Defining “Appropriate Education”

Ever since Congress passed the original law requiring public schools to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPEto students with disabilities in 1975, everyone involved in the special education system has struggled with the definition of “appropriate.” This includes teachers, parents, advocates, attorneys and the court system. The problem, of course, is that the word appropriate defies precise definition. On one hand, the law does not require public schools to provide children with disabilities the best possible education, even though parents should always advocate for that. On the other hand, if a child fails to make any progress and merely gets a de minimis education, that is clearly not appropriate and therefore violates the law. The challenge has been in that huge grey area in between. Some have said the the child is not entitled to a Cadillac type of education, but only a Chevrolet. I like to add that the Chevrolet must have 4 wheels and be in sound operating condition.

Fortunately, earlier this year, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court offered updated clarification on this issue and rejected the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals definition of appropriate. The 10th Circuit had ruled that public school merely needed to provide, “merely more than de minimis” education to children with disabilities, but in the case known as Endrew F., the Supreme Court stated that,

a school must offer an IEP [individualized education program] that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

The Court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

While this case, especially in light of its unanimous nature in an often divided Supreme Court, is very important, earlier this week, something even more important happened when the U.S. Department of Education issued a Q&A on the Endrew F. decision. This Q&A is very important because:

  • Many advocates feared that Secretary DeVos would eviscerate enforcement of the special education law known as the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act);
  • Public reaction was strong and many were troubled with the U.S. Department of Education rescinded 72 pieces of policy guidance in October; and
  • Most important, as set forth below, the Q&A fully supports both the substance and rationale of the Endrew F. decision and thus the U.S. Dept. of Education appears prepared to enforce the IDEA according to this landmark decision.

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Due to the importance of both the Endrew F. decision and the administration’s interpretation of it, everyone involved in the education of children with disabilities should be aware of the following key points emphasized by the Q&A:

  • Public schools must offer an IEP that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” to all students with disabilities, including those performing at grade level and those unable to perform at grade level.
  • “[A] student offered an educational program providing merely more than de minimis progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all…The IDEA demands more.”
  • Each child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his or her circumstances, and every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.
  • In determining whether an IEP is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress, the IEP Team should consider the child’s previous rate of academic growth, whether the child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency, and any behaviors interfering with the child’s progress.
  • The IEP Team, which must include the child’s parents, must give “careful consideration to the child’s present levels of achievement, disability, and potential for growth.”
  • The IEP must include annual goals that aim to improve educational results and functional performance for each child with a disability. This inherently includes a meaningful opportunity for the child to meet challenging objectives.
  • Annual IEP goals for children with the most significant cognitive disabilities should be appropriately ambitious and “reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The Q&A concludes by stating that,

IEP Teams must implement policies, procedures, and practices relating to: (1) identifying present levels of academic achievement and functional performance; (2) the setting of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals; and; (3) how a child’s progress toward meeting annual goals will be measured and reported, so that the Endrew F. standard is met for each individual child with a disability.

In sum, with both a typically divided Supreme Court and the U.S. Department of Education which advocates feared would take special education backwards, making strong statements in favor of a meaningful definition of appropriate education, parents and advocates now have important tools to insist that children with disabilities receive the kind of education that will allow them to make meaningful progress every year.

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

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Vague Goals Produce Vague Results

Three years ago, I wrote with concern that the Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) Behavior Education Plan (BEP), while laudable in its purpose to reduce suspensions and expulsions and improve in school behavior, would be challenged to make genuine progress without specific goals. While I would be glad to admit that my prediction was wrong, the recently released Quarter 1 Review of the BEP confirms my fears.

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To be clear, due to some criticism of the BEP, including my own concern that it had vague goals, and insufficient staff training and support, a new implementation plan was adopted along with the following goals:

1) to promote and increase positive student behavior and social emotional growth, 2) to reduce use of out-of-school suspension and 3) to decrease disproportionate use of out-of-school suspension practices for African American students and students with disabilities.

