Case Studies and IDEA

Blog 18

            This week I learned a lot from our distinguished presenter Bud Turnbull sharing two case studies of boys named Nathaniel and Endrew. Nathaniel had social, emotional, and behavioral issues and is now sitting on death row. And Endrew, who is an autistic boy, his case for equity in education went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. I learned a lot about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) federal law.

Bud Turnbull is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of special education and law at the University of Kansas. He has written over 35 books. Alongside President Kennedy, Bud was recognized as one of 36 people who changed the course of history in the 20th Century. And he is 85 years old. He’s an impressive man, indeed!

In our first case study, Nathaniel is a black male whose mother has an intellectual disability, and his father died when he was just four years old. Child Find missed him somehow, so he received no services before entering kindergarten. Nathaniel scored a six on his Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). A six is a very high score that is not emotionally easy to come back from. He was very aggressive in kindergarten and was frequently suspended. And he did not receive an evaluation until the 3rd grade when he was labeled with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Learning Disabled (LD). But no Emotional Disturbance (ED) was reported. Counseling was suggested but never followed up on.

Anger and disengagement escalated. Nathaniel’s mom and sister were frequently at special education planning and placement team (PPT) meetings for Nathaniel. By the 10th grade, Nathaniel dropped out of school and was in a gang where he eventually shot and killed someone and was put on death row.

When reporters asked about Nathaniel’s classification as a special education student, the mom said she had no idea her son was in special education. The school had done the procedural things it needed to do to inform Nathaniel’s mom about her son’s educational program, except get her to fully understand.

It is a sad and devastating case, indeed! Here is where the Preamble of IDEA really hits me when we’re talking about children with disabilities. IDEA’s Preamble states: “Disability is a natural consequence of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in and contribute to society….”

As a natural consequence of the human experience, I guess we all have some form of disability, don’t we? Isn’t there something someone else knows how to do that we don’t know because we grew up different than them?

However, that lack of not knowing yet, shouldn’t keep us from participating in society and contributing to it, right?

Now… what about children with more severe and identifiable disabilities like Nathaniel and Endrew? Do they have the same rights? They do according to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And the federal education law IDEA that specifies this equality and equity in school rest on society’s broader 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that says no U.S. citizen can be discriminated against. Hmm…

IDEA aims to create equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. To explain further, equal opportunity is equal protection by the law or the right to have opportunities equal to those without disabilities. Full participation means being protected from discrimination and segregation and equally participating in aspects of the community. In independent living, one has self-determination and can make choices about their own life. Finally, economic self-sufficiency means the right for one’s education to be a means for economic productivity. This all sounds fair to me. What do you think?

In our workshop with Bud, we dove deeper into the six principles of IDEA and a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which include zero reject, non-discriminatory evaluation, appropriate education, least restrictive placement, procedural due process, and parent participation.

To further explain these six IDEA principles, zero reject means zero. Absolutely no child who needs special education services can be denied special education services. This is powerful and in line with the 14th Amendment. This also has the beginnings of making our world a better place when kids like Nathaniel and Endrew don’t get denied services that will help them to grow up and contribute to society rather than be a drain on it.

Diving deeper into non-discriminatory evaluation, one soon realizes it rides on the back of zero reject. There needs to be a qualified multi-disciplinary team that conducts multiple assessments of children that may need services. And the assessments need to be non-discriminatory in race, culture, and language. In addition, parents must be FULL members of this team. If they disagree with the evaluation results, they can seek an outside agency to do an independent evaluation. However, these external evaluations are costly, so they are usually only done by savvy, well-informed parents with the financial means to do them. This dynamic above is not exactly in the spirit of the 14th Amendment. But it is the reality of our U.S. society.

Regarding appropriate education, this third component of the six principles of IDEA ensures that the education our students with disabilities receive leads them to the four goals of IDEA: to create equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency, as discussed above.

Something I must mention here when discussing appropriate education is that not enough parents or even educators are fully aware of how special education’s supplementary aids and services are a game changer for students like Nathaniel and Endrew. Supplementary aids and services help students with disabilities be included and receive services in the regular education classroom. It helps them to not feel secluded and disengaged in some far-off corner of the school. Secluding students with disabilities isn’t the best way to help them become productive members of society. And it can lead to them being a drain on society rather than a fully participating member.

These game-changing supplementary aids and services from Bud’s handout:

