Tag Archives: special education law Massachusetts

Demystifying Speech and Language Services

beach-33 textSpeech and language services were always a mystery for us when our son was in school. Even as he struggled with written composition, our school’s Speech and Language Pathologist would end her evaluations with the statement that “services are not recommended at this time.” We assumed that since he did not have an audible problem with his speech, that he didn’t need any of her services.

We now know that this is a typical reaction of many parents, who like ourselves, don’t understand the wide range of services that a Speech and Language Pathologist can and should provide to students in a school setting. In this article, we want to review some of the most important of these services, describe our experiences with schools attempting to limit them, and make suggestions about how you can advocate for your child to have the services that he or she needs.

The Role and Responsibility of a Speech and Language Pathologist*

A Speech and Language Pathologist evaluates children to determine if there is a communication disorder in areas related to speech, the use of language, and sensory issues that impact communication and interfere with attaining educational goals.

Though there are many detailed aspects to what a Speech and Language Pathologist can evaluate, for the purpose of this article we have simplified them into the following categories:

  • Speech: This includes expressive speech (the quality of audible sounds such as articulation and voice volume and quality), receptive speech (how a person understands and processes verbal communication), and pragmatic language (social communication skills).
  • Language: This includes the comprehension and expression of written language, sequencing of thoughts, syntax and grammar, and understanding symbols and their meanings.
  • Sensory Issues: These include social and emotional deficits that impact communication and even difficulty swallowing pills.

In addition to diagnosing disorders in these areas, a Speech and Language Pathologist provides therapy to help children communicate with their peers, teachers, and families. Therapy can also teach children who are nonverbal how to use communication devices to express themselves.

In other words, speech and language services are not just about speech, they are about learning how to communicate with others in many different ways, with both expressive and receptive language, speaking, writing, and assistive technology. The professional organization for Speech and Language Pathologists in the United States takes the position that it is the responsibility of its members to provide a full range of these services to improve the “literacy achievement of… those who struggle in the school setting.” For more detailed information about this organization and what it expects from its members, visit the website of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Eligibility for Speech and Language Services

Given the wide range of speech and language services that are available, it is no exaggeration that they are often key to providing an appropriate education to many children with disabilities. Getting schools to provide these services as part of special education, however, isn’t as simple as you might think. In fact, we have found that schools may limit what speech and language services they will provide.

Our school district, for example, claimed that its Speech and Language Pathologists were available only for obvious expressive language deficits, like significant articulation problems or stuttering. We believe that the reason for this is that speech and language services can be intensive and therefore expensive for schools to deliver.

This is a concern for parents, because more and more children, especially those on the autism spectrum, need speech and language services to help with the less obvious, but no less important, pragmatic language or written expression deficits. Because most parents don’t fully understand the nature and importance of pragmatic language, or the connection between written and expressive language, it is easy for schools to convince parents that their child doesn’t need these services. After all, for a child with multiple learning disabilities, what parent wants to hear that there is yet another therapy to schedule for their child?

How Schools Take Advantage of Parents’ Ignorance

This was the situation we found ourselves in during one of our Team meetings in elementary school. Although testing had indicated that our son had difficulty with pragmatic language and written expression, the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist concluded her report by stating that since he didn’t have a noticeable problem speaking, she could not recommend any speech and language services. We actually felt relief that this was one area we didn’t have to worry about, and focused the rest of the meeting on occupational therapy and reading instruction. Unfortunately, the school let our ignorance relieve them of the cost of providing services that our son clearly needed and that they were obligated by special education law to provide.

By the time our son was in high school, we had an independent Speech and Language Pathologist evaluate him. She produced a very detailed report that said he needed intensive and frequent services with a Speech and Language Pathologist to help with pragmatic language and writing skills. We submitted this independent report to our director of special education, who then held a meeting with us and the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist.

During this meeting, which lasted over an hour, the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist reviewed our independent report (she hadn’t done her own testing), and once again we heard the phrase “services are not recommended at this time.” While giving her report, we noticed that she never made eye contact with us, but looked directly at the director of special education as if to make sure that she was saying only what was expected of her.

During another meeting, which the director also attended, we brought up the issue of pragmatic language instruction and she told us that the school’s Speech and Language Pathologist wasn’t necessary because “the students teach each other pragmatic language skills.” In her mind, it seems, our town’s high school was full of certified Speech and Language Pathologists.

Schools Warned by the Department of Education

Diverting students away from speech and language services is apparently becoming a common practice with schools. In 2015, the US Department of Education issued a guidance letter that alerted schools to reports that a growing number of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder may not be receiving needed speech and language services. The letter also said that some schools were not including Speech and Language Pathologists in evaluation and eligibility determinations or in meetings to develop IEPs.

The letter goes on to remind schools that when they conduct an initial evaluation for special education eligibility, the school must assess in all areas of the suspected disability, including “communicative status,” if appropriate, and that IEP meetings must also “include an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results,” in other words, a properly trained Speech and Language Pathologist.

What Can You Do?

