Chapter Four: Compensatory Education, Lester H. vs. Gilhool, Cordero vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania, Girty vs. the School District of Valley Grove.
Lisa: Thank you. So despite some of the protections that you’ve been talking about this morning, Janet, um, that was provided by the ADA, IDEA and other legislation many children did find that some public schools were still unable to meet their needs. I know in 1985, I think in 1985, um, in Massachusetts the Burlington School Committee vs. the Massachusetts Department of Education, the Supreme Court had decided that education compens-, compensatory education was a remedy under the IDEA and I’m wondering if you could tell us, briefly, what is compensatory education?
Janet: Actually that was not a Supreme Court decision. What the Supreme Court decided in a case called Burlington is that tuition reimbursement is a remedy under the IDEA and what that means is that they decided, actually this was a unanimous decision if I remember correctly of the Supreme Court which was a big surprise, that if a parent places their child in a private school because they believe that what the district has offered that child is not a free appropriate public education and they ask for a hearing, which is the next step in the process of resolving disputes, and the result of that hearing is that it turns out they are right, that the hearing officer says yes, you’re right what the district offered was not appropriate and the program that the child was receiving in that private school was appropriate, you can get reimbursed by the district, you must be reimbursed by the district for that tuition. So that was called tuition reimbursement. If the, if the hearing found that the district’s offer was appropriate you didn’t get it back but since the, um, I can’t remember if it was the IDEA or EAA, EAHA at that point, um, was silent on that remedy so that that was a very important decision.
Compensatory Education, here in this Circuit, was established by a case that we handled at the Education Law Center, a case called Lester H. vs. Gilhool. Um, and the problem was that tuition reimbursement worked if you had enough money to put your kid in a private school and pay the tuition and accept the risk that you may not get that back if you’re not successful at the hearing which was not the case for most parents. So what our case was about, we called it poor peoples’ tuition reimbursement because it meant, and let me tell you about Lester H. so that I think will give you the feel for that case.
Um, Lester was a student in Chester Upland School District. He came to my attention when he was about eight years old. He was a child with intellectual disabilities and very, very severe behavioral disabilities. Um, his situation and his family’s situation was so severe that it was agreed from the very beginning of his academic career at Chester Upland that the district had no program that could meet his needs. But when they put him in a private day school that was unsuccessful too because his behaviors were so severe. So he ended up at home with five hours of instruction per week for a two and a half year period. Now the Chester Upland School District was not exactly a model of efficiency. That’s, I think, the most poetic way I can put it. Um, and so they did look for other placements for him in the private school system but they didn’t exactly do it with much tenacity so it dragged out. But it was also true that it was very hard to find a private school because his behaviors were so severe.
So to give you an example, when I went out to visit his family the first time I met with his mother Octavia H. She had to go to the bathroom while I was there and she had to take him, he was eight years old, into the bathroom with her because if she didn’t go into the bathroom with him and lock the door by the time she came out of the bathroom he would have eloped into the street and, um, maybe be hit by a car. So that was how this family was living. He was home all day, was getting almost no education and this went on for two and a half years.
We filed the lawsuit, first of all, for two reasons, one is to get him into a program which we did fairly shortly after the lawsuit was filed. Um, they all of a sudden became very active about searching for a school and did find a school for him. Uh, but then we wanted remedy for the two and a half years he’d been out of program. Well tuition reimbursement didn’t work right because he’d been home, he hadn’t been in a private school. So we said two things, um, only one other Circuit Court, the Eight Circuit, had ever ruled on whether or not compensatory education or services, extra services, beyond what he would otherwise been entitled to just as part of his free appropriate public education, was a kind of remedy that you could get under the IDEA. So the first question was could you get two and a half years of compensatory education as a remedy. The second problem, which made it really complicated, was that he was now eight, by the time the case was actually decided and affirmed by the Circuit he was 12, so he had a long time till he was gonna hit the maximum, um, age for public education which is 21. But he was now getting a seven day a week residential super comprehensive program, there was no place to put the two and a half years between then and age 21, you can’t just jam programming in when you’re getting the maximum that a child can tolerate and benefit from.
