November 15, 2005

So much for that IDEA

Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court just handed down a decision yesterday that will effectively gut the rights of parents who have children in special education programs. On the surface it's logical enough, even innocuous: the person who brings a lawsuit has the burden of proof to show that a wrong has been committed. This is good sense, avoiding frivolous lawsuits brought by people who are just being pissy but really have little justification. But. Parents vs. school districts is a different dynamic. Think about it.

Let's say your child has processing difficulties and needs a quiet room and a lot of time to work on tests. A simple request, right? But the teacher says no, says he's just lazy. And so he starts to believe he is, and starts to avoid doing his homework as well. Let's say he starts to fail his classes and the teacher still refuses to do anything to help him catch up.

Or let's say your child needs a lot of support or he'll get up and run around the room instead of paying attention. Let's say the teacher responds by giving him detention, keeping him in from recess, which just compounds the problem because then he can't get the sensory input he needs from moving his body outside. What he really needs is a special education class, with a better student-teacher ratio and more understanding of his particular issues, but the school refuses when you request this for him.

Or let's say your child does well academically but terribly socially. Let's say he needs support at recess or the kids may beat up on him. Let's say he needs support in the classroom, a subtle kind of support, just making him feel comfortable and confident in that environment. Let's say that without it he fades away, becomes sullen and withdrawn, avoidant, even. Let's say that, without that support, he becomes so non-responsive that the school stuffs him into a special education class when all that was needed was the right kind of one-on-one aide in the classroom.

I could come up with a million of these. (The last one is a kind of worst-case-alternate-universe scenario for Damian, BTW.) The problem in every case is that it's terribly hard to prove an "isn't." The child isn't doing well. Would he do well in that other circumstance? How can you prove that? It's not a double blind study, it's a single young human being. You can't run experiments, and precedents are tricky because everyone is different. So how the hell do you prove you're right when the district has a phalanx of lawyers and a huge financial incentive to fight (because they don't want to set a precedent of delivering on a particular kind of request)?

When you put the burden of proof for something like this on the parents, you're effectively gutting a little thing called IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which serves as the underpinning for the entire IEP (Individual Education Plan) process, which relies on the idea that children with special needs deserve access to the same education as everyone else, even if that means giving them extra tools and support to attain that. It's a powerful little acronym. Or was.

We happen to be in a wonderful school district now. So far, no problems here. I expect that if we continue to choose the schools Damian attends with great care (they give us that option here), we will continue to get excellent support. This is a huge part of why we chose this town and even this state.

But I also know a lot about the Los Angeles Unified School District. And what I know isn't pretty. Most of the people we dealt with on a face-to-face basis were good people, people who genuinely wanted to help. But they had a mandate from on high to only give a certain amount. They had rules and restrictions, some of them quite severe and most of them detrimental to the children they're supposedly there to serve.

Would they confess this? Not publicly, of course not. It's in violation of the law that you have to look at the individual child and his or her specific needs. But the truth was, behind closed doors, they said things like "We don't do what you're asking, we don't give that level of service or that kind of support," and that was pretty much that. The LAUSD has one of the highest percentage of cases brought to due process (ie: the courtroom) of any district in California, maybe the country. Rumor has it that they've made a calculation that it's cheaper to deny services and deal with a certain number of due process claims as a result than to give the services in the first place. What do you think this new ruling will do to their unofficial policy? I think it's about to get a whole lot worse.

So much for equal rights under the law. Sure, you can have the rights. If you can prove you need them. But you probably can't.