Public Education Version 2.0 and the Power of Stay-Put

Photo Credit: Matthew Cipican

I’m pained to open with the platitude that these are unprecedented times. We all already know that and belaboring it for the purpose of a proper opening paragraph seems to belittle the magnitude of the moment.

The truth is that I’ve been having a hard time coming up with the right place to start the next conversation on this blog. I had developed a publishing schedule for Making Special Education Actually Work just before the pandemic hit and the schools in California, where we are headquartered, shut down.

All of that went out the window the moment the shutdown started and I’ve since published some bits about how to respond to the situation based on what was known at the time of each publication, but how things have continued to play out, or not, from one school district to the next has been nothing short of pandemonium. Some of my kids have done so much better with distance learning that they never want to leave their houses again. Others have regressed so greatly since the shutdown started that it’s going to take years to undo the damage that has been done and catch them up to the degree its possible to do so.

Each kid, as a unique individual learner, has experienced the shutdown differently, but all of them are experiencing the same procedural violation at the hands of their Local Education Agencies (LEAs): Failure to implement the Individualized Education Program (IEP) as written. Or, framed in the language of the regulations, failure of the education rendered to conform with each student’s respective IEP.

In California, the State has already assumed that compensatory remedy will be due to most, if not all, of its special education students because of the shutdown. None of the laws changed. There are permissible, though narrow caveats, in the law that provide for extenuating circumstances.

While the implementing regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandate the application of evidence-based science to the design and delivery of special education on a child-by-child basis, it is only to the degree that the application of the science is practicable. LEAs bear the burden of proving that the delivery of a special education service is not practicable before denying it and giving notice of such via a Prior Written Notice (PWN).

The real dispute, it seems, is over what is realistically practicable given the circumstances, but that first requires us to operationally define what we mean by practicable, and that’s a problem. There is no legal authority or professional standard for what defines “practicable” within the context of 34 CFR Sec. 300.320(a)(4).

I know this because the operational definition of “practicable” was one of the burning questions I had when I went back to graduate school in 2011 and had answered by the time I graduated in 2013. The truth is that there is no operational definition in the scientific literature or the case law as to what is meant by the term, “practicable.”

Even Perry Zirkel was stymied by this question and ultimately concluded that most courts interpreted the definition of “practicability” as something to be left to the discretion of local education agencies – meaning, really, top administrators and board members, who are all politicians – get to decide what is and is not practicable as a matter of local governance. In those LEAs, “practicable” just means “if the LEA wants to.”

This, of course, neglects the fact that 34 CFR Secs. 300.320-300.324 vests the authority in IEP teams, which include the parents, to make determinations as to what is educationally necessary and, therefore, the obligation of the LEA to provide to each given special education student. If that authority is vested in the IEP team, then no one from the LEA on the IEP team should have to go get the approval or permission of a superior outside of the IEP meeting, particularly when that superior has no direct knowledge of the student’s unique needs or the IEP team’s discussions about them. Whether or not something is practicable should be an IEP team decision, not an internal policy issue, yet the research that has been done suggests its a call to be made by top administrators, not individual IEP teams that include the students’ parents.

Further, 34 CFR Sec. 300.321(a)(4)(iii) mandates that each IEP team include at least one LEA representative who is “knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the public agency.” Usually, this is an upper-level administrator from the main office who not only knows what resources the LEA has, but has also been granted the authority to commit the LEA’s resources to a student’s IEP. This can come in the form of committing existing resources to the IEP as well as procuring those materials and services that are not already available through the LEA.

I’ve been in IEP meetings during which such an administrator fills out and submits online requisitions for use of existing assets, as well as online purchases and purchase orders through their LEA’s internal automated workflow system, during IEP meetings as the team agrees to things that are needed but not already on hand. It’s not that uncommon and it goes a long way towards doing it right the first time.

Again, there should be no going to someone else outside of the IEP process for permission or approval. In one fairly recent meeting I attended, the school district’s administrator on the IEP team shared her screen with the rest of us so we could all look at our options on Amazon together as an IEP team and make the purchasing decision right there. Then, “click,” it was ordered and the student had his accommodations the next day. Easy peasy.

The law does not provide for the IEP team’s authority to be displaced by or shifted to an uninvolved third party. If no one on the IEP team from the LEA knows whether the LEA already has the necessary resources available or will need to purchase stuff it doesn’t already have, it’s not a real IEP team.

Because these decisions are IEP team decisions, and not the decisions of removed administrators who are motivated by factors other than the individual needs of each special education student, deferring to top administrators to determine what is or is not “practicable,” opens the door for a litany of procedural and substantive errors that will quickly create due process claims against the LEA. It behooves no one for LEAs to play this game, but plenty of them do.