So our argument was that his age of entitlement for public education and Special Ed needed to be extended for another two and a half years. So the two problems were was he legally entitled to two and a half years of comp. ed. and could it get tacked on to the time when he would otherwise no longer be eligible? So, again, it was the first case in this Circuit, I think only the second case, maybe the third case in the country on this issue and the answer was yes. They, we had a trial, um, many of the experts who had testified, all of whom without cost I might add, in Armstrong came back and testified for us in Lester H. One in particular, Dr. Bertram Ruttenberg, who was with the Center for Autistic Children and who talked about children like Lester.
Um, and so this was also, I think, an important case in establishing this for the Circuit and also establishing this right to have the per-, and of course for Lester, who ended up being able to live in a community living arrangement and in the community by the time he’s 20, by the time he was 23 ½ and his entitlement to education ended and of course his mother got her life back.
Lisa: Janet can you tell me why compensatory education is important to families?
Janet: I think it’s important for two reasons, um, primarily it means that if, in fact, a child doesn’t get the programing he or she needs - better he should get it or she should get it from the front end and not have a gap in programing - at least there’s an opportunity for extra help to make up for the loss. But I think it also means the districts have a major incentive for doing it right the first time because when, before Comp Ed if a district, like in the Lester H. case, for two and a half years clearly doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, there were no really, real consequences. You picked up from the point you left on and you had saved all the money you would’ve had to provide over that period of time. Now there’s accountability so it means the districts are less likely to neglect their obligations and, again, it means that families at least have some recourse if there is significant slippage.
Lisa: I wanted to ask you, Janet, a little bit about the need for timely and appropriate school placements for children. There were some problems around that, um, some problems that you addressed in a 1992 case, Cordero vs. the Commonwealth. I wonder if you could tell me, give me a little bit of background about that case, um, how it was that you became interested in who Cordero was, etcetera.
Janet: Well, Cordero vs. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania, which is important, we sued the State as well as the Department of Education because we felt, and it’s true, that the whole State is responsible and we believe that multiple agencies within the State were needed to really give us the kind of remedy we needed. And in a lot of ways Cordero, which was litigated by my colleague Len Rieser primarily, um, was taking Lester H. to scale. And actually it involved Brian Cordero who was also a student in the Chester Upland School District, again, a district who, that produces a significant number of plaintiffs because they had significant problems doing things right the first time.
Um, and Brian was a 12 year old, I believe, again, with significant, um, disabilities and he also had experienced a long delay, an eight month delay, when everyone admitted that the district couldn’t provide appropriate programs. They looked to the private school system to find a program for him and it took eight months for them to find it. In that period of time his mother lost custody of him because his, he deteriorated so badly and she also looked to the, she was forced to look to the child welfare system to get help because she wasn’t getting it from the school district and he ended up in an institutional placement. Um, the lawsuit, obviously we resulted in getting a good program for Brian Cordero but it was brought on behalf, there was a recognition on our part not just from these two plaintiffs but from many of the families and the most difficult cases that we had encountered in the course of doing our help line work to assist individual families. We discovered that there was not just in the Chester Upland School District but throughout the State a significant number of children, primarily older children and almost exclusively children with severe behavioral issues like Brian had and like, uh, Lester H. had, for whom the school districts were conceding that they did not have programs within the public system but the limited number of private schools either wouldn’t take them, um, cause there were only a limited number of schools that districts could turn to given the system that the State had setup. So they either were experiencing long delays or in some instances years’ delays, as, as I’ve described.
So we said that’s the State’s job, it’s the State’s job to make sure that there’s a system. This system clearly isn’t working, uh, because the school districts are conceding that they can’t meet the needs publically and there aren’t enough private school options. And we also, of course, argued that this situation was forcing children into the public’s, in the private sector which is a more restrictive sector because the State was also not making sure that districts had an adequate continuum of public placements so that private schools were a last resort and not a first resort with children with significant disabilities. So that was our class of kids in Cordero.
Um, we, this case was also important because it was trying to reinforce one of the central tenets of the IDEA, which we call the zero reject system, which means that every child with a disability is entitled a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment and that means every kid. It doesn’t just mean the kids who are easier to program, it just doesn’t mean just young kids, it doesn’t mean just kids without significant behavior problems, it means all kids. And so that the State has to setup a system which ensures that no child, zero reject, fails to get a public education or gets waiting listed or delayed in receipt of that education.
