The Special Education Blame Game

Published on September 24, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

It’s unfortunate, but true:  when parents of children with disabilities begin to seriously question the appropriateness of the special education program being provided to their child, the school district will often start to play “the blame game.”

The Special Education Blame Game is when educators attempt to assign responsibility for a student’s lack of success in their school program to the parents.

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This can take many forms, but usually it creeps up slowly.  At first, it might be a suggestion of “outside issues” in comments made by teachers and other staff in their discussions with the parents.  Then, written progress reports or communications books start to reference “family problems.”  Before you know it, the IEP Team will be writing a recommendation that “the parents are again encouraged to seek out counseling resources in the community to address the dynamics at home.”

Blaming the parents when a child fails to make appropriate progress in their special education program is not just unfair, it’s of limited legal relevance.

Why?  Well, because even if the answer to the question “are the parents part of the problem?” is “yes,” it doesn’t really change the school district’s ultimate obligation to provide FAPE to the child.  Is what is preventing the student from accessing an appropriate special education not the program itself, but that the parents aren’t properly supporting it at home?  In that case, I would question whether or not the school district has offered parent training and counseling as a related service to the IEP, as required by law.  In my experience as a special education attorney, having represented hundreds of Connecticut families over the years, I can tell you that school districts rarely offer or provide this service voluntarily, even when it is quite clear that the parents’ lack of understanding or training in the disability is interfering with progress.

For those of you who are innocently wondering how a school district can try to shift the blame onto the parents, here are some typical comments which I have either heard educators say myself, or have read in many students’ records, all of which imply that the student is struggling in school because of his or her parents:

  • “Well, yes, it’s true that he is 3 grade levels behind in reading, but remember, he has a learning disability” (subtext:  “you’re in denial and putting too much pressure on him.”)
  • “The school team agrees he’s off task a lot in the regular classroom; did you ever take him back to that doctor to discuss medications?” (subtext:  “regardless of why your child is not on medication, he needs to be and until you decide to place him on them, his behavior is not our problem.”)
  • “The IEP Team asked the Parents whether family counseling has been explored.”  (subtext:  “your home life is the cause of any emotional or behavioral problems in school.”)
  • “Are you still picking her up early on Tuesday afternoons to bring her for private speech therapy?”  (subtext:  “if she weren’t missing school, she’d be doing better.”)
  • “Ever since he went to visit the private special education schools you’re applying to, he’s just shut down here!”  (subtext:  “by considering other placements, you are responsible for any deterioration in performance from now on.”)
  • “The Parents reported that they continue to provide 20 hours per week of additional ABA services privately.  The school Team questioned she Susan is able to sustain this schedule.”  (subtext:  “you are over-doing the services you are giving your child and if she doesn’t do well here, it’s because she is too tired.”)

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Few things annoy me more than when a parent’s legitimate concerns as to whether their child benefits from a special education program are met with deflection and accusation.

Over the years I have had many Due Process Hearings where the Blame Game is not only in full force, but is a moving target, as theories get debunked and witnesses waffle.  I’m not saying that what is happening outside of school is unimportant for the educators (and Hearing Officers) to consider.  Of course not!  If significant outside events are contributing to a student’s behavior in school, like the death of a parent, or potential abuse, that’s one thing.  But to focus on minutia like whether there is sibling rivalry between the child and his brother, or if one of the parents is away on business too much, or if another works too hard, is quite another.

It borders on the ridiculous the way some school districts can concoct virtually any reason on the planet to explain away a child’s poor performance other than the IEP being inappropriate.

There is no provision of the IDEA which says that schools only have to provide an appropriate special education program if the child is being raised in a perfect household…as if such a thing even exists.  The law requires that children with disabilities receive what they require, regardless of the likability of their parents, or the stability of their home.

While I appreciate that a child’s home-life obviously has a great impact on who they are, and therefore, who they are as a student, I just wish that school districts placed as much stock in the importance of outside behavior when it is the parents who report that this is a problem, as they do when it’s the other way around.

6 Responses to The Special Education Blame Game

  1. Jane
    September 24th, 2009 | 8:41 am

    Amen!! I am myself in awe of the hypocrisy and just plain crap I have heard at school meetings. My son is not behind because of me, he APPEARS to be behind because they choose to test a nonverbal child verbally, and leave his AAC parked in the hall on his wheelchair. Independent E.E.’s show him working at grade level. Arrrgh!

  2. Elizabeth
    September 24th, 2009 | 11:39 am

    Oh, yes! I love hearing hints that my daughter’s performance might have something to do with my health – I have MS and she is actually very good about it – and NOT the fact that they don’t perform the agreed-upon accommodations for her (she has ADHD). I don’t blame everything on them, and I don’t let them blame everything on me — we are a team, but my health has nothing to do with it. Grrrr.

  3. Carmen
    April 21st, 2011 | 6:08 am

    I am glad i found this website. I am going through the same thing with my daughter. We have had four different 504 plans,which have result in nothing. My daughter had failed 9th grade last year and is failing 9th grade this year. The school doesn’t want to refer my daughter to special Ed, they have been giving me the run around..my daughter has emotional problems. she has bipolar and is extremely depress at time. She also suffers from anxiety. I met with the School superintendent and the director of special ed yesterday. First they tried to blame the home life. Now they are putting the blame on my daughter, saying the if she chooses to skip classes there is nothing they can do. That my daughter is to blame for her failing and bad grades. That she has good teachers. It is unbelievable to hear what they come up with, trying to shift the blame somewhere else.

  4. Lori Scanlon
    July 11th, 2014 | 9:02 pm

    I am so thankful to find this page! My dyslexic 4th grader struggled all year with behavior issues – now is convinced she is a “bad kid”. I feel its cumulative low self esteem from years of not measuring up and the schools failure to help her! All they can do is blame my divorce…Lets all start standing up to these people!

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