Inequities in Special Education

9:48 am

As we blog, march, form coalitions, and community-meeting ourselves into a frenzy over the blatant inequities in education in PPS there is still a population of families that are not being heard in the large public forums and whose issues are invisible to most. These are families of children with disabilities and the success stories are few and far between and behind the success story you typically find a sleep-deprived and demoralized family member that is usually one meeting away from giving up. I write about those issues here from time to time but an email that came in to me recently I felt compelled to share and received permission from the parent to post her email here:

Dear Special Education Stakeholders,

I’m writing you today to bring to the surface an issue that we all know exists but nobody wants’ to talk about. And, an issue that is significant to the work being done on this project.

On January 8th we sent a note to school with one of our sons asking about something that had occurred the day before. He returned home that day with no response to our note but he did report that an adult at school told him to “shut-up”. This was one of several incidents that we had concerns over and already had a number of conversations with the classroom teacher about, so on this occasion we wrote a letter and brought our concerns to the principal. We subsequently requested a meeting to voice our concerns and that meeting was held on January 22nd.

On January 28th we received a call from a CPS worker who said she had been out to the school that day to interview our 12 year old foster son, in response to a complaint of suspected abuse that was called in from school. However, she reported to us that he was obviously getting over a cold but, she couldn’t understand him, the teacher in the classroom didn’t sign and nobody provided the CPS worker with the communication book. This boy has a severe speech disorder and is mentally challenged. Through a very long process the district has finally agreed to provide a speech device in the classroom similar to one he owns, this year. However, the life skills staff still will not work with him on how to use it at school. If this CPS allegation had not merely been an attempt at retribution but a real risk actually existed then this child might still be at risk because he can’t communicate with investigators or emergency responders.

On January 29th at 2 o’clock in the afternoon we received a call from one of our 11 year old sons’ mainstream teachers claiming that our boy had a very difficult week and a half. The teacher told us that our boy who is both mentally and physically handicapped has been violent, casting racial insults and several other horrible allegations. He informed us that our son had received several referrals and could not return to school next week. When we read the referrals that our son brought home we came to realize that this child had been in two high risk situations that he couldn’t manage and none of the preventative measures that we had agreed upon both in meetings and in writing had been followed, and then he was suspended for it. Some of the staff that wrote the referrals are the same individuals that were the focus of our complaints on the 22nd and our 11 year old son is the student who initiated those complaints.

As a family with three children with disabilities and all on IEPs, intimidation and reprisal are the hallmarks that define most of our experience with Portland Public Schools over the last few years. That is the primary reason I became a part of this process; to be a part of the solution. But, I’m writing this today because as this process moves forward on the 19th it is crucial to remember that this story is unfortunately not unique. In working with OrFirst and other families my wife and I have learned that we are not the only family in a debate with schools that have found themselves the focus of a child abuse allegation that was called into the hot line from school and our son is not the first mentally handicapped child that was placed in a volatile situation and then declared a danger to themselves or others; and nobody ever wants to talk about it. When our son, who has never received a referral before, came home that Friday he didn’t come with just one referral, he received one from each member of his life skills classroom staff, one from one of his gen-Ed teachers and all signed by another of his gen-Ed teachers. We were told that “the staff who handled this wants (him) to get a really strong message.” The nightmares He had for a week of teachers “yelling and screaming” at him confirm that he got that message. And the attitude that this could never happen is the very reason why it can happen.

We too voted in favor of measure 66 & 67 because we believe that a free and appropriate education is the right of every child, but we also believe that a safe and responsible education is part of that right as well. Like many families that have found themselves in this very position we have found no support within the district and no recourse to protect our children. Many of the children on IEPs face a hard life ahead of no acceptance, bigotry and manipulation from the rest of the world. They should feel like their teachers and their school is a safe haven from that kind of treatment.  So, as this process moves forward to hopefully better this system for staff and students alike I beg you to consider the children who can’t protect themselves and to be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves. Because, you have the power to effect change and ensure that every foster child receives a responsible education and nobody’s child can ever be manipulated as a statement to their families again.

After I received this email the parent wrote me a follow up email with a glimmer of hope:

Dear Stephanie,

As an outcome of the letter I sent to Special Education Stakeholders Joanne Mabbot has agreed to meet with parents and advocates to discuss issues surrounding how parents and students are sometimes treated by administration and staff during a dispute. This is an opportunity for families and students to share their stories in person or in writing if they believe their child was mistreated or unfairly disciplined while they were in a conflict with the school. We also want to look at how often school personnel use the child abuse hot line as a tool to intimidate families while in a dispute. If you or any of the families that you have worked with would like to share their stories please have them contact me by e-mail or directly at 503-253-0548 or Robin Malone at the district office 503-916-3297.
And to add the emphasis on this story here is a comment I found on the UrbanMamas blog that really sums up well what it is like to parent a child with an invisible disability like autism.

