PARENTS, YOU MUST CREATE A PAPER TRAIL BEFORE YOU HIRE AN ADVOCATE, OTHERWISE YOU’RE JUST SPINNING YOUR WHEELS
Lots of things that school districts get up to these days don’t pass the smell test but few of the actions taken by school district employees and special education lawyers are so egregious, so blatantly against the law, and so obvious as to produce a paper trail of criminality that can be utilized in legal proceedings. This is an important point for those of us working as advocates to remember. The fact that an action, or a refusal to act, is clearly wrong doesn’t make it illegal. And, if what the school has done or failed to do for a child is illegal (the district has committed one or more procedural violations of the child’s right to a FAPE), then we, as advocates, have got to do more than simply rail against the injustice of it all. We’ve got to be prepared to go into court and prove our allegations, piece by piece, step by step. To accomplish this goal, we’ve got to have the child’s parents working cooperatively with us.
Parents, you must document every communication that occurs with your child’s educational providers. Get yourself a three-ring binder, a three-hole punch, a printer that makes copies, and log and file your child’s educational records every single day. Period, full stop, end of sentence. Regardless of any child’s unique circumstances, parents cannot employ an advocate to help them obtain a FAPE for a child if the parents are unable to provide the advocate with the material that she needs to work with.
I’m not just talking report cards and the parent copy of the FIE and the Initial ARD and mom and dad’s recollections of all the things that this or that teacher said at some time in the distant and not so distant past. The report cards and SE progress reports will get the parents in my front door. The parents and I will talk for one, two, or even three hours as I learn all about their child’s situation. At the end of our meeting, no matter how much we connect and how sympathetically I feel toward a child’s school situation, I’m going to say this to the parents: “I need documentation collated by date in a binder before I can do anything at all for you. When you have these materials ready, call me and we’ll look over them together, still without charge. After that, we’ll decided how to go forward.”
I’m not going to even guess how many times that I’ve walked a parent to my front door saying some variation of this spiel, not to ever hear from them a second time. I don’t think this is because the parent can’t be bothered, if that were the case, I’d never have heard from them in the first place. I think most parents just become as beaten down by the corrupt system as their kids do. They give up and I don’t blame them. Fighting city hall has never, in my experience, been more difficult.
Bringing a school district to account for FAPE violations becomes increasingly difficult with every year that the child sits in public school classrooms. Kids having trouble learning to read and write are almost invariably labeled by the school system as behaviorally troubled. That way the child’s failure is on the child, not the school. We saw this very clearly in Aleczander’s case.
From the first FIE, to the IEE, and lastly to the REED/EVALUATION just completed (8.14.19) ECISD continues to write that Aleczander has “no known medical condition that would indicate a need for SE” even though they have an 11.1.16bOHI eligibility report from Dr. Tomasovic documenting the fact that Aleczander has a congenital medical condition–developmental coordination disorder–that causes his dyslexia, dysgraphia, and oral motor disfluency. At ECISD’s most recent assessment appointments (March 2020) they once again evaluated him for ADHD and ignored Dr. Henry’s September 2019 OHI Disability report noting developmental coordination disorder NOT ADHD. This has got to be deliberate, surely they aren’t this stupid. Or are they? You decide. Even if they are, we certainly are not.
Aleczander’s first IEP goal, written at the end of kindergarten after he had been qualified for SE services in the area of speech, was: “Aleczander will keep his hands and feet to himself.” The takeaway here: if he’d start talking and quit running away and kicking and hitting when pinned down, the school would be real happy with him. Nine weeks into his special education program, the SE teacher documented this progress on the behavioral goal that Aleczander would keep his hands and feet to himself: “Aleczander is making progress on this goal. He no longer screams and runs away, he just sits at his desk and cries.” If this doesn’t turn your stomach, then I don’t know what else I can say to you. In my mind, SE and ECISD are documenting actual institutional child abuse. Bear in mind that Aleczander, at that time, was unable to produce a single word that anyone other than his mother could understand. Yet they continued to yammer at him to “use his words” and to plop him into time out when he “refused to do his work.”
Almost without exception after I meet with a parent the first time and request collated records, I never see or hear from that particular parent again. Perhaps, having assembled their evidence, they’ve presented it at an IEP meeting and obtained the services they believe that their child needs. That’s my best case scenario, and I’m sure that in some cases this has actually occurred. I don’t even want to consider what other outcomes might have been.
Assuming that you, the parent, do want to get improved SE services for your child, creating the paper trail/documentation is not just a way to start, it is the only way to start. This isn’t all that hard, however, it is a pain in the butt. Most likely you’ll be able to put your hands on the report cards, the IEP progress reports, the speech FIE, that sort of thing. If not then you can request copies from your child’s case manager at school and get them that way.
