What do you do when the school system ignores you? When it denies your voice? When it changes the rules while the game is being played? What if the experience with the school had your child questioning their self-worth? Ever been in a conversation that you think you’re in only to find out you were never there?
That’s the experience of Franco and Elizabeth De Liguori and their son Nick. Nick is a student in the Hillsborough County Public School system in Tampa, Florida. Hillsborough is a school system not new to conflict in servicing special needs students. Given the past history and assumption that progress had been made, the experiences of the De Liguori’s thus far have been less than…progressive.
Prior to this school year Mr. & Mrs. De Liguori would not have anticipated their 13 year old son, Nick, planning his educational goals. However, this is exactly what he did. As the school year began Nick was hopeful and optimistic about not only his future, but the fact that he was taking ownership of it and having input.
Nick is a special needs student by definition. I deem it important to note as there is a difference in how Nick views his abilities and how he perceives the ‘system’ in viewing them. In speaking with Nick about his goals he was very clear. “I want to be in classes with other students. Right now I’m really bored and I want to be able to focus on classes and making new friends. I can’t do that where I am.” When the school year began Nick and his parents were both highly optimistic about the possibilities for him. “We build expectations every single day, it is hard to look too far into the future because the today needs and challenges are too great but our final goal is to have Nick as a member of the community/society who is respected and independent”, Mrs. De Liguori clarified.
Nick followed through on his promise and earned honor roll for the first time as well as being acknowledged for his good conduct. You would think that this would be the beginning of a positive end and an example of how schools and parents come together to build on a child’s strengths. It hasn’t been that, not at all. What is has been is typical. Nick and his parents were asking for the school to develop a plan of inclusion or mainstreaming. This involves developing strategies to create opportunities for special needs students to learn alongside their non-disabled peers. This is a troubled journey that many parents of special needs students find the most challenging.
The Illusion of Inclusion
The school year began with promises of hope for Nick and was espoused by the school district in terms of ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’. Mrs. De Liguori said of her expectations, “We were expecting goals that focus on his weaknesses and would support his integration into the class. [We expected] social goals to interact in a meaningful way with typical peers and academic goals to help him succeed and learn in a more challenging environment”. After four months of meetings, ignored letters and emails at every level of the school system, the De Liguori’s were informed by Nick that he had started his mainstreamed class, yet the parents had not heard a word from the district confirming anything.
The reasons for non-responsiveness were ignored even when asked directly by the parents. An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting is intended to be collaboration between parents and the school in developing strategies for the student. What has become a staple of these meetings is a process called the Delphi Technique. Although intended to help facilitate the meeting and get everyone’s opinion, it too can and has been used to steer conversations and limit the voices of parents. This is the illusion of inclusion. When parents talk their voices can be stifled by the ‘team’ or facilitator who sets the agenda and in many cases creates the narratives. The experience of the De Liguori’s has been consistent with those criticisms. “[There was] lack of understanding of Nick's disability, lack of expertise, no accountability when plans has been agreed with parents, denial of school personnel about the real issues with Nick and specially the stubbornness position of the school to place him into a setting that is convenient for the school with no consideration of Nick's very unique needs”, said Mrs. De Liguori.
Throughout the four month process the De Liguori’s endured three different facilitators and inconsistent attendance of the professionals connected to Nick’s plan. Needless to say, not only did the agenda change with each meeting, so did the narratives. At some point the De Liguori’s began to see the disconnect, not only from them as parents, but internally between the district and school staff. “The opinions [and] positions of the staff that works with the student on a day to day basis are not considered if it is in opposition of the special education administration. There is a total disconnect and ambiguity between these two parties. Services and plans remain a paper document and it is not translated into real services for the student. The administration has a continuous negative attitude against parents and uses techniques to intimidate and/or discriminate against parents that passionately advocate for their kids”, said Mrs. De Liguori.
Since the four month delay in a plan initiated by the motivation of a 13 year old special needs student, the breakdowns in formulating sound support have resulted in a de-motivated student who is not trusting of the adults responsible for his learning. When I asked the De Liguori’s about Nick’s current state of mind regarding school, they shared that “Nick's anxiety and emotional state has been severely affected by the situation, he feels frustrated, scared and sees himself like not having other options. He has manifested that "he doesn't want to be on this world" and that all his options are closed. We have never seen him with this level of anxiety before. The whole family dynamic is affected for that situation, work cannot be done and for that reason we have been impacted financially. His siblings feel scared and traumatized and are even afraid to have friends coming over the house because they don't know how Nick is going to react. They feel like the whole family gravitates around his current situation and we cannot have a more balanced normal life.”
