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Inclusion again

inclusion-flowchartInclusion (not integration) is what every student is entitled to.

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.

From the National Down Syndrome Society:

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.

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Inclusion- Make it meaningful

     “If he’s going to lick things (you could replace lick with hit or stim) during the day, isn’t it better he does it in inclusion where he has exposure to typically-developing peers than isolated in a specialized classroom?”- A classroom teacher to a family of a youngster with autism.
     Well, NO.  Let’s have a conversation about what makes inclusion meaningful.  Inclusion is critically important for disabled students when they are able to access learning and receive meaningful benefit from it. It’s not every student’s Least Restrictive Environment, and it’s not meaningful if it’s just a location.
     What makes inclusion meaningful? It is done incredibly well in so many places. Many schools, some may need a push, are dedicated to serving students with Down Syndrome in inclusion and when they access support from experts and have a team that presumes competence, it works beautifully. Students with autism have long been included (not “integrated”, that term needs to be removed from our vocabularies).
     It can be done terribly wrong, even with the best of intentions. IEPs (and classrooms) are not “one size fits all”.
     They are supposed to be developed based on the unique needs of each student. “One size fits all” classrooms have no place in high quality or even appropriate special education. A model which is becoming more common is having all students with autism included in one early childhood classroom. In one district, this “inclusion” classroom is half the day, making the special educator responsible for a larger caseload to progress report on and teach.  This leaves students for whom inclusion may not be the LRE now no highly qualified special education teacher to teach them during that 1/2 day session, despite the law requiring a special educator in the C Grid to teach them. The kids unable to be in inclusion are left in a classroom with just aides, next to the inclusion room.  The teacher in reality is supposed to be teaching two rooms at the same time.  This is not meaningful inclusion, it’s frankly double-dipping the skills of a special educator who was quite busy with 6 or 7 students with autism, who now has an equal amount of typically developing students to teach.
     In another district, there is a substantially separate classroom for kindergarten students with autism.  The class comes to a single general ed classroom for snack and other times, not a few students, but 5 students.  What kind of rationale, but convenience, supports a class, consisting of kids with complicated needs and most with 1:1 staffing, to push into a single gen ed class of 17 students in a school with 4 gen ed K rooms?  What benefit does that provide to the students with special needs and the typically developing students.  For it’s important to note the students with disabilities were physically in the room, but all but one sat at a separate table with their aides.  The other brought tears to the observer’s eyes.  This completely non-verbal student had no communication device (high-tech or low-tech).  She simply ate with the assistance of a 1:1 aide, unable to say hi, the other kids ignoring her, continuing their banter like she wasn’t even there.  The general ed teacher and students didn’t say hi to any of the kids.  That’s not inclusion, that’s a location, just a place to have snack.
     Consider a third district where student attends a substantially separate language based classroom for elementary students.  She had inclusion times in her IEP, but was scheduled to attend specific academic and snack periods in one general ed classroom, but attend specials with another.  That’s not meaningful inclusion; for instead of giving her the ability to make meaningful connections with 21 kids, it made her an acquaintance of 42.  If we want her to make friends and be included, her inclusion should not get dictated by a schedule (and a now departed principal and special ed department  who both don’t get why the parents were upset when they found this out more than halfway through the year and only after an observer noticed there were different kids at a special and at science).
     Broad research strongly suggests children with and without disabilities benefit both socially and academically from inclusive programming. Some of the reasons are that inclusion works when done thoughtfully and with a high level of skill:
1. Inclusion increases the rates of learning and achievement for students with disabilities.
2. Students with disabilities make and maintain friendships.
3. Students with and without disabilities have higher performance in areas of social competence.
4. Students without disabilities have the same or better achievement as measured through standardized testing.
     We can’t forget about the federal law (IDEA) requiring the “least restrictive environment” for students with disabilities, the term used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to support inclusion.  It’s what people like me most often advocate for.  We do it expecting the inclusion to be delivered in a manner which allows the child to receive meaningful benefit from it.
     Least restrictive environment means that, to the maximum extent appropriate, school districts must educate students with disabilities in the regular classroom with appropriate aids and supports, referred to as “supplementary aids and services,” along with their non-disabled peers in the school they would attend if not disabled.
     Inclusion is what I want for every child- when it has benefit to him or her and it’s done right.  If a student is placed in an inclusion program, it needs to be set up to allow academic progress, not just social progress.  To provide anything less is to do a disservice to students.   Students in inclusion can thrive.  Some students, like my son, require a substantially separate setting.
     We must not subscribe to “one size fits all” thinking; we must support students in making progress commensurate with their unique abilities.  We want to provide them education, not just a place to sit and have snack.  We want them to make friends and learn from their friends who don’t have disabilities.  We want the typically developing students to learn everyone is different, but equal, and to have them experience learning which makes them blind to disabilities and accepting of all kids.  That can only happen when we don’t force kids into inclusion settings without appropriate support (not just staff for an aide can be a babysitter, not an educational assistant far too easily) and when we don’t include them for snack, just to have them sit at a separate table.