So we were looking to have these kids found, because they were scattered throughout the state. There weren’t a zillion of them but the deprivation was very deep for these kids. Many of them were being educated at home as Lester, again, Lester to scale with very little education, um, some of them were being forced into the child welfare system, these, um, the, Brian Cordero. We had to find them, we had to create programs for them, we had to get them in those programs and we had to give them compensatory education for the time that they had been out of program.
And so, uh, this, in this case the State defended on the grounds “not my fault”. Uh, districts are the first line, which they clearly are, that’s where the IEP meetings are held, that’s where we want these kids placed. And if we’ve set up procedures, we’ve set up regulations, we’ve set up mandates, if there are problems take them up with the school districts. The judge, Judge Rambo in the Middle District, found that an insufficient description of the State’s role. And I’d like to quote from what I thought, one of my favorite lines in any judicial decision. She said, um, and I’m gonna have to look down to do this, “As defined by the IDEA the State’s role amounts to more than creating and publishing some procedures and then waiting for the phone to ring. The IDEA imposes on the State and overarching responsibility to ensure that the rights created by the statues are protected regardless of the actions of the local school districts.” Well this was a big deal.
Now what was successful and unsuccessful about this lawsuit really, I think, identification was great. There was a whole system for finding these kids. The other thing that I think was successful was getting the kids in program and getting a system for getting kids in program who were class members, class members were defined as kids who either had waited for more than 30 days for free appropriate public education or were likely to in the future and so we had a pretty good system for targeting those kids and intensively making sure that we found programs for them.
The area in which I think we were less successful, where we needed interagency cooperation because some of these resources were not in the control of the Department of Ed but rather in the control, primarily, of the Department of Welfare, was creating a new set of programs that were public programs. We didn’t want to force all these children into private schools, we wanted to create of an array of interagency programs that were school based where, which co-, which could handle and educate children with these kinds of very significant disabilities. And we’ve certainly made some progress over the years, we and many other advocates, but I would say that that’s the part of the remedy where we didn’t fulfill our, our expectations and there are still children in this Commonwealth who certainly could be publically educated if the programs were school based and who are still being educated in more restrictive programs. But far fewer that are being educated at home or who are being left on waiting lists. I think that problem was largely cured by the Cordero lawsuit.
Lisa: Was Brian Cordero returned to his home?
Janet: Ye-, well he went to a private residential school, if I remember correctly, again this was Len’s case so I don’t remember all the details, but he, yes he was released from the custody of the Child Welfare. I mean that was, that was a problem that affected the Special Ed system for many years which is, particularly for these kinds of kids because the family became so desperate and the child started to deteriorate, that families were actually forced to voluntarily place their children in the Child Welfare System so that the resources of the Child Welfare System would kick in. Um, that’s a problem which I think is not current, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there is still a little bit of that, that mostly that’s been cured.
Lisa: A child’s success in school generally can be measured in lots of ways. We all expect that our children will progress academically, um, but certainly social interactions are key to children’s success in life as well and for kids with disabilities this is particularly important, I think. Um, and in fact, as you’ve been discussing, the IDEA requires that children be educated in the least restrictive settings. Um, but in 2001, um, the Girty family questioned how this provision of the IDEA was being implemented for their son so I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about the Girty family and, um, perhaps about the resulting case, Girty vs. the School District of Valley Grove.
Janet: Sure. As you say, um, the least restrictive environment, also known as inclusion, um, also known as mainstreaming, component of, uh, right, I should say, of, for children with disabilities has been part of the Special Ed Law from the very beginning, it was part of PARC, it was part of the original regulations before the IDEA went into effect. And, again, as the IDEA was based very largely on the remedy in PARC and one or two other cases it has been there since the get go, um, and this Circuit has been extremely vigilant about protecting this right. Um, there’s an important case that, not litigated by our office, called Oberti which was litigated by the Public Interest Law Firm of Philadelphia, PILCOP, which really set the stage. But even though it set the standard which have followed ever since it still required additional litigation and additional vigilance, um, to make it really work for children of all ages. Um, and I didn’t handle this case at the District Court level but I did handle the appeal which affirmed the District Court decision for the Third Circuit.
So, Spike Girty was a youngster with intellectual disabilities. He did not have significant behavioral problems but he did have significant intellectual disabilities. For the first three grades he was in Special, uh, Ed programs that were separate. His parents wanted him to build his social skills and to be part of hi-, the regular community and so they worked out with the school district that he would be included for academic and non-academic subjects in a regular class. Um, he was assisted by an aide who was not a certified teacher but who was his personal aide and for grades three through six things went relatively well. In sixth grade his school district decided that he should go to a separate class for all of his academics and that special class would have required him not only to change classes but to change schools so this was, would have been a major shift both in terms of moving him from an inclusive to a segregated program and also moving from that community of people which he had, of which he had been a part and the family didn’t like that.
