Archive for Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Double Take: Lawrence teacher shares perspective on school district’s handling of IEPs

April 15, 2008


Dr. Wes and Julia: I'm a local teacher, and I've read Double Take since its inception. I've been impressed by the range of topics that you've tackled and the balance of your perspectives. I appreciate that you provide a strong voice and valuable service to Lawrence's adolescents, parents and educators. Your recent column on Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was no exception.

You're right that it's becoming more difficult in this and other districts to get an IEP. Special education costs money, and both the federal and state governments mandate special education services but have failed to fund even 30 percent of the cost. The public doesn't like to equate quality education with money (taxes), but that's reality. There's also a scarcity of special education teachers across the nation as older teachers retire without enough new blood to replace them. Although it's an extreme situation this year, the three classrooms at my grade level include more than 20 students with IEPs, most for learning disabilities, some for behavioral issues, or English language learners. Not one of those 20 is frivolous.

Nevertheless, there are stipulations written into many IEPs that simply cannot be met, due to a shortage of staffing and time. An IEP can be written with the best of intentions and professional care. But unless there is someone to implement it, it's only a piece of paper. Just because there's a social worker or psychologist or SPED teacher on staff doesn't mean they are working with kids on IEP goals, or working with them at all. In an overcrowded classroom of 25 or more students, no teacher can possibly meet all of the needs, much less carry out IEP goals. The school district knows the research and has class-size limits as board policy, but it routinely ignores them.

Threatening lawsuits is effective - but only for one child. From my perspective, what would be more useful would be for a parents' group to press for more dollars for schools whether that is the LOB, a bond issue or in the legislature. Parents also need to make a HUGE commotion any time their kids are in oversized classes. Parents should also listen to what teachers tell them about what's really going on and what really works. There are many innovative educational ideas, but too often they are met with "but in Lawrence, we've always done ..."

Parents do have enormous influence ... real power. In using it to help secure an education for their own individual child, they should look to improving the lot of many children in the community, which, in the end, is the best guarantee that their own children are insured the best education possible.

- Lawrence teacher

Wes: While your letter is longer than we usually allow, I thought it was an intelligent and valuable resource, in line with other comments I received. Far from the "hate mail" I expected, concerns over IEP eligibility and compliance appear to be a wide concern, and both parents and front-line teachers are struggling with the issue on a daily basis. The advice to form a political action group is wise, and I would happily join up. However, parents must first focus like a laser on one thing: their child's best interests. By the time a successful social movement was formed on this issue, a given child will have experienced school failure. So both a micro and macro solution are needed. I would also point out that there is evidence that districts in which parents more routinely follow through due process and mediation do have high eligibility rates, so advocating for one child can improve the lot for others.

I want to clarify that I wasn't recommending that the parents line up an attorney and sue their school district back to the Stone Age. My proposal was much simpler than that. If you've spent a year attempting to prove eligibility for your child, and you've followed the steps on the sheet of paper that the school is mandated to give you at the point of an assessment, and you've read the bible of IEPs that I cited in the previous column, and you are still making no headway, it is reasonable to consult an attorney who specializes in this area of law. Only as a last resort will he or she march up to the courthouse and file a lawsuit. Instead, parents can receive specific advice than can level the playing field for the child. Remember, the school has an attorney and many years of experience on this topic. Most parents don't. So if the budget can afford it, a couple of hours with an attorney may be worth a lot of hours of frustration.

I've invited attorney Scott Wasserman to join me at 6:30 p.m. May 7 for a free two-hour program on this topic. He'll present a slide show that lays out the most important points on this topic and will offer further resources. We'll be at the Econo Lodge meeting room, 2222 W. Sixth St. Folks from any area school district are invited. If this goes well, we may do it again on different topics. It would be helpful if interested families would RSVP, but it's not necessary. Maybe some parents will even join together in the sort of political movement you suggest. It might be a good place to start.

Next week: A young reader wonders why life can be both "sucky" and "awesome." The ups and downs of adolescence.

- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to All correspondence is strictly confidential.


