12 THINGS TO PAY ATTENTION WHEN DEALING WITH SCHOOL DISTRICTS
“I’m retiring,” my friend said.
“You aren’t old enough to retire,” I replied.
“Yeah, I am. I’ve been a teacher in this district for nineteen years and I’ve never lied to a parent; I’m not going to let the district force me to do so now.”
That conversation occurred in March 2013. “I was just up at TEA last week, I’ve got to work a minimum of three more years,” I said. “I wish you’d reconsider, selfishly, I’m going to hate it here without you.”
Our campus, ECDC, had a nice retirement party for Bernadette on her next to last day, May 29th, a Wednesday. I made a movie for the occasion, one of those testimonial sort of things that celebrated her years in the district, almost all of them spent on the early childhood campus. I got written up for it too, playing with my camera at work. Technically, I’d used the camera on my personal iPad, but what the heck, I signed the form and shoved it back it my principal’s face. “You know the drill, please make me a copy and put it in my box,” I said. I had no idea how I was going to carry on without Bernadette, for over ten years, she’d been the key player on my early childhood assessment team. She also happened to be hands down the best teacher of children with autism that I’d ever seen.
As it turned out, I didn’t ever have to get used to life at ECDC without Bernadette. After May 30th, all of the teachers and paraprofessionals cleared out and it was just me, three janitors, three secretaries, and the principal and counselor left at ECDC. I still had another ten days to run on my 2012-13 contract, however for the first time in many years, I wasn’t doing summer testing. My 2012-13 reports had all been written and archived and filed in eligibility folders, and my protocol files had all been turned in to Central Office. I was just sitting around my office sort of twiddling my thumbs. I half-heartedly started organizing for fall, but mostly I worried about how I was going to conduct transdisciplinary play-based assessments without Bernadette present to interact with the child as the SLP, OT, PT, and I looked on and filled out the TPA protocols and took notes. I tallied up my numbers. As was typical for my campus, my team and I had tested over one hundred three to five year olds that school year. I called Bernadette on the phone, “Sure you don’t want to reconsider, I bet I could get you your old job back.” I left the message on her voice mail, she and her husband were off somewhere in the hill country, enjoying retirement. When she returned to an area where she had bars, she called back and left this voice mail, “I don’t want my old job back.” I made up referral packets for the fall and stuck my head back down in the sand.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:34. Not to mention that most of the things that we worry about never come to pass anyway. My mom calls this borrowing trouble. Thursday June 13th was my last day, however on June 10th I walked into a six p.m. Bible study class at Trinity Baptist Church and heard Beth Moore pose this question: “Ladies, have you ever stayed in one place too long?” I felt chills travel all up and down my body. Ouch, I thought, that message was definitely meant for me.
Quitting a job requires a whole lot less paperwork than acquiring that job ever did. The next day I walked into Central Office carrying a one sentence I quit letter that I’d printed out at home that morning. Personnel had one form I had to fill out, it took me less than five minutes. Next I was required to sign some other papers and that was all there was to it, suddenly I was no longer an ECISD employee. It wasn’t even 9:30 in the morning before I was out the door, standing in the parking lot, feeling slightly light-headed. The heat, I thought, it’s already brutal out here today.
I walked across the parking lot from Central Office to the annex that housed the SE offices. I’d given the secretaries a 17-page grievance documenting mostly Medicaid fraud that I’d been told to write by Stevie G. “You’ll work where you’re told to work, and you’ll do what you’re told to do, if you have a complaint, then file a grievance with the school board,” she’d said at one of my recent corrective action interviews. I needed to pick up my copy of the grievance before I drove away. I’d printed out the document (a one page form that I’d written see attached and a table of contents of evidence on, along with sixteen pages of documentation of my concerns) at home that morning, and it would have been a simple thing for me to print myself a second copy, however I’d developed the habit of always asking the secretaries to make me copies of material that Central Office asked me to turn in. Just as a precaution. Never hurts to have a few witnesses, that sort of thing.
At that time Mary E was still SE director, but she had a co-director, a guy named Matt Something or another. He’d never worked in SE, but he did know someone at CO. At least that was what I’d heard, who knows if it was even true? I’m not sure if it was nepotism or not, because I have no idea whether the person getting Matt jobs he wasn’t qualified for was related to him or not. I’d had very few interactions with Matt ?, still can’t think of his last name, certainly he’d never been anything but polite and nice to me. The copy machine was right outside his office, and I’d been standing there talking to the secretary as she finished up with my copy. Matt asked me to step into his office.
“I think you might have already heard this, but officially we’re moving you to Sinclair next year, ECDC isn’t going to have a Diag or Psych, every elementary campus will do their attendance area’s early childhood testing,” he said. At his words, I felt a huge weight drop off of my shoulders. I wasn’t abandoning my campus, I’d been kicked out. Wow, we truly do serve an awesome God! I can’t tell you how good it felt to look right into Matt’s clueless eyes and reply, “Nope, you’re not moving me to Sinclair. You can’t–because I just quit!”
