Conflicts of Interest in Special Education: Part 1 – Schools

There is an aspect of special education that often goes unnoticed by parents. It can be subtle, but it is real. It is the possibility of a conflict between the needs of your child and the interests of the people working with your child.

Conflicts of interest can affect both school personnel and even outside professionals. Both groups can have relationships and financial ties that influence how they write evaluations, how they make recommendations for students, and how they interact with parents and other professionals. In this article we will analyze conflicts of interest for school employees.

Conflicts in the School

Conflicts of interest can occur in all aspects of life, but in special education where appropriate instruction for students with disabilities can be expensive, school personnel are often faced with a difficult situation. Do they advocate for a student who may need costly services, knowing that there may be personal consequences for their advocacy?

There are many examples of teachers who have lost their jobs or have been demoted after advocating for services and accommodations that the school administration did not want to provide. In one well-documented case, a Portland, Oregon, school district retaliated against and fired a teacher after she advocated for things like wheelchair ramps in the local high school.

This kind of conflict occurs primarily as a result of how special education services are funded. The people who approve services are frequently the same people who control the school budget or who are working for those who control the budget. If a potential service is too involved or costly, it is less likely that the school will provide it regardless of how beneficial it might be for a student. A school employee who goes against this unwritten rule is likely putting their job at risk.

It is important to note that we have encountered many school professionals who have a strong sense of professional responsibility and ethics. Unfortunately, they are not usually the ones who have the power to authorize services or accommodations that will cost the school money. The result is that employment security forces many school professionals to choose between what is best for them and what is best for the student.

These Conflicts are Systemic

In 1988, Galen Alessi, a psychologist and professor at Western Michigan University, conducted a survey of 50 school psychologists from around the country, each of whom had handled approximately 100 cases during the previous school year. That yielded 5,000 case studies. The goal was to determine the cause of learning and behavior problems in students.

The survey identified five probable causes of problems: faulty curriculum, ineffective management practices by the school administration, lack of parental support, and a student’s physical or psychological problems. All the school psychologists agreed that each of these could play a role in a student not learning properly or having behavior problems.

Yet, when the 5000 evaluations written by the psychologists were examined, every one concluded that the student’s physical and/or psychological problems were the primary cause of the students’ learning difficulties. Some also concluded that a lack of parental support or the home environment were contributing causes. None of the evaluations stated that the curriculum, teaching, or administrative practices were factors.

When asked about this, most of the psychologists in the study stated that school culture dictated that their conclusions be restricted to the student and family. Many said they could lose their jobs if they blamed school-related factors such as the curriculum or poor administrative practices.

Although this study focused on school psychologists, you should consider the implications when working with all school professionals. Bear in mind that the real client of any school employee working with your child is the school district, not you or your child.

What You Can Do

Most of the time it is difficult, if not impossible, to discover the existence of a conflict of interest affecting your child’s education. Learning to recognize conflicts when they exist and knowing how to effectively deal with them requires understanding your child’s legal rights and the pressures in the system that create the conflicts. Here are some ideas on how you can level the playing field:

  • Try to find ways to work cooperatively with school personnel, realize their limitations, and maybe together you can come up with a creative plan to help your child without ringing budgetary alarm bells.
  • Obtain a copy of your school district’s code of ethics and study it. Most districts post their code on the school website, or you can ask for a copy at the school office. While there are exceptions worth looking for, most codes don’t acknowledge the kinds of conflicts discussed in this article. At the least, however, it will show you what the school formally expects from its employees.
  • Check the certification of any school professional who works with your child. Some schools attempt to economize on their special education budgets by employing staff with interim certification or even no certification. This information is in the public domain. Most districts have websites where you can check this information, or you can ask at your school district office.
  • If you do suspect a conflict of interest, realize that you will probably not get honest and objective information regarding your child. The best remedy is to independently learn as much as you can about your child’s disability and what is necessary to obtain an appropriate education. Then you will be better able to ask pertinent and specific questions of school personnel to reveal the possible conflict and decide what action, such as filing for mediation or a due process hearing, is necessary.
  • Ultimately, the best use of your time and money may be to consult a professional who is outside of your school district to perform evaluations and make recommendations based on what your child truly needs.

The last suggestion is not foolproof, however. Our next blog article will cover potential conflicts of interest with outside professionals and how to find one who is truly independent of your school district.

You will find more information on this topic in Chapter 5: “Conflicts of Interest,” in our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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