This is a start, however you can’t stop here. When I talk records/paper trail, I’m referencing seemingly irrelevant items such as the copy of the notes you’ve written and dated on the daily report card that you signed and sent back to school last Thursday. On your child’s daily report, you noted that when you picked up your child, his teacher told you ‘he had a good day today,’ although the daily report in his backpack stated that your son had refused to do the story problems in math, answer the questions at the end of the social studies chapter, or write his spelling words three times each and that even after he sat in detention for both recesses with his classwork in front of him, he didn’t get his work done to the teacher’s satisfaction which is why, in addition to his homework, he had extra social studies and math problems to do with mom and dad that night. And on yeah, these comments were written by the SE teachers who went into the classroom every so often to modify his work per the IEP.
I’m talking about your written documentation of the conversation that you had with the teacher telling her that he was having trouble with his homework as he couldn’t write the letters of the alphabet without your help so it was taking you forever every single night to help him write 20 spelling words such as doctor three times each.
Or the time when you said, “he can’t even say the word doctor,” and the speech therapist replied, “He has all the sounds he needs, he just needs to slow down and stretch out his words.” That sort of communication is what is needed to prove that your child has been denied a FAPE. TEA examiners and hearing officers have consistently ruled, “if it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen.” Write your stuff down!
In Aleczander’s case, I have all of these conversations taped, which means I can produce the actual words of the ECISD staff members at our next DP hearing. I have this information because his mother and I were up at the school almost weekly from December 17, 2015 through July 2, 2017 meeting with IEP team members and we taped and subsequently transcribed every single meeting. My guess is that for most of you, you’re not stuck in a district that has so dismantled its special education program that it is in chronic coverup mode and that as soon as you go in and ask for specific services you’re likely going to get them. Still, even in the best districts, there are more kids that need, for example, the dyslexia program than there are spots in the program. So, even if you’ve voted with your feet, you can’t allow yourself to become complacent. You gotta do your homework.
How do you get around institutional malfeasance? Think, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and know whereof you speak. And yeah, I recognize that these are cliches however, I’m sort of addicted to cliches! Become the expert on your child’s disability and the educational services that have been proven to address the related educational challenges. For example, dyslexia studies going back to the 1930’s document the efficacy of Orton-Gillingham methodology. In Aleczander’s case this meant that his parents and I had to learn everything there is to know about dyslexia and dysgraphia and the Orton-Gillingham programs that ameliorate these specific learning disabilities. We also had to learn all we could about case law as it relates to these specific handicapping conditions. If you allow the school to understand upfront that you know what your child needs to address his academic challenges related to his SLD, it is highly likely that you’re going to get what you ask for without having to drag in an advocate. Here’s hoping anyway . . .
Whatever the case, create and keep those records. All of this information will help you make the case, should you ever need to, that your child was not benefitting from general education and was clearly in need of specially designed instruction and that the school, with all of its educational professionals, should have responded differently. This will only accrue to your child’s benefit if you, the parent, have created and maintained a paper trail of all communications between home and school since day one when you first suspected that your child wasn’t learning as easily and effortlessly as his peers. Approximately 15% of American children have learning challenges, most of those learning disabilities are mild and can be ameliorated if, and this is a very big if, if they are appropriately addressed in a timely fashion.
Your paper trail, your record of interactions with district personnel, your notes about what the teacher said as well as wrote, will enable you to function effectively as the expert on your child and his educational needs. Hopefully, your advocacy for your child will never get to the point where you have to sue anybody. From personal experience, I can tell you that the more informed the parent is about educational services and the ways in which their child is or is not responding to general educational methods, materials, and instruction, the more likely it is that their children will get the very best that a school has to offer. Trust, but verify; the days when you can assume that the teachers know what they are doing and that they have your child’s best interests at heart are long gone. Services do get rationed. Don’t believe me?—stay tuned. I’m going to tell you one quick story and one not so quick story to illustrate this very point.
On December 17, 2015, I first asked ECISD (the SE Director, the school principal, and the LSSP) for Aleczander to be either enrolled in the dyslexia reading class or, failing availability of space in his school’s dyslexia classroom, that the district send him to the Winston School for Orton-Gillingham instruction. Today, June 3, 2020, I’m still requesting this service and ECISD is still telling me that they don’t know if Aleczander is actually handicapped and qualifies for SE services. Sounds sort of unbelievable doesn’t it?
Suppose I also tell you that on December 17, 2015, Aleczander had two SE teachers, both of whom said that he was making more than a year’s worth of growth on his SE goals and objectives and that he didn’t need dyslexia services.
Suppose I told you that in April 2016, ECISD’s dyslexia assessment team told us that Aleczander had no cognitive strengths, therefore he wouldn’t benefit from dyslexia academic therapy
Suppose that you were told that, two weeks later, ECISD produced a Dyslexia Addendum, authored by the ECISD Lead LSSP who analyzed Aleczander’s ECISD May 2015 FIE which reported that Aleczander had no cognitive weaknesses, no academic strengths and no need for SE services, and AIM’s IEE (February 2016) which stated that Aleczander had a cognitive profile containing a pattern of strengths and weaknesses indicating specific learning disabilities in reading and writing consistent with his academic weaknesses and concluded that Aleczander couldn’t have any learning disabilities because he had ADHD (this medical condition not having been diagnosed at that time nor at any time subsequently).
