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Monday, February 28, 2011

Tip 4: Become Familiar with Rating Scales

Tip 4: Become Familiar with Rating Scales

In evaluating a child, school staff may recommend one or more “rating scales” as part of a triennial evaluation, or sometimes to screen for whether a disability exists at all. Over the years, I have learned that these can produce results that are either incomplete or misleading, unless you have a working knowledge of them. This can impact your legal case under the IDEA if you ultimately want to challenge the evaluation, identification or progress of your child’s special education program.

What is a rating scale?

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a rating scale “is one of the oldest and most versatile of assessment techniques. Rating scales present users with an item and ask them to select from a number of choices. The rating scale is similar in some respects to a multiple choice test, but its options represent degrees of a particular characteristic.” I have seen a number of different types of rating scales that assess a wide variety of behaviors, feelings, skills, or traits in students, and the presence or absence of certain symptoms of a disability. Most that I have seen have one form or checklist for the parent(s) to fill out, and one for the teacher(s) to fill out. Some also have self-reports for the student to complete, where appropriate.

Rating Scales are often seen as a less “invasive” way of assessing or screening a student.

A lot of my clients are concerned about how much testing their children are put through, especially during triennial evaluations. Therefore, it is a relief to many of them to know that part of the evaluation process can be completed by them and the teachers, rather than subjecting the student to another few hours of sometimes difficult testing. This is especially true for kids who are prone to anxiety, or whose learning disabilities make writing and reading a struggle. Believe me, I am all for making things easier for students with special education needs who are already frustrated in school. But you want to make sure that the results of any assessments are reliable.

As a special education attorney, my red flags start waving when I see the following occur in the administration of Rating Scales:

• Not administering the parent form: often I will review an evaluation conducted by a school district that draws conclusions based on the results of the Rating Scales filled out by the student’s teachers, but the Parent version of the test was never given to the parents. If this occurs, ask the IEP Team if there is a Parent form, and if so, why you were not asked to fill it out.

• Not giving the right teachers the scales: if the parents are asking that the child be evaluated for a reading disability, as an example, how useful is having the forms filled out by the music or physical education teacher? Or, if the issue is whether the student’s ADHD interferes with his ability to stay on-task in a mainstream classroom, what information is gleaned from giving the rating scale to the Resource Room teacher only?

• Drawing broad conclusions about differences between the parent and teacher reports: it is very common, in my experience, that a student acts differently at home than at school, or that a kid who is feeling academically inadequate comes home upset after “holding it together” all day for the teachers. Just because parents and school staff come up with different answers does not invalidate either report. Yet, unfortunately I routinely read school evaluations which openly question the honesty of parent reports if they are discrepant from the teacher reports.

Research whatever tests your school wants to administer so that you are equipped to understand the results.

Just like all types of assessment tools, Rating Scales can be useful and informative, if they are properly administered. But, just like everything else, they are always subject to both innocent human error, and intentional misrepresentation.

Tip 3: Be Suspicious of Hard and Fast Rules on Eligibility

Tip 3: Be Suspicious of Hard and Fast Rules on Eligibility

This tip is something to consider at all times, but especially when an IEP Team is deciding whether or not a student is eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA. Far too often, I will review a file or talk to a parent, only to learn that a number of issues have presented themselves over the years in a child’s educational performance or behavior, many of which should have triggered an IEP Meeting to ascertain eligibility. Sometimes, such meetings have even been held, but eligibility has been ruled out because the child did not get a certain score on a test chosen by the school district.

Remember, there is no “litmus test” for any of the eligibility categories under the IDEA.

Believe me, life would be much easier for most of my clients if all that was necessary to figure out whether or not their child had one disability versus another was as simple as peeing on a stick, but that isn’t the world we live in. There is no blood test for dyslexia; no urinalysis for autism. Yes, some cases present themselves clearly as to what the disability is, but more often than not, a student is presenting with a number of strengths and weaknesses (and sometimes different ones at school than at home) and the adults are all just trying to figure it out.

The law prohibits the use of a “one test” rule when evaluating a child with a disability.

In the description of how to conduct evaluations, the IDEA requires that school districts use “a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information, including information provided by the parent,” and that in so doing, the school can not “use any single measurement or assessment as the sole criterion for determining whether a child is a child with a disability or determining an appropriate educational program for the child.” 20 USC 1414(b) (emphasis supplied)

This means that schools are not supposed to be using arbitrary numbers and cut-offs to determine eligibility or to design programs.

