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.

Interview on

By Dora Raymaker
I posted what I thought was mostly a fluff piece on teachers arguing that accommodations are not part of the "real world", and got such interesting discussion from y'all that I was inspired to learn more. Since I'm no expert on the special education system in the U.S., I pinged Clay Burrell over at the Education blog. Clay in turn introduced me to his special education expert, Jennifer Parker. I got pretty excited about Jennifer who not only has specific expertise working with students with invisible disabilities (including autism), but is also a special education attorney. So I hit Jennifer up for more than one interview. Here's the first, continuing the themes that were explored in the "real world" post--why can it be so hard to get seemingly simple accommodations from teachers? Is this a problem with individual teachers, with teacher education, with the educational system, with--with what?

Dora: People often report high variability in their experiences with teachers. What reasons do you think there may be for this variability?

Jennifer : I think the main reason for this variability is in the training of the teachers. Generally, most "regular education" teachers report having little to no preparation for working with students who have special needs. Another reason for variability is comfort level with making accommodations and perhaps experience with working with children with disabilities. Unfortunately, schools do not usually have school-wide policies for IEPs or any uniformity in this area.

Dora: Do you think that current emphasis on standardized testing and curriculum-based structures makes it harder to meet the needs of students who don't learn in conventional ways?

Jennifer: Absolutely. I have become a strong advocate for progressive reform in education away from high-stakes standardized testing towards individualized instruction because I have personally seen the negative impact that testing and scripted curriculum has had upon our students, especially those students in poorer districts. The current emphasis is a one-size-fits all system that does not meet the needs of any of our students and makes school a very un-engaging, stressful environment for everyone. Currently schools are so afraid of being labeled a "failing" school by not meeting AYP under No Child Left Behind that every resource goes toward teaching to the test. I have been appalled by how many IEP meetings I've gone to where the special education teacher has told me that we could not create our own learning goals or accommodations, but rather, had to use the standards-based goals used for every other child in that grade. No Child Left Behind has created a system that is in direct opposition to students who don't learn in conventional ways.

Dora: Do you think there are problems getting accommodations [like working on green paper or extra time on tests] for students on the autistic spectrum that students with other disabilities don't have? Of so, what are they?

Jennifer: Well, that's a good question, since working with green paper instead of white is not a costly accommodation. Also, more time on tests is free! I think parents who run into difficulties getting these types of accommodations are running into one of two things. Either the IEP team needs more education regarding the disability and need for those accommodations or - and this seems silly since, as I just stated, these are easy accommodations - this is a school district that is very rigid. I run into this now as an advocate. I serve three states. The city school system where I live is great about accommodations, but some of the suburban school districts are very rigid and refuse to make even small accommodations. These are school districts that have good reputations and good "report cards", and feel that they know best how to educate students and they do not waiver from their way. As I mentioned earlier, they have their own customs and culture. Also, they have a school attorney who tells them not to budge an inch.

Dora: What general advice would you give to parents and students on the autistic spectrum for better getting academic accommodations with minimal fuss?

Jennifer: In general, I would take advantage of any local workshops on advocacy and learn to become a strong advocate for yourself or your child. These may be hosted by protection and advocacy organizations, education attorneys/advocates, hospitals, or autism organizations. If parents and students do not have a copy of "From Emotions to Advocacy" by attorney Pete Wright, they need to get a copy right away. This book's title is dead on: it teaches parents and students to move from an emotional state regarding their educational and developmental needs to a strong advocate state.

Dora: I've heard a lot of good things about too, do you recommend that site?

Jennifer: Yes, it is Pete Wright's site. You can order any of his publications from the site, write in questions, peruse a library of articles on all kinds of topics, and see a listing of workshop locations. The only negative that I've found is that it's a very "crowded" site and a little difficult to navigate, but it is a wealth of information and support.