The Decision to Leave

No, I haven’t decided to leave the country. Hopefully, November’s election will not cause me to seriously consider that possibility.

In my practice, when parents seek my assistance to improve their child’s education, one thing that I have to tell them right away is that although I can advocate for their legal rights, no law can turn a bad teacher into a good teacher. Of course, that does not mean that I cannot help, and I often am able to help improve a child’s education by convincing a school district to change educational practices or staff, or sometimes to transfer the child to a different school that can better meet the child’s needs.

Yet, sometimes school districts are simply unwilling to acknowledge their own failures and therefore refuse to change the practices that have caused my clients to seek my assistance. In those instances, parents are faced with a stark choice. They can either take legal action, which takes time, costs money, and has an uncertain outcome, or they can just leave and try to get their child a better education somewhere else.

I currently have two clients who have made the decision to leave their district. Since one of those families has not left yet, I am not going to write further about them right now. However, the other family has left Madison to return to their home state in Florida, and they have given me permission to tell their story in the hope that the Madison school district can learn something from what they went through.

These clients left Florida to move to Madison because of the Madison Metropolitan school district’s (MMSD) reputation for providing an inclusive education to students with disabilities. Sadly, as is true with many reputations, what they discovered is that reputation is sorely out of date.

Not once, but twice, only after many complaints, MMSD removed staff from working with my client. In one case, the staff person was fired, and the district agreed to provide compensatory education. In the second case, after repeated use of inappropriate seclusion and restraint on my client, my clients and I asked for that staff person to be removed. It took months to have her removed. By this time, my client was so traumatized that his doctor diagnosed him with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and his parents removed him from Orchard Ridge Elementary school.

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At that point, his parents no longer felt safe sending their son to school. I attended a series of meetings with them at school advocating for well documented and professionally supported changes in how their son was being educated, and yet, we made little progress. Eventually, his parents sent him back to school for lunch and recess with his father watching him to make sure he was no longer subjected to inappropriate seclusion and restraint. But the sad fact is that he was not getting an education.

In these situation, I often suggest that the district bring in an outside consultant to suggest improved strategies to better educate the child. In this case, my clients agreed and we suggested a highly qualified expert who used to work for MMSD and is well respected by the district. However, although the assistant director of special education initially stated he would approve the consultation and have the district pay for it, he then proceeded to engage in a Kafkaesque series of questions about the consultation that were clearly designed to make it impossible to satisfy whatever his concerns allegedly may have been.

As a result, the family made the difficult decision to return to Florida instead of engaging in litigation, in the hope that they can find a better education for their son there. His mother, Michelle, filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) on the grounds that:

MMSD has:

  • Continually failed to follow their son’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) during for the past two school years. MMSD admitted to this failure last year and offered a minimal amount of compensatory education;
  • Failed to address resulting behavior challenges and elopement issues with by conducting Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA), instead addressing the issues using a variety of punishments. Additionally, MMSD even failed to conduct an FBA after incidents of restraint and seclusion of which the school principal and the assistant director of special education were made aware;
  • Written BIPs (Behavior Intervention Plans) without conducting an FBA;
  • Held IEP meetings to subsequently update the BIP, still without conducting an FBA; and
  • Changed significant sections of their son’s IEP outside of an IEP meeting and without parental input, including:
    1. Goals and objectives; and
    2. Setting, which inappropriately changed to an extremely restrictive environment.

This is simply tragic. Moreover, the option of moving is simply unavailable to many people, either due to work, family, or economics. The bottom line is that nobody should have to move because a school district fails to provide their child an appropriate education. In this case, it was worse, their son is traumatized.

Of course, I respect my clients’ decision to return to Florida, and I will continue to do my best to improve the education of clients who seek my assistance. However, families cannot always wait for systems change as their children need a quality education now, and should not be traumatized on a regular basis while attending school. So, while I will stay here and work to improve MMSD’s delivery of special education services and supports, I know that sometimes, families will have to make the decision to leave. Our community deserves better. We must insist that all of our children receive an appropriate education and are not forced to make the decision to leave, and hold those who are responsible for failing to provide the education that every child deserves, accountable for their failure.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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