Yet, these laudable goals are not specific, i.e., how much should positive student behavior and social emotional growth increase, how much should out-of-school suspensions decrease, and how much should disproportionate use of out-of-school suspensions for African American students and students with disabilities decrease? Moreover, if even these vague goals are not achieved, who should be held accountable for the failure to achieve these goals, and in what manner?

Remarkably, three years after the BEP was passed by the school board, without explanation or justification, the report concedes that:

A small number of schools, however, are working on establishing stable response systems, and achieving a basic level of positive student behavior and support for social emotional growth. These schools experienced, in first quarter, a disproportionate increase in level 2-5 behavior due in part to a lack of robust systems to support positive student behavior.

To be sure, there is good news in the report. For example:

  • Compared to first quarter of 2016-2017, the out-of-school suspension risk ratio for African American students in middle school has decreased significantly from 20:1 to 8:1.
  • The district-wide out-of-school suspension risk ratio for African American students and students with disabilities in Quarter 1 of this year is the lowest (10:1 for African American students and 6:1 for students with disabilities) it has ever been when comparing data from the past three first quarters of school.

However, these improvements are in stark contrast with the following bad news:

  • an overall increase in behavior events by 18% this year compared to 2016- 2017;
  • Elementary schools account for 61% of all level 2-5 incidents in Quarter 1 this year. Three of those schools had 28% of all elementary level 2-5 incidents;
  • Out-of-school suspension rates overall have increased by 15%, as compared to first quarter last year; despite reduced risk ratios, the increase is driven largely by middle school (24% increase) with students of all ethnicities accounting for some portion of the increase;
  • At the high school level, out-of-school suspensions and level 2-5 incidents are slightly up this year compared to last year, and the increase mostly impacts African American students; and
  • Most schools are below the expected baseline of implementation in the intervention category and have strategies “off track” to address the need.

Remarkably, the report’s Next Steps contain absolutely no focus on problem schools, specific goals to achieve or accountability for failure to achieve the many goals that remain out of reach.

What remains unexplained is how the behavior incidents dropped from 17,015 involving 3,841 students in the 2015-16 school year to 14,929 incidents involving 3,344 students, but then rose to exceed the already high 2015-16 numbers to 17,678 incidents involving 4,112 students. Without evidence, the report attributes this over 16% jump to, “more cohesive and comprehensive school implementation of practices foundational to behavior education.” Yet, such a statement is clearly counter-intuitive since the primary goal of the BEP is reduce behavior incidents, a dramatic rise in behavior incidents the 3rd year of implementation simply cannot be the result of better implementation that is counter to the goal.

Regarding the disproportionality goal, the report states that:

Disproportionality, particularly for our African American students, students with disabilities, and male students persists. With a disproportionality increase of 2%, in behavior incidents for African American students supporting schools, particularly addressing the implementation area that focuses on decision making. While we have not yet moved the needle for our African American students, we have experienced a 2% decrease in disproportionality for male students and 7% decrease for students with disabilities.

Since it is well documented that the school to prison pipeline is fueled by out of school suspensions and expulsions, one must wonder why MMSD has failed to reduce out of school suspensions. Yet, the report reveals that:

Out-of-school suspension rates overall have increased by 15%, as compared to first quarter last year, an increase (24%) driven largely by middle schools.

Worse than that and perhaps revealing the complete failure of accountability in implementing the BEP, the report honestly concedes that:

this data is not surprising. A key reflection, following the evaluation, was that continuing to do more of the same will not move the needle.

While the report praises the fact that out of school suspension disproportionality for African American students has decreased, such a decrease hardly matters when the overall suspension rate continues to rise.

The report fails to comment on the deeply troubling data that out of school suspension disproportionately for students with disabilities increased significantly. While 15% of MMSD’s students have disabilities, 55% of out of school suspensions involve students with disabilities, up from 50% in the prior 2 years. Sadly, the report fails to mention a single recommendation about how to improve supports for special education staff and students to mitigate this problem.