The, one of the facts that was interesting is that everyone at the school district conceded, and there was plenty of testimony on this, that Spike, who had his IEP, was making, uh, progress in his IEP goals commensurate with his capabilities. He was doing as well as could be expected in his IEP goals given his capabilities and his weaknesses. So no one was arguing that he wasn’t making progress they were just arguing that he could do better. His teachers also testified that they weren’t really teaching him, that they felt that his skill level was so far below the sixth grade curriculum that they didn’t believe they could adapt the curriculum to him. They also testified that, really, the teaching that was going on was being done by his aide so the aide who had a high school degree, perfectly nice aide but was not a certified teacher or a competent instructor, was the one who was teaching Spike but he was still doing relatively well in that classroom setting.
So they argued, and they also testified that they didn’t believe that it was really all that important for older kids with disabilities to be in inclusive settings and they thought that he would be much better off if he were with kids who had his, who were at the same intellectual level. Well, suffice it to say that the District court did not agree with them, um, and he found that Spike was doing okay, that it was completely unsatisfactory that he was being taught by an aide and not by teachers, that the school district had failed in its duty to teach the teachers how to teach children with significant disabilities and how to genuinely include them, how to adapt curriculum and that therefore, the judge found, that he had not gotten the supports, what the law calls supplementary aides and services that the district was required to provide because part of that, actually crucial part of that, was to make sure that the teachers, the regular teachers who were supposed to be teaching him, actually had the skills and the capacity, the will and understood it was their duty to teach every kid in the class and not just the kids who could function on the same level. He also went on to find, which was clear from the Oberti decision and just common sense, that the standard for determining whether a kid with a disability can be included simply can’t be that he can achieve at the same level as his classmates, that he can do the curriculum in the same way and achieve the same levels.
So that the fact that Spike couldn’t do that was essentially irrelevant to the determination of whether he should be included. So the Circuit decision wasn’t precedential, although it ends up getting cited all over the place anyway, but it was an important way to tack down that, that inclusion means inclusion and that progress means something different for kids with disabilities than it means for other kids but it’s no less legitimate and it’s no less satisfactory, um, achievement for kids with disabilities in an inclusive environment.
And in fact we then, some years later, had a case at the District Court level with a preschooler, uh, because they were arguing that young kids with disabilities should be in a separate setting cause then they would learn a lot and be able to be included when school age started. So we actually had both ends, we had somebody arguing it wasn’t important for older kids and then we had somebody arguing that it wasn’t important for younger kids. But in both of those cases the court found that we were right and that inclusion was appropriate for those children.
Lisa: In the Spike Girty case testimony showed that Spike’s presence in the classroom benefited children without disabilities, um, and we’ve been talking a lot about how inclusion benefits kids with disabilities. Can you talk to us a bit about some of the benefits you’ve found for typical children in the classroom?
Janet: This has actually been something that’s been recognized for a long time, um, and it was a very prominent on the Girty case, which I mentioned. It wa-, part of the testimony for Spike talked about the compassion that the other children in the class felt for Spike and how they interacted with him, I think there are a million ways in which having children with different learning needs and that’s not just children with disabilities but children who are English Language Learners, children who come from different countries or different backgrounds. Uh, diversity, in my opinion, is a great benefit. It teaches children what the world at large looks like and not just the children, not just the classroom, it teaches them to be understanding of the strengths that people bring, even though they may have challenges, to the environment and the ways in which they contribute as well as the ways in which they, um, have special needs. And so I think that, that all of that, um, is something that’s a very important addition and I hear that over and over again.
I have, um, it’s perhaps a digression, but I have a very, um, good friend who, actually an old colleague, who had a kid in a class with, a preschool class, with a child with very, very severe disabilities, I actually happen to know both mothers, and she told me that she had gone to class to visit and her daughter said to her, ca-, grabbed her by the hand and took her over to the, the youngster with the disability- his name is Gabriel- and took her and said, “That’s Gabe’s chair. We work with Gabe, we help Gabe eat, Gabe’s very nice”. And so here’s a preschooler who is learning to help, to support, to benefit from and to appreciate the qualities from the very beginning of a child with significant challenges.