Knowing when to walk away does take wisdom, which for me means that when God tries to get my attention, I listen up and ditch my own well-thought out plans. I’ve never regretted or second guessed my decision. As far as I know, neither has Bernadette. As a side note, nobody had to do any TPAs without Bernadette, or without me either for that matter. I have it on reliable authority that, for the school year 2013-14, the first year that Aleczander was denied any general or special education services, the ECISD assessment staff conducted only three early childhood assessments. What happened to the other ninety-seven, you might be wondering? After all, our ECDC team had averaged about one hundred evaluations, most of them initials, for many years. Turns out that the staff, under the direction of the supervising LSSP who no doubt wishes to remain forever unnamed and no longer works in the district as far as I can tell, simply refused to test the kids who’d previously gotten early intervention services and were now required, by law, to be served by their public schools. When the ECI case managers came forward with their referrals, the LSSPs and/or DIAGs on the elementary campuses simply told them that testing didn’t appear to be necessary. I’ve recently been told by an ECI speech provider that their case managers don’t even bother to call up ECISD to set up face to face interviews any more. “There’s no point, they don’t have any services,” she said. This, if it is true and I have no reason to doubt the woman’s veracity, goes a long way toward explaining why Bernadette and I became persona non grata at ECISD almost ten years ago.
Neither Bernadette nor I lives in the district and neither of us ever expected to return to the district in any capacity other than as attendees at the retirement parties of our friends and former co-workers. Certainly, I never anticipated that I would begin working as an advocate for ECISD children denied a FAPE by the district. At the time that I retired from ECISD, I had never been in an ARD meeting with a SE attorney in attendance. I’d been in a total of one meeting with a sort of advocate; she was the Ed Diag grandmother of a kiddo the TPA team had assessed. I believed that my Diag days were a thing of the past, and that was a job that I knew how to do. I certainly never anticipated becoming a SE advocate, a job about which I knew absolutely nothing.
Likely you’ve heard the expression, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I planned to write fiction after my retirement. I thought that I might do a little redecorating around the house, clean out closets and cabinets, maybe even a bit of gardening. I was going to volunteer up at the church and take more book and Bible study classes. Turns out that God had other plans for me. He’s given me a new career and another story to tell; Saving Aleczander falls into the category of creative non-fiction. My involvement in Aleczander’s story, which you already know all about, began on November 2, 2015 when Bernadette brought Aleczander and his mother over to my house. My first foray out to the district as Aleczander’s advocate occurred on December 17, 2015. Bernadette was with Aleczander’s parents and me that day.
These school district folks definitely play hard ball. This case has hung on for literally years. Friends, I gotta tell you, there are days when it appears the next thing to impossible for me to even think about writing a story for which there is no end in sight. Those of you who are writers know exactly what it is that I’m talking about here; every story, by definition, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s just the way it is. Who would even want to read a story that doesn’t provide some sort of ending, happy or otherwise? Nobody, that’s who. So now I’ve written Saving Aleczander’s beginning, and presently I’m writing the story’s middle in more or less real time, mostly in the hope that those of you who are out there advocating your little hearts out can benefit from my experience. This story’s end continues to elude me. Just so you know.
Hope does spring eternal. To that end, we’re just about ready to file another DP request to induce ECISD to get into the business of providing Aleczander with specially designed instruction appropriate to his unique circumstances. And I do believe, as does Aleczander’s attorney, that eventually the district is going to do the right thing by this little guy. Now wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing to be able to report? Stay tuned.
Relative to the most recent lesson that I’ve learned in regards to holding the district’s feet to the fire (although, in all honesty, I haven’t actually managed to hold anybody’s feet to the fire thus far), today I’m talking about gaslighting. Gaslighting is one of those terms that as a literature major, I thought I knew a bit about; in the movie, gaslighting is this active deceptive campaign that the bad guy does in order to make the heroine of the story believe that she’s gone crazy. Which just about sums up the entirety of what I knew about gaslighting. And it also explains how, for four long years, I remained clueless as to the myriad ways in which Aleczander’s parents and I were getting gaslighted right and left. Friends, I gotta tell you, ignorance is NOT bliss, not even close.
Per Webster’s, GASLIGHTING is a psychological brainwashing technique used by sociopaths to manipulate vulnerable individuals. The truth is that school administrators, upon occasion, and special education lawyers, almost always, are going to“gaslight” parents and teachers and therapists as well as the advocates that make up ARD committees. To help you wrap your head around this concept you might want to do what I’ve done: whenever I read, hear or think the word gaslighting, I automatically re-define it to myself as, “he or she is gaslighting as in this dude is flat out lying to me.”
