“This Doesn’t Happen to People Like Us”

Published on April 12, 2012 by Jennifer Laviano

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You won’t believe this story.

In fact, I didn’t, at first.  As you might expect from a lawyer, I had to be convinced through documentary evidence.  Once I was, I couldn’t wait to share it!

If you read my blog you already know that I’m a pretty jaded and cynical person.  I like to remain positive and upbeat, but it’s hard sometimes, especially during IEP Season.  It’s easy to lose your faith that good will prevail when you’re constantly fighting injustices on behalf of children with disabilities.  This would explain a good deal of my sarcasm as well.

But this week, I am a believer in the kindness of people.

I have a client who, like many of my clients, has gone into a great deal of debt in trying to secure appropriate special education services for their child.  The wheels of justice do not turn swiftly.  Without revealing details that would be inappropriate to share in a public forum, they had incurred nearly $40,000 in fees at a special education program that was doing amazing things for their child, but whose tuition they could no longer afford, and they had to leave the school.  They were demoralized, hopeless and ashamed.

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As it turns out, the mother is a Words with Friends fanatic.  She plays not only with friends, but with “strangers” that the game will arrange as opponents.  If you play enough, you may end up playing the same people repeatedly, especially if you continue to challenge your opponents to a “rematch.”  Over the course of many months, she had played dozens of games with one particular person, with whom she would occasionally “chat.”

Over time, they discovered that they were both the parents of children with disabilities.  My client revealed that she was struggling to make ends meet, pay legal bills and private special education school bills, and that their tuition bill at the one program that had worked for their child remained unpaid.  It was the kind of chat many of us have online these days.

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Recently, the stranger asked my client the name of the private school her daughter had attended; she provided it, not thinking much of it.  Then, piecing together information he’d obtained, he did the unthinkable.

He paid the student’s entire bill to the private school, under the condition that his identity remain anonymous.  Nearly $40,000 paid for a family he’d never met, and would never meet.

It’s hard to believe.  As I said, I didn’t believe it initially.  In fact, my client told me that she and her husband didn’t believe it at first either.  “This kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like us,” she said.  But it did.  I saw the paperwork.  I saw the letter from the private school confirming the financial contribution of the anonymous donor.  It happened.  To people like them.  All because one parent understood the burdens of another, and was in a position to do something about it.

My clients’ only hope now is to one day be able to “pay it forward” for another child, as this stranger did for her child.

I don’t know about you, but this particular story will get me through for a bit.  Maybe even through IEP season.  Maybe even beyond.  There is goodness in this world.  Sometimes it’s very, very, very hard to find, but it’s there.  That’s going to have to get me through.  That, and a whole lot of Words with Friends.

Fictitious Thinking: The “New” Definition of Autism

Published on January 21, 2012 by Jennifer Laviano

Do you remember the character Cassandra from Greek mythology?  Her curse was that she could accurately predict the future, but nobody would believe her when she warned them about it.

Today I feel like Cassandra.

In 2009, I wrote a blog post about the impending changes to the definition of “autism” in the DSM-V.  I wrote about my concerns about how these changes would likely impact my clients diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.  Here we are  in 2012, and all over the news this week is coverage about the changes with the DSM-V…and how they could dramatically impact people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

Sometimes I hate being right.

My personal favorite in the coverage were the claims that the change in the diagnosis would effectively “eliminate the autism epidemic.”  Really?  As if all of those medical doctors and clinical psychologists who have been diagnosing kids with ASD all these years were really just seeing something that didn’t exist?

So do I have this right?  All of those kids that are now diagnosed with PDD-NOS or Asperger’s Disorder are going to suddenly wake up next year on the morning after the American Psychiatric Association passes the DSM-V and they will be cured?  Wow.  That’s some power the APA has!  Let’s think of what we want them to cure next!

Okay, so a reminder that eligibility under the IDEA is separate and apart from diagnosis under the DSM.  The definition under the IDEA for autism is what SHOULD govern eligibility determinations until and unless the IDEA revises the definition in the next reauthorization by Congress.

The federal definition of “autism” under IDEA is:

(i) Autism means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age three, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.

(ii) Autism does not apply if a child’s educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has an emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (c)(4) of this section.

(iii) A child who manifests the characteristics of autism after age three could be identified as having autism if the criteria in paragraph (c)(1)(i) of this section are satisfied.