From all of the above, it may seem that the deck is stacked against parents. We can’t disagree, so we have the following suggestions to help you obtain needed speech and language services for your child:

  • Be aware of possible communication disorders your child may have beyond obvious expressive speech problems. Consider having an independent speech and language evaluation performed to confirm the full range of your child’s needs. If appropriate, have your independent Speech and Language Pathologist attend a Team meeting to interpret the data and advise on his or her recommendations.
  • When any speech and language evaluation is performed, especially the school’s, it should be comprehensive in all areas of a suspected disability according to Part B of IDEA. This should include an assessment of the communicative status of your child. See the US Department of Education guidance letter of July 2015.
  • Think about your child’s sensory needs and how they affect communication. If swallowing is a problem, for example, a Speech and Language Pathologist should be able to help with that. This type of service is included under IDEA.
  • If speech and language services are in your child’s IEP, make sure that the service delivery grid specifies a Speech and Language Pathologist to provide them. “Sped. Staff” is not acceptable, as it could be anyone. Neither is a “Speech and Language Assistant,” who in many states is not required to have formal training. The Speech and Language Pathologist should be certified by your state department of education as well as by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).

Obtaining appropriate speech and language services for your child is not an easy task. Determining what your child needs through testing and knowing what a properly trained speech and language pathologist can do, however, are important steps in the process. Remember that your research and advocacy now will pay big dividends for your child’s education in the future.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* The inspiration for the subhead title and much of the content of this section comes from a document published by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA): Roles and Responsibilities of Speech-Language Pathologists in Schools. This document is considered an official policy statement of the ASHA, the professional organization for certified Speech and Language Pathologists in the United States.

The Yin and Yang of Inclusion

mt-p-textInclusion is a special education term that parents hear a lot, and one that they need to understand. As we look back over the 41 years of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), we have come to realize that the word inclusion has had many meanings and interpretations over the decades. These interpretations have shifted the intent of inclusion from one that favored an appropriate education for students with disabilities to one that for all intents and purposes seeks to deny them the education that is their right. This is what we call the yin and yang of inclusion.

First, a brief history. The federal special education law, originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was passed in 1975. Prior to that monumental event, the general assumption was that children with disabilities could not learn. Expectations were low for these children. Public schools had the right to exclude them, so millions of children languished at home or in institutions.

As Special Education Attorney Robert Crabtree wrote in the foreword to our book:

The movement in the early 1970s to expand and deepen the legal rights of children with disabilities had its roots in the eloquent language of the U.S. Supreme Court written on behalf of another disenfranchised school population, children of color. In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Court declared: “…in these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity …is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

It was in the 1970s that parents, advocates, and lawmakers began to work together to include children with disabilities in the public schools. Attorney Crabtree, with his law partner Lawrence Kotin, wrote the Massachusetts special education laws, Chapter 766, which later became the model for IDEA.

With the passage of the federal special education law in 1975, inclusion had begun for children with disabilities. Over the decades, it became a standard practice to include all children in the general education classroom, no matter how severe their needs were. Many children with special needs could be in a full inclusion setting all day or most of the day with little or no specialized instruction. Schools began to see the cost benefit of keeping these children in a general education classroom for most of the day compared to expensive individualized services.

With time, schools began to insist that “inclusion” always meant the general education classroom, leading University of Texas professor of special education, Jessica R. Toste, to write recently that: [I]nclusion is often falsely translated to mean the “place” where teaching and learning occurs.* This was the attitude we experienced when our son was in the public schools.

If inclusion is not executed carefully, however, many teachers without training in special education can find themselves teaching both mainstream children and children with disabilities at the same time. Without the proper training or without the right kind of support, the results are often dismal. In her article, Professor Toste cites a high dropout rate, criminal activity, behavior problems, underemployment and even unemployment for students with learning disabilities who do not receive an appropriate education.

The problem is that IDEA does not adequately define the term “inclusion,” it just says that students must be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” This lack of rigorous definition allows schools to interpret inclusion in a manner that is most favorable to their budgets, regardless of what effect it might have on the students in their charge. They can save money by insisting on including students with disabilities in the general education classroom as a substitute for providing individualized education with highly qualified teachers to meet the unique needs of each child in special education as required by IDEA.

The circular irony of the history of inclusion can be summed up as:

  • In the early years of IDEA, the law forced schools to include students with disabilities in the general education classroom.
  • Now, many schools use the law to force students with disabilities to remain in the general education classroom even when it does not allow them to receive an appropriate education.

Special education is supposed to consider appropriate services and placement for each child at no cost to the parents. Schools are expected to define the “least restrictive environment” for each child according to individual needs and not assume that full inclusion is always the answer. They are required to offer their students a “continuum of alternative placements,” not just assume that the general education classroom is always the least restrictive environment. Parents need to know, and more importantly expect, that full inclusion in the general education classroom is not the only option. In the law, “inclusion” does not always mean “place.”