To its credit, the report is candid about the many ways in which the school district is off track in implementing the BEP. What it does not explain is why such failure is allowed to persist. Towards the end of the report, all schools are listed by where they are in implementing the BEP divided by 3 phases. This shows that elementary schools are making vastly more progress in implementing the BEP with a majority of those schools already at phase 3. But, without explanation, this chart also shows that no middle schools are at phase 3 and only half are at phase 2 of implementation, and even  worse, no high schools are in phase 3 and only 1 (Memorial) is at phase 2.

As I have said since I praised the adoption of the BEP, the plan is a good one, the failures then as now continue to be that it has:

  • vague goals;
  • lack of accountability; and
  • insufficient staff training and support.

Until the MMSD school board addresses these problems, we can expect to see a continuation of mixed results from an otherwise laudable plan, which is a wasted opportunity to improve the lives of our students and keep them out of the school to prison pipeline.

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

 

From Generation to Generation

This past weekend, my wife, son and I traveled to Detroit to celebrate my nephew Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah. Jonah did a marvelous job reading from the Torah and describing the meaning of his Torah portion to the congregation. It also gave our family a welcome opportunity to be together and celebrate Jonah’s coming of age.

Our family was ready for an opportunity to celebrate because less than 2 months ago, my mother suffered a stroke. This unfortunate event happened about 2 years after she fell down her basement stairs shattering her femur and breaking 3 vertebrae in her neck. As I wrote during her recovery, her brave battle to rehabilitate from these devastating injuries reminded me of why she is my hero.

My mother has approached her effort to rehabilitate from her stroke with the same attitude that has allowed her to recover from many setbacks in her life. She knew her grandson’s Bar Mitzvah was not far away, and she was determined to be there and soak up as much pride as a bubbie can absorb.

Sure enough, on Friday night, as family and out of town friends gathered for a Shabbat dinner, my mother leaned over to me and said, “you didn’t think I would make it.” To the contrary, I informed her that I always knew she would make it.

During the past few years, my son has had an increasing interest in understanding where his ancestors came from and enjoys talking to his grandparents to fill in the holes in his knowledge about family history. On Friday afternoon, we had a chance to visit my mother while she relaxed at home and he asked my mother many questions about her family history, going back to her grandparents in Europe. She told him stories that I had not heard, including a trip she and her husband Peter (who has been a true marvel in helping my mother recover) took in 1999 to the small town in Poland where her family emigrated from prior to World War II. My son asked questions and took notes, and despite my mother’s slowed speech due to her stroke, he learned a lot about his family history.

On Saturday night, my sister and brother-in-law hosted a lovely party to celebrate Jonah’s Bar Mitzvah. My mother and her husband came and enjoyed their third event in 24 hours, but after a few hours, they needed to go home and rest. When they did so, much of my family accompanied them as they left and you can see the pride and joy which my son and my mother take in each other’s presence.

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Although my wife and I do not live in the same towns as our parents, we have always strived to raise our son with a deep respect for his ancestors. Now that he is an adult, attending college away from home, we take great pleasure in watching him connect with his grandparents, as he seeks to learn about his family history from them. We hope our parents continue to live for years to come and provide their grandchildren with the knowledge and history that helps them understand where they came from to better understand who they are.

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

Random Acts of Kindness

Every morning, I walk my dog through our neighborhood park. During these walks, I always pick up whatever litter I find to help keep our beautiful park clean and to keep the trash out of the waterways.

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Tenney Park

Since I keep my eyes on the ground for signs of trash while I walk through the park, every once in a while, I am fortunate enough to find some money. Indeed, sometimes I have found as much as $50!

Over the past few months, when I have reported a fortunate discovery of money to my son, who is away at college, he asked me what I was going to do with the money. His question gave me pause because in the past, to be honest, I just put the money in my wallet and considered myself lucky, and really never thought about what I would do with the money. Since I am fortunate enough not to need the money to meet my basic needs, I responded to my son that I would use the money for random acts of kindness.

Of course, responding in that way presented a new challenge to me, namely, to consciously remember that I am committed to using my fortunate findings of money on the ground to engage in random acts of kindness. This has actually raised my consciousness about the privilege I have to be economically secure so that when I encounter those who do not have that security, I can provide some assistance to them. It also means that these random acts of kindness need to supplement rather than supplant my normal charitable giving.