Working as an advocate, I have learned that is possible to be “gaslit” by some real experts when a person (me) has the temerity to go up against a public school district. If learning more about “gaslighting” interests you, then I invite you to read on. I’m fixing to provide you with examples of how I got taken in by this nefarious strategy during my forays out into “the district.” Have you ever sat in ARD meetings and done and said things that, driving home, you’ve cringed to recall them? Have you ever asked yourself, “How could I have been so stupid?” I certainly have felt that way. Even after I understood that the district was blatantly lying to us, I kept right on getting sucked down into circuitous rabbit holes during IEP meetings. Which totally answers the question as to why I’ve been unsuccessful at holding anybody out in the district’s feet to the fire in regards to providing Aleczander with any semblance of a FAPE. The truth was always there, right in front of me, but I was paying attention to the wrong things.
So what exactly is gaslighting? First let me tell you what it is not. Gaslighting isn’t a thing done in a movie by a jewelry thief husband who needs to convince his wife and all her friends that she has gone paranoid stupid crazy. Well, that is the plot in Gaslight, the movie, but gaslighting, the nasty thing that happens in ARD meetings to parents these days looks and feels significantly different.
The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie, GASLIGHT. For the purposes of today’s discussion, I’m going to go with the definition of gaslighting as a patient incremental process, implemented to cause the target to begin to doubt their own perceptions of reality. Aleczander’s parents and I walked out of the first ARD meeting that we attended together all of us feeling kinda wobbly. We didn’t know each other very well yet, and Mom and Dad still had one hundred percent respect for teachers and therapists and school principals. At the meeting, SE Director and Principal had acknowledged that Aleczander wasn’t doing so well at school, however all that they were concerned about were the behaviors associated with work refusal. To the parental concerns that Aleczander wasn’t learning to read, write, and talk like the other children, the school folks had one answer: “He has all the skills he needs, he just needs to settle down and do his work.”
So there we were, standing in the parking lot on December 17, 2015, right after the first meeting the three of us had attended together. Dad looked away, sort of shuffled his feet in apology, and sounded sheepish when he said, “I guess you can tell that Aleczander has a little behavior problem.” His words surprised me so much that I believe that I reacted by stiffening my entire body and standing up even straighter and elevating my nose as high in the air as it would go before I said, sounding perhaps even a little belligerent, “Somebody at this school has a behavior problem and it isn’t Aleczander. They still haven’t even looked at the assessment information you’re providing them. All they’ve agreed to is another evaluation report. We know what Aleczander needs, and they know what Aleczander needs, this is insane.” Bear in mind that at this point we hadn’t yet had the pleasure of getting together with the $350/hour SE lawyers. People were still acting real solicitous toward us. True, the district wasn’t providing Aleczander with any meaningful services, but they also weren’t making snide remarks about us and suggesting that we were door knob sucking crazy for even suggesting that Aleczander needed more OT, PT, and Speech, and/or that the district needed to get off their corporate duff sand put him in their dyslexia class.
Have you ever felt this way, as if you and the school folks don’t inhabit the same universe? If so, it could very well be the case that you also are being played. Keep in mind that at that first meeting, the parents and I were meeting only with the school psych, the school principal, and the director of Special Education in a second and futile attempt to get the district to consider the evaluation data that the parents had brought in. Cognitively I understood that these people are dissembling; however at that point in time, I believed that these administrators had, as they so often and facilely articulated, “Aleczander’s best interests at heart.” It was only after we began having the pleasure of SE lawyers at our ARD meetings that the serious gaslighting began.
By definition, gaslighting is used by sociopaths; abusers, dictators, narcissists, in short, actual criminal types. In my personal experience, gaslighting techniques have been employed against families with the temerity to question anything that happens at school. I want to be very clear that I’m not saying that the individuals who have demonstrably used gaslighting techniques against Aleczander, his family, and his advocate are sociopaths, abusers, dictators, or narcissists; I’m simply saying that if you look up the term gaslighting in Webster’s this is the definition that you’re going to find.
Not to sound overly cynical here, but if you check out the membership of any group of governmental agency employees—be they LSSPs, SE Directors, SE Lawyers, mayors, elected or appointed city, country, and state officials—I’m talking here about individuals paid out of taxpayer funds who regularly interact with the public, you’re going to find a few, in some cases more than a few, unscrupulous persons using gaslighting techniques in their interactions with the unsuspecting public.
At the first mediation session that I attended with Aleczander’s mother (late May 2016), she and I were the only two in the conference room on our side. Per what I had read about the process, mediation sessions typically started with both the plaintiffs (the parents) and the defendants (the school district) in the same room. The TEA mediator’s job was to begin the meeting and attempt to clarify the disagreement points between the two parties before each side would be sequestered in separate rooms with the mediator traveling from one room to another carrying offers and counter offers back and forth. Typical negotiator strategy: define the issues, and then negotiate to reach a mutually agreeable solution. Conventional wisdom is that a good mediation agreement is one in which both sides feel as if they were somewhat shortchanged, but that they have signed their names to a compromise that both can live with.