Many states have their own definitions and descriptions as well.

That said, I have no doubt that the change in the DSM will result in loads of kids being denied special education eligibility.  Not to mention the insurance coverage that Autism Speaks has done such an incredible job of securing for kids diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Individuals who have been diagnosed with ASD have very real needs, no matter WHAT you call the disability!

In the meantime, I suggest that many of you who have children with “High Functioning Autism,” Asperger’s or PDD-NOS become very familiar with the IDEA’s definition of “Other Health Impairment.”  Until the dust settles from the DSM-V, it might be the best route for some of these kids to getting, or continuing to receive, special education services.

The IDEA’s definition of an Other Health Impairment is:

Other health impairment means having limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that–

(i) Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome; and

(ii) Adversely affects a child’s educational performance.

Remember, once a child is found eligible for special education and related services, the eligibility category is not supposed to drive programming; rather, the “unique needs” of the child do.

Between now and next year when the DSM-V is anticipated to go into effect, I’m going to be doing a whole lot of preparation on this subject, and you should too.

Social-Pathologist-Behavior-Worker-Therapist-Type Person

Published on October 10, 2011 by Jennifer Laviano

True confession:  when I was in junior high and high school I LOVED General Hospital.  I admit it.  I loved it even though I knew it was ludicrous.  It's an embarrassing but true part of my past.

One of the things that I realized about the show as I got older was just how silly it was that the doctors seemed to be completely and thoroughly cross-trained and Board-certified in every possible specialty of medicine imaginable, so long as the plot would allow that doctor to continue on the scene.  So, you'd have a “world-renowned neuro-surgeon” who would suddenly announce in the elevator shaft that he was also a trained orthopedic surgeon who could perform a highly complex arm amputation when another character's arm got lodged in the elevator.  Weeks later that same doctor is wooing a single mother with his newly-polished pediatric skills as he examines her sick child on the soccer field.

Even at 15 I knew this was pretty ridiculous.

So, here I am many years later, and suddenly I feel like I'm hearing the same crap.  Now, we all know that when an IEP meeting is convening, you're going to get those people who wear “more than one hat” as they try to make sure that the IEP Team has the required members under federal law.  That's one thing.  But when that crosses the line to one person on the team assuming all roles that come up, it is no longer funny.

As in:  you have a Social Worker at the IEP Meeting.  She notes that she has been working with the student in a social skills group which meets for 30 minutes weekly.  The Parent raises a concern about behavior.  Suddenly, the social worker is explaining how she has a “concentration” in behavior, and has been working with the kids in the group on this very issue.  Next, the Parent notes that they feel a speech pathologist should be providing intervention in pragmatic language.  Before you know it, the chameleon Social Worker is talking about how “closely I work with the speech pathologist” and is touting the language pragmatics program she's utilizing in the group.  When the parent later mentions that he feels that sensory issues are impacting the child and affecting behavior, the VERY SAME Social Worker mentions the “regular consultation” which takes place with the Occupational Therapist.

So, if we understand this correctly, the 1/2 hour per week of social skills with the Social Worker has now been simultaneously presented as social skills training, AND a behavior intervention program AND speech therapy AND occupational therapy?!

I understand that there are several professionals whose backgrounds can meet multiple needs…but when our special education and related service providers start to sound like a soap opera doctors, then we've got problems.
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Heck, the Soap Opera Doctor might be common enough to make my list of Unseemly IEP Team Members!

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Um. Okay. Thanks.

Published on July 15, 2011 by Jennifer Laviano

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So, I already have a page of Ridiculous Comments made by school district personnel, and their lawyers.  But lately, I’ve decided that my clients have some doozies also…so I’ve created this page:   Truly Funny, Sad, Insightful, or Outrageous Quotes From Parents.

My clients inspire me.  They really do.  I can not imagine how they manage to simultaneously care for their child’s (or sometimes children’s) special needs AND take on their school districts in a legal battle.  In addition to inspiring me, they also inform me, surprise me, and yes, frustrate me.  This is all part of being a Parents’ special education attorney.

As I often do on my blog, I will modify some of the information on this page when it’s necessary to protect the identity or interests of the child or parents.  Not all of these quotes will necessarily put the parents in the best light; however, when that’s the case, I hope to provide information as to how the situation could be rectified.