Earlier this week, I was given an opportunity to help someone in need. While relaxing at home with my wife watching a show on TV, I received a call from someone who I have been supporting along with a few other people in a Circle of Support. Our support is generally strategic and not financial (i.e., how to find housing and employment). It was unusual for him to call me at night, particularly because we had a Circle of Support meeting scheduled the following evening. He asked me if I could come to meet him, and I asked him if it was urgent. He said it was, so I agreed to do so.

When I met him, he told me that his few belongings were gone from his apartment and when he asked his roommate what happened, his roommate told him that he had been evicted and the landlord had thrown out all of his belongings. He was wearing slippers as his shoes had been thrown away. I told him I would contact his landlord in the morning because self-help evictions and throwing away a tenant’s possessions are both illegal. However, the most immediate concern was where he would spend the night.

He asked me if I would take him to an inexpensive motel as he did not want to spend the night in a homeless shelter. Although I had some concerns about where he would stay in the future, I decided that my random act of kindness would be to honor his request. Before doing so, I bought him a sub sandwich and a bottle of water. On the way to the motel, he also asked if I could give him some money for a soda. Since I was concerned that a sub sandwich and a soda would not give him sufficient sustenance the following day, I gave him $20 to buy some food the next day. In doing so, I told him that I found the money in the park. He didn’t believe me, but I insisted it was true. He told me he would pay me back and I informed him that he did not need to worry about it, although if he chose to do so once he was back on his feet, that would be fine.

While random acts of kindness may not change fundamental systems of oppression and poverty, they are the necessary acts that help each of us survive and remind us of the qualities that make us human. Perhaps if we all practice random acts of kindness on a regular basis, those who suffer from oppression will receive enough relief from their burdens to persevere another day.

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

Setting a Progressive Constitutional Convention Agenda

Yesterday, Wisconsin became the 28th state legislature to pass a resolution calling for a Constitutional Convention. Article V of the U.S. Constitution provides that a Constitutional Convention may take place if 2/3 of the states call for one. That means 6 more states would need to call for a Constitutional Convention in order to take place.

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There has not been a Constitutional Convention since 1787 when the current Constitution was written after it was recognized that he original Articles of Confederation written during the revolution and ratified in 1781, did not provide adequate cohesion for the new nation. Even the new Constitution quickly proved inadequate, requiring Congress to propose the Bill of Rights, which became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution when they were ratified by the states in 1791. Since then 23 additional Constitutional amendments have been proposed, and 17 of them have been ratified. Some of these amendments changed prior aspects of the Constitution (e.g., slavery, election of the Senate, revisions to how the President is elected, ending prohibition of alcohol, Presidential term limits, granting Presidential electors to the District of Columbia, and establishing a succession order to the President). There has not been a Constitutional amendment ratified since 1992, when the 27th Amendment, which delays any Congressional salary raises approved by Congress until the next Congress is elected. That amendment took 202 years to ratify, by far the longest period of time any amendment has taken to ratify.

Most progressives have opposed efforts by states to approve a resolution calling for a Constitutional Convention  because the impetus for these resolutions, which have been pushed by the fiscally conservative Koch brothers, is to adopt a balanced federal budget requirement into our Constitution. Most progressives and many economists believe that such a balanced budget would be ruinous for the American economy and that funding for social programs would be eviscerated under such an amendment.

The surprising aspect of progressive opposition is that it is driven by an assumption that fiscal and social conservatives will prevail and get their way. It further presumes that the U.S. Constitution is just fine as it is, when in reality, there are a number Constitutional provisions that progressives can and should push to amend should a Constitutional Convention take place.