This has not happened to us in any of the three (thus far) mediation sessions that Mom, Dad, and I have attended at ECISD CO. On each occasion, the only people we saw from ECISD on mediation day were the secretaries who, thank God, are always really nice to us. Our first mediation session was held in late May 2016 as Aleczander was finishing first grade. Our disagreement points were the same that they’d always been. We wanted dyslexia therapy by an Orton-Gillingham certified teacher, speech, OT, and PT services that were specially designed to treat Aleczander’s developmental coordination disorder and modifications in all areas of the second grade curriculum such as having texts read to him and the use of an iPad or computer to voice dictate or type his written assignments. That sort of thing, nothing unreasonable. Well, there was one thing that we had added to the list of requested services that we had been seeking when we started all of this rigamarole back on December 8, 2015.
By the end of first grade, as a direct result of the way that he’d been treated at school, Aleczander had become school phobic and had developed such an alarming stutter and extreme secondary stuttering characteristics that the speech therapist who’d assessed him for us on May 13, 2016 had insisted that we get him immediately to a pediatric neurologist as the symptoms he’d developed since Bernadette and I had first assessed him on November 3, 2015 (and fortunately videotaped) were symptoms that either developed over the course of at least a few years or they were symptoms of a brain tumor. Aleczander’s symptoms had developed during the period between November 2015 when Bernadette and I tested him and May 2016, when Geneva, former ECISD employee and member of our play based assessment team, assessed Aleczander. November to May, that’s six months. Geneva was apologetic. I don’t want to scare you, but this is serious stuff, she said. And we were scared. Aleczander’s whole body contorted when he tried to talk.
Which is why, at the May 2016 mediation session, we’d added the request that ECISD pay for the pediatric neurological assessment to our list. I’d put together a short little video documenting Aleczander’s present levels of performance, beginning with about two minutes from the November 2015 video assessment report that, as far as I could tell nobody from the district had gotten around to viewing yet, and ending with less than a minute of the the May 13, 2016 speech and language sample with Aleczander struggling to speak. That video is so painful to watch that I’ve never been able to make myself look at it a second time. However, if any one of you wants to see what PTSD looks like in a child who has been mistreated by SE service providers for approximately six months in a public school, the video is posted at janisarnold.com.
At that point in time (May 2016), I was still thinking and acting as an educational diagnostician rather than a special education advocate, however I was making an effort to transform myself. One of the suggestions for a successful mediation on the TEA website advised that the parent come in with a very specific request as well as documentation as to why these services were the ones that were necessary for their child’s FAPE. Hence, we started off showing Lucius B, our mediator, our movie and our list of requested services. I also had a twenty-nine page document that went through the district’s proposed 2nd grade IEP page by page pointing out its errors. For instance, despite the fact that I’d done nothing but yammer for months about the fact that the first grade goals and objectives didn’t provide any data as to present levels of performance and included no methods for measuring growth, the district still put forth goals such as, by the end of the school year, Aleczander will read on grade level with 70% accuracy, yada, yada, yada. This is what we want, this is what he needs, and by the way, he’s not the only kid that’s getting shafted, Mom and I said. So Lucius took the flash drive with our movie and our written request and went to join the school district folks. He wasn’t gone too long, maybe thirty minutes at most. Mom and I twiddled our thumbs, and talked, not saying anything of significance because the district has a way of leaving open phone lines in conference rooms that some people in other rooms might be listening in on and I wasn’t taking any chances.
As to what the district people, who even knows who was present that day, told Lucius B that they were willing to do for Aleczander, I can’t provide any specific details. Typically the mediators carry back and forth notes on the offers and, if agreement is reached, then the mediation agreement is typed up for signatures. That mediation didn’t result in any consensus between plaintiff and defendant. I don’t think they offered us one single thing that was on our list that day. If they did, it was something so ridiculous that even Lucius was unwilling to dignify it with air time. When he returned, he walked over to Eva, took her hands in his and said, “This place is corrupt, but then they all are. And it’s not just the schools, the city, county, state, wherever the government operates, you’ll find corruption. Save Aleczander, get him out of here. Go to a charter school.”
Lucius then looked across the table to me and said, “Don’t think you’re going to fix this place in time to save this child. Do you hear what I’m telling you? Get him out of here.”
Which is a big part of the reason that, two months later, Mom and Dad enrolled Aleczander at Salem Sayers Academy. This was a private school located in the ECISD attendance area. The law states that the district is responsible for SE services for children whether or not they are enrolled in special education and whether or not they are attending the public school. That was what we were counting on. We spent the entire next school year trying to get ECISD to abide by the law. A story for another day, but suffice to say, we didn’t get jack from the district.