Settlement Agreements- MA Special Education Parent Attorneys provide a valuable analysis

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.

Sincerely yours,
James Baron
Robert Crabtree
Joseph Green
Beth Karon Goldberg
Peter Hahn
Daniel Heffernan
Constance Hilton
Carla Leone
Michelle Moor
Alicia Parmentier
Beth Simon
Jill Aubin Updegraph
Charles E. Vander Linden
Lillian Wong
Sherry Gregg
Eileen Haggerty
Melanie Jarboe
Marie Mercier
Kristin Palace
Ellen Saideman
Tim Sindelar
The Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts
The Disability Law Center
Massachusetts Advocates for Children”

 

See also:  http://massadvocates.org/disclosure-of-settlement-agreements/   

Former BSEA Hearing Officer Bill Crane writes an excellent analysis of the ruling.

 

www.shinesunlight.org

Provides settlements per district (run by parents who have advocated for this transparency)

Tales from an IEP Meeting

Sharing in hopes it may help someone else… Things I learned today as a mom: 1. People will passionately fight to make a child with autism and intellectual disability take a test (MCAS) that they concede he will fail. An easy way out for teachers vs. doing the work of putting together a portfolio. 2. The BACB ethical standards requiring 10% BCBA supervision time for all ABA programming provided is not popular with programs and districts, even when kids need it. It’s also sadly not accepted by some licensed BCBAs who are apparently willing to risk their licenses. 3. Transition meetings are extra-hard. 4. Numbers do matter. 5. Preparing a student to enter the adult world involves a whole village and team of people working together, even grudgingly, in the best interest of the student. 6. There is no perfect program, and finally… 7. It’s ok to discriminate against kids in a certain class at a program’s whim and to give some students favor. “We can’t change anything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Today showed me, the parent, why I have a job as an educational advocate.

Never stop advocating for your children.  It’s one thing in the journey of being a parent of a child with special needs I DO have control over.  I am a big part of my child’s VOICE and it’s my job to ensure his VISION is met.

Helping children, one student at a time

“Laurel Collins is an extremely dedicated and knowledgeable educational advocate. My husband and I were fortunate enough to find Laurel, on recommendation from our daughter’s neuropsychologist and psychologist, within a week of a big IEP meeting. Laurel did not hesitate to immediately dive right in and help us. She reviewed all of our daughter’s evaluations and quickly came up with a successful strategy to get our daughter what she deserved.  We ended up getting an appropriate and strong program our daughter, and this would not have been possible without Laurel.  She is compassionate and collaborative and is an expert in communicating with school systems. Words can not describe how grateful my husband and I are to have Laurel Collins as our educational advocate. We highly recommend Laurel to anyone in search of an advocate for their child.”

-Lisa S., February 2016
My passion lies in supporting children.  My skills best support children in early intervention, early education and preschool, and elementary school.  I have a special place in my heart for working with children with autism (like the little girl mentioned above), Down Syndrome, and developmental delays.

What’s a Facilitated Team Meeting?

In Massachusetts, the Bureau of Special Education Appeals not only conducts the important work of administrative hearings, they do two very important other things. They employ mediators who conduct both mediations and IEP meetings called “Facilitated Team Meetings“.

The mediators are impartials, there to help the parties come to an agreement (mediation) and work collaboratively (FTM).  Both of these processes can be VERY worthwhile when a family is in a dispute with a district. However, both options are voluntary on the part of the school district AND parents.

For a mediation, the mediator always calls/contacts both parties for scheduling purposes. 

In a few recent and disturbing cases, we have seen school districts ask for an FTM, apparently representing to the BSEA that the parents agreed to an FTM when in fact the parents have no idea what an FTM is or if they even have a choice to have an extra person (or two ) present.

Parents’s voices matter. They are supposed to have a voice in these decisions and should feel free to ask questions of a mediator at the BSEA, advocate, or attorney about what the two processes translate to in actual time and content.  A district can’t force a parent to agree to a Facilitated Team Meeting, cancel an already scheduled IEP meeting, or threaten not to hold a meeting without it being an FTM.  Those appear to be intimidation techniques.

Mediations and FTMs can be great tools; the BSEA employs some excellent mediators. Yet, these two processes are not for every family. Parents need to be asked if they agree to participate in a mediation or FTM before a district contacts the BSEA and speaks on behalf of the family.  It’s worthwhile for the (understandably) busy and over-worked, dedicated BSEA staff to follow-up requests for FTMS with parents, as they do with districts.

It’s a reasonable goal to have parents be equally informed members of the IEP team.  We aim to collaborate and find solutions which work for students with disabilities.  Open the lines of communication and always, as a parent, feel free to call the mediator assigned to your district with any questions.  They will answer them graciously.  Be an informed consumer- it’s ok to ask questions.