Teachers and Related Service Providers: SPEAK UP, You Have Rights Too!

Published on May 1, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

Here is an absolute truth that special education administrators routinely deny:

Many teachers and other service providers in public school districts are routinely told to violate the IDEA.

Now, it’s rarely said that way…administrators don’t go around saying “okay, today I want you to violate the IDEA.”

They don’t have to.

It is said quite clearly in the subtle, and not so subtle, statements and actions which occur on a daily basis in our public schools.  As when teachers are told right before an IEP meeting that is expected to be contentious: “I am not hiring another para for this kid; don’t forget who signs your paycheck.”

Or when an occupational therapist is told “I know the parent wants daily OT, but we’re recommending a half an hour a week.  If you have a problem with that, I can see if another OT can make the meeting.”

Or in the hostile body language of a special education director when a speech pathologist states candidly at an IEP meeting that they, too, are concerned about the child’s ability to interact with peers.

Or when the physical therapist who has done a particularly thorough evaluation is conveniently asked not to attend the meeting at which it’s being reviewed.

And if you think I’m making this up, each example above was shared with me not by the parents, but by the teacher or service provider.

In my view, one of the biggest obstacles to our country having a truly successful special education system is that public school educators, in particular special education teachers, OTs, PTs, and SLPs, are under a tremendous amount of pressure not to recommend additional services for children who are eligible for special education instruction.

The message is clear:  recommend extensive or expensive services for kids with disabilities at your own peril.

Perhaps this is why I get about a large percentage of my referrals “off the record” from school district employees.  They know what’s going on, they know that the child needs help, and they feel powerless to stand up to the administration.  What a horrible place to be in for a person who chose to make a career out of helping children with disabilities.

Well, teachers and services providers, I’m here to tell you, you have rights too!

You can not lawfully be retaliated against for being honest about what a child with special needs requires, or for advocating for those rights, or for trying to prevent a violation of those rights.  In fact, in one of my all time favorite cases, Settlegoode v. Portland, a teacher in Portland, Oregon sued, AND WON, when she was fired as retaliation for expressing her opinion that the school district was failing children with special needs. If you are either in or are afraid of being put in a similar situation, read the Decision: http://www.wrightslaw.com/law/caselaw/04/9th.settlegoode.portland.htm.

For information from the United States Department of Education on protecting the rights of kids with disabilities, check out: http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html.  You should also look into your individual state’s whistle blowing statutes.  I personally like the simple summary of educational professionals’ rights in this letter from a P&A in California: http://www.disabilityrightsca.org/Pubs/540801.htm

If you are working with children with disabilities, it’s time to speak up.

If you don’t believe it can make a difference, I have a true story for you, one that still makes me cry.

Many years ago I was attending an IEP meeting for a child with Asperger’s Disorder.  He was about to transition to middle school, and his parents were terrified, since he was barely holding it together in the small, supportive elementary school where the adults all loved him.  The kid spent about half his day in the nurse’s office and was being bullied regularly.

So here I was, trying to convince the special education director that he needed a private placement, and the director was fighting me tooth and nail.  As we were battling, there was a knock on the door.  The door opened, and in walked the school nurse, looking very nervous. She quietly said “I know you’re having a meeting about Jesse, and I just wanted to give some input.”

She had not been invited to the meeting by the administration, and the special education director was very clearly NOT HAPPY to see her.

And she made just one statement:  “I just wanted to say that Jesse is in my office many times a day, every day. I think he feels safe there.  And I try to work with him to get him to go back to class, and sometimes we can get him to.  But I just felt I had to say, I am terrified about him going to middle school next year.  I don’t think he could possibly handle that environment.  So that’s all I wanted to say.”  Then she left.

And the special education director, beet red, placed my client at the school we were requesting.

When we got into the parking lot, I told the parents, “you tell that woman if anybody so much as looks at her crossly for telling the truth about Jesse, she should call me and I will represent her for free, because that is the bravest thing I have ever seen at an IEP meeting.”  It still is.

I sympathize with being in a place where you feel that being honest about the kids you work with might cost you your job.  But, just as I say to parents who are allowing their school district to violate the law, they get away with it most of the time because the good people who know better are letting it happen.  Let’s end that now, together; the Jesse’s of the world need us all to be brave.

6 Responses to Teachers and Related Service Providers: SPEAK UP, You Have Rights Too!

  1. sherri
    May 1st, 2009 | 11:13 am

    We were in this situation also.

    I witnessed with MY own EYES, another child grasping my childs hair with his fist, and then he would not let go.(I was not mad at this 13 yr ol child, he had more needs than our son.)

    After the paras/everyone remaning calm…which told me this was not the first time it had happened with our son.

    The child proceeded to throw a portable radio at the para and was distressed…but eventualy calmed down.

    This was the last straw for me…We had been awaiting a year for own behavior plan…I pulled him from the program..it was a YEAR before he returned.

    No one would speak of what happened…we did the attorney ect…looking for an appropraite program.
    The paras apologized,(we can not talk about it, or we will lose our jobs) the teacher moved up the school ladder….(problem solved right?)

  2. Teddi- Special Education Teacher
    May 23rd, 2009 | 6:24 pm

    I am happy to say that I have not had anything quite this severe happen in the district where I work. I do know decisions are in the best interest of the student but you ALWAYS also know that how much it will cost is in the back of the minds of administrators.

    We absolutely need more para-educators in our schools to assist the children who need more supervision & assistance. Not having enough para-educators has been an issue in my school corporation as well as others. We also need a smaller student-teacher ratio in self contained classes.

    We absolutely need more parents to be aware of their rights and speak up and demand their child’s needs be met.

    We all just need to work together for what is best for a given child.


  3. stacey sibley
    February 12th, 2011 | 12:00 pm

    I am a special education administrator who did speak up for my students with special education needs. I spoke up about some major safety issues.
    Within a month I was demoted, when I continued to speak up I was demoted again. I was put on paid leave (even thought I was the one who spoke up) I was blackballed,marginalized. I finally had to leave the distirct I worked for, for 18 years.
    Was it worth it? I am not sure. It was and still is the most difficult thing I have ever done or gone through. It is not so easy. You become very isolated and alone. Nobody wants to go near you. You are now a trouble makeer, not a team player.

  4. Jennifer Laviano
    February 12th, 2011 | 6:04 pm

    Stacey, thank you, thank you for having the courage to speak up…we need more who are. Thank you also for reading.

  5. Pamella Settlegoode, Ph.D.
    May 11th, 2011 | 10:04 pm

    My only regret centers on the fact that most of the conditons I reported continue and that more educators and parents have not used my case to evolve the students to where they should be. However, in the current state of affairs, it seems that all of public education is rapidly sliding to the “back of the bus” where I reported Special Education students aren’t even on the “bus.” My statement, unfortunately, still remains true. I thank you for your commitment to children who learn with special needs, and for your continued support for my litigation and what it meant.

  6. Jennifer Laviano
    May 11th, 2011 | 10:11 pm

    Dr. Settlegoode, I greatly appreciate your comment, your insight, and what I know must have been a long and hard battle for justice. Many, many thanks for reading.