Despite this prohibition, I routinely hear from parents that these “rules” are cited as the reason to deny services, though candidly it doesn’t often happen in my presence. Usually, school district lawyers are smart enough not to allow their clients to sit in a meeting with me and say “oh, yes, it’s true that he’s really struggling with reading and that his teacher and parents both referred him for an IEP, but he was 3 points off on the Woodcock Johnson to qualify!” But not always; I have heard many similar comments.

Is is essential to consider the totality of the circumstances when determining whether a child is entitled to special education and related services.

Some kids do not fit “neatly” into one eligibility category or another, and that’s one of the reasons we consider the individual child’s strengths and weaknesses. And often, if such a child falls short of qualifying under another category, many IEP Teams will consider finding the child eligible as “Other Health Impaired” (OHI), which many consider the “catchall” category under the IDEA for those students who clearly need the special education instruction but may not have a full blown diagnosis in one of the more common categories.

If your school district is basing major decisions on one test, your red flags should start going up.

When you attend your child’s IEP meeting, whether to consider eligibility, review eligibility as a triennial, or decide how to provide services, make sure you understand what the basis is for the decision-making, and that it includes a variety of assessment tools as required by law.

Oh, and PS: this tip goes ten-fold if you’re being told that the school won’t even convene an IEP Meeting or conduct an evaluation based on the results of one test!

Tip 2: Don’t Compare Apples and Oranges

I am by no means a psychiatrist, psychologist, school psychologist, special education teacher, or related service provider. I am not licensed or trained in administering any of the test typically given to students with disabilities in our public schools. However, over the many years I have been representing children with special education needs in my Connecticut law office, I have learned that there are a lot of ways in which a student’s needs and progress can be misunderstood if evaluations are not properly interpreted.

When it comes to reviewing school evaluations, question authority!

The most common times for students with special needs to be evaluated by school districts are 1) when determining initial eligibility under the IDEA, and 2) for “triennial” testing under the IDEA, which is required at least every 3 years for students who have been identified as requiring an IEP. For parents of those children, reviewing the results of the school district testing can be overwhelming, especially if they do not have any background or experience in reviewing such evaluation results.

In my experience, schools are able to take advantage of a parents’ ignorance on how to interpret evaluation results.

It is therefore essential that you become as familiar as possible with the different types of evaluation instruments that your school district might use to assess your child, and to be prepared for the ways in which your school district might interpret them differently than you might. There are thousands of different tests out there that could be used to test a child with disabilities, and no, I don’t expect you to become an expert on all of them. As a reminder, if you feel that your child’s needs are being dramatically misunderstood by the school staff who are testing your child, it might be time to consider an Independent Educational Evaluation.

In the interim, here are some important things to pay attention to when attending your child’s IEP at which evaluation results are being reviewed:

Tip 2: Don’t Compare Apples and Oranges

The IDEA requires that students with special education needs be evaluated at least every three years (referred to as a “triennial” evaluation), or more often if the performance or behavior of the student indicates that reassessment is necessary. The problem I often see is that, by the time a triennial or other reassessment is indicated, a new team is working with the student, and that group may or may not “prefer” the specific instruments that had been previously administered.

When re-evaluations are reviewed, be cautious about comparing the results to previous testing unless the same instrument was used in the last assessment.

There are variations among instruments that can impact the results of testing in such as way as to make comparisons useless. As an example, if a student had been previously given a WIAT to assess academic skills, and the school district uses a Woodcock Johnson achievement test three years later to measure academic skills, my understanding is that while there are some comparisons that can be reached, these two tests are different enough that a “pure” analysis as to progress can not necessarily be made.

If the purpose of a re-evaluation is at least in part to measure progress, it is essential that you are comparing apples to apples.

There are a lot of good reasons why a particular test may not be re-administered to a student. Some tests can not be repeated within a certain period of time, either due to the protocols of the test (e.g. concerns about a “practice effect”) or because a student’s age or grade placement make re-administering the same instrument impossible. Those are perfectly acceptable reasons not to use the same instrument.

My concern is not with considered judgments as to why a different tool should be used this time around; rather, I worry about arbitrary decisions to use “what we have.”

What I often see are school psychologists or special education teachers who are more comfortable with some tests over others, and they just give those instruments because they prefer them. Or, at least as often, kids are assessed using the tests that the school has purchased and which are available to the evaluators, rather than buying a new instrument because it might be more appropriate for the student in question.