Chapter Four: Teachers, Vouchers, Charter Schools, Supporting Parents
Lisa: Thank you. So we were talking, again, about the impact of education legislation on children and families and children with and without disabilities. Um, can we talk for a minute about Special Education teachers and what you might think they have gained from some of this legislation or is there anything that you feel they’ve lost?
Janet: Well, one of the things they’ve gained are their jobs, I mean, I think that, um, obviously there were special education teachers before there was an IDEA but the vast expansion of resources, um, certainly has created a field or expanded a field. Secondly, I think that, that most teachers I know of special education really appreciate the way the law assists them in doing their job. Uh, it isn’t, it isn’t re-, it is better for children and for teachers and for families that everyone sit together at an IEP meeting to discuss candidly what’s going on, what’s happening, what should happen, how things need to be changed, what progress is being made. That’s a legal requirement but it’s also a very useful thing to do that helps advance the education of children and it also gives some stature to the teacher. The law requires that teachers are a mandatory part of the IDEA team, uh, the IEP team and so they can’t be left behind in their classroom, they’re there expressing their views, uh, explaining what they need to succeed so that the parent knows it and the parent can become an advocate for the teacher, uh, getting what the teacher needs in order to be successful and so forth. So I think that to the extent that the law reflects good practice then it benefits the teacher who’s trying to be successful in the classroom.
Lisa: Janet, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how the emergence of Charter Schools and voucher programs have impacted the way children with disabilities are served by the public education system.
Janet: Well, I think they present a real challenge in a whole lot of ways. Charter schools are different then vouchers so let me take that separately. Um, vouchers, which at least in one form, have been defeated recently here in Pennsylvania and another form which is through grants from businesses are actually growing but traditional vouchers were defeated and that’s an example of a situation in which the disability community really got it, that the welfare of children with disabilities, uh, was on the line if vouchers went through. In other words, uh, over the years I think the disability community’s become more and more sensitized to the fact that “general education issues,” general school reform, is not something that happens to other kids. It’s something that happens to their kids too and sometimes the impact is even more exacerbated on their kids, the negative impact.
So in the early years when I did this work many families and many disability advocates felt we have the IDEA we’re golden, no need to worry about anything else. I think that’s changed and that’s an important change and I think vouchers is a good example of that. Uh, when the voucher bill was being proposed virtually every disability group came out in opposition and the reason was that they realized that if a limited, that the voucher program gave a limited sum of money to private schools, private, secular or religious schools, um, and those schools had the right to decide whether they wanted to accept that student or not for the amount of money that was in the voucher. So that presented two problems, one is although the schools had a legal duty under the Americans for Disabilities Act to make reasonable accommodations, they had no duty to provide a free appropriate public education so for kids with significant disabilities, they weren’t gonna get through the front door and that wasn’t gonna be illegal because the kind of accommodation that would’ve been needed to meet those needs would have exceeded the school’s duty.
Secondly, the amount of money was probably insufficient even for regular education students and for children with special needs, especially significant special needs, it wasn’t gonna be enough to encourage the private s-, most private schools to take those children. So what was gonna happen, they were going to be left behind in even higher numbers, even a higher percentage of the children who remained in the public school system and those public schools would even have fewer resources with which to meet their needs because this money was gonna come out of the budgets of the, uh, school districts. So they were very, uh, vociferous opponents of the voucher program. That, as I say, didn’t pass in, at least, in that form but probably will come back again.
Charter schools are somewhat of a different matter. Charter schools are public schools so they have a duty under Federal Law to provide a free appropriate public education. However in Pennsylvania they’re exempt from State special education regulations that apply to the regular public schools. They have their own little set of regulations but that are less demanding. The other thing is that, uh, although they have a duty to accept all kids and can’t exclude them because of their disabilities the bottom line on charter schools is that the numbers do not justify the belief that, do not justify the position that they are really accepting a significant number of kids with intellectual disabilities.