Parents, be vigilant and ask questions to determine if your child will receive the proper specialized instruction by a qualified professional. That is what the law says your child should have. That is the fair and true meaning of inclusion.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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* Toste, Jessica R., “The Illusion of Inclusion: How We Are Failing Students with Learning Disabilities,” The Huffington Post, 11/13/2015. Accessed on December 12, 2015 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jessica-r-toste/the-illusion-of-inclusion_1_b_8530372.html

Thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of IDEA

Lincoln WinterLast month the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) reached an anniversary milestone of 40 years. We have been reflecting on this law, the enormous impact it has had on education, and the daunting task of fulfilling its promise for all students with disabilities.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s inspired parents and advocacy groups to believe that students with disabilities had a right to the same educational opportunities as their non-disabled peers. As a result, the level of school participation for the disabled increased at both the state and local levels. Despite this progress, by 1970 only 20 percent of students with identified disabilities were being educated in public schools. Many state laws specifically excluded students who were deaf, blind, “mentally retarded,” or “emotionally disturbed” (to use the terms of that era as they were written into the laws) from getting any public education at all. Many students who were turned away languished at home or in institutions.

Massachusetts was the first state in the country to pass a comprehensive special education law, known as Chapter 766. At the federal level, the legal recognition of the rights of students with disabilities occurred in 1975 when Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law was modeled after Massachusetts’ Chapter 766.

The law required schools to provide a “free appropriate public education” to students with a wide range of disabilities. It also required that districts provide this education in the “least restrictive environment,” a mandate that opened the doors of mainstream classrooms to the 80 percent of students with special needs who had up to then been excluded. Later this law was given the name we know it by today, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

We are grateful that public education became available to all students 40 years ago, but we also recognize that much more work needs to be done. Because IDEA does not give specific definitions to terms like “appropriate education” and “least restrictive environment,” school districts and parents frequently disagree about the meaning of these concepts. The main reason for this conflict is that funding for special education is so inadequate.

In 1975, Congress authorized the Federal government to pay for 40 percent of all special education costs. Since that time, the government has funded less than 20 percent of these costs. The rest of the money to pay for special education comes from either individual states or local communities.

The intent of IDEA is for schools to provide special education services to students with identified disabilities at no cost to the parents. But this takes money and IDEA has never been fully funded. Thus school districts and parents clash when a child’s needs require expensive services.

For the parents, the stakes are incredibly high, as their child’s future depends on an appropriate education. For school districts with constrained budgets, there is pressure to serve students in the most cost-effective way.

In addition, political groups, at both the state and local level, can apply great pressure to school districts. Some residents in towns complain that their tax dollars are used to pay for the educations of less-deserving children in special education. Funds to train teachers for educating special needs students or to hire highly qualified staff are often limited. As a result, the public school budget sometimes limits special education services to a “one size fits all” approach that ultimately fits no one.

All these factors can influence the education that individual students receive. Parents are frequently unaware of these political pressures and wind up feeling confused and frustrated by the special education experience. The result is that many children with disabilities do not receive an education that is appropriate to their needs.

Ultimately, while the implementation of IDEA is far from ideal, we want to acknowledge the anniversary of the law that opened the doors of public education for the many deserving children who might otherwise have been excluded from the classroom. We also want to reaffirm our goal of educating parents about their children’s rights so that their children might realize the education promised to them 40 years ago. We should remember that everyone benefits when all members of our society receive an appropriate education.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

Question: Has your family benefited from IDEA? In what ways could your experience have been better? You can tell us through our Contact page. Let us know if we can share your story with our blog readers.

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A Parent Journal

journalAs a parent, you have an important tool right at your fingertips to help you in your special education experience. This simple tool, developed over time, can be one of your greatest assets in advocating for your child. It is your parent journal in which you record your impressions and descriptions of your child’s behaviors, moods, struggles, achievements, and any other notable information.

You may not think that day to day life is worth recording or perhaps you think you are too busy to find the time to write journal entries. We want to tell you that this is valuable information that grows in importance over time.

Why is a Journal Important?

Remember the scene in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town in which the main character Emily goes back in time to see her twelve year old self at home with her parents for one day? It is a poignant scene of an adult woman seeing herself as a twelve year old girl with her parents. She notices how young everyone is and all the details in her childhood home. She sees everything with fresh eyes, from a different perspective provided by the passage of time. What was absolutely ordinary and common years ago suddenly takes on a new meaning and significance for her. Your parent journal can do the same for you.

How We Started

We began our journal when our son started special education in preschool. Initially we just recorded details of phone calls and letters related to school, but as time went by we started recording the details of everyday life: what foods our son ate and his reactions to them, his activities, and how he slept. At an early age he had food allergies, so keeping a journal was essential to pinpoint his sensitivities to certain foods.

The journal evolved as he started elementary school, with details about his difficulties learning to read and write. We recorded our impressions of how schoolwork was going, parent-teacher conferences, and Team meetings. The more we became involved in special education, the more we wrote, since there were so many details to keep track of.

Over time, keeping our journal became a habit. We wrote detailed notes and impressions immediately after Team meetings and phone calls with school personnel. We recorded our son’s mood after he came home from school each day. We followed up these experiences with letters to school personnel. Writing factual notes became an important part of the special education experience for us. By middle school our entries revealed that school personnel were giving us conflicting information about our son’s school experience and helped us understand that his placement was not appropriate.

