The Special Education “Reform”

What does The Special Education Reform mean? Let me tell you my experience. . .

In my former life as a New York City school administrator, one of the tasks that I was entrusted with, was to explain to families the meaning of what the New York City Department of Education called the Special Education Reform, which as one of my former bosses would say, has been in place for many years and barely qualifies for “reform” status anymore.  Having said that, it is still a great source of confusion for families and staff alike.  As a matter of fact, even though I had the task of explaining this to families, I could not escape the fact that after so many years, people had started to forget the federal law that protects children with disabilities, their education, and their parental rights, and started to advocate the “reform” as if it replaced IDEA.

In its purest form, the “reform” refers to the policy that ensures that all students can be served in all schools, and at face value, this sounds like a great policy  (right?)  Without getting into specifics, the initial purpose of it was to reduce the likelihood of discrimination and it make equal access a priority.  On the surface, all these things are correct.  The special education reform may work very well, for some.  The problem with an all-encompassing policy that doesn’t consider individual needs is the issue of equity.

In fact, equity is not the same as treating everyone equally.  When students are treated with equity, their individual needs are taken into account. They are treated fairly and impartially. The reform, although well-meaning in theory, confused those entrusted to deal with students, those in a position to make decisions, and in turn, confused many parents.  What many parents worried about has come true.  Students can be placed in any school regardless of their specific needs.  My old boss used to say to me that this was actually a good thing.  She even threatened a group of enrollment directors at a meeting where I was present with taking away all access to special education software for their staff, so that they would not be able to know or assist the parents in any type of special education transaction.  Every student, she said, would be treated “equally.”  She was correct.  They would be treated equally, but they would not be treated with equity.

For those of us that understand disability at a deep personal level, this type of assessment is not acceptable.  Yes, as parents, we should assume that our children have the same rights to attend any school we want.  However, we should also be able to assess for ourselves if we think a school is a good fit for our child given our child’s needs.  We should be able to assess whether we feel comfortable with the services offered to our children.  And yes, we should also have a right to receive the recommended services on our child’s IEP as they are recommended on the IEP.  The IEP is a legal document, not a suggestion.

What do you do if you feel that your child’s rights are not taken seriously?  As upset as you might be, please know that there are legal resources and that the law protects your rights as a parent.  Consult with an advocate and be prepared to be your child’s voice.

Drop me a note if you need assistance.

Best,

Dr. Klimek

Equity promotes inclusion and diversity!

Parental Rights Violations

Three years ago, when I joined the Enrollment Division at a local education department in a major metropolitan area in the Northeastern United States, I did it partly motivated by the fact that as a relatively high ranking administrator, I would get to make decisions that would influence the lives of students and parents.  I was particularly interested in improving the lives of students with disabilities and their families.  I wanted to influence the decision-making process so that it would be a fair system, equitable, and barrier-removing for all families.

Little did I know that no matter how hard I tried to remove barriers to access, the “system” would see me and my efforts as nothing more than another obstacle.  For starters, in is well known and well documented that our system has been plagued by laws and policies that have historically favored those on top.  For example, in our city, there is a policy that has been in practice in the past few years.  The policy is aptly named “the reform” and even though it claims to uphold the values of inclusion as its advocates claim that “all students must be served in the same schools as their general education peers,” it truly and many times, violates the principle of the Free and Appropriate Public Education for students with disabilities.

In the past few years I have realized that this policy mostly benefits upper-middle class, white students, as they are typically the ones who favored from this loophole between what Federal Law (IDEA) provides as a right to students with disability, and a policy enacted by a local education department.  The local policy seeks to enforce flexible programming for students that were determined to be best serviced in a particular program, typically a self-contained, small, and structured class for students with special needs.  Flexible programming allows schools to place students in large classes, as long as they work to try to meet the minimal requirements on the IEP.  Psychologists working under these conditions, have been advised to recommend programs that would not require schools to service student in small programs for the entire school day, therefore providing the necessary loophole to make flexible programming possible.