Now I’m going to talk about SE law, specifically IDEA. Friends, you have GOT to know specifically what the law says, if only so that you can contradict the district employees when they lie to you about the law in IEP meetings. You’ll also always want to tape record your meetings with these people, however, don’t believe that you can tape record your meetings and catch them in their lies. For those of us who operate with a moral compass this will work; however individuals who will gaslight you do not operate with the same sort of moral compass that you and I possess. In my opinion, people who will gaslight others for any reason demonstrably have no moral compass.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) includes the Child Find mandate. Child Find requires all school districts to identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities, regardless of the severity of their disabilities. This obligation to identify all children who may need special education services exists even if the school is not providing special education services to the child. The Child Find mandate applies to all children who reside within a State, including children who attend private schools and public schools, highly mobile children, migrant children, homeless children, and children who are wards of the state. (20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(3)). The District’s Child Find obligation extends to all children who are suspected of having a disability, including children who receive passing grades and are “advancing from grade to grade.” (34 CFR 300.111(c)) The law does not require children to be “labeled” or classified by their disability. (20 U.S.C. 1412(a)(3)(B); 34 CFR 300.111(d)). The primary purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is to ensure that all children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education, a FAPE, including special education and related services that are “designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living …” (20 U.S.C. 1400(d)
What happens if a school refuses to evaluate a child as had been the case with Aleczander since September 2017 to present, June 2020? For answers here we need to learn how courts have previously adjudicated cases in which, despite persistent requests from parents for an appropriate identification of disability and individualized educational treatment plan (IEP), handicapped children have been denied a FAPE. Now we’re venturing into something known as Case Law.
In the fall of 1995, a landmark case about damages under Child Find was issued by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The case is W.B. v. Matula, 67 F.3d. 484 (3rd Cir. 1995). Before E.J. entered first grade, his mother went to the school and shared concerns about her son with the school principal, Ms. Matula and others. The school did not offer any help. The mother continued to talk with school personnel, including the principal, the school nurse, the first and second grade teachers, and the guidance counselor for months. Despite the parent’s repeated requests for help, the school refused to evaluate the child.
Finally, the mother took E.J. to a private psychologist for an evaluation. The psychologist found that E.J. had several serious neurological problems. The school refused to reimburse Ms. B. for the independent evaluation that described serious problems that were affecting E.J.’s ability to learn. The school continued to stonewall, refusing to provide E.J. with any assistance.
The mother requested a due process hearing to request reimbursement for the evaluation and to force the school to help her child. When E.J. entered second grade, the school was still withholding help.
The case was appealed to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The Court found that monetary damages were available as a remedy under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and under Section 1983. The Court held that there is nothing to suggest that relief under the law is limited in any way.
The Court found that: Plaintiff, on behalf of her disabled child, seeks damages for the persistent refusal of certain school officials to evaluate, classify and provide necessary educational services.
Despite resistance by school officials and following extensive administrative proceedings, the mother ultimately succeeded in having her child evaluated, classified as neurologically impaired and provided with special education services. Plaintiffs then sued for compensatory and punitive damages incurred in the period before the school agreed to provide these services.
Despite the finding that E.J. suffered from ADHD and was thus entitled to Section 504 services, defendants did not provide them. Concerned that the evaluation had not fully assessed E.J., W.B. asked defendants to fund an independent evaluation. Defendants refused. This decision would not be complete without a comment on Mansfield’s [Board of Education] seemingly endless attacks on the parent, W.B. Evidently, Mansfield believes not only that W.B. is overly persistent, but also that she is trying to wear down the district to obtain services to which E.J. is not entitled. In my view, however, W.B. was essentially correct about the major points in dispute in these proceedings including evaluation, classification and placement.
Nonetheless, the district has consistently denied W.B.’s reasonable, appropriate, and meritorious requests related to E.J.’s education. The basic dynamic of this entire dispute is that the district has denied W.B.’s meritorious requests and W.B. has been left with no alternative to an enormously burdensome struggle in order to obtain E.J.’s rights under IDEA. In my view, the burden placed on W.B. was unnecessary, unwarranted and largely the product of the district’s unwillingness to recognize and appreciate E.J.’s neurological impairments despite ample reliable evidence thereof. Among the specific conditions a state must satisfy is the requirement that it demonstrate that “all children residing in the State who are disabled, regardless of the severity of their disability, and who are in need of special education and related services are identified, located, and evaluated.”
I’ve known many of these SE folks for years, they didn’t used to be like this. Specifically in the case of Mary E, she hired me to work at ECISD, first as a contract employee and then as a full-time educational diagnostician. We worked well together, sharing a common goal, to do the best job we could do for every single referral, and then very very gradually, that all changed. I now understand that a big part of the change came about when TEA imposed the 8.5% cap on school districts. Another negative factor, in terms of meaningful SE services for handicapped children, happened when ECISD decided to hire Walsh Anderson Gallegoes SE attorneys to the tune of $350 an hour to “Bullet Proof the District’s IEPs.” As it is said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nobody starts out to be a bad person or to do a bad job. I do believe that.
Now here’s where this analysis gets a little bit tricky. As an advocate, you’ve got to know and understand when you are being lied to. In Mary E’s case, I don’t believe that she ever “gaslit” us knowingly, although I believe that many of her statements to the parents were mendacious. The motivations of others are important for me, as an advocate, to understand, because this knowledge enables me to tailor my responses more effectively.