Familiarity with, or access to, a particular instrument should not be the deciding factor in determining which evaluative tools to use to assess current special education needs.

My practical tip to parents is this: when your school district proposes a re-evaluation, take a look at the tests last performed, whether obtained privately or by the school. If you don’t have them with you, don’t stop there: ask some questions!

Most importantly, ask how the proposed instruments differ from the last set of testing, and why.

Special education evaluations are confusing. If you can find a way to measure your child’s progress by comparing their current level of performance to a baseline obtained on the same instrument previously given, it will be far easier to understand how he or she is doing.

And from proper evaluations, flow appropriate programs.

Tip 1: Be Wary of Broad or Composite Scores: Pay Attention to the Subtests

Top 5 Tips for Reviewing School Evaluations: Tip 1

Published on July 8, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

I am by no means a psychiatrist, psychologist, school psychologist, special education teacher, or related service provider. I am not licensed or trained in administering any of the test typically given to students with disabilities in our public schools. However, over the many years I have been representing children with special education needs in my Connecticut law office, I have learned that there are a lot of ways in which a student’s needs and progress can be misunderstood if evaluations are not properly interpreted.

When it comes to reviewing school evaluations, question authority!

The most common times for students with special needs to be evaluated by school districts are 1) when determining initial eligibility under the IDEA, and 2) for “triennial” testing under the IDEA, which is required at least every 3 years for students who have been identified as requiring an IEP. For parents of those children, reviewing the results of the school district testing can be overwhelming, especially if they do not have any background or experience in reviewing such evaluation results.

In my experience, schools are able to take advantage of a parents’ ignorance on how to interpret evaluation results.

It is therefore essential that you become as familiar as possible with the different types of evaluation instruments that your school district might use to assess your child, and to be prepared for the ways in which your school district might interpret them differently than you might. There are thousands of different tests out there that could be used to test a child with disabilities, and no, I don’t expect you to become an expert on all of them. As a reminder, if you feel that your child’s needs are being dramatically misunderstood by the school staff who are testing your child, it might be time to consider an Independent Educational Evaluation.

In the interim, here are some important things to pay attention to when attending your child’s IEP at which evaluation results are being reviewed:

Tip 1: Be Wary of Broad or Composite Scores: Pay Attention to the Subtests

Many instruments will have a number of subtests, which are then added up and averaged to provide a “broad” or “composite” score. That score can be informative, but it doesn’t always give the full picture. Many times I will attend an IEP meeting for a client at which evaluations are being reviewed, and the person responsible for reporting the results will “gloss over” subtest results that are of grave concern. They will call them a “relative weakness,” and sometimes, they won’t even list the subtest results in the written report.

If subtest results are not included in your child’s evaluation results, ask for them.

And even if they ARE included, inquire as to their meaning. I can’t assure you that the answers you’ll get will be as comprehensive as you might want, but at least you will begin to understand what the school is measuring. A good way of inquiring about subtest results that are particularly discrepant from other scores is to ask “how would this impact him in a classroom?” I know that the cynic in me, and maybe you, is thinking that the person who administered the test will say “it doesn’t” or “don’t worry about that one,” but when you ask open ended questions like that of professionals who administer these tests, you’d be surprised at how much information you can get.

All individuals have strengths and weaknesses, but be wary of attempts by your district to “average out” subtests that stand out from the rest.

The best example I can give on this, and one which I’ve seen far too often, is what I have seen happen a number of times in cases in which a reading disability is suspected. In these cases, the parents are expressing concerns that their child might have dyslexia, as an example, and the school is either taking the position that the student does not have the disorder, or that they do but that they are making great progress with the services being provided by the district.

To assess the situation, the student has been given an academic achievement test, like the Woodcock Johnson or the WIAT.

When a student with a high IQ and a reading disability is given such a test, often I see a profile where the reading comprehension score is high, but the decoding skill is low. So, let’s say you have a 4th grade student who has a Very Superior IQ, and on the decoding subtest they score at the 1st grade level, but on the comprehension subtest they score as an 8th grader. To get the average of these subtests you might add 8th grade level to 1st grade level, and divide by two, resulting in a “broad reading” score of 4.5 grade level. And yet, this is still a fourth grade child who decodes at the 1st grade level.

It might take this kid an hour to read a paragraph, but when he does so, he understands it.

