The Tip of the Iceberg

Published on June 16, 2013 by Jennifer Laviano

It's been a fascinating several months here in Connecticut, as we have watched events unfold in the special education community in Darien.  The coverage has been wide locally, but if you don't want to read it all, here's the upshot:  the Special Education Director in this small, affluent town in lower Fairfield County (itself small and largely affluent), new to the position in the 2012-2013 school year, distributed “training materials” to educators in the community via memos and, yes, a Power Point presentation.  So what's wrong with that?  Well, they included numerous misrepresentations on what an educator and a district's obligations are under the law, and blatantly instructed the educators that they were not to disagree with administration during  IEP meetings.  Under the guise of asking educators to present a “united front” during IEP meetings, the Director effectively thwarted the legally-required open exchange of ideas which is supposed to be the heart of an IEP meeting.

“We must present a united front in IEP meetings” is code for “don't disagree with the administration or make recommendations which might cost us money.”

Thanks to the courage of several parents who were rightly outraged by this directive (among the many, MANY other violations of the federal special education law included in these documents and countless examples of individual violations as well as systemic), and the steadfast representation of their rights by Mystic Attorney Andrew Feinstein, families joined forces and filed a Complaint with the Connecticut State Department of Education.  The Complaint ultimately led to an investigation, which culminated last week in an open forum for parents to tell the State about their experiences in Darien.  This EXCELLENT Editorial by the Darien Times, which has been remarkably committed to getting the truth of this situation despite some fairly strong local opposition (some of which has been truly vile via commentary online) summarizes how that meeting went.

When I read the Darien Times Editorial, I was stunned.  I wish I could say it was because I was shocked by the stories the parents shared.  That wasn't it.  What had stricken me was that the Editors got it!  They GOT that this isn't about a few disgruntled families.  This is the “tip of an iceberg.”  I particularly appreciated their reference to the disparity between Darien's “internal charge” of providing a top notch education for its students, while defending its failures for students with disabilities as reasonable under the IDEA's “appropriate” standard.  For those of you who've been following my blog since the beginning, you know I've been disgusted by that hypocrisy in public schools throughout the State (and country) for years!

The Editorial suggests that the families who've spoken out in Darien represent a “tip of an iceberg” in Darien.  But I've got news for them.

It's not just Darien.

The scary thing to most of us who have been following this is that this type of administrative pressure isn't uncommon; we know it happens all of the time, all over the country.  Teachers approach me after presentations I give, and on a few occasions have even followed me down a hallway after an IEP meeting to whisper “thank you” to me for getting the district to approve the support they needed, but couldn't get without the pressure of the parents hiring a lawyer. Teachers email me or post comments to this blog all of the time, saying that they are conflicted because a student in their charge needs more than the school district will allow them to recommend, and they feel horrible about it.  Sometimes they're subtly being told “you know who pays your check.”  Other times, it's less subtle, and blatantly discriminatory.  I usually remind them that they, too, have rights, and they include not being retaliated against for speaking up about what the IDEA requires for a student and whether they are receiving it.

Even if I didn't have the direct evidence of how some educators feel the administrative pressure not to refer, evaluate, identify, or properly service students with disabilities under the IDEA, I see it on their faces.  In hundreds and hundreds of meetings where I am expressing the Parents' concerns about the inappropriate program their child is receiving, and some of the teachers can't meet my eye, or the parents'.  Or I get the nodded head, or a wink, or something is said by an educator in a way that tells me “please ask me this question right now because the answer to it will get the kid what he needs but I just can't volunteer it!”

The thing that's unusual about what happened in Darien is that the practice to violate the IDEA was written down, and parents got their hands on the proof.

So, perhaps what happened in Darien is what needs to happen everywhere.  Parents need to organize, and tell their stories.  It has to be made clear to the good-hearted people of so many communities, the people like the Editors at the Darien Times, that this isn't the exception; in many towns, it's often the rule.  It's time that administrators who look at special education as an expensive nuisance, rather than as an essential Civil Right designed to ensure that students with disabilities become adults with skills, are held accountable.

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