Competent people have no motivation to do sketchy stuff and lie about it, so when you encounter this kind of behavior, it’s because you’re dealing with people who don’t know what else to do and/or are crooked through and through. What we are all now going through as a nation under the current presidential administration is a reflection of the crap I’ve been dealing with for nearly 30 years in special education local governance. None of this is new to me, it’s just now happening on a national scale. Maybe everybody outside of the special education community will finally believe me about this crap, now.

More often than not, what is deemed by an LEA as not being practicable is likely better framed as being something for which the LEA is simply not willing to expend the necessary funds. While it is unlawful under the IDEA to use fiscal considerations to determine the contents of a student’s IEP, it happens all the time. The language of IEPs are often deliberately kept vague and weak so that they are difficult to enforce or so that it is otherwise difficult to say that the education rendered failed to conform with the IEP.

I’m seeing this happen in a way with 1:1 behavioral aide support services, right now. I’ve got families barely holding it together, stuck at home with their severely impacted children who have serious behavioral challenges arising from their disabilities. They’d give anything for in-home 1:1 behavioral services, right now.

And, that’s the thing: they should already be getting it under the existing laws. On August 24, 2020, (the day before this post), the California Office of Administrative Hearings, which tries special education due process cases within the State, issued an order making clear that students who require in-person services in order to access and benefit from their educations, including during distance learning, must receive such services according to medically acceptable safety procedures regarding COVID-19.

Behavioral services are medically and educationally necessary, the California Department of Education (CDE) has advised that in-home services during the shutdown may be necessary in order for LEAs to comply with their IDEA requirements under the law, and, now, OAH has ordered a school district to provide in-home services as a matter of stay-put during the shutdown. This is huge! This settles the argument once and for all.

I know of at least one student who is currently getting in-home behavioral services through his health insurance, which is the only reason he was able to participate in distance learning during the last half of the Spring 2020 semester. The same agency currently serving this student through his health insurance had previously served him as a Non-Public Agency (NPA) under his IEP in the public school setting. Same people, different funding source, different willingness to send personnel to his house for in-home, 1:1 behavioral aide services.

His school district has offered to provide an aide online during distance learning, like somehow that’s going to produce the same educationally substantive outcome of getting him to engage in the online instruction in the first place and remain engaged throughout each lesson. The boy needs an in-person 1:1 aide in order to access the instruction at all. How is he supposed to access online aide support when he needs in-person aide support to access any kind of online services?

And, he’s one of many students on my caseload with similar needs; he’s just the only one I know of currently living the experience of having the in-person 1:1 aide support during shutdown and being met with educational success because of it. Everybody else is asserting the need for it, but not getting it, and due process cases are popping up everywhere now, including among my students for whom I never thought litigation would realistically come to fruition.

The legal authorities favor special education students on this issue, and school districts in California are now having to weigh the risk of litigation from unionized employees against the risk of litigation from parents of students with special education needs as this whole debacle clatters forward in the absence of unified leadership across the State’s public education system. Many districts are still clinging to outdated paint-by-numbers procedures and fill-in-the-blank on standardized documents and forms, aiming for procedural compliance without thought to the substantive considerations … like providing 1:1 aide support via Zoom to a student who needs in-person support in order to access instruction via Zoom in the first place.

It’s like they think conforming with the IEP in any way complies with procedure, even if it entirely fails to meet the instructional purpose it’s supposed to serve from a substantive standpoint. The real tragedy, here, is that these paint-by-numbers bureaucrats don’t understand how to act according to the substantive needs of the student; they just want to know which form they are supposed to use.

This significant subset of the public workforce may have memorized many of the procedures for the job and can usually find the right form to use, but don’t ask them to actually engage in deductive reasoning, creative problem-solving, troubleshooting, or solution-seeking. They simply can’t. They don’t think that way. And, the human resources department didn’t recruit for people who can think for themselves on purpose.

The middle management jobs require drones who respond to authoritarian hierarchies of leadership and do not question the orders they are given, if the system is going to function according to its bigoted design. And, that is how it has been functioning for the last few decades following the passage of federal civil rights laws, including disability-related laws that first started passing in the early 1970s, up through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

Those laws were necessary because the public education system, among others, was actively discriminating against children with disabilities, including denying them even enrollment. The public education system was already discriminating against students with disabilities or the laws would not have become necessary.

