Sunday, March 11, 2007

Residual Anger

A rant!

I have been meaning to write on this topic for some time, but life has gotten in the way.

A few weeks ago, the lawyer for special education at our local school district gave a presentation in my Special Education law class. He talked about how to have your ducks in a row as a teacher so that parent due process hearings are decided in the district's favor. What he did not talk about was what happens to the child when parents lose the due process hearing, or the extremity of the difficulties that would lead a parent to actually go to court with the school district in the first place.


Our local school district is not particularly respected in our area. It is too big and does not handle money well. The latest issue is that money that was supposed to go to teachers and classrooms went to remodel a fairly new building the district bought--in order to provide posh executive bathrooms. (In the school I taught at, the teachers sometimes had to provide toilet paper for the staff and kids). Somehow, they could never get one of the john's working, so that many teachers had to go well past 4 hours without a chance to use the bathroom.

Another problem with the size is that the middle management does not listen to parents and the tax-paying public very well. One community activist in an area where the children were not learning to read finally told me that she was giving up. She said the middle-management would have to die off before effective change could be made. She ended up starting a charter school when the charter school bill was passed.

This is not to say that there are not good and caring teachers and principals--and even staff at the district office. But the problem with a system like this, is that the needs of the system become paramount over the original purpose for it, so that the good done by well-intentioned people is overshadowed.

End of Background

Anyway, back to the lawyer guy.

I asked a simple question. I asked if the district actually has a policy that says that a child may not be moved from one classroom to another for any reason. This is what I had been told when my son was in third grade. We had just moved into this school district from another, smaller and more responsive district. My son was an identified child with a disability, qualifying under IDEA for Speech Language Impairment. (we had recently learned that my son has AS, but in discussing eligibility with his neurologist, we all determined that SLI was a good eligibility for him until he was up for review in another year). I hand carried a copy of the IEP since I didn't want to risk waiting for the slow-turning of the beauracratic wheels. The head teacher duly called an IEP meeting. I went rather casually, because in the former district the goal was to work together to meet the needs of the child and I was regarded as another professional. At this first meeting, I was told by his teacher ( called Miss Snip to protect the guilty) that I really did not know my child, that she could do everything he needed and that the goal was to exit him from special education as soon as possible. (Miss Snip had known my son all of three weeks). I was not impressed. I provided the diagnostic information from N.'s neurologist, as well as the recommendations for his education. At the other school district he had been provided with Speech and Language services to deal with language pragmatics as well as with Occupational Therapy to deal with the physical difficulties he had with writing and with his extreme sensory integration dysfunction.

This teacher claimed he could write (true--but he was very slow and his hand tired easily) and that his sensitivities were due to poor parenting. The meeting became very adversarial--after all who was this little snippy girl who had known my son for three weeks to make these outrageous claims? Naturally, I was more diplomatic in my vocal response, but that's what I was thinking. We hammered out an IEP, finally, that included the clause that N. was not to be deprived of recess if he did not complete written work or for disciplinary reasons. Miss Snip did not like that at all! But she got her way on the matter of testing--he was to be tested in a large group instead of the small group that his previous teachers and therapists recommended. (Later, when he doodled a pattern into the bubbles of his answer sheet in the NCLB mandated testing she had reason to be sorry. After all, those tests were not about N,--they were about her (in)competence).

When I got home, I shared with N. what the accomodations on his IEP were so that he could advocate for himself. (I have always had an honesty policy with my kids about anything related to health or school). About two weeks later, I got a call from N.'s teacher. (I was teaching at a private school at the time, and my principal courteously took my class so I could respond. She thought the person on the other end sounded a wee bit upset). I picked up the phone to hear Miss Snip yell: HOW DARE YOU TELL N. WHAT IS ON HIS IEP! (Note: Actually, according to the federal IDEA legislation, the child is supposed to be a member of the IEP team unless there is an educational reason why that should not be so). She went on to say that she kept him in for recess because he had not finished a worksheet and a writing assignment and that he told her she couldn't do that because it was on his IEP. She accused me of damaging my child by even telling him that he had an IEP and that it embarrassed him in front of the other kids. (I guess she didn't read the material I gave her about AS). I mentioned that the IEP is a legal document that must be followed according to federal law and state regulations and that an excuse such as "I just can't do this" is highly unlikely to hold up in court.

After this encounter, I spoke with the Sp. Ed. teacher about moving him from her class. I was told that it was not their policy to do so because "then all the parents would want to move their kids." (I was thinking wow, this teacher must be really incompetent if all the parents want to move their kids). This started a year long struggle, during which my child was punished daily for his disability--a violation of federal law--while we had several IEP meetings and had to get advocates and finally had to threaten a lawsuit in order to get N. moved out of the Ditto Queen's room. (At one point, when N. did not finish a written assignment, she actually had him take it out to do at recess and put him on a bench to do it. It was a windy day and when N. dropped his pencil, he set the paper down to retrieve it, and the wind blew the paper away. My adult daughter went to pick him up and found him in the isolation corner. I really don't know how she thought that sending N. out into the wind to write when writing is difficult for him at a desk in a quiet classroom would improve his skills).