  1. Audiology: Identifying students with hearing loss; determining the range, nature, and degree of hearing loss; referring for medical or other professional attention; providing rehabilitative activities; operating programs for treatment and prevention of hearing loss; counseling and guiding students, parents, and teachers regarding hearing loss.
  2. Counseling services: Counseling by social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, or other qualified professionals.
  3. Early identification and assessment: Implementing a formal plan for identifying a disability as early as possible in a student’s life.
  4. Interpreting services: Providing means for communication by and with students who are deaf or hard of hearing or who are deaf-blind, including oral transliteration, cued language transliteration, sign language transliteration and interpreting services, and transcription services (CART, C-Print, and TypeWell).
  5. Medical services: Providing services by a licensed physician to determine a student’s medically related disability that results in the student’s need for special education and related services.
  6. Occupational therapy: Improving, developing, or restoring functions impaired or lost through illness, injury, or deprivation; improving independent functioning, and preventing through early intervention initial or further impairment or loss of function.
  7. Orientation and mobility services: Assisting a student who is blind or has a visual impairment to attain systematic orientation to and safe movement within school, home, and community environments, including by teaching spatial and environmental concepts, use of a cane, or service animal, and use of low-vision aids.
  8. Parent counseling and training: Assisting parents in understanding their student’s special needs, providing them with information about student development, and helping them to acquire the necessary skills that will allow them to support the implementation of their student’s IEP or IFSP.
  1. Physical therapy: Providing services by a physical therapist.
  2. Psychological services: Administering and interpreting psychological and educational tests and other assessment procedures; obtaining, integrating, and interpreting information about the student’s behavior and conditions related to learning; planning and managing a program of psychological services, including psychological counseling for students and parents; and assisting in developing positive behavioral intervention strategies.
  3. Recreation and therapeutic recreation: Assessing leisure function, operating recreation programs in schools and community agencies, and providing leisure education.
  4. Rehabilitative counseling services: Planning for career development, employment preparation, achieving independence, and integration in the workplace and community; offering vocational rehabilitation services.
  5. School health services and school nurse services: Enabling a student to receive a free appropriate public education per the student’s IEP; includes services provided by a school nurse or other qualified person.
  6. Social work services in schools: Preparing a social or developmental history on a student; operating counseling groups and counseling for individuals; working with parents and others on those problems in a student’s living situation (home, school, community) that affect the student’s adjustment in school; mobilizing school and community resources, and assisting in developing positive behavioral intervention strategies.
  7. Speech pathology and speech-language pathology: Identifying students with speech or language impairments; diagnosing specific speech or language impairments; referring for medical or other professional attention; providing speech and language services; and counseling parents, students, and teachers regarding speech and language impairments.
  8. Transportation: Providing travel to and from schools and between schools, travel in and around school buildings, and specialized equipment (e.g., special or adapted buses, lifts, and ramps).

Let’s talk about least restrictive placement now. Bud helped me look differently at this 4th principle of IDEA. Through my university education and time in the education field, I have always looked at least restrictive placement as least restrictive environment as inclusion. In public education, we try to include all students. Approaching least restrictive placement/environment from the angle of including kids makes it feel like it’s a bonus to include a kid with special needs in the general or regular education classroom. It sort of seems that we are being nice to the student, and they should be grateful for whatever we can manage to do to include them.

Bud turned this way of doing business upside down on its head. He said, “Don’t look at it as including a special-needs student. Instead, look at it as not segregating a kid.” As a certified special educator and social studies teacher who teaches the history classes in my school, whenever I hear the word segregation, it takes me to all sorts of bad places that occurred in our country’s Civil Rights Struggle.

History has taught us that segregation is a bad thing. It’s very racist, which is blatantly wrong and evil. But for some reason, special education seems to slip through the cracks because we soften it with words like inclusion and including the kids rather than speaking the truth and saying what it really is. It’s segregation when disabled students are not fully included. Once again, the 14th Amendment doesn’t permit segregation because it doesn’t permit discrimination.

In the public school setting, schools must ensure access to the general curriculum. Special education is the process of specially designed instruction that occurs everywhere rather than just being a place (special class). Special education is not a place students go. Special education is a thing they do all day long everywhere in the school, including the general mainstream classes.

And of particular note, some schools believe that the students who need those game-changing supplementary aids and services I discussed above need to be in a special education classroom because of the need for those services. This is wrong. The supplementary aids and services are by law to help students succeed in the general education classrooms in the least restrictive environment. And yes, I read the law and saw with my own eyes that it is there.

Moving on to procedural due process and its goal of balancing the inequality of power between those who have it and those who don’t. In short, educators have the power because they are trained and work in the educational field. The parents, who are not trained and not working in the education field, are at a disadvantage and don’t have the power when it comes to their children’s education.

Due process somewhat evens out that disparity in power between schools and parents, especially in Connecticut, where Connecticut is one of only a couple of states where the burden of proof rests on the schools’ shoulders rather than the parents. Connecticut also has many well-educated parents, student advocates, and parent advocacy groups that help parents fight for their rights. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Connecticut is near the top of the country in fielding parent complaints and lawsuits against schools.

Parents can take three balancing power routes when they believe schools are not listening to them and treating them as equals. These measures are; a dispute resolution session, mediation, and a due process hearing.

In the dispute resolution, parents and school members of the IEP team meet with the goal of coming to a solution that all are happy with. If that doesn’t work, they go to the next step of mediation, where a third party comes in and tries to help them reach an agreement. If that doesn’t work, they go to a due process hearing, which is like a mini-trial. No one really wants it to go to a due process hearing. This is when lawyers get involved and become very combative. It’s stressful and painful for almost everyone.

Finally, our last IDEA principle is parent participation. This obviously piggybacks on the previous principle of procedural due process. But, where the previous principle was about balancing the power between schools and parents, parent participation is more about building trust and solving problems in the name of what’s good for the student, which will someday also be what was good for the future of society.

In this realm, the idea is for parents to receive written notices and give written consent before anything is done, such as identification, an evaluation, placement, and services for their child. All procedural safeguards must be made available to parents, and unlike Nathaniel’s mom, notices must be understood by parents. And, of course, the family’s confidentiality must be protected.

In closing, we know much more about IDEA now and how the law is intended. We also know that sometimes students fall through the cracks, and bad things can happen. In Nathaniel’s case, because he didn’t receive the help he needed, he is now on death row for killing a man. In Endrew’s case, because he wasn’t receiving the help he needed, his case ended up in a very long and expensive lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court. The laws are trying to protect equality, but laws have limits. What people have in their hearts is what truly matters. We all need to remember the Golden Rule and treat others how we want to be treated regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or what their disability is…