Unfortunately, the way this “plays out” at an IEP meeting is that the person who administered the evaluation says: “his reading score is actually right on target, he’s solidly within the fourth grade level! Of course, his decoding is a relative weakness, but we’re working on that.” What parent would know enough to understand that, in fact, the key deficit of reading decoding remains 3 grade levels behind?

5 Tips for Reviewing School District Evaluations

5 Tips for Reviewing School District Evaluations

There are few aspects of special education that are more confusing than understanding school district testing. Reading and listening to the results of assessments can give you the sudden impression that you have been air-dropped into a college statistics course for which you’ve done none of the reading! Even I feel that way sometimes, and I have read thousands of evaluation reports over the years, not to mention having benefited from listening to some of the premier experts in various disabilities testify and present at conferences. But these reports are as important to your child’s education as they are complex. Hopefully, these tips will help you get started.

Tip 1: Pay Attention to Subtests

Tip 2: Don’t Compare Apples to Oranges

Tip 3: Be Suspicious of Strict Rules on Eligibility

Tip 4: Learn About Rating Scales

Tip 5: Use the Right Assessment Tool

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Liar”

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Liar”

Published on June 20, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Liar”

Let me start by saying that, while I have unfortunately seen my share of dishonesty on the part of many IEP Team Members over the many years I have been practicing special education law on behalf of children, usually it comes in the form of misleading comments, convenient omissions, or minor misrepresentations when the individual feels cornered by the parent or the special education director. This isn’t the type of dishonesty I am talking about when I refer to The Liar.

The Liar is blatantly dishonest, willing to not only switch positions 180° from what he told the parents privately to what he says in the IEP Meeting, but to deny ever having taken the opposite position in the first place.

It is extremely difficult for me to sit still when I witness The Liar slither around an issue of dispute at an IEP Team Meeting, but my discomfort does not even compare to the reaction my clients have. Connecticut being a small State, I can at least sometimes warn my clients in advance if I know I’m walking into a meeting with a notorious Liar. “Don’t lose your cool,” I’ll tell them, “just write me a note giving me the truth, or tell me we need to step out into the hallway to talk.” Even with these warnings, I sometimes have to physically prevent some of my clients from jumping out of their seats and yelling “YOU ARE SUCH A LIAR!!!”

When I talk to new clients, or to people outside of the special education legal community, and tell them that there are serious Liars working in our public schools, they sometimes don’t believe me.

Sometimes I’ll be on the phone with a prospective client, who will say “even the special education teacher told me that she completely agreed that he needs 1:1 speech therapy.” And after getting the details of the exchange (estimated date, name of the teacher, context of discussion, where it took place) I will usually say “well, that’s good to know, and I hope she is willing to admit that publicly or under oath.” When the response is “well, you don’t think she’d lie about it do you, that’s exactly what she told me!” a part of me winces. I tell them that I am jaded and cynical, and I really hope I’m wrong, but that I see it all the time.

When “push comes to shove,” when a statement is made to a parent that could genuinely harm the school district’s case, in my experience, the person who made denies it 90% of the time.

Now, don’t get me wrong; parents can lie too, and I’ve had a few experiences over the years where I’ve discovered that it was my own client who was the source of dishonesty. When that has happened, I’ve often terminated my representation of them. In addition, there are misunderstandings in life. Sometimes a caring teacher will make a comment to a parent like “I understand why you think he needs to be in a private placement,” and in fact, she does. That does not necessarily mean that the teacher believes the school district’s program is inappropriate.

Yet, when a school district is exposed to potential litigation, all bets are off, and flat-out lying does occur.

I have been doing this long enough to know the kinds of questions to ask, and to get a feel for people; not always, but most of the time, I can tell if someone is lying to me. In addition, I sometimes represent a number of children within the same district, even within the same program in the same district. So when I am at one IEP Meeting and the staff is telling the parents that none of the other students in the class use augmentative communication devices, and I happen to have a client in that very classroom who uses an augmentative communication device, I KNOW they are lying.

Thankfully, the full-fledged Liars are in the minority in our public schools, but they do real harm.

It really is an outrage, and it is part of why I tell parents to document all important discussions they have with the school district staff. I can’t tell you how many parents I have witnessed undergo shock and disappointment when they hear the school staff lie to their faces at an IEP Team Meeting. Worse still is the realization that someone who is working with their child is willing to outright deny their conversations with them.

The truth is, if you are unwilling to be honest about the needs of children with disabilities, you have no business working with them.

