention of things like this happening again in the future. But we are not there yet. And I think it takes … it’s going to take all of us pushing for those reforms. Because as much as each parent needs to advocate for their child on a child by child basis, and not be afraid of the due process mechanisms, if that’s what it takes, you know, but not think that it’s like, you know, the panacea, like it’s going solve every problem, we also need to be pushing collectively as a community of people for reforms that will fix the system in a way where these are no longer the problems we have to deal with. And that we have to repair the broken system, not only on a kid by kid basis, but we also have to make it better than it was in the first place. And so that the next time catastrophe comes, we’re better prepared to roll with it. I mean, sadly enough, this was long overdue, where the system needed to be confronted on its failures. But I think that parents can take hope that we’re part of history right now we’re part of fixing it, we’re part of making this better for our kids with special needs, because all of its going to have to be reformed, we can’t just tape it back together and go back to the way it was. So I think that …

Catherine Michael 44:23

Yeah. Right.

Anne Zachry 44:54

… you know, there’s, there’s a lot of encouragement in what’s going on here, there’s a lot of opportunity, and we don’t need to be so terrified of the changes that are coming. And we need to really embrace them, because it’s our opportunity to make it better, I think. And it’s going to take people like you and me going in there and one kid at a time, you know, saying, “No, this is … these are the rules, and this is how they apply to this one child. And this is …” ” … the individualized program, and and the individual person matters. You know, it’s like every vote matters, every child matters. And whether that child has a disability or not, should not be a defining criteria of whether that individual matters or not, it shouldn’t even be a question.

Catherine Michael 48:39

Right! Yeah.

Anne Zachry 48:55

And so I think that what we’re doing is a very powerful thing. This is a very prescient area of civil rights law right now. And, you know, I think that, you know, regardless of how things play out with what other people do, what people like you and I are doing, we’re on the right side of history with this, you know? We’re enforcing civil rights. We’re …

Catherine Michael 49:13

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 49:13

… we’re enforcing democracy. It’s we are of the people, for the people by the people doing the work to make sure the people are protected. And I think that families need to understand that they’re not alone, that there are folks like that, like us out there. And we’re not that rare, you know, and the fact that you’re licensed in multiple states goes to the fact that you recognize the degree to which there’s not enough representation in some places, and that you’re making it …

Catherine Michael 49:36

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 49:36

… happen anyway. And so that’s really powerful. I think the parents need to … and I know that there are other attorneys who are licensed in multiple states as well. One of the attorneys I work with here in California is also licensed in Alaska. And let me tell you, going out into the middle of Alaska in the middle of nowhere … … and enforcing special ad law is not an easy thing to do. You’re coming in on a like a bush plane and landing in, you know, somebody field, you know, and going to a one room …

Catherine Michael 49:53

Yeah! Right.

Anne Zachry 50:04

… school house to say,” Okay, this kid needs speech and language. How are you gonna make it happen?” and they still got to do it. And so, you know …

Catherine Michael 50:09

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 50:09

… parents need to understand that even under the most bizarre and difficult circumstances it can be made to happen. There’s always a way.

Catherine Michael 50:17

Right.

Anne Zachry 50:17

You know, and that it’s not a hopeless situation. So I think that talking about this with you has been very enlightening and very encouraging. And I think that you’ve given us a lot of really good information. I do want to remind everybody that I’m going to include a link to your book with all of our, you know, the stuff below on the … because what we’ll do is we we do the podcast, but we also do a corresponding text only post …

Catherine Michael 50:39

Great!

Anne Zachry 50:40

That way, all the links for everything are embedded in the transcript …

Catherine Michael 50:44

Yeah.

Anne Zachry 50:44

… so we’ll have all of that and then …

Catherine Michael 50:47

Oh, that would be fantastic!

Anne Zachry 50:49

Yeah, and that way folks know how to get ahold of you. And this has been a really good discussion, I really appreciate you doing this with me.

Catherine Michael 50:56

You know, you’ve done a great job, as well, at trying to keep parents aware of their rights and helping them feel empowered. And I think that’s the biggest thing that they need to know is that they have a lot of power in their hands. They just need to know that there are lots of us on their side trying to help them along the way.

Anne Zachry 51:13

Right. And it means the world to us to be able to do it. It’s such an honor to be able to be part of making somebody’s life something that you know that they’re they’re happy and they’re fulfilled and they’re not living in misery …

Catherine Michael 51:26

Yes!

Anne Zachry 51:27

… or in crisis, you know, that that we can help people turn those kinds of corners with the kind of work that we do. I mean, it’s an honorable thing that we do and I’m proud of what we do. So thank you, and thank you for doing this and for sharing your information with us and hopefully we’ll get to do something like this with you again soon.

Catherine Michael 51:44

Yeah, I would love it. And thank you again, so much and for all that you do.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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