When the laws passed and the public education system was ordered to comply, those individuals who had been philosophically opposed to accommodating learners with disabilities were still employed by the public education system, by and large. They didn’t all leave. Many stayed and have been sabotaging it from within this entire time. And, they recruit people who are too incompetent to realize they’re being used and/or too afraid of losing their jobs to dare question what is really going on, so they can maintain positions of authority and control according to their own fascist belief systems rather than their mandates under the law.

One of the most powerful things to come out of the current state of affairs in this country is the cracks in the publicly funded systems that people like me have been squawking about to no avail for decades, but which can no longer be denied by the masses. As we move forward to rebuild a better America in the wake of the destruction currently happening all around us perpetrated by people with way more authority than they can responsibly handle, it is painfully obvious that we have a disturbingly large swath of the adult population that “pass” as competent adults but who actually are not.

These individuals occupy a great many niches of society, including in the public sector. Their approach to leadership, when they are allowed into offices that require more of them than what they possess, is destructive. It can ruin a child’s future through educational malpractice at the local level or fan the flames of a global pandemic and domestic terrorism at the national level until it ravages the entire nation.

These individuals place cronyism over science because they are not smart enough for the science and, frankly, they’re not smart enough to cover the tracks of their cronyism. They have simply had the power of money behind them and those without money have had to tolerate their malarkey as a matter of survival. But, now that tolerance doesn’t even achieve survival for those without, so they aren’t motivated to tolerate the malarkey anymore. Look out Marie; here comes the guillotine.

Society has finally had its fill of incompetent bullies acting like they are better than the rest of us to the detriment of us all and for no other reason than to stroke their own egos and line their own pockets. We have become aware that they are too dimwitted to realize the harm in what they are doing and too selfish to have any sense of compassion or empathy for the people they hurt.

These individuals are emotionally still children, trapped in their bodies for decades without maturing, thinking their chronological age and changing external appearance are all of what earns them respect as adults, and often unable to fully engage in adult-level problem-solving and critical thinking tasks, but able to develop academic and/or professional skills that can otherwise allow them to “pass” as competent.

These are high-functioning individuals with significant impairments in judgment who engage in intuitive rather than deductive reasoning. Intuitive reasoning is age-typical in young children. It’s indicative of an impairment in adulthood. It co-occurs with egocentric thought, in which the individual is incapable of engaging in perspective-taking and appreciating the experiences and viewpoints of others.

An egocentric person is the center of their own personal universe. Everyone else is just an object in orbit around them who may or may not serve a useful purpose at times and is only accessed when the egocentric person thinks an individual is useful.

The egocentric person recognizes his/her/their own agency – that is, the ability to act upon the world to produce intentional outcomes – but they struggle to appreciate the agency of others. They tend to only perceive other people relative to their own thoughts and feelings and fail to consider that other people have their own thoughts and feelings that are each different from one person to the next.

Egocentric people tend to assume that whatever they are thinking and feeling is what everybody else is also thinking and feeling, and/or that everyone else’s decisions are made with the egocentric person in mind. The egocentric person struggles with perspective-taking, which requires that they first understand the agency of others and that everyone is preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings, not making the egocentric person the focus of their every decision.

Errors of omission and thoughtless, inconsiderate acts by others are perceived by egocentric people as deliberate efforts to cause harm or offense to the egocentric person. Because egocentric people assume that whatever they want and need is automatically understood by everyone else, which is because they assume everyone else is thinking and feeling the same things they are, if everyone else fails to deliver according to an egocentric person’s expectations, the egocentric person attempts to force the desired response to present itself.

Because they lack the emotional intelligence to navigate many types of complex situations involving other people, whatever cognitive abilities they may actually have don’t do them much good. They make errors in judgment when it comes to how they interact with other people; how well they can do math, design a building, or research historical biographies just doesn’t matter in that moment.

When people like this become employed within the public sector and have to make policy decisions, they are incapable of putting themselves into the shoes of their constituents and engaging in legitimate representation and advocacy for services that meet the of needs of those they have been hired to serve. Because of their egocentrism, the job is a means to a self-serving end. Also because of their social/emotional developmental impairments, their ability to actually engage in adult-level problem-solving as required by their positions is equally limited.

Because they can’t actually meet the performance requirements of the job, they find ways to socially engineer their ways to the top, including taking credit for the accomplishments of their subordinates while sycophantically leeching onto the coattails of those who have grifted their way up the food chain before them. They all keep each other’s dirty little secrets about not actually being able to do their jobs and abusing their positions of authority to the benefit of the highest bidder, be the currency money, power, or both.

Eventually, an emperor emerges from the mix, some traveling salesmen weave him a in invisible robe from gold thread that, allegedly, can only be seen by competent people, and, as he’s parading down the street in this magical garment, a child points out that he’s actually just a naked guy played for a fool by a couple of con artists who have since skipped town with a fortune in gold thread. I’m paraphrasing the parable, here, of course.