The first signal that an individual is gaslighting you is that, from the git go, he or she will tell blatant lies, knowing full well that you know that they are lying. The goal of these blatant lies is two-fold. Initially the miscreant, in this case the SE lawyer, is trying to intimidate you, to knock you off your game, to make you doubt your own competence. So when you say that the IDEA mandates that the district evaluate Aleczander even if he isn’t in special education a minimum of one time per year upon parent request, Mr. SE Lawyer will look you right in the eye, smile in what he no doubt believes is a charming fashion, and say, “Well, no, as a matter of the law, Aleczander is NOT entitled to a FAPE since the parents took him out of SE two years ago.” He knows that you know he’s lying, but he also knows that, in this case, he holds all the cards. This is the hallmark of an accomplished gaslighter. What are you going to do? He’s in charge, you aren’t. What you can do, and what I wish that I had done, is whip out the actual IDEA language, and the W.B. vs. Matula Case Law analysis referenced above. Shove it in his face. Insist that you be allowed to read it to the entire ARD committee. This likely won’t gain your child one single thing, but if and when you file the DP, you’ll have proof that the parent was denied services to which her child was entitled. The lawyer is betting you won’t go that far. He’s likely right, but you have got to try!
Nina P., the current ECISD SE Director, made the statement that Aleczander wasn’t entitled to a FAPE because he wasn’t enrolled in special education several times, on tape, at the 8.14.19 REED meeting that she’d invited us to on 7.31.19. In her case, I don’t know if she even understood that she was lying, of if she was simply parroting statements made by the SE Lawyer, Eric R. In terms of whether or not Nina P’s statements qualify as gaslighting, I’ll let you be the judge. For sure she was lying whether she knew what she was doing or not. And also for sure, she remains culpable for her actions. She is after all the Director of Special Education for that entire school district. Murder one, murder two, involuntary manslaughter, in the end, what does it actually matter what you label the crime? The victim is still stone cold dead.
Certainly Nina P wasn’t listening to us at the 10.4.19 DP Resolution meeting when Aleczander’s parents, this time Dad was doing most of the talking, answered the question with which Ms. P now appears to open all meetings: “This is your opportunity to tell us whatever you’d like to tell us about your child. Whatever you think we need to know. We’ve got an hour; just tell us.” At that meeting, the only us from the district was Ms. P and the Sinclair Principal, who had heard all of our assessment information discussed as I read directly from the 8.14.19 REED report that I’d prepared for the 8.14.19 meeting two months earlier. You remember that meeting? The one that Ms. P called a REED on the email that she sent the mom but the one that she failed to send the parent an invitation to, because, as she reminded us repeatedly, “He can’t have an ARD or a FAPE, because you took him out of SE two years ago.”
Feeling sort of ridiculous for saying the same things over and over again, but still game, Dad started talking. By the time Aleczander was four, his parents had taken him to early intervention specialists recommended by his doctors and knew that Aleczander had a significant medical condition that was congenital, amenable to treatment, but not curable. Aleczander was diagnosed with developmental dyspraxia before he was three. By the time he was six he had been diagnosed with dyslexia, speech impairment, and dysgraphia. As Aleczander’s dad said at the October 4, 2019 Due Process Resolution Meeting,“We’ve known since he was born that he wasn’t like other kids.” ECISD was offered the Permian Basin medical records, as well as the Odessa Public School history of previous OT, PT, and Speech services multiple times beginning in August 2013 when the parents moved into the district and tried to enroll Aleczander at ECDC in PreK. I say offered, because despite the fact that Dad went all over the school district trying to get an enrollment packet for his handicapped son, he kept coming up dry.
During the 2013-14 school year, when Aleczander was age appropriate for prekindergarten, these parents didn’t know that the district was lying to them when they were told first at the elementary school, for a second time at the central office, and finally at ECDC, ECISD’s early childhood center, that Aleczander couldn’t be enrolled in PreK because PreK was only for kids who could qualify for Medicaid. My guess is that the secretaries at Sinclair, ECDC, and Central Office didn’t know that they were lying; so technically how could they have been gaslighting? Certainly there was no way that those nice ladies who turned Aleczander away time after time could have even guessed that the district was implementing policies in direct contradiction to the IDEA. Yeah, the secretaries definitely weren’t gaslighting, but by the same token, they were being used by the SE department and yes, they were effectively lying to the parents. Aleczander, under the IDEA, was entitled to be transferred into the PreK program and he was entitled to a SE evaluation that considered his previous medical and educational history. To paraphrase a phrase that Eric R, the SE lawyer we’re hanging out with these days likes a lot, “Just as a matter of law, per the IDEA and the 1995 WB vs Matula, Aleczander is entitled to a FAPE.”