Many of these statements are ones that have stayed with me for years.  Some are very new comments I’ve heard from parents.  These quotes are from clients, prospective clients, and parents of children with disabilities I meet in Connecticut and throughout the country whom I will never represent.  I hope you will find them as interesting as I have…and if you have a great one to share, please email me or post a comment!

 

I received this email from a parent who follows my blog, and she thought this example was up my alley.  It is.  There are few days when I am shocked by what I hear from school districts, but several where I think “you just can’t make this stuff up!”   This email is a great illustration of that point.  I print it here verbatim with her permission:

“Under the category ‘strengths’ my son’s IEP reads:  ‘Immunizations and physical exams are up to date in accordance with CT state guidelines.’……Talk about reaching! I’d rather they go back to telling me what a nice smile he has!”

“The Behavior Guy”

Published on June 10, 2011 by Jennifer Laviano

As a parents’ special education attorney in Connecticut, I hear outrageous statements that parents are told by their school districts on an almost daily basis.  But, sometimes, I am told something that passes the realm of outrageous, and crosses into ridiculous.

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Today’s Ridiculous Comment

You really can not make this stuff up.  So I am just going to give you the conversation I had with an educator at a recent IEP meeting:

Me:  “I see under your signature it says ‘Behavior Specialist.’  Are you a Board Certified Behavior Analyst?”

Him:  “No.”

Me:  “Okay.  So, I’m trying to figure out what about your background allows you to refer to yourself as a ‘Behavior Specialist?'”

Him:  “I am a special education teacher.  I am a certified special education teacher.”

Me:  “Okay.  So, I am still trying to figure out what about your background makes you a ‘Behavior Specialist.'”

Him:  “Well, I’m a special ed teacher, and I’m just kind of known around here as ‘the behavior guy.’ ”

Yes.  That is the ridiculous comment.

Folks, behavior, and the analysis of behavior, is highly complex.  The behavior of children with disabilities is even more complicated.  So why is this kind of mediocrity permitted in our public schools?  Why is the behavior of children with disabilities considered so unimportant that we have virtually no standardization?

Can you imagine if I tried to pull this as an attorney?  Can you imagine if, instead of having to graduate from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association, take and pass the bar, and being sworn in as an attorney after being considered fit to do so by the State of Connecticut, as I did, the following happened:

Judge:  “Ms. Laviano, I notice that you filed papers with the Court but that you did not submit your Juris Number at the bottom as required.  Why is that?”

Me:  “Well, Your Honor, I graduated from college with a minor in Government.  But I am just sort of known around here as ‘the law lady.’ “

Weather or Naught

Published on May 23, 2011 by Jennifer Laviano

 

Okay…I know it’s that time of year again.  IEP Season.  From now through the end of June, I will be in numerous IEP meetings per week, sometimes a few a day.  It’s enough to make a woman cranky.

This isn’t the first year I’ve written about the nauseating experience of hearing the same ridiculous comments and irritating excuses as to why a child isn’t making progress.  This is the 15th IEP season I’ve endured as an attorney, so I’m kind of used to it. 

But look out New Englanders…this year, there’s a new excuse in town.

Snow.

Yes.  Snow.  In Connecticut.  Shocking, I know.

When I am brought into a case, the school district usually reacts in one of two ways.  First is the denial that there’s a problem, accompanied by a sudden, unexplained educational growth spurt that seems to begin from the day of my letter of representation.  I have referred to this in the past as the Sudden Blossoming of the Represented Child

The second response is the “yes we realize the child hasn’t made any real progress but it’s not our fault” approach.  There are any number of reasons given for this one, ranging from questioning medication decisions parents make, to outright blaming it on the parents.  (Of course, this opens a district up to my go-to question in the context of such an allegation:  “did you offer parent training and counselling as a related service in the child’s IEP?”  Almost always, the answer is “no.”  But I digress.)

So, now that I’ve attended several dozen Annual Review IEP meetings this Spring, I have learned the latest IEP meeting excuse for failure in Connecticut, and it is this:  “well, we had SO MANY snow days this year it was hard for ALL OF THE CHILDREN to adjust.  I wouldn’t read too much into it!”

 

If I’d heard this once this year, I might brush it off.  Twice, an eye roll.   But when I’ve heard this very same explanation several times a week, in different districts all over the State, it gets increasingly hard not to lose my cool.