The problem is that a public institution can become such a hopelessly dysfunctional system that it’s really better to take it down the way the Attorney General (AG) of the State of New York is trying to take down the National Rifle Association (NRA), right now. When the corruption runs as deep in a public agency as New York’s AG asserts is the case with the NRA, it’s better to scrap everything and start over with all new people and a new method of operating that conforms to the appropriate standards.

Sometimes the well becomes so hopelessly poisoned that it’s just time to dig a new well. I think America is at that crossroad in a very broad and general sense. We are at the tipping point of a crisis of conscience.

Who do we want to be? The cronyistic incompetents who stab each other in the back over superficial slights, engage in power grabs like reality TV show contestants, and are utterly detached from and incapable of living up to the responsibilities of the job? Or, the hard-working, methodical, responsible adults who understand and are humbled by the responsibilities before us, know that our efforts to do things right will pay off in the long run but we’re going to have to struggle in the short term to clean up the messes we’ve collectively made?

So many people who came before us fought and died so that we could have the freedoms and legal tools to save our democracy, right now. I have been fighting this fight since the 1990s, but I have also lived the reason for this fight as a twice exceptional student who was never identified for any kind of services or accommodations for my processing disorder when I was a K-12 student. During the 1970s and 1980s, when Section 504 and what is now known as the IDEA were new, they were not being implemented by the overwhelming majority of public schools in the United States at the time, and certainly not in Louisiana and Arkansas, where I grew up.

I was briefly put on Ritalin in my early elementary years. But, who wasn’t, back then? I was later diagnosed with “minimal brain dysfunction” in junior high as the result of a quest for a reason why I couldn’t walk in heels (there was great social pressure on females in the Deep South at the time to wear pumps with everything, including jeans). I had to do physical therapy to stretch out my hamstrings and heel cords from all the years of toe-walking I’d done (which, by the way, toe-walking can be a neurological soft sign of autism).

My vestibular sense and my proprioception were jacked. My reflexes were/are abnormal. I can distinctly remember having visual processing issues that made it such that my brain couldn’t piece together what I was looking at to make a picture of the world that made any sense. Abstract shapes would slowly resolve into a singular whole that then made sense, but I can remember having to wait for that visual resolution to occur at the brain level before I could start understanding what was happening around me. My eyes could see, but there was lag time between when I looked at something unfamiliar and my brain was able to put the shapes together in a cohesive way that I could understand. My last recollection of that happening to me was around 8 or 9 years old. I can remember it happening a lot prior to then.

I also had very bad vision, so it could have been that my brain didn’t get the requisite practice at piecing together the parts of what I saw into a cohesive whole until I got glasses and could actually see everything clearly. I don’t have ADHD; I have ADH – Oooh, shiny! I also have mild hearing loss due to a condition that runs in my family. My dad and many of my cousins have hearing aids. I haven’t gotten to that point, yet, but it’s coming, eventually and that’s okay. Worse things could happen; hearing aides don’t ruffle my feathers in the least. I’m just not spending the money until I have to.

The point is that I had a mixed bag of processing issues as a kid that was somewhat offset by my processing speed, but not enough to make me academically successful. I know what it’s like to have my potential wasted by people who don’t understand my needs as a developing child. The adults in my life cared, but were at a loss as to what to do because the science just wasn’t that good or well known at the time, and certainly not where I grew up. They couldn’t begin to abide by the relatively new civil rights and special education regulations; the science behind it was way beyond them. They didn’t know any of that.

But, that was a long time ago. We don’t have those same excuses, now. Adults like me who used to be those struggling students decades ago are everywhere now in public education advocacy, rights, and reform efforts. We know first hand why it’s so important for the public education system to engage in person-centered planning for every student, not just those identified as having something “wrong” with them.

We also understand why it is so important to identify those who do have exceptional needs, and meet those needs, so these students have equal access to learning as that given to their peers without exceptional needs. We understand why it is so important to address the disabilities of our twice-exceptional students while simultaneously nurturing their gifts. Last year, Kodi Lee brought the point home to the lay public, which had not had any similar prior exposure to twice-exceptional people, and certainly not one so impactful.

No matter how impaired someone may present, the public learned to never assume that such a person’s presentation accurately captures all of who that person is. Kodi humbles people in the kindest, most innocent, and inadvertent way, which is what makes him so powerful. He isn’t trying to ram a message down anyone’s throat. His existence is the message; he lives it for the rest of us to observe and copy.

