by Matt Cohen
Times are tough for the public schools....less money, more demands, new standards to meet, budget pressures....
In many ways, they are even tougher for special education. Kids with disabilities have often been shortchanged
in relation to what they really need to make meaningful progress, thanks to an early Supreme Court decision
that held that schools had met their responsibilities if the student's program was "reasonably calculated" to
allow the student to make "some educational progress." But it is even worse as schools face tightening
budgets and increased pressure to reduce seemingly extra or disproportionate expenses for special education
services. And even where budget cuts are evenly distributed, the impact on kids with disabilities is often
greater, because they are more vulnerable to disruption, reduced support, larger classes, less individualization.
Yes, times are tough for schools. But times are tough for families, too. Families have higher costs,
many are facing one or both parent losing work or being underemployed. Health care costs are skyrocketing
and state and federal funding for services for kids with disabilities is shrinking. Just the basic costs for
food and gas are going through the roof. All families are having to do more with what they have and often have
less to spend then before. And their kids need more, as less is available at school, from the state and is less
affordable from private clinicians. Stress and more stress....
And times are tough for kids....all kids. They can see their parents struggling, financially and emotionally. They know that their vacations aren't happening this year. They know that for teenagers, work is harder to find, and for those going to
college, tuition is rising and financial aid is often harder to get.
And in this painful and chaotic economic crisis, times are especially tough for kids with disabilities.
What can the school provide? Will the services be there next year? Direct services are being changed to
consultative service. Individual service is not being made group service. Minutes of individual help are being
reduced or discontinued. More decisions are financially driven, rather than driven by the needs of the child.
It is no wonder that many parents are trying to reach out to their schools to make sure that their kids' needs are being met,
asking if the services being promised are being provided, seeking to make up for some of the things that are no longer
available elsewhere, or just seeking to hold the line in minimizing the reductions that are occurring. Schools
should welcome the concerns parents are sharing....
But it's become BLAME THE PARENT TIME! In too many situations, administrators and school attorneys
are going on the offensive. Parents are being criticized for asking for too much when budgets are tight, even
though they are asking for things their kids need and often that their IEPs require.
-At a recent program to inform parents about their rights, the school district's attorney broadly chastised parents for
being too critical of teachers, for being intrusive, for overwhelming them with questions and emails, for treating them poorly
and for not being sensitive to the difficult jobs that they have.
-In a recent case involving a young man that had been inappropriately placed and had 10-15 absences during one semester, some excused and some unexcused, the school attorney, while offering limited extra tutoring to provide the student remedial help, insisted that he or his father (who worked nights), call the school 12 hours in advance if he was going to be sick or reimburse the school for the cost of tutoring (not even doctors charge patients for missed appointments if they are sick) and would lose the tutoring altogether if he missed three sessions in a semester.
-Another parent, who had won a due process because the school was failing to provide appropriate ABA services for her son with Autism, was accused of filing due process hearings to spite the school.
-In yet another case, school staff criticized the parent and the consultant the school had hired for being too easy on the student with disabilities, when the behavior involved was directly caused by her disability.
We should expect more, not less! Parents are being accused of
taking advantage of the system for asking for services that go beyond school formulas. Parents asking questions are accused of not trusting the staff or questioning staff expertise, when they aren't getting basic information they are entitled to and any parent would want.
Some schools are threatening to have parents arrested if they come to school too often, are restricting
parents' ability to observe their kids in school, or are faulting parents for medical conditions that make it impossible
for the child to attend every day.
The broader school community is also playing the blame game in relation to special education services. That's wrong too.
But the BLAME THE PARENT STRATEGY is really intended to intimidate parents into backing off, giving up
in trying to get help for their kids, accepting mediocre services or worse. It is inhumane and arguably, often
illegal, if it denies the parent the ability to adequately participate in the IEP process, to access information
about their child, or to have the same access to the school as other parents. It may even violate the
non-harrassment rules of Section 504 or the ADA if it is being done in response to parents exercising their
right to complain or use the procedural safeguards of the special education system.
But legalities and strategies aside, it isn't good for anybody. It hurts the kids. It undermines, demeans
and intimidates the parents. And it makes problem solving much harder. When times are tough,
everyone is better off having open, cooperative and pragmatic discussions about how to best meet the
needs of all students. Blaming parents may cause them to back off at the moment, but it will ultimately
create more problems for the students, more conflict, and more work for the staff. And it just
isn't right. Parents should blame educators for things that they can't control, but educators and their
attorneys shouldn't demonize parents or put them on the defensive just to control them and keep them from
being legitimately involved in their kids' education. Let's all start talking, instead of attacking....