My child is in a CB–he has Asperger’s and needs some extra support managing the school environment. He spends all of his day at this point in gen ed, but he has access to a para for behavioral/help.
While it’s great he’s in gen ed, even so our experience is so different and will be for you too. The parents are nice, but they don’t “get it” and it’s scary to them (something could happen and THEIR child could be “different” too) or he does something “inappropriate” and they give me the look–you know the one, where you must be a bad parent because of how your child acts (invisible disabilities are hard). We always feel like we’re outside and really not part of things.
I don’t mean to sound bitter, but in my experience, even when you’re in a regular school, your situation is still not regular. You’re not really part of everything because your situation is different. I thought that maybe it was ME, that I’m caring about what they think too much, but it’s not. It’s a different experience because our kids are different. It’s often alienating. I hope it works out for you and you have a better experience than I have, but I just feel like we’re not part of the “group” unless we’re around the other kids/parents who also have kids on the spectrum, or have behavioral challenges, etc. Then everyone is relaxed and “gets it” and it’s a great feeling! I feel like part of the group!

As we fight the good fight for all of our kids to receive a free and appropriate public education in PPS remember that these families need a voice as well. Find them and bring them into the fold, make sure they get the microphone at the community meetings, request they speak to the PTA on invisible and other disabilities, and just try to teach others that kids develop differently and some have challenges and  it is better to find a way to support their family instead of judging them.

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Stephanie Hunter is a behavior consultant and the parent of a student at Ockley Green. She is active in local and statewide advocacy for children and adults with disabilities, which she writes about on her blog Belonging Matters.

filed under: Equity, IEP

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59 Responses

  1. Comment from lek:

    thanks wacky mommy, some day i hope someone says enough.

  2. Comment from Stephanie:

    Rep. Sara Gelser from the House Education Committee said she would follow up on the language in the budget.

    It was a very good meeting tonight and Erin it was great to talk more in depth with you about action planning.

  3. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    Good news for everyone concerned about civil rights or in PPS case, the absence of them:

    The new site isn’t especially user friendly but a good start.

  4. Comment from moonlighting:

    It is really nice to see the support to families with special education. We have a huge population of students at Pioneer who are repeatedly forgotten. Do you know they cant even access their Title one funds, they don’t get ESL or TAG support!!!
    I hope all this Love can extend to these families. They have been put down and left out from everyone in PPS; Xavier, Joanne M., Carole Smith…

  5. Comment from stephanie:

    Moonlighting – Have they started giving them better lunches over there yet?

    I brought Pioneer up at the special education PTA meeting last night urging parents in attendance not to wait for this redesign to pass us by and do what you can to make your voice heard. Have you read Joanne Mabbott’s blog yet? I forgot about it and read through it last night. A few people at the meeting last night said Joanne has been putting herself on the firing line in public forums full of angry parents. I have to give her kudos for that and also for being honest that the current enrollment and transfer policy along with placement has contributed to kids being moved repeatedly.
    There has been a focus group on the continuum of self-contained classrooms but I am going to urge the ISS folks to also have a focus group on inclusion in general ed as well because if a kid fails there is when they get the boot. It would be wise to enhance the least restrictive environment as well as looking at the continuum.

  6. Comment from moonlighting:

    kids get moved repeatedly because special ed does not support its behavior teachers and does not place students appropriately. Also they do not hire specifically for classrooms with social/emotional issues. Have you all heard that special ed. is way over budget? How can that happen?

  7. Comment from Carrie Adams:

    I haven’t heard that SPED is over budget but it doesn’t surprise me. I ran across a smaller school district not long ago that has their check register online for everyone to see. Wouldn’t that be nice? Quarterly income and expense reports for every school and program.

  8. Comment from Stephanie:

    This continuum of self-contained classrooms is going to address the frequent movement and I emailed Joanne and asked if there could also be a focus group that looks at the continuum of inclusion in general education. She sent me a very positive response and I am looking forward to talking with her more about it.
    The feds have never fully funded the IDEA and that is one reason why special education runs out of money but just like everything else there is a better way to use the resources available and partner with the community as well as parents. If special education classrooms were more welcoming (I know some are but largely they are not) then I think the schools would be surprised at how willing parents would be to help out. Parent are demoralized with the frequent movement and Joanne has a really nice narrative on her blog that highlights this demoralizing of kids and families. With an ounce of trust and several pounds of caution I am ready to see what she needs from the advocates to improve things in special education. I am happy to fight Salem and DC WITH the district if they can show me that they value our kids education. I would have a bake sale every single day if they could prove that the civil rights of all learners is important to them.
    In regards to the feds never fully funding….kids needing special education SERVICES are gen ed students not special ed students so I would expect no crying from anyone needing to use general fund money. My heroes are the schools and principals that have NOT pushed out the self-contained classrooms for transfer slots or because they have to pull resources from gen ed to support B classrooms. These people need to be treated like the finest of silks because I know they suffer for making the right decisions to value kids and keep them in their school.
    Carrie – I really agree that anything the taxpayers are funding should have absolute transparency for every cent. At the non-profit I work at we have potlucks for our retreats and I enjoy that more than any catered event I received when I worked for a multi-national corporation.

  9. Comment from moonlighting:

    Special ed got lots of money last year and this year from stimulus money. To be millions over budget is just irresponsible. People in the field do fundraising, but Joanne still buys dinner and lunch for her staff, why cant they bring their own like everyone else. She takes her secretaries to Las Vegas and other conferences. Why??