Made by my son, almost 18, with autism. Much to my surprise, he apparently understands my job and advocacy pretty darn well ❤️ I will always advocate for you, my amazing Boy 💙 I love you the moon and back and will never stop “sticking up” for you.
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 about 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 EC 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 crap 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.
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 ESY is ONLY FOR REGRESSION.
- 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.
- 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).
IEP Tip Time….
IEP Season is in full swing which means if you are considering a change for your child’s program, you should have a detailed plan (i.e.: starting with rejecting the current placement) and also strong supporting independent evaluations. (Reality check: Emergencies aside, it’s likely too late to get a high-quality neuropsychologist to use as evidence or supporting documentation for a placement change). Use the resources of your home team (therapists, BCBAs, developmental and behavioral pediatricians, physician specialists in your child’s disability, and ed advocate) to create a compelling road map which will convince the district to provide an improved IEP. Listen to your home team’s recommendations (if you don’t trust those you have chosen to help your child, you need a change in home team members) and always remember a good advocate helps support your home team and their collaboration with the school team, and brings people to consensus, not argument. Best practice in one particular district and evidence based practice using research validated methodologies can look very different. Find common ground when you can. If there is none to be found because one party’s position is so outrageous, ask for a mediation or bring in a thoughtful, smart, and independent (ie: not swamped and doesn’t delegate to paralegal) parent special education attorney who is willing to work with your advocate and home team, not try to be them.
***Collaboration and relationships matter.***
***Be strategic; make sure your home team members are on the same page you as parents are. If not, splitting is something many school districts have proficiency in. The only person who loses when that happens (playing parent vs. their expert or their advocate and making moms and dads feel guilty) is the child.
Inclusion: Inclusion is the process of educating children in such a way so that it benefits all students and entails a clear participation of a student with disabilities side-by-side their peers without disabilities.
Integration: Integration is the process in which students with disabilities are absorbed into the mainstream education.
Inclusion: In inclusion, the focus is not on fitting the student and their needs into the mainstream education, but improving participation of all students, educating them not only the same room, but completing the same activities, modified as required. There is no “time out” space or seclusion in a mainstream classroom practicing meaningful inclusion.(There may be a quiet, developmentally and educationally appropriate space which is available and used by all students who may need a break, such as a book nook with beanbags).
Integration: Through an integrated approach, students with special needs have to fit into mainstream education. At best, they get to see typical peers and may absorb other students’ participation. At worst, they are unable to receive meaningful benefit if they don’t receive modifications that set them up for success.
Inclusion: Inclusion focuses on all students, not just those with disabilities. All students receive meaningful benefit from receiving their education in a classroom/school where there are no special learning areas, but where the classroom is designed to never single any student out.
Integration: Integration focuses on students with disabilities and is a location. Many Masters and Bachelors special education programs in the 80’s and early-mid 90’s were much more focused on integration.
Inclusion: To accommodate student needs, the school undergoes change. All children receive instruction side-by-side, differentiated as needed for all.
Integration: To accommodate the child the subject is changed or chosen (ie: student only participates in “specials” or snack). They are not part of a class, they visit the classroom.
Individualized supports should be added to allow a student access and the ability to make effective progress. At IEP meetings, the discussion should start with HOW a student can be educated in inclusion, not immediately go to a substantially separate program. To start with most restrictive and/or offer “this is our program and how we run it” is simply unethical and wrong. Children with disabilities are entitled to learn alongside their non-disabled peers.
Frustrating to read IEPs with little or no inclusion, none of it with appropriate or consistent staffing, and a program description under additional information about “The ABC Program is for students with X disabilities and has a teacher and some aides who accompany children as the team sees appropriate to inclusion activities”.
Don’t sign that IEP. Make the school honor the I in IEP.
Inclusive education is more than mainstreaming. Mainstreaming implies that a student from a separate special education class visits the regular classroom for specific, usually non-academic, subjects. Inclusion is an educational process by which all students, including those with disabilities, are educated together for all, or at least most , of the school day. Generally 80% or more of the day is what is considered inclusion by proponents-a majority could be anything more than 50%. With sufficient support, students participate in age-appropriate, general education classes in their neighborhood schools.
Inclusion is a philosophy of education based on the belief in every person’s inherent right to fully participate in society. Inclusion implies acceptance of differences. It makes room for the person who would otherwise be excluded from the educational experiences that are fundamental to every student’s development.
When inclusion is effectively implemented, research has demonstrated academic and social benefits for all students: both those who have special needs as well as typical students. Friendships develop, nondisabled students are more appreciative of differences and students with disabilities are more motivated. True acceptance of diversity ultimately develops within the school environment and is then carried into the home, workplace and community.