I wonder whether the parents of kids who do not have disabilities would be told this if all of the “regular education” students were failing this school year.  I am guessing not.

So, there you have it.  Be on guard.  This is the excuse du jour. 

Can’t wait until all of my Fall PPTs, when my clients’ summer school regression is blamed on the heat.

James Tate…THIS is When They Choose to React?

Published on May 11, 2011 by Jennifer Laviano

Like everybody in the State of Connecticut, and the nation, and it seems the world, I am following the James Tate story. 

And no, I do not represent him. 

I will be dating myself with this reference, but not since I was prom-aged myself have I seen such an adorable, romantic gesture as James' prom invite.  I mean, unless John Cusack is hanging outside your door holding a boom-box over his head playing some Peter Gabriel, does it GET better than this?  I think not. 

Enter the villain…the school district.

While clearly I disagree with how the Shelton School District has handled this case, my beef is not specific to them, though they were the ones involved in this case.  I hope they will see fit to reconsider their rash decision here.  My beef is with the way that school districts in general operate.  There is no sense of individualism.  No sense of reason.  No shades of gray.  It's all black and white.  “Zero Tolerance.”  Blah blah blah.

Now, I'm sure, if asked, many public school administrators would blame lawyers like myself for this approach.  “We have to have RULES so we can comply with the LAW!” they would protest.  “Aren't YOU always telling us that we need to have POLICIES in place?”

Yes.  But not stupid policies.  And not arbitrary rules, applied when you want, to whom you want.

I've been in schools enough to know that the “rules” are not usually enforced equally.  There are favorites, and there are targets.  Examples are made in the most ridiculous of cases.   And yet, I have to jump up and down and file all sorts of complaints to get the most basic of my client's special education needs acknowledged, let alone met. 

Why is it that school districts completely UNDER-REACT to their obligations under IDEA, but OVER-REACT to sweet, innocent prom proposals?

Let's stop cookie cutting our approach to kids.  Let James Tate take his date to the prom.  In the words of another 80s dance/prom/movie icon, John Lithgow in Footloose:  “if we don't trust our children, how can we ever expect them to be trustworthy?”  Or something like that.

UPDATE!!

James is going to the prom.   The administration reconsidered, and James is the front-runner for Prom King.  Great news. 

More to come…

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A Mother's Day

Published on May 8, 2011 by Jennifer Laviano

Last night, we took my mother out to dinner to celebrate Mother's Day.  While at at the restaurant, and on cue with the arrival of my own food, both my little ones let me know they had to go to the bathroom.  So, off I head to the ladies room, with my 3 and nearly 5 year olds holding my hands.

Now, let me pause here for a moment to point out that I was a special education attorney for almost a decade before I had children.  As a result, I have approached parenthood with a background that few have when they embark upon what is already scary for most.  I was a pediatrician's nightmare, as you can imagine.  The first time my oldest imitated something I said, my husband said “she imitated you, that's good, right?  Didn't you say imitation was a good sign?”  My response was “yeah…yeah…it is…OR it could be echolalia.”

Knowing that we have gotten through early childhood with kids who appear to be developing well (though I am constantly aware that throughout their schooling there will be any number of possible disabilities which might become apparent at any given time), I feel especially blessed.  Seeing how so many of my clients struggle with the most basic things humbles me, and puts into serious perspective how upset or overwhelmed I allow myself to get over the fairly “run of the mill” types of challenges I face with toddlers. 

So, when my kids say they have to go to the bathroom right as I am about to eat dinner, in my mind, annoyance is fleeting.  I am cognizant of how lucky I am that my kids CAN tell me that they have to go to the bathroom, that they CAN use the bathroom appropriately, that they CAN walk with me and understand me and, most of the time, follow my instructions.   Hell, I'm grateful that I can take my kids to a restaurant to begin with!

All of this brings us to the bathroom at the restaurant.  I walk in with my little ones in tow, and there are two stalls.  One is being used, and the other is open, about to be occupied by what appears to be a “tweenage” girl.  She spots me walking in, and without missing a beat, offers the stall to us.  I thanked her but said we were fine, but she politely insisted that we should go ahead of her, which we did at that point. 