So entirely apart from whether one thinks charters are good but whether charters are producing good outcomes as a matter of education reform, kids with significant disabilities are not even getting a free shake at getting the same access to the charters that kids either with less significant disabilities or, um, kids who do not have disabilities have. So one of the problems is that to make sure that even good reforms, if they’re good reforms and beneficial, that families of kids with disabilities really have access to it. Charter schools also present yet another problem which is, again, the money is coming out of the public schools systems to fund them. So to the extent that the public school systems are, sort of, being drained of resources because of things like vouchers and charters and kids with significant disabilities start being left behind in those schools, then obviously, uh, the struggle to get what those children need is becoming even more difficult.
So I’m not saying that charters are necessarily a bad reform but I’m saying that they aren’t working as well as one might like even for children with disabilities and, in my view, vouchers are not a good reform under any set of circumstances.
Lisa: Thank you. So, Janet, your career has spanned about 40 years. Are there parts of the education system in Pennsylvania that still need reform?
Janet: Well, life is always a work in process. I’m a work in process, the Education Law Center is a work in process, the Special Ed system is still a work in process. We have made real strides in the 40 plus years I’ve been doing this work, there’s no question. If you look at the situation that existed when, I mean literally children with intellectual disabilities were not permitted to have access into a public school system, we’ve come a long way baby, there’s no question about that.
Um, I would say that some of the most significant areas where work still needs to be done are kids with significant emotional issues. We have a long way to go in inclusion if we’re going to make sure that kids with disabilities are not only included, but educated inclusively and successfully. I mean, the Spike Girty story is not atypical, I think it’s not atypical now. That the early intervention system which came into effect for kids from birth to school age in 1986, um, that was a huge and important addition. I know I do a lot of work in that area, I would say here in Pennsylvania there are certainly areas of the state where, for example, preschoolers are in very restrictive settings, places where they’re not but there’s a lot of work to be done there.
Uh, there will always be work to do but I also think it’s important, um, to acknowledge that as a community there have been some great successes and I really believe that one of the great successes has been the fact that disability community understands that education reform is its job too. Um, and that only in safe schools, that don’t leak and that have sufficient funding for all kids, where kids with disabilities genuinely flourish so that the bat-, the battle of kid, for, of families who don’t have disabilities is to make sure that kids with, all kids with special needs are cared for and vice versa.
Lisa: Thank you. So you’ve been describing many ways in which the law was a vehicle for change, um, in our interview today, um, but that doesn’t always mean change happens and you’ve counseled many, many families during the course of your career about achieving a free and appropriate public education for their children. Um, what advice would you give to parents, um, in an effort to help them be more successful in negotiating, um, with their schools?
Janet: Well, there are a few tips that I, um, think are particularly important, one I’ve already mentioned which is, one of the things that’s about, that characterized is education law work, A, is that kids are in school for a long time, most children have to be in public schools, I think they should be in public schools and B, their parents can’t afford any other options. So for the parents to advocate effectively without offending, if that’s possible, while still insisting that their children get what they need is very important because if you can, if you end up with, especially early in your education career, with terrible relationships with everyone, um, that will affect, um, your child, it will affect your ability to be an effective advocate.
And it’s completely understandable while parents who are fighting hard for what they know their children need and need to fight hard for it, why they may become angry and frustrated and see the other side as enemy and act accordingly. My only advice is it’s not a successful strategy and if it can be avoided that’s a good idea. Sometimes I’ll suggest that people bring neighbors or people who are not as emotionally involved to the meeting to help, to help, um, be a check, meaning sort of a how’s this going check, and just to be a support under any set of circumstances. I think a parent, especially if it’s a single parent should try very hard to bring somebody else with them even if it’s just to be, to sit at the same table with them.
So, and start at the bottom, don’t start with the Sup-, with the head of your school board, start working up the chain of command because these are institutions, these are bureaucracies and the guy up above isn’t gonna want to, to deal with the situation unless, so go to your teacher, go to the service provider and not only will it aggravate people less but, and most likely to be successful, but the people higher up in the food chain are gonna send you back down there anyway. So, in most instances, unless there’s a good reason for jumping to the top, don’t jump the chain of command and, again, try not to be adversarial. And the third thing and the final thing would be put as, decide what your priorities are, decide what will make the best differ-, the biggest difference for your kid.
