Sunday, February 19, 2006

Special Education = Free Lunch?

Let me preface my thoughts by first stating that their are plenty of students out there with special needs. Our society has done a nice job since the nightmare of the 1980's, where mental illness equated to life on the street. In our school, special education is a serious subject that is met with a tremendous amount of resources. Dedicated people take a lot of time, and serious emotional punishment, to see that these kids have a fair education.

Unfortunately, many parents take advantage of the current Special Education situation and use it as an excuse to take advantage of the school district. In yesterdays San Francisco Chronicle, an article detailed some of the more extreme methods that parents are taking to insure a child's right to an education. Some of those horseback riding, aquatic therapy, and cross-country boarding schools. It is a scary look at how your educational tax dollars are trying to be gouged by families manipulating the special education laws.

It all revolves around a little document called an Individualized Education Program, aka; an IEP. This document, once created by a group of teachers/administrators/parents/doctors, is binding law. If the modifications in the document are not adhered to, the school district can be forced to make appropriate accommodations, sometimes by the legal system. This is where the parents are siphoning money out of the districts. Instead of paying legal fees, some districts are paying for the accommodations, no matter how crazy, since it is still cheaper than fighting a court battle. The paperwork is so overwhelming, and the process is so time consuming, that any number of mistakes can cost the school district a court battle. Kind of makes the whole idea of Special Education a little more pragmatic.

My experience with IEP's has been one of trial and error, with little leeway in making a mistake. I had one class in college that discussed mainstreaming of students and the importance of IEP's, yet nothing prepares you for the battle that comes with a parent who wants a certain method to the IEP. As a first year teacher, I had an average student in my college prep class that acted as a normal kid would, C grade, talked quite a bit in class, etc. When the first report card came out, with the C grade, the student's parents flipped out and insisted that the reason the student didn't have an A was because I wasn't following the modifications. They wanted "Extra time for work" to mean days, instead of minutes. They insisted that the school put "no homework" as an IEP modification and became belligerent when the school rejected the idea. When it was put forth that the student might do better in a lower level class, the family balked at the idea and insisted that it was my fault for the entire situation. They threatened the school district and more specifically, my job. Interesting situation on the third month on the job, eh?

Since that confrontation, I have regarded IEPs as the "third rail" of education. The meetings for them often take place during classtime, so they can give no real input. The parents have absolute sway once the document is implemented, so teachers that have a gripe about unreasonable modifications are pretty powerless. I had a minor incident this year wear a parent thought that I wasn't going "all the way" with their child's modifications. I explained that a child in a college prep class should do more than fine with my implementation of the IEP. When they started to snarl, I backed off. It wasn't worth the potential distraction that it could create.

I know that I'm only in my fifth year of teaching, but here are some recommendations for dealing with IEPs.

-Don't argue with Case Carriers about IEPs. They have the fill the things out (which is a bitch), they have to make sure it is legal, and they are the go between with parents and yourself.

-If you have to attend a meeting, and you really are concerned about the effect on your class, then be prepared to sit in on the entire meeting. If it really matters that much, you can take the time.

-Stand up for your classroom while in the IEP (management style, class policy, etc), but never say "I will not do that". It alienates everyone in attendance.

-Try and get the modifications to be vague. That way, you can make modifications and justify them without much distraction in the classroom, or resistance from the parents. "Extra time on assignments", "Repeat instructions", "Seat near front of the classroom" are all very vague and workable. And, much easier to justify.

-Document everything.
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