I was blown away that this girl, who should typically be texting friends, rolling her eyes at adults, and generally self-absorbed, would instead be thoughtful and self-less enough to recognize that two little children might need the potty more than she did, and to figure that out on her own.  This type of kindness one doesn't see much these days, especially in this particular age-group, so I was duly impressed, and thanked her again when we got out of the stall.

As we were leaving dinner, I looked around to see if I could find the girl, hoping she'd be with her parents.  I wanted to make a point to tell them what a lovely, kind, poised young lady they had raised, who was more concerned with others than herself.  We happened to pass their table on our way out.  I asked the woman sitting with her, who appeared  to be her mother:  “is this your daughter?” and she said yes, she was.  I said “I just want you to know what a nice young lady you have raised, she allowed me and my little girls to use the bathroom in front of her and it was just such a nice, kind, and mature act that I wanted to be sure to tell you if I saw you.”  The parents smiled a knowing smile, and told me that, in fact, they were out celebrating her report card; what a great kid they know she is; how they appreciated the gesture…and they thanked me for stopping by.

Then, I noticed a boy sitting next to the girl, who I assume is her slightly younger brother.  Within a moment I understood that he is a child with significant special needs.  His behavior was escalating, probably because I was standing there out of the blue with my very active little kids.  His sister was able to quickly redirect him and regain his attention.  What looked like it might become a problem was almost immediately diffused by this young girl with the skill of a veteran teacher.  It was a sight to be seen.

I am never quite sure what to say in moments like this.  These parents don't know what I do or who I am.  Perhaps they are annoyed, or just tired of having to explain.  I, on the other hand, want to just say “I understand, please don't feel uncomfortable.  I talk to parents like you every day.  The whole focus of my law practice in Connecticut is special education law, and I imagine I have a better understanding of what life is like for parents of children with disabilities than many.  Though not as much as you.”

But I don't say anything.  They're enjoying their dinner and I'm a stranger.  And hey, let's face it, it's hard to make comments like that when you're a lawyer without sounding like you're trying to drum up new business.

In retrospect, it made a lot of sense to me that this young girl was so compassionate to the needs of others.  And I'm still glad that I let her mother know how impressed I was, because I'm guessing she appreciated it. 

Being a mother can be a thankless, exhausting, terrifying job, under the best of circumstances.  Being a mother of kids with special education needs requires an entirely different level of strength, patience, and perseverance.  I am humbled by how many mothers do it so very well. 

I wish you all a very Happy Mother's Day.

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Bullying of Kids with Disabilities: How One Young Man Took Back Control

Published on March 31, 2011 by Jennifer Laviano

For followers of my blog, you know that the bullying of kids with disabilities is a subject that I believe has long been overlooked.  I have spoken and written about this topic for years, well before bullying was a fixture on the evening news.

Recently, I had the chance to hear a very inspirational story about a student with Asperger’s Disorder who managed to turn the very negative experience of being bullied into a positive result.  Amy Langerman is a colleague who is a special education attorney in Arizona, and also a special education consultant/advocate in Coronado, California, where she and her family currently reside.  In a discussion on the subject of bullying among some parents’ attorneys, Amy’s description of her son’s response to being targeted in school was, in a word, remarkable . 

 Joey Langerman’s reaction was so creative, and more importantly, empowering, that I was compelled to ask him if he’d share his story on my blog.   I am so grateful that he obliged, and now that I have heard his insights into his experience, I am even more moved by his words. 

I am confident you will be too.

Joey Langerman

JEN:  Joey, tell us about your experiences being bullied by other kids at your school.  Did you feel any or all of it was based on your disability?

JOEY:   What happened to me is in the past.  How kids chose to pick on, torment, bully or harass me really isn’t something I want to define me.  I am like many, many other kids.    I never knew whether I was targeted because of my disability.  I appear “normal”. I go to a “regular” school and am in “regular” classes and am one of the “good” students.   There were many days where I suspected that I had been “discovered” but I have no proof of any of that.   I suspect that the reality is that the hatemongers who chose me for their special brand of abuse could see that I was not the “popular kid”, an athlete, cool, surrounded by friends, or otherwise “off limits”; I tended to stick to myself because that is my comfort zone and as such, I was an easy mark.

JEN:  How did these incidents impact you initially?

