I’ve had one of those weeks where my outspoken nature and strong views on what is happening (or not happening) in special education in general, and disability rights law in particular, have ruffled a few feathers. I’ve gotten comments both on and off of my blog that suggest that I am overly opinionated; a prospective client asked me whether it’s true that school districts are “terrified” of me; and I was notified that something I wrote recently caused a “behind-the-scenes” mini-drama controversy with a special education administrator. That’s just the kind of week I’ve had. And it’s only Tuesday.
Let me reiterate: this blog is written from the perspective of a parents’ special education attorney!
I have a very specific and particular viewpoint based on many years of representing children with disabilities in Connecticut under the IDEA. I have never been shy about the fact that I have strong opinions on certain aspects of special education practices and litigation. I do, however, try to be fair and realistic, and in fact, I have written a number of pieces which encourage parents to pick their battles, to see the big picture instead of focusing on petty disputes, and reminding them that just because something is unfair does not mean that it is illegal.
When I talk to clients or present to parent groups, I try to point out to them that there are at least two sides to every story.
It is just foolish, in any aspect of life, to be so convinced of your own position that you are unwilling or unable to listen to those that disagree with you. This kind of stubbornness leads nowhere. I personally read many publications and newsletters that are designed for school districts, and sometimes even those aimed at school district lawyers. I also really try to understand what the obstacles are to resolution from the school’s perspective.
This is not just to employ the strategy of “keep your friends close, your enemies closer,” but rather to learn why certain things are “deal breakers” for school districts.
If I know why my opponent is resistant to a particular school, program, or service, I can try to convince them why they are wrong, and if I can not, then I can prepare my client for a dispute. It’s what I’ve heard many educators call “perspective taking,” and I tell parents of children with disabilities to do it all the time. “Remember that the administrator has to convince the Board of Education why this is necessary” I’ll say, or “don’t forget that this is a veteran teacher who was probably never trained in how to educate a child with Asperger’s and she doesn’t understand why her usual, time-honored techniques aren’t working for your child.”
And yet, I consistently run into the “we/they” dichotomy when I am working with school districts.
There are, thankfully, some school district attorneys who will do the same thing with their clients (the school administration) as I do with mine: try to get them to see the arguments from the opposite side of the table. But, unfortunately, I constantly run into school district staff who are deeply “shocked and offended” when they hear the parents’ perspective. Instead of reflecting on what it might say about the way special educators are handling themselves in IEP meetings that many parents feel that they are being misled by the administration, these individuals become defensive, angry, and lash out at people like me who are willing to be candid about how families are feeling.
The truth hurts.
Nobody likes to be wrong, including me. But sometimes, it is necessary to have the courage to admit to mistakes. This is not just important for all professionals to be able to do in order to learn, but when it comes to special education disputes, it is, in my experience, cost-effective. I can’t tell you how many cases I’ve had over the years where the parents were disappointed that the school district had mistaken their child’s needs in some way, but were willing to come to a reasonable resolution with the school anyway.
When the school responds vehemently that they have done “absolutely nothing wrong” in the face of growing evidence to the contrary, disappointment turns to outrage.
In virtually every one of those cases, the litigation ended up costing the school district many-fold what an acknowledgment of error and settlement would have. It’s just so foolish. So, to those out there who are offended by what I have to say, I respond as follows: I call it like I see it. Maybe you should try to understand why I, and more importantly my clients who are the parents of children with special education needs, see it that way, instead of trying to prove us wrong.
Taking the position that you are infallible is the best way to be proven wrong.
Most of the parents I talk to are primarily concerned about getting appropriate special education and related services for their kids. I genuinely believe that my services would be required a lot less frequently if school districts would care less about who is right, than what is right.