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Cheerleader”

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Cheerleader”

Published on June 8, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Cheerleader”

So, a parent of a child with special education needs arrives at an IEP meeting with a list of serious concerns. Not infrequently, their child is struggling, and the parents’ disagreements with the program are significant. There may even be severe academic or behavioral regression at the time of the meeting. Sometimes the parents have even retained an advocate or a special education attorney to represent them at the meeting.

I ask, is this the right time for a cheerleader?

An IEP cheerleader is a school district employee who takes it upon themselves to focus exclusively on what they see as the positives of the school in general, or the special education programs in the district in particular. Usually an IEP Cheerleader is not trying to cause harm or even to openly disagree with the parents. They are just remarkably upbeat people who are faithful to their “team.” In this case, however, the “team” is not necessarily the IEP Team, but rather, the school district itself.

Loyalty is nice, but for many of my clients, an honest assessment of how their child with special needs is performing would be preferred.

As I have mentioned before, in my experience as a special education attorney in Connecticut for over a decade, parents of children with disabilities are not fabricating their child’s needs for special education services. In fact, having to admit that their child is in serious need of help is difficult for any parent. Therefore, it is at best dismissive, and at worst insulting, to respond to a parents’ pleas for help with a sunny “really, he does that at home? We NEVER see him try to hurt himself here! He always seems so HAPPY!”

It would be useful if school district staff would take a moment to imagine what it must be like to be in the parents’ position, before they make assumptions, or even comments.

Like in any other aspect of life, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can dramatically change the way you look at a situation. Unfortunately, The IEP Cheerleader seems incapable of such perspective.

The worst example of this I have ever experienced was a principal whose bubbly personality was only matched by her equally sparkly MASSIVE rhinestone teddy bear pin that said “HUG ME!” As she sat in that IEP meeting, with a plastered on smile and her pin glistening, my client shared the heartbreaking news of the serious mental illness which had swiftly taken over his child’s life, leading to the current psychiatric hospitalization. Even the school district’s lawyer looked on the verge of tears.

And yet the cheerleader, loyal as ever, chose to interject “we have a really WONDERFUL alternative program here for kids who have mental problems!”

I should have known that someone who was genuinely compassionate would not require a flashy pin to advertise it, but still…

It is difficult not to feel outrage when you are seriously concerned about your child’s special education program, and The IEP Cheerleader sugar-coats all that is worrisome and glorifies your child’s few successes. My only suggestion is to ignore this person; they are usually as harmless as they are clueless.

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Riddler”

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Riddler”

Published on June 1, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Riddler”

This can be any member of the staff or administration, who has been withholding pertinent information from the parents of a child with special education needs until the Annual Review IEP Meeting, or worse, until the parents have brought in a special education lawyer or advocate. The Riddler has chosen not to share this important information with the parents until they are asked a direct question, or until doing so benefits them directly.

I am always disgusted when I am sitting in an end-of-the-year IEP meeting with a family, and the school staff begin reporting on the child’s present levels of performance, and the Riddler makes a statement like “he’s been very impulsive and off task this year. It got a little bit better right before Christmas, and then when he returned from vacation it got worse again. We have accommodated it and right now it’s getting a bit better. Have there been any changes in medication?”


Instead I might make a general comment about how disappointed the parents are to just be learning about this, and that it is difficult for them to support the program at home if we aren’t made aware of what is happening in school. Then I ask that our concerns be noted in the minutes, if they are being maintained. I am not a big believer in having factual disputes at IEP Team Meetings. There is no “third party” (like a Hearing Officer or Judge) there to determine who is right and who is wrong, so it is really best to just make your record of disputes and, if agreement can’t be reached, move on to the next level. The Riddler makes this policy hard to follow, because it is just so illogical to go an entire year without telling the child’s parents what is going on.

I am often torn as to whether The Riddler is being lazy, mean, or both.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the motive is, the result is that distrust has now been solidified between the parents and the school district because the parents rightly feel that they are not being apprised of what is happening in their child’s program. How can a parent resist the temptation to constantly monitor their child’s special education program going forward, when they have learned that they will not be given the courtesy of being informed about how they’re doing until it’s too late?

What is even worse is when parents are not informed about resources available in the district from which their child might benefit.

This one really infuriates me, and even more so my clients, and with good reason. Unfortunately, I have had many situations arise where a family has been asking for a particular type of program for a long time, sometimes repeatedly and in writing, and their requests have been either ignored or refused. Then, they hire me and suddenly we learn that the very type of program the parents have been asking for exists right there in the school district, but the Riddler on the IEP Team did not disclose it to the parents.