JOEY:  Like many others, I did not tell my mom. I did not report what was going on.  I felt alone and very powerless.  I was totally focused on where my abusers were and what they were going to do to me next. I  was unable to focus on my school work.  I started leaving homework at home, flunking tests, and other things that were very unlike me.   My teachers and specifically my speech therapist knew something was up but assumed I was stressed about going to high school (this was in 8thgrade). So, they said nothing to anyone either because it didn’t seem that “out of context” in light of the upcoming graduation and transition. I got so upset at one point and had no one to take it out on that I punched my little brother.  That was when I finally confided in my psychologist who persuaded me to tell my mom and with her help, I was able to report what happened and get some help.

JEN:  One of the things that I am so impressed by is how you responded…please tell us what you did to counter this behavior.  Tell us about VACHI.

JOEY:  VACHIis Voices Against Cruelty, Hatred and Intolerance. It is an organization that I founded to create clubs on high school campuses to teach people about bullying and promote tolerance. VACHI is designed to educate parents, teachers, students and administrators about the consequences of hate behavior so that they want to end it.  It seeks to teach witnesses not to be bystanders but to be actors and to say three simple words when they see abuse: “That’s not cool”.  Instantly, the victim is supported and the abuser is shunned.  We seek to educate teachers that just telling kids to “quit it” is NOT an answer; the victims think “no one will help me” and the bullies think “got away with it again”.  So, we train teachers to instantly refer ANY act of hate, including name calling, to administrators, NOT for punishment but for education. The “education instead of punishment” idea was modeled after first offender programs that are used for drug crimes.   The idea is to get everyone to “sign on” to wanting a hate-free environment, from the top down.   VACHI did not evolve overnight or after the first or even second incidences of bullying inflicted upon me. Unfortunately, I have been targeted often and repeatedly, in many environments.  My mom asked me if I was going to let my abusers’ actions determine who I was going to be or if I was going to let MY actions determine my fate. So, I decided that I couldn’t change the way bullies treated victims and probably couldn’t change the way victims perceived their abuse but maybe I COULD change the way witnesses responded when they saw abuse and maybe that would help me and help others.  VACHI really is directed at changing “bystander” behavior.

JEN:  What suggestions would you give to other students who are being targeted in school based on their disability, or any perceived “difference”?

JOEY:  Well, you have to tell.  Someone.  I was lucky and my mom is a special education attorney like you are and she was able to immediately get my IEP team to refocus goals directed to helping me to self-advocate.  Did that help?  Not really.  I have to be very honest.  Repeatedly they tried to teach me that if I am abused, I could do X, Y, or Z and I had already tried them all.  They don’t make a difference when you are dealing with a bully. None of those things stopped the abuse, or made me feel any better.  What finally worked was me getting some good counseling help to recognize that this is NOT my fault, NOT my problem and that I can NOT let this define me.  These people who live to abuse are not worth the time and energy of one moment’s notice.  I have been lucky; since starting VACHI I am not targeted any more. I think the tolerance message VACHI presents is working on my campus and there is a lot less abuse  around.  And, candidly, kids are not totally stupid.  No one abuses the Founder of an organization that promotes tolerance. In the interim, while I was working on myself, and how to learn to accept what happened and not let it define me, my mom and I were able to work with the administration to put some things in place so that I would feel safer.   So, my advice is to tell your parent, tell your special education teacher, tell your school counselor. 

The supports that my mom fought for and which did help me in school were significant.  First, the school agreed not to put any of the bullies in my classes. Second, the school agreed to have a security guard walk through unannounced in the PE locker room to be a “presence”.  When he stopped coming after the second day and I was targeted again, I told my mom and she was at the principal’s door the same day. Third, the school agreed to have teachers help facilitate project partners in my classes. I lost my faith in other students.  I thought everyone was out to get me.  Kids who are easy targets for bullying may  have difficulty with social interactions because they are afraid to trust; teachers often tell kids to “partner up” and that leaves a kid open to abuse or at least to have fear of potential abuse which may cause them to “freeze” when the teacher says to pick a partner.  Teachers should assign partners and anyone who has been bullied should have a partner handpicked to ensure no abuse as well as fostering a good peer experience.    I am able now to pick a partner without any problem but my head is in a much better place now. The most important thing is to get counseling support – I would not be where I am today without the help of my outside counselor and my outside speech therapist who works on “social thinking” goals with me.  These are not school staff; they are private (but funded through the school) and I feel comfortable talking to them about anything.