Suppose I told you at the ARD meeting where the AIM LSSP explained her findings she stated that Aleczander clearly needed Orton-Gillingham instruction however she doubted that he’d ever read on grade level because he was “in special ed and those kids mostly don’t read on grade level.” Or that, when pressed, the AIM LSSP refused to add the Orton-Gillingham recommendation to her 22 page written report.
Continuing in this malfeasance, the school’s LSSP, when asked what she thought of the IEE provider’s diagnosis, recommendations, or prognosis for Aleczander’s future academic success, stated “I think he’s been tested enough and you just need to move on.” What a moral coward she was. Especially in light of the fact that after the 12.17.15 IEP meeting where she and I first met, she’d told me that this was her first year at the district, that she was applying elsewhere already and implored me “not to get her in trouble with these people.” Would that I could have been anywhere near that effective.
Suppose you learn that in April 2016 ECISD’s Lead LSSP, now the SE Evaluation Specialist at Region 20, after writing and stating that Aleczander has dyslexia, stated that Aleczander did not qualify for ECISD SE services as a student with a specific learning disability? Suppose I tell you that the Lead LSSP was promoted to an administrative position at Central Office the next fall. “I have an office with a window,” she proudly reported. Yeah, I know gag me with a gnat, this stuff is disgusting.
Suppose that you have been told that in October 2016, the SE Director stated during an ARD meeting that ECISD does NOT put dyslexia in special education paperwork? Imagine that you learn that, after being provided with federal regulations noting that “there is nothing in the IDEA that would allow dyslexia to be excluded from special education services” at that ARD meeting, the Lawyer, LSSP, and Director recessed for fifteen minutes and returned to the ARD meeting announcing that Aleczander could have “one dyslexia goal.” Not an Orton Gillingham program that provided sequential research-based instruction for 45 minutes five times a week, just a SE goal that said, “by the end of the twelve month period Aleczander will read a level one dyslexia book with no more than four errors on three out of five trials.” Suppose I tell you that the ECISD administrative team was outraged to learn that neither the parent nor I wanted the SE teacher to use the dyslexia teacher’s books without any training in the methodology. Especially as this was the same teacher who had put her own kids in the dyslexia classroom rather than the SE classroom while assuring us that “Aleczander is making more than a year’s worth of progress” even though Aleczander was exiting first grade still unable to read at the PreKindergarten level. We just couldn’t gin up our confidence.
Suppose that I can prove each and every one of these verbal interactions as they all occurred during recorded meetings? Suppose I tell you that each action and refusal to act (in this case to provide Aleczander with dyslexia therapy) is clearly illegal? You’d be justified in concluding that, after being advised of their obvious malfeasance at multiple IEP meetings attended by the ECISD SE lawyer making $350 / hour, EICSD would have offered Aleczander the dyslexia services available on his campus. Definitely that was what I assumed, and assumed, and kept on assuming.
Sadly, you’d be as dead wrong in your assumptions as I was in mine. To this day, ECISD continues to insist that they have no way of knowing whether or not Aleczander has any handicapping conditions necessitating specialized instruction. They continue to refuse to provide the parent with feedback about the test results from the evaluations (LSSP, Speech, OT, PT, Dyslexia) that the district conducted on six days in March 2020. They have yet to incorporate any of the parent assessment information provided to the twelve ECISD IEP team members, including the lawyer, assembled at the 8.14.19 REED/EVALUATION meeting attended by the parent and the advocate.
Think these people are just incompetent? Might I respectfully suggest to you that you think again. As the pediatric neurologist, Dr. Jerry Tomasovic, who assessed Aleczander on September 11, 2016 said and wrote, “anyone at the school district who tells you that Aleczander doesn’t need specially designed instruction isn’t misinformed or mistaken, he or she is lying to you.”
During Aleczander’s first grade year (2015-16) simultaneously as ECISD’s SE teachers were assuring Aleczander’s parents that their son was doing “just fine”, the ECISD SE teacher chairing Aleczander’s IEP team meetings had both of her own personal children enrolled in the dyslexia program at Sinclair Elementary. Now I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to believe that a certified special education teacher, rated highly qualified by ECISD, whose own two sons were during that exact same school year sitting in the school’s dyslexia classroom, didn’t know or understand that Aleczander had dyslexia and also needed “specially designed instruction.” I think she wasn’t misinformed or mistaken, she was lying.
The long and short of it is that we can document ECISD’s malfeasance. What we are asking for is reasonable and in line with the multiple privately obtained assessment reports the parents have provided to the district. Yet our last communication from the ECISD SE Director read, “Due to the global pandemic ECISD has been unable to complete the Initial FIE of your son and will be in touch with you after the pandemic ends. In the meantime, perhaps general education might have some suggestions for you.”
My Aleczander binders now number eleven . . . .see photo above. As ever, we fight on.