Gaslighting and Special Ed Advocacy

Are you being gaslighted at IEP meetings?

I remember the first time I was gaslighted at an IEP meeting.  In fairness, it probably wasn’t the first time, but it was the first time that I remember. I was working in a local district fairly frequently (my practice is all by referral, so I tend to have districts I work often in most often).  This particular district had a horrible reputation for their early childhood services (the turning 3 transition was anything BUT seamless).

So once again, I found myself in team meeting with a client (two parents, both a mixture of nervous and angry from the way the initial meeting I didn’t attend had gone, by their report, the IEP team, and an administrator…. and I was 110% prepared. I had read the IDEA and the MA regulations so often they took up a lot of space in my brain.  I had been through more of these tough meetings than I cared to remember.  And once again, the team chair attempted to circumvent the law, doing whatever she pleased.  I protested, never raising my voice, asking for a lot of explanations, I showed them the regs, what the law and advisories, all of them, say regarding Early Childhood services for students on IEPs.  They didn’t accept any of this written documentation (none of it authored by me) as real- they pretended the papers were a figment of my imagination.

Has this happened to you? You’re in an IEP meeting. You’ve done your research, you’ve studied, you’ve read. And now you are being told something that you are just certain is not true.  I had two hearings back to back, and they pulled the same nonsense in each one. I remember longing for an attorney to be there. I kept saying, “You can’t do this, it specifically states that….” and they repeatedly told me that I was wrong, that I “must have misunderstood”.

I started to doubt my knowledge, my memory, and finally my sanity.

After the 1st of those meetings (and I got my concerns in the record, in writing, for there were 3 meetings after I became involved), I immediately emailed an attorney friend who is well versed in all of this, and told him what happened. He confirmed what I knew–I was right, and they were violating the law. In hindsight, I don’t think I could have done anything different, but the experience stuck with me and was a learning experience.

It happened to me again this week, and a few advocate friends mentioned it’s been happening them a lot more often and usually in specific districts.  It’s time to be real. This occurrence is real.

First, what is gaslighting?

Gaslighting became a pop culture term in the 1940s due to the film with Ingrid Bergman. There was a play before her movie, but her movie made it popular. She is being manipulated by a man who wants to drive her crazy, and one of the things he does is constantly lowering the gas lights. When she asks if the lights have been lowered, he denies it, says nothing has changed, must be your imagination. In her mind, she is certain that the gas lights are actually dimming, but since he is saying they are not, she starts to question her sanity.

Definition of gas-lighting:  Gaslighting/gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception and sanity.  Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting (or in these examples discrediting the victim).

Are you beginning to nod in agreement because these seems familiar? It’s basically a situation when you know that you are correct, but are being repeatedly told you are wrong.

Here are some examples that I’ve experienced in IEP meetings, as far as being repeatedly told that I was wrong, when I was clearly not.

If you get the child an IEE, that the evaluator can never have met or worked with the child before. (Not true, the IDEA says nothing about this).

  • That only “life skills” students are entitled to a services ages 18-22. (Just, no)
  • That even if a behavior was determined to be a manifestation of the child’s disability, further punishment/discipline can take place with parent’s knowledge or consent WITHOUT a BSP in place.
  • That the teach chair’s opinion is the only opinion that matters if the team doesn’t agree.

I do believe it’s ignorance, at times.  However, sometimes I just can’t help but think that it’s deliberate–that they really are trying to convince us to go along with “the district way” even though they know it’s wrong.  It’s beyond maddening. It can make you question your sanity, knowledge, and confidence. It can happen to even the most seasoned advocate or consultant.  On occasion, I have excused myself, made a quick call or jumped on the internet in the hall, and confirmed what I knew to be correct.

Avoiding gaslighting at IEP meetings
  • Go in prepared. You know what your sticking points are going to be. So have your data ready. If you are going to ask for an IEE, have that section printed off from IDEA. If you are debating ESY, print that off and bring it.  Make them go through each point the law addresses.
  • Ask the district to prove to you it’s point. For example, I could not find anything about the Independent Eval (program observation) to be considered for the meeting I have this week.  I told mom to email them: Please show us where it says that IEE evaluators must have met the child before to make the report (again, it’s just an observation). Put the onus on them.
  • As usual, don’t sign anything besides an attendance sheet. Follow up with data and documentation later, with your after-meeting email. Whatever you needed to look up–laws, testing protocols, etc., look it up and send to them after the meeting.
  • Try to remain confident. This is why the IEP process must be a fluid one and on-going. If you piece-meal together a bunch of information the night before, you’re more likely to doubt yourself and fall for this.
  • Allow people (ie: team members) to save face. They may genuinely not know.  Be uber-polite in calling them out on this–this is about getting your kiddo what he needs, not catching staff in a “gotcha.”
  • Get a second opinion from a colleague and do more research when you get home.
  • Go with your gut. Too often, parents are talked out of their gut instincts. Nothing needs to be finalized in this meeting, right here, right now.  Table it until you have time to research and regroup.

As a parent… what experiences have you had with gaslighting?

(Originally published June 23, 2011).