How We Used Our Journal

When we began to work with a lawyer to seek reimbursement for a more appropriate placement, she was able to use the facts and dates to strengthen our case. Through her, we began to appreciate the importance of the “trail of paper” we had created. When our school district served us a discovery request we had the information they requested at our finger tips. Notes that we had taken years earlier suddenly became significant and had a new meaning, just like Emily’s experience in Our Town.

For example, in third grade our school had sent us reports saying how well our son was doing, but in our journal we had recorded details of his frustration at not being able to read at grade level. We could clearly see his struggles with school assignments. He was not excelling in all academic areas as the school had claimed. Testing by professionals independent of our school district confirmed what we had written. Our journal entries were an important part of our case.

Your child will change over the years, but change can happen gradually. Sometimes weeks or months go by and you feel like nothing different has happened. But growth is always happening, so be aware, observe your child, and start recording the details of his or her life. You may feel too busy, but if you make it a practice to spend even five minutes a day recording your impressions, either in writing or in a recording, over time you will see details emerge that will pay big dividends in the future as you advocate for your child.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Why We Wrote Our Book

With September marking the start of the school year, we would like to repost the following article for parents who may be just beginning their experience with special education or who may have just discovered our website. We also encourage all our readers to take a look at our earlier articles for more information that may help you obtain an appropriate education for your child.

We entered the world of special education like most parents, with concerns about our child and a diagnosis we didn’t understand. Our experience began in preschool and continued through high school graduation, a span of fifteen years. Over these years we met many other parents of children receiving special education services. We listened to their stories and heard many themes emerge that corresponded with our own observations. As a result of this experience, we realized that every single year of a child’s education matters and that parents are the only constant advocates their child will have during these years. It is an enormous responsibility, but it can be an ultimately rewarding one.

Lessons Learned

One lesson our experience taught us is that the more parents know about special education, the more effective they can be as advocates for their children. Learning how special education works takes persistence because, like an iceberg, most of it exists below the surface of what parents can initially see. We have heard stories of school districts that are reasonable to deal with, but like us, you may encounter problems that are preventing your child from receiving an education appropriate to his or her needs. The keys to overcoming these problems are knowledge and organization. The tools you must use are research and a network of carefully selected professionals and like minded parents whom you have to identify and cultivate.

Parents Have Two Roles

Parents of children with special needs have two roles. The first, and most obvious role, is understanding and dealing with their child’s unique disability. The second, and more subtle role, is learning to navigate around the icebergs of special education. This second role usually comes as a surprise. Parents who have quite naturally focused on their child’s disability are often not prepared for how the special education system works. They assume that school personnel are the professionals who will know, and more importantly will do, what is best for their child. This assumption is all too often misplaced, because special education in many school districts has become an elaborate bureaucratic maze in which budget requirements are more important than doing what is right or even what is legally required. The result is confusion, disappointment, and lost opportunities.

Learn From Our Experience

Our book, Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work, is both a narrative of our personal experience navigating the special education system and a guide to help other parents translate our experience to fit their own situation. When we entered special education in the early 1990s, there were no online search engines or social networking sites, so it was difficult to find information and meet other parents with similar concerns. We felt isolated and confused. A book like ours would have changed the course of our son’s education. That is why we wrote it, so that parents who are now involved with special education can learn from our experience.

The realization that parents have the power to make special education work came to us while attending a workshop on transition planning. The speaker made the point that at a Team meeting most of the school personnel in the room actually knew very little about special education. Many understood individual pieces, depending on their specialties, but only the parents were in the position to see the whole picture. The workshop speaker encouraged parents to study the special education process, especially the laws, in order to understand their rights and protections. She also encouraged parents to study what a school district’s obligations are to a student because ultimately it is the parents’ responsibility for making sure that schools comply with the law. As the saying goes, knowledge is power.

Parents Do Have the Power

Our message is that parents can make special education work if they take the time to understand their child’s disability, their legal rights, and the often hidden agenda of school culture. We know that you, the parents, are the best advocates for your child. You must be proactive and organized, study the state and federal laws, and persevere. Doing all this will give you the information, the confidence, and the power to help your child get an appropriate education that will pay many dividends in the future. This will be the most important and rewarding job you will ever have. We hope our book will guide you and inspire you.

Judith Canty Graves
Carson Graves

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Planning for Transition Before Graduation

transition quote text

Graduation is usually a time of celebration, when young people complete their high school studies and move on to work or college. For parents of students on IEPs, graduation has an additional significance because it ends their child’s right to special education. Once a student accepts a high school diploma, special education services end. This makes planning for the transition to adult life especially important. Transition planning needs to happen first, followed by transition services, and only then by graduation. The goal is not to graduate on a schedule, but for the student to acquire the skills necessary to function independently in adult life and to become a productive member of society.

Why Transition Planning is Important

All too often parents do not adequately plan for their child’s transition to a post-high school life. If schools do not bring up this topic at Team meetings or do not make parents aware of its importance, parents may be unaware of how critical it is. Without appropriate planning, students with disabilities can graduate from high school without being prepared for post-secondary education or employment. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the employment rate for young adults with disabilities is less than half the rate of their peers without disabilities.