In my view, this is a clear violation of parental rights and student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment, a set of rules set forth as provisions to one of the most important educational laws of this land.  Here is the caveat to this loophole:  The typical upper-middle class, well-to-do person, is able to consult a lawyer, sue the local education department for inability to provide services under the provisions of IDEA, and get paid thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to send their child to a private school.  As a matter of fact, in my career as an education administrator, this has been the scenario in almost the entirety of cases that crossed my desk.  The typical student whose parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and barely have time to sit at the dinner table and help their child with homework will struggle with whatever decisions schools make for them.  Their children will struggle too.

If you feel that your child has been left behind by a system that does not support him/her, and your family, please drop me a note.  I’m here to help.

More to come on this story…  Stay tuned!

We are all Special in our own way! We are not all the same!

Parental Rights: Obtaining Information from your School System

One of the most serious topics that I often have to deal with is dissemination of information on parental rights.  School systems tend to stay mum when it comes to providing accurate, easy to follow, and up-to-date information on how to follow proper procedures when a parent feels that the rights of his/her child have been violated.  I have often encountered those professionals who are simply afraid to mention next steps in regards to disagreement on children’s IEPs (Individualized Educational Plan), will not answer questions about the filing of impartial hearings, fail to point to guidelines and procedures, or simply withhold information that could be useful to a parent in making an informed decision.

Our world has changed for the better in many aspects, but professionals within school systems are still afraid that they could be penalized for expanding parent’s choices since those choices can come at an additional cost to the system.  For example, if your child has an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) that recommends that for the majority of the school day, he/she is to receive instruction in a 12.1.1 setting (12 students/1 teacher/1 assistant), and your child has not been receiving this type of instruction, then you can request mediation or an impartial hearing to resolve the issue.  Sometimes the issue can be resolved at the school level, sometimes a transfer is necessary, and some other times even a private school may be needed.  In the latter case, the school system is liable to reimburse the parent for school tuition, since federal law clearly states that this is an educational right (Free Appropriate Public Education).

I was involved in a difficult situation just a few days ago.  One of my co-workers, under my guidance, informed a mother that in order to better serve the needs of her child (who needed a great degree of educational supports), she had the option of having him attend a particular school who could supply him with a much more specialized and tailored program.  Of course, if she desired, she could also send both her children, the child who needs a special program and his brother in general education, to the closest school.  They would both be together at this location, and the school would have to figure out a way to service the child with special needs as they do not have a ready-made setting, but the option was also available.  The parent chose to have the siblings in separate schools but felt that this was the best setting for each child, therefore tailoring her children’s education to their needs, rather than using a cookie-cutter formula.

When the above situation was revealed to one of the administrators in the division that manages student enrollment for this school system, I was asked to not have these conversations with parents again, as the choice should have never been on the parent.  The administrator referenced the system’s new guidelines and explained how students’ disability status could not be taken into consideration.  This is a great misunderstanding, as the point of the new guidelines is to expand parental choice, so as to not confine the parent to only one choice, a choice that would only be based on the child’s disability.  However, it is perfectly all right, actually desirable, for a parent to have this information and made the choice based on the information that she has been provided.  This is the student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education in his or her Least Restrictive Environment (more on this to come).

When it comes to dealing with school systems, your best option is to ASK, ASK, and ASK.  Don’t forget to drop me a line if you would like to get in touch with me!

Only by asking you will know!

The Greatest IDEA

Parents of children with disabilities are fighters. Children with disabilities didn’t have access to educational systems, or at least not to the extent that they do now. In November of 2015, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the federal law that guaranteed educational access for students with disabilities: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act, signed by President Ford in 1975, and later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, when reauthorized by President Clinton in 1997.
There was a movement that led to legislation, and that in turn, led to the passage of PL 94-142 (IDEA). Thanks to continued parental involvement, there was more legislation that was passed after that. Parents fought to have the rights of their children recognized as well as their own. Before the passage of IDEA, there was a substantial number of students with special needs who did not have adequate access to education. IDEA guaranteed this access and created a scaffold, a backbone so that new legislation can build upon it and protect our children.
If you are a parent, a family member of a child with special needs, never hesitate to pursue what’s best for your child. You have a lot of power within you, and being a family member puts you in a very special position. You can see things in a very unique way.
I know that when your child gets diagnosed, you may be shocked, in denial. If you are confused, are ambivalent, or are not sure how to start, what to say, please do not hesitate to contact me for guidance. You are not alone!
Love,
Dr. Klimek.