Suddenly, when faced with a parent who is about to proceed with a Due Process Hearing, we learn of all of these wonderful programs and services which exist in the district!

I have seen this happen many times in cases involving kids with autism spectrum disorders, where the parents have been requesting, as an example, ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy, which has been refused, and we discover at a Mediation for the first time that the school district has a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) on retainer! This, after numerous communications from the parent that they believe their child would benefit from an ABA program.

Parents are right to then ask “well, why didn’t you tell me this before?”

The Riddler doesn’t have a good answer for this, they just hope that the next family doesn’t find out.

Usually you don’t know that a Riddler is in your midst until it’s too late, because of course you can’t know what you haven’t seen or been told. However, if you discover a Riddler on your IEP team, I suggest sending a follow up letter or Addendum to clarify the IEP minutes which confirms that this was new information to you, and the first time you were made aware of it was at the meeting.

And from then on, I suggest keeping your communications with the Riddler well documented.

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Pseudo-Psychologist”

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Pseudo-Psychologist”

Published on May 27, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Pseudo-Psychologist”

The “Pseudo-Psychologist” does not necessarily have to be a school psychologist. It is any staff member who begins throwing around psychological terms as if they are certain they have all of the answers. Far worse is when you get the Pseudo-Psychologist who starts opining as to the appropriateness of the medications your child is taking! Medical decisions should be made by medical doctors, not IEP Team members (in fact, this is prohibited by law in Connecticut)!

Let me start by providing a bit of information that virtually all parents I talk to don’t realize: a “school psychologist” is not the same thing as a “clinical psychologist.”

What does that mean? Well, in many states it means that the school psychologist is licensed NOT by any mental health agency, but rather by the Department of Education. This further means that most school psychologists could not “hang out a shingle” and start a private practice as a “psychologist,” because they are only really licensed to provide services within a school environment.

You need to fully understand the qualifications and licensure of the individuals in your school district who are making recommendations about your child.

I can not tell you how many parents of children with disabilities I talk to who, as I am gathering background information, will say something like “that’s what the psychologist told me,” or even, “that’s what the school’s psychiatrist recommended.” Yet when I probe, I learn that the parent is referring to the school psychologist. Why does it matter? Because often the parent relies on the advice of this individual, sometimes even if it contradicts the recommendations and diagnoses of outside mental health professionals whose credentials and training far exceed the traditional path of the school psychologist. Most parents have no clue that they are taking the advice of an educational professional who in many cases is not even licensed to issue the diagnoses that their outside professional has given!

If you have obtained a diagnosis and recommendations from an outside psychologist or psychiatrist, do not assume that your district’s “school psychologist” has comparable training and background to refute these.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for school psychologists, and it’s an important role. I have worked with many over the years who are incredibly skilled and helpful. Moreover, school psychologists often know a great deal about educational testing and how a particular learning style might play out in a school environment. That is their training. But when a parent comes into an IEP meeting with a diagnosis of, for example, Tourette Syndrome from a psychiatrist, and the school psychologist discounts the diagnosis, I think parents have a right to understand that one professional is a medical doctor and licensed mental health professional, and the other is in many cases a Bachelors level educational professional.

School psychologists are by no means the only school staff members who can play the role of the “Pseudo-Psychologist.”

At least school psychologists have focused their education and training on the psychological aspect of education, and often special education. What I find far more frustrating is when you get a guidance counselor or principal who makes statements like “you know, I interned at a psychiatric hospital when I was in college, and this sounds a lot like it might be Bipolar Disorder.” Heavens. A college internship does not a doctor make.

This is the worst kind of Pseudo-Psychologist, because this person really thinks they know what they are talking about, and their confidence leads the parents of the child with special education needs to rely upon their conclusions. Sometimes years pass without the proper intervention being put into place because a family has agreed with assessments made by the school district which they really were not in a position to make.

Most parents believe what the school district staff tell them without questioning the source.

The vast majority of parents of children with special education needs do not even begin to second-guess the recommendations of the school district staff. They assume that they are the experts, and they follow their advice. It is often only when a situation has become intolerable that parents begin to challenge the appropriateness of their school’s decisions. Unfortunately, sometimes it is then too late.

My best advice for countering the Pseudo-Psychologist is to ask specific questions about their background. Then, if you are not satisfied that this person has the necessary credentials to properly assess your child’s special education needs, it might be time to ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation.