The federal law IDEA requires transition planning for students on IEPs beginning with the IEP in effect when a student turns 16. A better time to begin planning is with the IEP that will be in effect when a student turns 14. In fact many state special education laws require transition planning and services to begin at this earlier date. A transition plan should outline a course of study and specify what services are needed to support a successful transition. This includes identifying any state agencies outside the school district that might be responsible for helping with the transition process.

Planning Should Address More Than Academic Needs

Appropriate transition planning includes addressing more than just academic needs. Such aspects as helping students obtain community experiences, employment training, and daily living skills are equally important. Schools should perform transition assessments to help a student’s special education Team determine the courses, vocational training, life skills instruction, or related services that the student will need during the rest of his or her publicly funded education.

When creating a transition plan, the Team should consider the student’s vision statement of what he or she would like to be doing in the future. This means looking at the many facets of a young person’s life, such as their interests, goals, and hopes for the next five years.

Parents can help their child think ahead beyond high school graduation. For example, does the student want to attend college, vocational school, work at a job, or live independently? Will the student need various services to become independent, such as travel training, remediation in reading, writing, and math skills, counseling, or occupational therapy? Teams also need to consider health care, transportation, and community experiences. Transition planning can be complex depending on a young person’s needs. It is not as simple as achieving passing grades and passing state mandated exams, as recent hearing decisions in Massachusetts have demonstrated.

Transition Planning and Graduation are Closely Linked

Since accepting a high school diploma means an end to special education services, there is a significant financial benefit for schools to graduate students on IEPs and end their obligation to provide special education services. Otherwise, the federal law IDEA allows for special education services to continue until a student’s 22nd birthday. This provides an incentive for schools to devise different and creative ways to move a struggling student along the path to graduation and for parents to carefully monitor whether their child has made sufficient progress in meeting his or her transition goals.

Since most states allow school districts to set their own graduation requirements, we have observed that some districts play a graduation game by adopting low graduation standards to move students out of the system. Districts can legally reduce the number of required credits to graduate, lower performance criteria, or substitute a different course for a student who might have difficulty passing a required one. Our school district actually tried to force our son to graduate before he had earned enough credits to apply to college. Since attending college was his primary transition goal, we filed for a hearing to prevent them from issuing a premature diploma. The lesson is that low graduation standards can be used as a tool to remove a student from a district’s special education obligations by forcing a student to graduate before he or she is ready.

We recommend that once your child begins high school, research your school’s graduation requirements. You may find them in your school’s handbook for students or online on your school’s website. Study the requirements carefully and plan which courses your child will need for a successful transition from high school to adult life whether it is college, volunteer work, vocational training, or adult education. If further education is a goal, make sure that he or she earns enough credits to apply to an appropriate school.

Alternative Diplomas and Graduation Certificates

In addition to a regular high school diploma, schools can offer students different kinds of exit documents that require a less rigorous curriculum. These include alternative diplomas, which go by names such as an IEP diploma or vocational diploma. Some schools offer certificates of completion or certificates of attendance. None of these documents end special education or transition services. The only document that will do that is a regular high school diploma. These alternative exit documents can be an appropriate solution for some students, but parents should be aware that they can flag the graduate as a special education student and may limit that student’s options for the future.

An alternative diploma or certificate may not be recognized as qualifying for attendance at a community college, vocational school, or enlistment in the armed forces without additional testing or certification. They can also indicate to potential employers that a job applicant has special needs or learning disabilities. Each state has different standards for diplomas and certificates, so check with your department of education to see what your state permits schools to offer.

What Parents Can Do

When a student with disabilities has proper transition planning and services, the opportunities for additional education and work are greatly enhanced. To this end we recommend the following:

  • Begin transition discussions with your child’s Team by the time your child enters his or her freshman year in high school, usually by age 14. Start looking at post high school options, such as vocational training, internships, or further education, and have the Team write a transition plan into your child’s IEP. Be sure to update the plan yearly.
  • Once your child begins high school, research your school’s graduation requirements. Study the requirements carefully and plan which courses your child will need for a successful transition from high school to adult life. If further education is a goal, make sure he or she earns enough credits to apply to an appropriate college.
  • If your Team doesn’t feel that your child can meet the course standards for a regular high school diploma, ask the following:
    What accommodations and services are in the IEP that would help your child meet the same requirements as other students receiving a standard diploma?
     Would staying in school until he or she reaches the maximum age of eligibility in your state allow your child to earn a standard diploma?
     Would any form of alternative diploma or certificate be appropriate for your child’s level of performance and would earning it give your child the skills to lead an independent life?
  • Request a vocational assessment if your child would prefer employment rather than further education after high school. The assessment should be performed by a vocational assessment specialist and should provide direction about possible career paths and employment opportunities, as well as provide information about performance in skill areas.
  • Likewise, request an independent living skills assessment, if appropriate, to determine what supports are needed for your child to live on his or her own after high school.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

The above is excerpted and adapted from Chapter 11, “Transition Planning and Graduation” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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Gatekeeping 101: Withholding Needed Services

mountain sky 4 textSchools sometimes rely on a parent being unaware of their child’s rights to deny services that might cost money or be inconvenient to provide, as illustrated by a case that occurred in 2013 in the city of Somerville, Massachusetts. A local newspaper article provided the details along with a number of compelling (and revealing) quotations from the parties involved.1 The issue was that a high school student in special education was denied the opportunity to participate in a summer soccer camp attended annually by members of his high school soccer team. The school district had decided that the student, who was an active member of the team, must have an aide accompany him to the camp to act as a chaperone. Every year, the school didn’t seem to be able to locate a suitable one.