I was accused several times of being a bad parent, of not knowing my child, of using poor discipline (after all, I was actually on his side), of allowing N. to "use" his disability to get out of work, etc. etc. All of this from someone who was far less educated in any formal sense than I, clearly knew far less about efficacious interventions, and who had no idea of our home life or anything else about us. The parent advocate said it was one of the more difficult negotiations she had ever seen. I finally asked the principal, in the presence of the parent advocate, if I could see a written copy of the policy they kept refering to. Of course there was no such policy, as it would violate federal law to have such a policy. If a child with a disability is not meeting IEP goals, the school must find a way for them to be met. My son not only lost a year of education, he also became terrified of tests and began a several-year long writing strike. He is only now becoming confident of his abilities--this in a child who has tested in the extreme high range for cognitive ability.

Only now, after several years on damage control at school and the choice to remove him from school completely, am I really seeing the wonderful, smart, curious, goofy kid who is my son.

I explained (more briefly than here) to the lawyer at our class, that with all due respect--(which is not much)-- that a parent's concern is not with "winning" but rather with the soul and spirit of a child. I explained that parents do not want to sue--they only go to due process when no other solution can be worked out. After all, a suit can last for years, and the parents concern is that their child get an education. The district may have chance after chance to obstruct parents, but parents only have one chance with their child. I explained to this guy that I put up with accusations and name calling that could only be considered slander in order to try to advocate for my child. I ended by saying that I finally took him out of school in order to ensure that he reached his potential.

By the way, school does not exist to aid a child to reach his or her potential--you can read this for yourself in the Supreme Court Decision Board of Education v. Rowley. "Free Appropriate Public Education" does not mean what most of the tax-paying public thinks it means.

What is interesting in all of this is two-fold. One, I was amazed at the residual anger I felt about what had happened to us. It is really quite amazing that competent adults can be reduced to tears and anger by a school teacher with far less skill and education. I have still not recovered, despite the fact that I am a licensed teacher, and further I have graduate degrees in biology and in special education. (I have a small inkling from this of what it must be like to be poor, to not speak English well, to be a single parent, etc). And I am still very angry! (I know, it's not good for my blood pressure! Om! Om!).

Secondly, I learned something else when I said all of this to the lawyer guy. I got a round of applause from my classmates, most of whom teach special education in this district. Since I taught special education in that district for two years, I know what it was about. It was about all of the IEP meetings, teacher's lounge encounters and other unpleasant experiences that Special Ed teachers tend to deal with when they try to get the needs of their students met and meet contempt and resistance from general education teachers. It was about all of the times that Special Ed teachers are told by the general education staff that "you aren't a real teacher," "you have it easy" and "please get this child out of my classroom and out of my hair." It was about being part time at three different schools and being upbraided by a general education teacher because you "left early." I understood that round of applause when I heard it, but I was still surprised.

And I thought: We need to have a revolution in the schools--it is clear that these teachers know what is happening to kids and parents.

Unfortunately, the revolution will never come from classroom teachers. After all, how can a person who is not even allowed to go to the bathroom when s/he needs it going to make a break for freedom?

I think one reason so many good teachers leave the field after only a few years is that they come to realize that school systems are the bastions of petty empires and little power plays by people who have no power and get damn little respect. And they find themselves losing empathy for their students and they feel unable to do what they passionately wanted to do--spend time learning with kids. But some stay because they feel stuck, or they are close to retirement and have few options, or they don't know anything better--and some of these take it out on the kids.

There--got that off my chest.

Tomorrow I will get back to the wonderful life we have now--as N. takes more and more charge of his learning, and I have the distinct honor and great joy of really taking the time to know him for the wonderful, unique, smart, and spirited child he has become since being freed from the tutelage of the Miss Snips of the world.

Pictures tomorrow--I promise!

Oh, well--here's one for the road.

With a view like that up the road to feed the soul, why would you want to go back to school?


Frankie said...

My heart started beating faster and faster as I was reading this. It made my blood boil -- or rather, brought back memories of blood boiling!

I have never been anti-school, although at this stage of the game I cannot fathom why any intelligent human being would send their child to a public school. And the only reason I say that is after watching my inlaws, of which I have many, who are public school teachers, and they scare me. They are burned out, they are the result of a system gone bad.

I've always said that a teacher needs more control than what they are given. My son's 2nd grade teacher was wonderful and let me volunteer a lot. What I saw saddened me. It was impossible for her to do her job. Impossible. She did the best she could and was a wonderful teacher. But still...lots of cracks.

My sister has been "fighting schools" for years now over her son. IEPs were never followed. The end result is not "them" winning, but the child losing, heartbroken parents. The child is what counts...don't they get that?


Thank God for homeschooling.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


My sympathy for you in-laws. There are many good teachers--and I think they burn out faster.

I can't imagine ever going back to the classroom as it stands now. The amount of top-down control is unreal.

My son's 3rd grade teacher was a bad teacher. They exist--just like bad lawyers, CPA's and handiman workers. What is so frustrating is that the schools will not admit it.