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Lawless Renegade”

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Lawless Renegade”

Published on May 13, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Lawless Renegade”

IEP Team Meetings can and should include a wide range of educational professionals. Unfortunately, every once in a while they include a “lawless renegade.” This is a person who either does not know about, or does not care about, the school district’s legal obligations under federal and state special education laws. Scarier still are those who think they know about the IDEA, but really, really don’t.

The Lawless Renegade is prone to making grand proclamations about a child with special education needs or their program which fly in the face of the IDEA.

Some of the more astounding examples that I’ve encountered:

• When I pointed out at the end of the school year that the 1:1 paraprofessional support that had been agreed upon and was written into the IEP was not happening, the school principal loudly states “I make the decisions in this building and I will not allow another adult into that classroom.”

• Upon notifying the school district that the parent is extremely concerned about their child, who has just been diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder, the school psychologist states: “oh, well, Asperger’s is the new ADD, everybody has it now!”

• After asking why my client’s standardized test scores in math are extremely low, I am informed that I should not be alarmed by this because “all of the kids in this district have low math scores because we give them all a calculator in third grade.”

A tell tale sign that you are dealing with a lawless renegade is that the special education director, or their attorney, is jumping in to “rephrase” what they have said.

I have to admit it, I LOVE attending IEP meetings with lawless renegades. I especially love repeating back to them what they’ve just said and watching the reactions of the people on the Team who know better. I will just calmly say: “So let me just make sure I understand you correctly, okay? You’re saying that you will agree to do the evaluation that the parents are requesting, but you can tell us right now that the IEP will not change regardless of the results?” And, confident as can be, the lawless renegade will say: “that is EXACTLY what I am saying.” Me: “okay, great, thank you, can you just make sure you include that in the minutes?”

As one of my clients once said about one of my favorite repeat-offender lawless renegades: “he’s clueless and he’s vocal about it.”

What isn’t funny, though, is that most of the time these people are making statements to parents who are not special education lawyers, and who don’t know that the IDEA is being violated. Worse still are cases when the lawless renegade IS the Special Education Director, which does happen.

My advice for how to handle lawless renegades? Either tape record your IEP meetings (with their knowledge) or take copious notes, and then send a letter documenting what happened.

Unseemly IEP Member: “The Wimp”

Unseemly IEP Member: “The Wimp”

Published on May 9, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Wimp”

This is the person on your IEP team who you KNOW completely agrees with you, but who is completely unwilling to stand up for what they believe when the IEP meeting comes around. This is almost always a teacher or service provider, and is often someone who has told you many times “off the record” that they don’t believe your child is getting enough service.

Sometimes, this person is the first to validate your concerns about your child’s special education program, and yet does not have the courage to say so openly.

For example, your child’s regular education teacher tells you that your child is not “fitting in with the other kids,” seems overwhelmed academically, and doesn’t seem to be learning in such a large environment. So, when you ask for a 1:1 paraprofessional at the IEP meeting, and she says nothing, you make a comment like “I have the impression that he is really overwhelmed in the mainstream class without more support,” and her response is “he struggles sometimes, but I’m usually able to redirect him.” Said response usually immediately follows the special education administrator telling you that they wouldn’t agree to paraprofessional support.

Many parents feel betrayed and undermined when a person working with their child “sugar coats” what is actually going on.

I do understand that there is a great deal of pressure placed on teachers and service providers to “tow the party line,” but my view of it is this: if you made the decision to work with children, especially children with disabilities, then you have the absolute responsibility to be honest about what they need. Otherwise, you are not just betraying that one child, you are betraying your profession.

Unseemly IEP Team Members: “The Regular Education Teacher Who Doesn’t Want to Be There”

Unseemly IEP Team Members: “The Regular Education Teacher Who Doesn’t Want to Be There”

Published on May 8, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Regular Education Teacher Who Doesn’t Want To Be There”

The IDEA requires that an IEP Team include a “regular education” teacher if inclusion within the general education environment is part of the child’s anticipated program. Therefore, school districts will invite a regular education teacher to the meeting to make sure that the IEP Team Meeting is duly constituted, as required by law. This can sometimes mean that a teacher who has had no involvement in the child’s special education program is invited to the meeting to meet those requirements. Sadly, the attitude of a lot of these teachers is a combination of ambivalence and disdain.