The takeaway here is that even though all people who lie to you aren’t gaslighters, it is critical that we as advocates learn to discern when we are being lied to. And especially in the case of individuals who lie to us with malicious intent (the gaslighters) as opposed to those who are simply ignorant, we’ve got to learn to come into meetings prepared with both the law and case law documentation in written form in order to get our rebuttal into the record in these ARD meetings. Yeah, ARD meetings aren’t supposed be run as if they are legal proceedings. However, in point of actual fact, once a district allows the lawyer to attend these meetings and to dictate the terms and conditions of an individualized educational program (educational treatment plan), then you’ve got a situation similar to what happens when an insurance company dictates what your doctor can and cannot suggest be done to treat your medical condition. I’m not saying that this is pretty folks, but it’s here and we have got to deal with it. Am I saying that you can no longer trust your public school? Well, the answer to that question turns out to be somewhat complicated. Yeah, you can trust at least some of them, sort of you can. But you gotta verify every single little thing that they tell you.
Stuff you need to know about how the district MAY gaslight you:
- A gaslighter lies to you knowing that you know that his statement is a bald-faced lie. This is by design. The kicker to the blatant and completely obvious lie is that once you realize that these people will lie to you about a circumstance that both you, the child, and the parent knows is a bald-faced lie, the individual in question has set up a precedent. Henceforth, regardless of the information that you already possess about the topic under discussion, you’re not going to be able to accept that anything that you are told in these meetings is true. This will keep you unsteady and off-kilter which is the gaslighter’s goal. He or she wants you to dither about, making demands that make you look both ineffective and outrageous.
- They will deny that they ever said something, even though you have proof. I.e.,you know that they said they would do something; you have them on tape and in writing promising that particular service. Now they out and out deny it. This makes you start questioning your reality—thinking that perhaps you are wrong. At that 12.17.15 ARD meeting, the Sinclair principal told us that, per Bernadette’s suggestion, she would get with the teacher and provide Aleczander with a social story about coming to school without screaming and crying that very day, so that the parents could begin reading the story to Aleczander each night before he went to bed and each morning at breakfast. Aleczander’s first grade year was not even half over at that point. Even so, the parents never saw social story number one. This situation got so bad that Mom and I cued up the tape from that meeting and listened to it again, just to make sure that we weren’t the crazy ones. We weren’t, they were. Not that it made any difference as to the FAPE Aleczander wasn’t getting. But at least we knew that we were being lied to as opposed to thinking that we were delusional.
- They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition. Gaslighters know how important your kids are to you, hence your kids will be one of the first hostages they bring into play. This is how that works: recently a parent said to me, “I know that my child (who has autism) is entitled to more speech therapy and I went and got an outside evaluation and brought it to them. But they said he’s going to middle school and those kids don’t like to leave class and go to speech so he’s going to drop back to even less speech therapy than he has this year, which my IEE says isn’t half enough. I know that’s wrong, but I’m scared. They’ve got my kids all day long. When my kids (she has twins, both AU) come home they’re upset but they don’t tell me what happened anymore.” So tell me again how this is supposed to work. The parent gets an IEE at her own expense because the IEE she gets from the district always says what the district, who is paying the outside examiner’s bill, wants it to say. The parent brings her IEE to the ARD committee and rather than consider, in her case increasing speech therapy to 3 times a week from the current 2 times per week, the ARD committee tells the parent that they’re dropping back to 1 time a week. They’re lying when they say that her sons don’t like to go to speech therapy, she knows they’re lying, but so what? They are also refusing to consider the parent’s information and allow her to participate in the IEP process, also illegal, but again, so what? The parent is afraid to confront them by even filing for mediation much less a due process, because they are holding her kids hostage. In this woman’s case, she happens to be the parent who referred Aleczander to me. She’s seen what the district did to Aleczander when the parents had the temerity to challenge the IEP. Can anyone blame her for being fearful for her children.?
- They wear you down over time. This is one of the most insidious things about gaslighting—it is done gradually, over time. A lie here, a lie there, a snide comment every so often…and then it starts ramping up. Even the brightest, most self-aware people can be sucked in by gaslighting—it is that effective. What we’re seeing here is the “frog in the frying pan” analogy: The heat is turned up slowly, so the frog never realizes what’s happening. That’s you and me. Well, for sure it’s been me. Don’t let it be you. One day I was walking out of a meeting, mad enough to spit nails, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what had just happened. That’s how good these IEP teams, led in ECISD’s case by some very adept SE lawyers, have become at gaslighting.
- Their actions do not match their words. This is a biggie and about all you can do to protect yourself is, when dealing with a person or entity that gaslights, pay attention to what they are doing rather than giving any credence to the things that they are saying. Particularly if your child is preverbal or nonverbal or, as is the case with Aleczander, has oral motor dysfluency, he’s not going to come home and provide Mom and Dad with such relevant information as: “no, the speech teacher never came and got me today, or she came but only for ten minutes, or yeah, I had speech, but there were five other kids in the room with me because she’d been in an ARD all morning so she had to make up all the Medicaid kids she missed so she could file the SHARS tickets to get reimbursement from the feds.” That’s the sort of thing you gotta watch out for.