Brent Garner 9 years, 11 months ago

I am the parent of a child with disabilities. I can also attest that it has been an ongoing fight with the Lawrence School district to get them to comply with federal law on the subject. I have tried the due process approach and found it totally unsatisfactory. I cannot begin to tell you the times a district official has said that they could not comply with my child's IEP because it would cost too much money. I even had a senior district official tell me that the district "does not interpret the law that way." What finally broke the logjam for us was when I filed an ADA complaint against the district with the Office of Civil Rights in Kansas City. Following that filing, the district retaliated against me which led me to file a second complaint. The OCR investigated and substantiated both complaints. Since then the district has been much more compliant, although not fully compliant. Not everyone could be so "fortunate" as myself in that the district sets itself up for a confrontation with the OCR. The problem is that there is no federal or state agency with any real enforcement authority when it comes to the IDEA or other disability laws. The individual is left with the only option of suing the school district. As you have pointed out, that takes money, especially since the school districts nationwide have successfully lobbied Congress and gotten Congress to gut the enforcement provisions, limited as they were, of the IDEA. Previously if a parent sued and won, his/her attorney could collect the legal fees from the district. With the recent district inspired gutting, those fees are banned. This tips the "playing field" dramatically in favor of any district who just wants to thumb their nose at parents of children with disabilities or the law.

cowboy 9 years, 11 months ago

How about a minimum requirement for admission to public elementary schools like out of diapers and non combative. I think many of you would be shock ed to see what the classrooms have to deal with on a daily basis.

salad 9 years, 11 months ago

"The public doesn't like to equate quality education with money (taxes), but that's reality. "BS!!! It's NOT reality, it's a myth created by bloated school district administrations. If a teacher is truely stupid enough to believe that more money into the district means more money into their classroom or their pocket, they're probably not qualified to be in the front of the classroom. If we put 5 million extra dollars into the lawrence school budget and earmarked it specifically for special ed, the FIRST thing that they'd do is to hire three or four "special education" administrators to oversee these new $100,000/yr each. Then they'd build a brand new building or wing, go over budget with add-ons, and be begging the tax payers for more before you know it. That's reality honey.

homemom 9 years, 11 months ago

Don't let USD 497 overlook your special child.Advocate better, faster, cheaper than an attorney. Our experience was free services, great results.Families Together1.800.264.6343

Denise Gossage 9 years, 11 months ago

How many parents can afford to sue the school district? Even if some can, by the time a legal action has been completed, their child will be in another grade and have different needs. Families Together is probably on the right track. I have not used their services, my mistake.How about a central office that takes in individual complaints about special ed. and confronts the districts and legislators with the legitimate ones, either on an individual basis or representing groups of parents who have similar complaints? The office could be local, statewide, or both, and paid for by some entity that is not connected to the schools. Who that would be I don't know. Perhaps the legal community would have some ideas? Perhaps a beefed up Families Together? The office would need to have bite to it so those with the power to make changes will have to pay attention. It should be FREE for parents. Some kind of professional advocacy is needed. It needs to be well publicized to parents of special needs children and easily accessible to even the most humble of parents. As parents we will always have detailed complaints about things that happen or don't happen in the classroom, but some of these complaints are truly cases where the IEP stipulations are not met, or where the IEP committee has failed to mention in the report services that a child needs and the school could provide.Parents need to know what services are available to their children. How many parents have gone to IEP meetings and not even known the existence of a certain kind of service that could be of benefit to their child? Consultation with the teacher and others, like psychologists, therapists, etc. could, in theory, allow the parents to choose the best services for their child. This would have to happen before the IEP meeting, of course. This could require the schools to provide more services than they do now, but perhaps with creativity, wasted services could also be eliminated. A broader range of services would be able to meet more individuals' needs.The expense for services is horrendous, but are we trying to help these children develop into more productive citizens with fewer needs as adults and less drain on society, or are we just trying to warehouse them until they graduate? Even the most severely disabled children have a purpose on this earth. One of them is to inspire compassion in others.These children are truly our most needy members of society. A compassionate people would reach out and help them and their families.

Homey 9 years, 11 months ago

Opt out of the system. USD 497 is broke. Consider an independent school. Before you leap to the conclusion that you cannot afford it look into one of the independent schools in Lawrence and the surrounding area. Most charge on a sliding scale. The outcomes are better than the public school system. Students want to go to school. The public schools have had a monopoly for too long -- and need the competition.

Denise Gossage 9 years, 11 months ago

What independent school takes children with disabilities? I tried home schooling. Very difficult!

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