Systems Drive Success or Failure
When the accountability movement began in the late ‘90’s, the term ‘accountability’ became a new addition to” educationese” jargon. It wasn’t intended to devolve to a six syllable word that is used to present intentions, but to align words with actions. True accountability has a system to it. It is able to demonstrate repeatedly what it can produce. Every school has a system, a process or method for achieving results. Some are good, some not so good, and some are just awful. What they have in common is, they are representative of the way people work, their system.
The issue of systemic failures is not isolated to Hillsborough County Public Schools. Currently the Department of Education is undertaking 23 investigations into alleged civil rights violations in the Salt Lake City School District. The investigation into these violations includes discrimination on the basis of disability, sex or race. Several of these cases were brought forth by Michael Clara, a former member of the Salt Lake City School District Board of Education. Clara acknowledges the power of a system to limit progress for students and families.
“The more closed [the system] is, the more they’re able to get away with,” Clara said. “If you take away transparency from a government agency then there’s no accountability because there’s nobody there to question anything.”
Special education is no different than any other aspect of the educational environment in terms of accountability. The exception is that it requires more collaboration, more transparency and a system that proves it is meeting the needs of the children. A good ‘system’ bases its accountability on how it builds on the strengths of the children it serves, not their disabilities. The experiences of the De Liguori’s expose a ‘system’ of compliance. These types of systems rely heavily on processes to facilitate their system and fit the child in where it works. It is the essence of not only limiting the capacity of the child, but those that serve in the system. The problem with fixing such a pattern is getting the people who operate it to acknowledge what they ‘think’ is working, is only working for them. The end result is that you’re addressing a system solely, but a culture.
Being up close and connected to Nick’s plight, it wasn’t a far stretch for me to wonder if their experience was an isolated one. Being one of the largest school districts in the nation, it serves a large spectrum of students across all socio-economic groups and demographics. Yet in focusing on special needs students, the questions begs itself, how many parents of special needs children have a similar story to tell? How many students are being moved beyond their disabilities in preparation for life beyond public schooling? What evidence is there beyond “intentions” and mission statements of that effort?
In education circles where accountability is high, good educators go out of their way to set goals for special needs children that look beyond their identified disability. Over the past several years the issues around public school meeting the needs of special education students has seen an increase in home schooling. Aside from citing the inability of the schools to meet the needs of their child, the underlying theme is low expectations. This is evidenced in the low level of inclusion, mainstreaming and other inclusive strategies that grow children towards their future. Educators who practice this create cultures of progress. These educators know that whatever the disability, their goal is to minimize it and help that student develop skills and strategies to build on their strengths, not their weaknesses. These educators recognize the “warehousing” of special needs students as a practice and work to combat it. It is reflected in dialogue and actions that consistently focus on the limitations of the student and evoke their voice to change it. Good schools don’t grow special needs students or limit their growth. They move them beyond their identified barriers.
All systems produce patterns, and systems built on accountability learn from them. In reviewing the parameters and history of Hillsborough County Public Schools, the case of Whitehead v. Hillsborough School Board, it was hard to not see consistencies from 1998 to now. Often times delaying a response, as in the De Liguori case is a frustrating process for parents and unfortunately a method for some schools to avoid the level of accountability that the public assumes they are providing. In response to the complaints of parents of special needs students about delays as a tactic in providing services, the U.S. Department of education felt it necessary to issue a memo to all State Directors of Special Education to address this pattern.
State of Mind
Since the beginning of September I have been connected to the De Liguori’s and Nick’s journey. I have seen firsthand their frustrations and share them. Having supervised special education departments for over twenty years, it doesn’t take long to determine the intent and capacities of a system. One only has to look at the patterns. I asked the De Liguori’s to share any lessons they may have learned that parents in similar situation could benefit from, “Everything needs to be documented, and every plan needs to have a deadline and a person accountable. Do not trust the school, follow up and supervise every little service/plan written on his IEP. Do not accept no for an answer, do not believe their arguments unless they can prove it, and support the "boots on the ground."