Though the parents (and grandparents) had offered to accompany their son and act as a chaperone, the school refused to consider their offer, telling them that they were not qualified. The parents then offered to pay for an aide that the school approved, but the school would not discuss their offer with them. The result was that their son was not allowed to attend the camp with his teammates. Each year was the same story. The parents would call school officials, including the district’s director of special education, asking to arrange for their son to attend soccer camp, and each year no one from the school would return their calls.

Finally, the summer before their son’s senior year, not knowing what else to do, the parents contacted the city’s disability coordinator, a person who worked for the city and not for the school system. Within days of this contact, and to the complete surprise of the family, the school managed to find a suitable aide. The article quotes the district’s assistant superintendent as saying: “I think the school department has gone above and beyond, we’re really pleased to be able to send [the student to camp],” while adding that the school was not legally required to provide access to an extracurricular program.

The Legal Reality

Fortunately for all children in special education, the assistant superintendent does not get to decide what the law requires. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was explicitly written to protect individuals with disabilities from this sort of discrimination. One of the regulations authorized by this statute, 34 C.F.R. § 104.37, specifically refers to this situation: “No qualified handicapped person shall, on the basis of handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or otherwise be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity which receives Federal financial assistance.”

All students in special education who receive services under IDEA are automatically protected by Section 504. Had the parents known their rights about this basic protection, they would not have had to put up with years of frustration and gatekeeping by their school district. It is always possible that the assistant superintendent was speaking out of a combination of ignorance and hubris, but it is not possible to believe that the special education department was unaware of the school’s obligation to this student. In fact, the school has the responsibility to inform all parents with children in special education of their rights, including this one, in writing.2

A Final Thought

In addition to prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, Section 504 also contains a provision that permits the “prevailing party” in a lawsuit over a violation of the statute “to collect reasonable attorney’s fees as part of the cost of remediation.”3 We are sure that this possibility is one that the school district in question should devoutly hope the parents of the child described in the article do not pursue.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Notes:
1.
Family: Special Ed `Run-Around’ Nearly Kept Somerville Senior From Soccer Trip” By Dan Atkinson, Somerville Journal, August 22, 2013. (accessed 5 September 2013)
2. 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (d). The statute says, in part, that a copy of the procedural safeguards available to the parents of a child with a disability shall be given to the parents at least once a year. What is more, the notification should be written in the native language of the parents if necessary. In all cases the notification should be written in an easily understood manner. Model procedural safeguards form. (accessed 6 September 2013)
3. 29 U.S.C. § 794a (a)(1)

The Social/Emotional Component of Special Education Eligibility

One question that we have gotten more than once during our presentations on “Empowering Parents in Special Education,” has to do with the relationship between social and emotional deficits and eligibility for special education.

For example:

“My child’s eligibility meeting for special education is soon and I would like to know the extent to which the law requires social and emotional concerns to be included as eligibility criteria for an IEP.”

Another form of the question is:

“My school tells me that my child’s documented disability doesn’t qualify him for special education because he is at or above grade level in his academic skills, despite the fact that he has had many behavior problems that have led to suspensions from school.”

The Laws Require Social/Emotional Assessments

With the caveat that we are not lawyers, we would refer readers to the federal regulation 34 CFR § 300.304 (c)(4), which states: “The child is assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities.” (emphasis added)

Some states have even stricter requirements. For example, in Massachusetts, 603 CMR § 28.04 (2)(a)(2)(ii) states that the school is required to perform an educational assessment that includes “an assessment of the student’s attention skills, participation behaviors, communication skills, memory, and social relations with groups, peers, and adults.” (again, emphasis added)

These regulations suggest that assessing a child’s social and emotional status is important in determining eligibility. This is not to say that social/emotional concerns are a learning disability as defined by either IDEA or state special education laws (each state has different criteria), but that they are strongly related to the presence of a qualifying disability and that schools should be evaluating them and formally assessing their relevance in any determination of eligibility for special education services.

Testing for Behavioral and Social Functioning

According to Ellen Braaten and Gretchen Felopulos, two staff psychologists at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and authors of Straight Talk About Psychological Testing for Kids, the two most commonly used tests for assessing behavior and social interaction are the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and the Behavior Assessment System for Children, second edition (BASC-2). Each test includes multiple check lists, one for parents to fill out, one for teachers, and one for the student (self report). In addition, the evaluation report for the student should include clinical observations of behavior and social functioning under the heading “Behavioral Observations” or “Behavioral/Social Functioning.” Informal observations by teachers or other school staff who are not trained in performing psychological evaluations are not considered a valid assessment of social and emotional functioning.