Kodi is a powerful living metaphor to not judge a book by its cover, which has been a recurring lesson born over the last few years of these talent competitions happening around the globe that he simply drove home with an exclamation point. The cultural norms surrounding public opinion of people with disabilities have tipped strongly in the direction of inclusion by the display of capability and superior abilities by contestants with a wide variety of impairments in these competitions.

Leave it to the entertainment industry to be the agent of change. If we live in a shallow culture in which life imitates art, then art should model appropriate behavior, such as inclusion. I’ll say this for Simon Cowell: he made inclusion marketable and profitable by allowing talented people to be defined by their acomplishments rather than their limitations. At the end of the video clip of Kodi Lee’s first audition for America’s Got Talent, after winning the Golden Buzzer, the judge who had awarded it to him, Gabrielle Union, told him straight to his face, “You just changed the world!” and she wasn’t lying.

This is part of the brave new world that is to come as we rebuild our public education system to meet the needs of today’s students in the 21st Century, including the flexibility to rapidly adapt to changing lifestyles, national emergencies, job market demands, and advancing technologies. All of these things will continue to collectively alter how we teach and manage the teaching process according to best practices, and continue to engage in ongoing research to continually improve those processes and their supporting administrative procedures.

Which circles us back around to the issue of stay-put and the recent stay-put order from OAH, linked to above. While the order is limited to California, it is germane to a federal district court case being tried in the Central District of California in which the plaintiffs, which include parents of children with extreme special needs who are not getting the 1:1 in-person services required by their IEPs, are suing the State over school shutdowns and attempting to get a federal court injunction that allows school districts to decide whether to reopen or not.

Not surprisingly, the case originates out of Orange County, California, which has a large extreme right population relative to the rest of the State and is, not coincidentally, also a COVID-19 hotspot within the State. COVID deniers abound and are having a deleterious impact on local governing decisions as they impact public health. For a lawsuit disputing the legality of school shutdowns over a legitimate public health crisis to emerge from this climate is not exactly a shock.

Not also surprising is the rampant special education violations and related scandals that have plagued Orange County for decades. Egocentrism is confused with personal civil liberties, and the welfare of others is beyond comprehension, resulting in extremist beliefs and behaviors. It is not shocking to me that school board members who have been actively violating special education and civil rights law convinced a bunch of parents who they were actively screwing over to join them in a federal lawsuit against the State to force the schools to reopen in order for their kids to access services.

If you read the plaintiffs’ complaint compared to the legal authorities I’ve already cited previously in this post, it’s plainly evident that these people don’t know what they are doing. I spoke with the State’s lead attorney on the case last week and shared the arguments I’ve now presented in this post with her.

While the judge has yet to decide the case, and, in fact, today is the filing deadline on briefs regarding the exhaustion requirements under the IDEA and the California Department of Justice (CADOJ) is on it, the nature of the questions the judge asked the parties to brief in his last minute order inclines me to believe that once those questions have been answered, we’ll have a federal district court decision on the matter that will apply to every school district in California.

The CADOJ’s arguments must naturally rely in part on the arguments I’ve asserted herein. The federal district court judge will likely defer to the OAH stay-put order that was just issued yesterday, given that OAH has the authority to try special education cases and is, therefore, authoritative on how the law applies to the rights of special education students, special education students must exhaust their due process rights through OAH before filing in federal court (generally speaking), and it is proper for the federal court to defer to OAH’s judgment, which will mirror the arguments I’ve been asserting this whole time and which CADOJ will also be asserting. They are aware of yesterday’s stay-put order, as well, just in time to meet their filing deadline.

Things are about to get a whole lot more okay for a lot of kids on my caseload. Whether their LEAs capitulate and provide the services or we end up going to hearing with the right kinds of legal authorities backing us up, either way, the rule of law is working slowly but surely and the application of the peer-reviewed research to the delivery of special education, now that reform is unavoidable, is about to enjoy a new era of advancement in the education of all students, not just our students with the most demanding needs.

It’s always darkest before the dawn. An extinction burst of escalated behaviors always comes before a maladaptive behavior finally becomes extinct. We are riding out one heck of an extinction burst on the part of incompetent people whose cronyism and transactional relationships have defined their realities and ours, and who cannot function in a more advanced, emotionally intelligent society that is moving increasingly towards meritocracy in which actual ability and earned achievements promote social status. Hucksterism has become obsolete. The Patriarchy is now rightly seen as a pack of egocentric ghoulish caricatures, not as dignified elites worthy of worship by everyone else.

These moments will pass and we will have the power to make something new and better once we get to the other side. This latest stay-put order and, hopefully, the upcoming federal court decision, are incredible first steps in the right direction.

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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