Sometimes, these teachers will even ask if they can be “excused” from the meeting after being there for the preliminaries and introductions.

The message parents of children with special education needs receive from this kind of behavior is loud and clear: “your child is not as important as the other things I would rather be doing right now.” It is so unfortunate that such attitudes serve to further ostracize and polarize children with disabilities, and their parents, from the larger school community.

The reason the law requires regular education teachers to participate in IEP meetings is, in large part, to give the Team information about programming within the general education environment which might be useful when it plans for a child with special needs.

If the teacher who is charged with that role attends the meeting as a token representative, rather than a fully participating member of the Team, then that legal requirement has been met only in letter, but not spirit.

Having attended many IEP meetings on behalf of my clients where it was clear that the regular education teacher was chomping at the bit to get out of the meeting, I have even begun to think of these poor souls who are dragged out of their classroom in order to meet the legal requirements of an IEP as RETWAPS: “Regular Education Teacher with a Pulse.”

School districts would do a much better job of meeting their requirement to have a regular education teacher at the IEP meeting if they reached out to those non-special education teachers in their district who are accommodating and understanding of children with special needs, rather than blindly inviting the first regular education teacher they ran into in the hallway.

We don’t need more RETWAPS, we need teachers who come to the IEP meetings ready to roll up their sleeves and brainstorm about how we can properly include children with disabilities. Otherwise, what is the point of having a regular education teacher at the meeting after all?

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Control Freak”

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Control Freak”

“The Control Freak”

This can be a teacher, therapist, service provider, or an administrator, really anyone who completely over-reacts whenever their opinions, responsibilities, recommendations, or expertise are questioned or challenged.

Sadly, The Control Freaks of the special education world are largely responsible for the number of disputes between parents and school districts.

These are the people who really, truly believe that they have learned everything they need to know about their area of expertise. Therefore, if a parent implies, or states outright, that their child’s special education needs perhaps cannot be properly evaluated or met by this person, they cannot handle it. One of the biggest problems I see when I am brought into a dispute by a parent is that some educators simply cannot allow themselves to admit that they made a mistake or don’t know everything about a particular child or disability.

Good professionals, in any field, know that they will always need to learn more. Control Freaks, however, see any new information as a personal affront.

So, when a parent presents an outside evaluation indicating that a child was improperly diagnosed, or wasn’t receiving enough or the right kind of services, instead of saying “well, we did not realize that Matt had Asperger’s Disorder, we really thought he had ADHD, but now that you’re bringing this evaluation to our attention, let’s rethink his IEP,” instead, the Control Freaks dig their heels in. The result: a huge dispute between the parties that could have been avoided simply by acknowledging new information.

It is tough to know how to handle the Control Freak, but in general, I suggest this: don’t allow yourself to be sucked into a heated debate with this person. You may be right, but they will never, ever admit it.

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Smiling Assassin”

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Smiling Assassin”

Published on May 7, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Smiling Assassin”

This can be any staff member, but in my experience it’s usually an administrator. The hallmarks of the Smiling Assassin are that they routinely make comments that make them appear like they are helping you out, but really their actions are in direct contrast to their comments.

It’s not until a parent is on their way home from the IEP meeting, or worse, months or years later, when they start to piece together that this person is no friend to them or their child.

Some examples misleading statements of Smiling Assassins are things like:

▪“We completely agree with you that Billy needs more speech services, so we’re going to switch his half an hour weekly of direct service, to a full hour of consult by the speech pathologist.” (hidden truth: this child just lost direct speech therapy)

▪ “I have read the recommendation you’ve provided from Jane’s psychiatrist that she requires an immediate therapeutic placement because of her Bipolar Disorder, and we concur. Simply sign here and confirm that you agree that Jane needs a therapeutic placement for medical reasons and we will do whatever is necessary to work with you to return her here when she’s ready.” (hidden truth: the school just avoided having to pay for the therapeutic placement by getting the parent to agree that it’s a “non-educational” placement)

▪ “Yes, I understand that you disagree with the Team about David’s program, and that you intend to exercise your rights to Due Process. However, and I’m just telling you this because I like you Mrs. Jones, if you lose that Hearing, you will have to pay the Board’s attorney’s fees.” (hidden truth: this is a complete mis-statement of the law on attorneys’ fees, parents do not have to pay the school’s attorneys fees just because they lose the Hearing)

Be wary of the Smiling Assassin. They are often in a position to really undermine your child’s services, and your case if you end up in a dispute down the road.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011