Um, I have, a million times had parents call me with their check list of 25 things they want to see changed at that IEP meeting and they start going down their list and they’re all good things, important things, all things that would make a difference and I say to them, usually when they get to about number 10, I say Mrs. Smith, I want you to step back from that list for a minute and tell me if I limited you to three things what are the three things that you think are the most important that you’d like the district to do that you think would make the biggest change for Johnny. And then after we have a little bit of a discussion about how that’s not really possible I say try. Um, and they’ll say well, if they would let him have an extra set of books at home, if they would, um, whatever the three top priorities are and I say or I’ll say no more than five, if they’re really resistant and then I’ll say okay well here’s life. Life is that if you bring 25 things in, the chances of you getting anything significant out of this meeting are not substantial. It is not the only meeting you will ever have, you can ask for an IEP meeting at any time, so the question is not what do you want to get for forever, what do you want to get out of this meeting?
And so my suggestion is focus on those top three priorities you put on the table or maybe put four on the table and if you get three say well I’m still interested in “X” and “Y” but we’ve made progress at this meeting. Acknowledge progress when it’s made and get it on the IEP so you’ve done it and then you’ll walk away with a concrete success and see what happens and then you can go back next time and ask for number four and number five on your list. But it is human nature, um, to overwhelm and to get a sense, this person just wants everything in the world and I can’t possibly meet any of them. And then, after you finish that IEP meeting, call me back and tell me how it went cause it’s also important that people have someone to check against and almost inevitably they’ll call me back and say I got it, I didn’t get “X” but I got “A” and “B” and I said well did you feel that was a success for you? Yeah, it was really successful and you got it in your IEP, yeah, really got it IEP. I say congratulations you’re a full-fledged advocate and a really great advocate for your kid.
So that would be my three things: don’t be any more hostile then you can help, go up the food chain, and acknowledge success and focus on a limited number of priorities at a time. And I think they sound like just common sense but it’s very hard to do when it’s your kid and your emotions are on the line and that you know that success or failure crucial but they do work.
Lisa: You’ve been giving us some tips for parents, can you tell me a few other was that the ELC works to support parents outside of litigation?
Janet: Sure. Um, I would say that, speaking personally I think as well as speaking for my office, that I think that I have accomplished more over time, more institutionalized change not through litigation but through what I would call infrastructure reform. We’ve been talking about laws at the Federal level, well we’ve talked some about laws at the State level, and then there are regulations. And most of what people are really guided by in the school system, where the details are or at least some details are, is in the regulations that define what’s supposed to happen in an early intervention program, for infants and toddlers with disabilities. What’s supposed to happen in a classroom with regard to restraints and seclusion, what are the limitations on that, when can it be used, when can’t it be used, um, what are the rules when a child needs vocational education services and has a disability. What is the vocational school’s duty, what’s the school district’s duty to work out an IEP that has vocational components, Special Ed components and education components and make sure that those work in your local area vocational technical school. What is, are the regulations that govern charter schools, public schools and for children with disabilities that are there. There are sets of regulations in each of those areas. How do you get into school, what are the rules for school enrollment, what does a parent have to produce, how fast does the kid get enrolled, kids with disabilities need to get enrolled in school too. All of these are sets of regulations and I think it’s fair to say, I think this is the item which I think has, I take the most sense of accomplishment in, is that my office has been, has had its fingers in every set of regulations that govern public education here over the years, some times more than once as the regulations get revised or they’re, and changed and so, and we’ve been vigilant about what are the rights for the kids who are English language learners, what are the rights for kids who are in foster care, what are the rights, of course, for kids who have disabilities.
And uh, so that when a parent says to me, um, they’re not letting me visit my kid’s school and classroom, don’t I have a right? I can say, well in the last set of regulations I and a bunch of other advocates got a regulation in there that says you have to have reasonable access to your kid’s school.
Now, you might say why on earth does anybody need a regulation that says that, right, why aren’t schools welcoming to all kids, all students, all the time? Wouldn’t that be a much better world in which we live? It would be, but it isn’t the world in which we live and while most of time I hope that happens for the parent who calls and says can I go to my classroom, I can point them to that regulation and etcetera, etcetera and so forth. So those regulations are what allows us to problem solve for families and gives them the leverage and the power to get what they need for a child and over the years I think we have been successful in creating lots of those kinds of opportunities in the regulatory structure that governs education.
More Interview Chapters
- Early Career
- Education Law Center
- Education Law Center’s Organizing Principles
- YOU ARE HERE: Compensatory Education
- Inspirations and Reflections on Career
About Janet Stotland
Born: 1945, Florida
Title: Executive Director Education Law Center
Advocacy, Civil Rights, Education