The bottom line for parents seeking special education services for their child is that they should expect the school to formally evaluate social and emotional performance as part of a suspected disability in any determination of eligibility.

Effective Progress Includes Social and Emotional Issues

As a post script, it should be noted that once a child is on an IEP, IDEA requires schools to address the social/emotional issues before the school can demonstrate that the child is making effective progress. Again, many state laws are even more specific in that regard. Massachusetts requires that the child have “documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development…” 603 CMR § 28.02(17)

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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IDEA and Expectations Part II – The Importance and Promise of High Expectations

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Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible… 20 U.S.C. §1400 (c)(5)(A)

In our book, we describe how important it is for both parents and schools to have high expectations for children in special education. Without high expectations from all involved, the education process fails the child. The following is Part II of our article on IDEA and Expectations, “The Importance and Promise of High Expectations.” Click here to read Part I: The Problem of Low Expectations

Can You Solve Everyone’s Problems?

Writing Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work was a way for us to translate our experience in special education into a guide for other parents going through the same process. We were firmly convinced that by conveying the lessons we learned, together with a survey of special education from the perspective of a fellow parent, we could help other parents attain the appropriate education for their children that is mandated by state and federal law.

In theory, our goal made sense. We had information that other parents could use and that we had needed when we started our journey through special education. We could point out the pitfalls in the process, such as the “business plan” of many school districts that places budget priorities ahead of a child’s needs and dares parents to endure due process just to attain the education that is their child’s right. We offered many tips and techniques, most costing little or no money, that would help parents keep schools from shortchanging their children’s education, recognize conflicts of interest with school employees, and learn to create effective IEP goals.

Despite our intentions, there was always the nagging feeling that no matter how much information we provided and no matter how clearly we organized and presented that information, it wasn’t enough. The reality is that we couldn’t do more than provide a general outline of the issues that parents face and the solutions that they might need. The problems with special education are too diverse, and too many families face issues with their school districts that are specifically unique to them. So, how could a book like ours really help the very people for whom we wrote our book?

Then Why Try?

The answer came from a source with many more years of experience and with a history of a much greater involvement in special education than we had. As our manuscript reached completion, we followed up on a dream we had of approaching a person whose work we had admired for many years to write the foreword. This was Bob Crabtree, coauthor of the first comprehensive special education law in the country, Massachusetts’ Chapter 766, which served as the model for the federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). He graciously agreed to review a manuscript from two strangers and unknown authors asking for a favor. Happily, he liked what he read and agreed to write a foreword that detailed the history of Chapter 766, related it to the civil rights movement, and warned readers of the political forces that were constantly seeking to undermine IDEA’s mandate. We were delighted to have such an important contribution to our book.

In subsequent conversations about the still unfulfilled promise of special education, Crabtree expressed what he saw as the true value of our book. Even though we could not provide explicit solutions to meet every parent’s needs, we could educate families about how special education should work and warn them about how it too often failed to work. These parents, Crabtree explained, would begin to expect more from their schools and the political process that ultimately influenced school policy. The goal was to create a critical mass of informed parents.

So, What Is The Promise?

Individuals, or even small groups, do not possess enough power to change a large bureaucracy like special education that is mostly concerned with a limited budget and self-preservation. But collectively, a rising tide of expectations among parents, reinforced by positive examples of success and a better understanding of the rights of children with disabilities, will create irresistible pressure on local school districts and politicians to pay more than lip service to the law’s mandate. In short, the more parents who have high expectations, the more schools and politicians will act toward actually fulfilling the promise of special education.

The opposite of this, of course, is ignorance and passive acceptance of what the school system offers, even when the school is in clear violation of the letter and intent of the law. An even worse situation is created when poorly informed parents with unfocused anger confront their special education liaisons and service providers about issues over which these school employees have little or no control. We have seen this many times, and it almost always creates a feeling of hopelessness for the parents, active resistance from the schools, and possibly even retaliation for the child.

So no, we don’t have the answers to every situation or the solution to every problem faced by parents in the special education system. We do know, however, that every effort to improve parents’ understanding of the special education process, alert parents to the hidden agenda of the schools and the political forces behind public education, and explain the purpose of the laws providing an appropriate education for children with disabilities, will improve the outcome for all of society.

I’m asking all of us to redouble our efforts and redouble our supports. High expectations must be the norm, not the exception.
— Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 2010

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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IDEA and Expectations Part I – The Problem of Low Expectations

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The implementation [of IDEA] has been impeded by low expectations… Low expectations lead to poor outcomes in special education. Schools need to prepare children with disabilities for further education, employment, and independent living.
20 U.S. C. §1400 (c)(4) and (d)

In our book, we describe how important it is for both parents and schools to have high expectations for children in special education. Without high expectations from all involved, the education process fails the child. In Part I of “IDEA and Expectations,” we discuss the problems created by having low expectations for children in special education.