- They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you. This person or entity that has been telling you that your son has all the skills he needs to read, write and talk like the other kids once he gets over his behavior problems is now all of a sudden praising you for something you did. This compliment is designed to create in you an uncomfortable sense of uneasiness. You’ll catch yourself walking away from the interaction thinking, “Well maybe they aren’t so bad.” Don’t even go there. Yes, they are that bad, likely they are even worse than you know. The complimentary words are part of the district’s calculated attempt to keep you off-kilter—and once again, they want you to question your own grasp on reality. You might also want to look at exactly what it is that you were praised for; more than likely it’s something that has served the purposes of the district.
- Gaslighters know that confusion weakens people. They know that people like having a sense of stability and normalcy. Their goal is to uproot this and make you constantly question everything. You know they lie. You know that your child hates school. But when they ask questions such as, “Could it be that Aleczander is tired in the morning? What time does he go to bed, and by the way, what are you feeding him?” you start to wonder if you are the problem. This happened to us when we were sitting in a meeting with the outside professional who had evaluated Aleczander, at the school expense, in February 2016. I made a big mistake there, hence my recommendation today is: don’t let the school district pay for your second opinion on your child’s disability. In my experience, these people can be just as corrupt as the district assessment professionals. When we questioned Jean K’s expert opinion that Aleczander had ADHD, not a learning disability, and Mom told the ARD committee for the umpteenth time that Aleczander never in his life has had focus and attention problems, IEE provider, outside expert, Jean K said, “Well, that’s because at home you let him do whatever he wants. At school they’re asking him to do things he doesn’t like.” I’ve sat in more ARD meetings that I can count, and I’ve got all sorts of jaw-dropper statements like that on tape, but I can’t for the life of me get over the sheer arrogance of that woman. She’d been with Aleczander for maybe 3 sessions of one to two hours each and decided that she knew him better than his own parents did. She obviously hadn’t read the report I’d written or watched the over one hour long assessment video in which he never once became inattentive or non compliant. This was one of those times where other than falling out of my chair and rolling around the floor howling in derisive laughter, I could think of no response to make. Perhaps this interaction gives you some insight into what I’ve been up against and in some way explains why I haven’t managed to get the district to provide Aleczander with the services that we asked for the first time we met with the district on his behalf. Namely, we requested 1-1 dyslexia therapy, 1-1 speech therapy, OT and PT therapy designed to treat his medical condition of developmental coordination disorder. Color me confused, just the way that the gaslighting SE attorneys want me to be.
- They project. They accuse you of doing the very thing they are doing. In this case, the profit motive is what guides the SE lawyers. Follow the money and you’ll discern a lot. These guys are not working pro bono or out of the goodness of their corporate little hearts. The lawyers working to circumvent Aleczander’s civil rights to a FAPE make $350 per hour. Yet they accuse the parents of trying to hit up the district for cash in order to profit off their son’s disability. This has been done to us so often; I can’t even tell you. It usually works. I allow myself to get sucked in and start justifying my own requests, trying to prove their legitimacy. And of course this is the goal of this particular bit of gaslighting. I get thrown off track, I find myself squirming around down in some rabbit hole, trying to defend myself, until I completely lose sight of the despicable behavior of the school district. Again, I’m being played. Not that knowing this appears to do me a whole lot of good.
- Keep in mind that gaslighters are going to work to align people against you. They are masters at manipulating and finding the people that they know will stand by them no matter what—and they will use these people against you. These sycophantic individuals will make comments such as, “Well, Aleczander can read this book at school, not sure why he can’t do it at home,” or “We’ve had three different teachers with him; no matter what we do, he keeps yelling that he needs a break, he won’t work.” Keep in mind that the fact that Ms. SE teacher/director/lawyer (you fill in the blank) reports that other people actually said these things doesn’t make them true.
- They say things about you to others that imply that you are crazy. This is one of the most effective tools of the gaslighter because it is both insulting and dismissive. The gaslighter knows that if they spread it about the school that you are unreasonable about your son’s actual present levels of performance and potential and that you have completely unrealistic expectations for your child, the rest of the school community will begin to see you as the demented mom run by the obnoxious advocate who won’t take no for an answer. Staff will come to resent the advocate, the child, and his parents for tying up the educators in all of those SE meetings. Particularly in the case of kids who aren’t keeping up with their peers and are designated as needing specially designed instruction, the school maintains an unofficial policy known as “the curse of low expectations.” During Aleczander’s first grade year, Jean K had tested him and recommended verbally, but had not written in her report, an Orton-Gillingham dyslexia program. Toward the end of that meeting, I asked her what hope she held out for the parents. Her response was quick and unbelievably cruel. “Oh, he’s in special education, he won’t read on grade level ever, those kids mostly don’t,” she said. Horrified, I asked, “Does any one of you sitting here today in this ARD meeting have anything to say about that statement?” Nobody did. I rest my case.