Special education SETTLEMENT AGREEMENTS (per the Champa v. Weston ruling from SJC making them public) are the biggest topic of discussion in advocate circles and with parents who call me. There are many thought-provoking and excellent points are made by the attorneys below (the attachments are unavailable). I do consider the right to a free and appropriate education, specifically special education, a civil right. Many parents can not afford to file for hearing and are left to settle (with competent counsel advising them) not wanting to take their chance at hearing. I’ve seen many very fair settlements. I’ve seen ones which make me cringe as the family had to give up so much in order for their child to receive what they and their experts believe to be FAPE.
Thank you to all the dedicated, kind, and fair parent special education attorneys who support families here in Massachusetts. My children and family been blessed by the work of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, the Disability Law Center, Tim Sindelar, and Dan Perlman in their support of my own children (including my son, 17, with autism).
Letter to Channel 5 from Special Education Parent Attorneys
to Channel 5 News:
“The undersigned are attorneys who represent parents and children in education cases throughout Massachusetts. Some of us work for not-for-profit law firms and others engage in private practice, but we all have substantial experience with the settlement process as well as with special education litigation in Massachusetts.
Your recent story about settlement agreements in special education cases was somewhat misleading in appearing to suggest that such agreements are an unusual and perhaps inappropriate practice. While all students are entitled to a free appropriate public education from their local public schools, as in many areas of today’s society, it is not unusual for there to be disputes between the participants in the process. In the vast majority of all special education matters, parents and school districts work together and agree on appropriate accommodations, services and programs for special education students.
However, for a small fraction of all special education students, parents and school districts disagree about how a school district should provide the student with a free appropriate public education. When these matters cannot be resolved at the local level, parents have the right to go to a due process hearing before the Bureau of Special Education Appeals.
Like any litigation, a special education hearing can become expensive and risky. Therefore, many parents choose to enter settlement agreements, even paying part of the costs of special education programs, rather than go to a full hearing and risk losing. This is reflected in statistics from the Bureau of Special Education Appeals, indicating that over the last 10 years between 95 and 97 percent of all of these disputes are resolved without a full hearing. This is not an unusual statistic. In Superior Court in Massachusetts the percentage of all types of litigation disposed without a trial is strikingly similar.
As with any area of law, the terms of settlement agreements vary based on the individual facts in the case, including the strength of the merits of the case. Thus, the very fact that settlement agreements vary does not necessarily mean that the agreements are unfair or that they reflect discrimination or favoritism. To suggest otherwise is both misleading and unfair.
Your news story did, however, shine a light on a very serious problem: that in school districts with high poverty populations, many parents whose children are not receiving the special education and other services that they need do not even get to the settlement table because they do not have access to legal representation and expert evidence. Channel 5 found that, in the most affluent school districts, there were 405 settlements but only 15 in the least affluent school districts. This disparity speaks more to the lack of access to counsel and experts than to any other factor.
Many families with children with disabilities are poor; studies have found that one-quarter of students in special education have families with incomes below the poverty line and two-thirds have family incomes of $50,000 or less. While parents are often unable to find attorneys, school districts in Massachusetts are always represented by attorneys, usually either experienced employees or law firms with specialties in special education. Many parents who are poor also have limited education and may not even speak English, so they are unable to even consider filing for due process without an attorney to help them. Public interest organizations that provide free legal services are overwhelmed by the demand for legal assistance in special education matters, and turn away many families because they do not have the resources to help them. (A 2015 study by a taskforce of the Boston Bar Association noted that in 2013, legal services organizations were unable to help more than 54,000 individuals and families who had contacted them requesting assistance.) A substantial increase in funding for legal services is needed to begin to address these disparities.
In addition, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should step up its oversight and assistance for school districts that serve large numbers of children living in poverty. The Department can make use of a wide range of incentives and enforcement activities to improve special education programs.
Finally, private enforcement of the rights of students is a key component of achieving better education results throughout the Commonwealth. While all of us (and many other attorneys) devote significant amounts of time and resources on a pro bono basis to help families in need, these efforts could be substantially improved by reforms to existing laws and procedures that would make private representation more readily available by providing for attorney fees to prevailing parents, even when a case is settled rather than fully litigated.
Until we provide better access to legal help for families living in poverty and more oversight by DESE, we will continue to have the inequities that your story has brought to light. We hope that this focus of your story will lead to the reforms necessary to protect all students, regardless of income.
Beth Karon Goldberg
Jill Aubin Updegraph
Charles E. Vander Linden
The Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts
The Disability Law Center
Massachusetts Advocates for Children”
Former BSEA Hearing Officer Bill Crane writes an excellent analysis of the ruling.
Provides settlements per district (run by parents who have advocated for this transparency)