Monday, February 9, 2009

Interview on - 2

By Dora Raymaker
Thursday I posted Jennifer Parker's take on why it can be difficult for students on the autistic spectrum to get academic accommodations. Now with more of her attorney hat on, I've asked Jennifer some questions more about the legal and self-advocacy side of academic accommodations at the primary and secondary school level.

Dora: Give me a brief summary of the laws that govern special education and public school accommodations.

Jennifer: Section 504 is a civil rights law that allows medical and classroom accommodations for children with disabilities who do not require special education services. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ensures that all children with disabilities have a free appropriate public education that emphasizes education that meets their unique needs.

Dora: What is the most common legal issue people face with the special education system? Why might this be so? How do you think might this be addressed more globally so it's no longer an issue?

Jennifer: There are four common categories of disputes: eligibility, failure to provide a free, appropriate education (FAPE), failure to implement the IEP, and inappropriate discipline. In my personal experience as an attorney and advocate, eligibility issues are often caused by the school district's attempt to keep numbers down. It looks bad if the district has a high number of children in special education. Also, it can be expensive for the local district since IDEA is underfunded. Inappropriate discipline has several roots. Either the school staff do not understand how the child's disability affects behavior, or the school is not adequately trained in Functional Behavior Assessment/Behavior Plans, or corporeal punishment has been used for years and is entrenched in the school system. I have a case right now where a child has a wonderful IEP with every service and need explicitly outlined in his IEP, but the school is just not implementing it. They have told the parent to go ahead and file a due process complaint against them. Sometimes parents will see brazenness like this because the deck is stacked against the parent in these situations: the parent lacks resources or knowledge about filing for due process, school attorneys have trained the administrative law judges, judges rule for the school a high percentage of the time. In order to address these problems, there needs to be more oversight and monitoring by the U.S. Department of Education and full funding of IDEA.

Dora: I am going to switch topics slightly from the parent perspective to the student. A barrier to self-advocacy I've seen is people aren't taught what their rights are, legally. The IEP or 504 processes always seemed like a great way to start teaching people their rights. Is the IEP/504 process ever used that way? Should it be?

Jennifer: The student has a right to attend the IEP or 504 meeting and I highly recommend they do so if they are of an appropriate age for the subject matter of the meeting. It is a great way to learn about the process and self-advocate. Schools don't always invite the student, however, or model productive discussions... Perhaps it's happening in some schools or some districts, but working in the Mid-South, I see some schools hold meetings (illegally) to decide the fate of a child without even inviting the parent. However, I'm a proponent of training school teams to include students in this process and if I were involved with policy or oversight of the special education system it would be a priority for me. I believe that the quality of Individualized Education Plans would be greatly enhanced by input from the student. That's a no-brainer. In the mean time, I encourage students to read as much as they can about education law and either teach themselves or draw from advocacy training offered in the community.

Dora: Considering how old school-as-a-system is in the US, how long do you think it will take to change? What do you think is needed to facilitate that change?

Jennifer: Part of this process will depend on who is chosen to be Deputy Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration. The Deputy Secretary oversees the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. Linda Darling-Hammond is currently rumored to be a candidate for this position and many progressive reformers, myself included, are rooting for this appointment. (You can sign a petition to appoint Linda Darling-Hammond to a top DOE position on the Education cause blog). It will also depend in some part on the ability of citizens to bring the issues to the forefront and to change some conventional wisdom about education, accountability, and reform... the good news is I don't think we need to start from scratch with special education law. The law is excellent, the problem is the delivery system. I do believe strongly, however, that we need to scrap No Child Left Behind and just reauthorize ESEA while educators work on developing a better school accountability system.

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