JEN:  Do you have any plans to use these experiences in your future?

JOEY:  I hope to take the VACHI movement with me to college. And I hope that the kids who I got to help continue VACHI at my local high school after I go to college will do the same. I am not sure where I am going yet (I guess I am lucky to have many good choices) but when I get there, I want to work with local high schools in the area and introduce them to VACHI in the hopes they might start a chapter there. I hope that those behind me will do the same.  If we can each start a few clubs, and the people who start those each start a few clubs, by “paying it forward” maybe we can have hundreds or thousands of such clubs in the future.   I started a website (http://www.vachi.net/) with an eye toward the future with forms and ideas on how to start a club in any location. Maybe in 10 years, there will be a club on every campus, just like National Honor Society.

JEN:  If you could pick one, simple piece of advice to give another kid who might be facing what you faced, who might not have the ability to put together a movement like VACHI, what would it be?

JOEY:   Well, I would not tell them what I have heard from many adults as I was working on creating VACHI.  I can’t tell you how many times an adult said things like – “this is part of growing up, and don’t worry, it will get better when you go to college”.  I can’t tell you how little that does to help.  What I heard and what another child hears is “oh, great… I get to suffer for the next four years!”   I would tell another child facing the same situation that I was facing that they need to tell their parent so they can get the help that I got.   But, more importantly, I would tell the parents that they MUST take action. The reality is that victims are not likely to be able to self- advocate or otherwise help themselves and they need adults to protect them.  Through VACHI, I can’t tell you how many parents tell me and others that “bullying is part of growing up”, “kids just need to toughen up”, “turn another cheek”, or “fight back”.  Parents must take the time to learn HOW to help their child and then HELP their child.  If that means showing up daily at the principal’s office to see if they actually provided some adult supervision in the locker room to provide a “presence” so that the “easy mark” kids are not “gay bashed” or abused, then you need to do that, EVERY DAY.  Most schools do not think there is a problem because no kid reports it.  So, when they learn of ONE incident, they think it is an aberration and pay lip service to responding appropriately. If they learn of more (and make sure you leave a paper trail), they start worrying about their liability and that is when maybe they will do something.  I love my mom for her undying strength in trying to fight to keep my school safe (for me and others) while the professionals helped me to work through my inner demons and get the strength to become a voice for others.

Finally, I would tell parents that and professionals and others who might be reading this: If you know someone looking for a good community service project, have them contact me through VACHI’s website (above) or at hatehurts@vachi.net and I will walk them through how to start a club on their campus.  The more we are promoting tolerance, the fewer bully-cides we should see in the future.

Cherry Picking IEP Members

Published on March 15, 2011 by Jennifer Laviano

Despite nearly 15 years practicing special education law in Connecticut, there are still some old tricks which school districts employ which astound me.  Not that I am surprised that they continue to do it, but rather, that they think I won’t notice after all of this time.

One of the oldest tactics is when special education administrators “cherry pick” which educators will attend a child’s IEP meeting. 

This strategy seems to me to be most used when invitations are sent out to the “regular education teacher.”

I’ve talked before about who is necessary to make an IEP meeting duly constituted by law, which in many cases includes the attendance of a regular education teacher.   I have also written about the sudden and amazing “blossoming” that occurs with my clients once their school district finds out that the parents have hired a special education lawyer.   But since I almost always receive all of the student’s special education and regular education records after I have been hired, it isn’t as if I walk into the IEP meetings with no idea of the problem areas.

So why does the following scenario continue to occur:

A student is in a largely mainstream middle-school program.  According to her latest report card, she is failing every core academic area, as well as her foreign language.  She is, however, passing gym, and she is actually excelling in art.  

Let’s see if you can guess which of the numerous regular education teachers gets invited to the IEP meeting?

If you guessed the art teacher, you get a gold star!  If you guessed the gym teacher, you get a silver.  If you guessed a regular education teacher who is “covering” for another regular education teacher in which the student is failing, well, I’ll give you a bronze.

Really, do they think we don’t notice?

If you know your child is struggling in the “regular education” classes in any particular subject area, here’s an idea…ask that those teachers be invited to the IEP meeting.  I’ll bet you’ll hear a whole lot less about how much your child is “blossoming” or how recently they seem to have really “taken off” in the program. 

And by “recently” they mean two days ago.