Do Students On IEPs Need a Reduced Curriculum?

In Chapter 9, we relate the story of a conversation we had with our district’s director of special education concerning our son’s lack of progress with writing assignments in Middle School. She tried to reassure us by proposing the following solution: when he got to high school the next year, she would simply have our son’s IEP state that he didn’t need to write more than one paragraph for any of his writing assignments. Then, when he went to college, she continued, he could choose a major that didn’t require any writing. Finally, once he graduated from college, he could work at a job that didn’t require writing. In other words, her solution was for us to lower our expectations and for the school to make the curriculum less demanding rather than help him learn to write effectively.

Another time, during a 6th grade Team meeting, we discussed our son’s interest in taking Latin in 7th grade. One of the senior teachers on the Team actively discouraged this, essentially telling us that she didn’t think our son could keep up with the other students in the class who were not on IEPs.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, IDEA gave us the right to require the school to make the Latin class work for him through accommodations to suit his learning style, so we reluctantly agreed not to include Latin in his 7th grade curriculum.

Later, after we placed our son in a private special education school, we discovered that the problem was not his ability to keep up with the curriculum, but the learning environment. In his new school he learned to write involved and analytical papers for his English classes. He was encouraged to study Latin and excelled in it. In college he majored in a combination of English literature and classical languages, disciplines that require a great amount of writing as well as critical thinking.

Of course we are proud of these accomplishments, but the important point is how the low expectations of the public school could have prevented him from ever having these opportunities. We had to take the initiative and change his placement to a school that had expectations that matched our own and was prepared to teach to these higher expectations.

Do Schools Expect Enough of Students?

Our experience with low expectations is unfortunately not an isolated one. It appears in schools nationwide. In one particularly egregious example, a school in California taught “life skills” to students in special education by having them dig through the school’s trash dumpsters to recover recyclables that other students had thrown away.1 When confronted by angry parents, the district’s superintendent claimed that this was the “standard curriculum” for students in special education.2 As one parent replied to this assertion “the message you’re sending is you’re training them to be homeless.”3

Unfortunately, lowered expectations are typically less blatant and harder to spot than this. In 2010, the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher4 found that most teachers (86%) believe high expectations for all students has a major impact on achievement, but only 36% of these same teachers say that all of their students have the ability to succeed. These low expectations are not lost on the students, as only about half of the students in the same survey felt that their teachers wanted them to succeed and almost as many felt that students in their school were promoted to the next grade level without being ready. It’s not surprising that the report concludes that “while educators express a strong belief in the importance of high expectations and high standards for all students, those standards and expectations fall short in practice for many students.”

The MetLife survey hints at how damaging low expectations can be for any child, much less one who is already struggling with learning disabilities. We have seen how lowered expectations on the part of the school become part of a student’s self image, which in turn affects their willingness to learn and succeed in later life.

Do Schools Hide the Truth About Their Low Expectations?

A recent blog in the Huffington Post: “Closing the Low-Expectations Loophole for Students with Disabilities,”5 describes how since 2007, the U.S. Department of Education has permitted school districts to measure students with disabilities using “substantially less challenging assessments.” The article points out that this practice “encourages inappropriate referrals to special education, paints an inaccurate picture of school performance, and, worst of all, reinforces stereotypes that students with disabilities cannot succeed in school.”

As an example of this practice, the authors examined the Houston Independent School District and found that over half the students who were measured using these assessments were students who were “diagnosed with `learning disabilities’ such as dyslexia rather than students who had the sorts of significant cognitive impairments that might impede them from completing a standard assessment.” Even worse, the authors found that “African-American students with learning disabilities were up to six times more likely to be assessed on these low-rigor tests than were similar Caucasian or Latino students.”

In another example, the authors describe a 2012 study of students in California in which nearly 50% of students with disabilities statewide (in some districts the figure reached 76%) took the California Modified Assessment, a significantly modified and less challenging test. The authors point out that “the use of these assessments far exceed the intended use, provide inaccurate pictures of school performance as well as inappropriately low expectations for poor and minority students.”

The article concludes that lowering expectations and using assessment methods that hide actual student performance does nothing to improve academic achievement. It does, however, make the schools look better on standardized tests than they would have otherwise.

An Appropriate Education Begins With Your Expectations

One of the most important messages we give parents is that if they don’t advocate for their child, no one else will. Expectations for your child’s future are where your advocacy begins. In Part II of “IDEA and Expectations” we discuss the promise of high expectations.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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1. http://www.pe.com/articles/school-748490-students-program.html (accessed 11/18/2014)
2. http://www.pe.com/articles/school-698782-education-recycling.html (accessed 11/18/2014)
3.http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2014/08/18/special-needs-students-speak-out-after-being-made-to-dig-through-trash-for-recyclables/ (accessed 11/18/2014)
4.https://www.metlife.com/about/press-room/us-press-releases/2010/index.html?compID=20652 (accessed 11/18/2014)
5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/todd-grindal/closing-the-lowexpectatio_b_3883527.html (accessed 11/18/2014)