Indeed, instead of just playing defense, affirmatively proposing a progressive agenda for a Constitutional Convention could actually rally grassroots support to accomplish the following important goals:

  • Revising the 1st Amendment to clarify that political donations are not protected as free speech. This would go a long way towards elimination of secretive and huge donations to politicians which have turned our elections into a buyer takes all nightmare.
  • Revising the 2nd Amendment to clarify that ownership of guns can be tightly regulated and that weapons that have no legitimate purpose other than to commit mass murder, can be outlawed.
  • Revising the way we elect our President by eliminating the electoral college, thereby assuring voters that a majority of voters will elect our President.
  • Establishing a right to legal counsel in civil cases so that people cannot evicted or have other civil rights removed without representation.
  • Granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico; and
  • Finally passing the Equal Rights Amendment to assure that women have the same rights as men.

Of course, there may be other progressive ways we can improve our Constitution, but if progressives simply stand pat with their current “just say no” to a Constitutional Convention, we will not even have these discussions to find out what other wonderful ideas to improve a document, originally written when it was legal to own slaves, and women did not have the right to vote, was first ratified.

To be clear, a Constitutional Convention in the 21st century would open our nation to potentially regressive changes to our Constitution, but in this case, a good defense, requires a very strong offense.

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

Author the Future

Earlier this week, I was in Washington, DC for a J Street Leadership Summit, during which roughly 200 leaders of J Street gathered from around the country to learn and strategize about how to achieve the long sought 2 state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, this is no easy task, and cannot be done without many partners.

During the opening plenary session, the featured speakers were Israeli Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel sitting side by side with Ambassador Dr. Husam Zomlot, Chief Representative of the Palestinian General Delegation to the United States. While these two experienced men did not always agree, they both believe that a 2 state solution is both necessary and possible.

During Amb. Zomlot’s presentation, he said three words that struck a chord during our troubling times. He encouraged us to, “author the future.”

Of course, each of us may choose to author the future in our own way. But one thing we cannot afford to do is sit back and do nothing while others determine our future for us.

Understandably, given the wide array of challenges which we all face on both a personal and societal level, it is quite easy to become paralyzed by the belief that one cannot have any impact by taking any particular action. Yet, in my 30+ years of engaging in systems change on a wide variety of topics, I have borne witness to the power of both individual and collective action that has the power to author the future in a positive manner.

Of course, no one can author the future of every single problem that one faces. There are, of course, a myriad of problems, both personal and societal that we all face, and nobody can take every single one of them on. Perhaps, to author the future, means to determine which problems each of us will take an active role in addressing, and then in what manner.

By doing something to author the future, including voting and contributing to causes one believes in, you are pushing back against the aphorism, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.

The day after learning from Amb. Zomlot and many others, I joined J Street leaders on Capitol Hill as we met with our members of Congress. Between meetings, many of us grabbed lunch in the Longworth House Cafeteria, where Congressional staff and visitors often eat. As I was getting up to leave for my next meeting, I was surprised to see an icon of the civil rights movement, who is also a great J Street supporter, Cong. John Lewis, eating lunch with a staff person.

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Before leaving for my next meeting, I took the time to introduce myself and thank Rep. Lewis for his decades of service to our nation. I also introduced him to a college student who is on the board of J Street U, who was joining me for Congressional meetings. Rep. Lewis encouraged us to keep up the good work and when we told him that we were going to meet with our Congressman Mark Pocan, he told us that Rep. Pocan was a great Congressman. By introducing a young advocate to this great leader, I hope I helped to author the future of a young man by inspiring him to continue his advocacy to help to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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

 

So Many Reasons to Learn a Language

Do you know what this means?

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Does it scare you?

Apparently, hearing this word for those who do not understand it scares some airline employees enough to kick someone who says it off an airplane. This was not an isolated incident as kicking innocent Muslims off airplanes happens far too frequently.

Communication is the key to understanding. Unfortunately, English speaking nations tend to be the worst at learning foreign languages. In the United States, most students who study a foreign language only do so for 2 years, which pales in comparison to the 9 years which most European Union students study a foreign language.

As this infographic by Middlebury Interactive Languages shows, learning a foreign language has many practical advantages besides the obvious ability to communicate with others who do not speak your native tongue, including:

  • Higher college placement test scores in reading, writing and math;
  • Higher rates of pay; and
  • Translation and Interpretation are among the fastest growing careers.

Remarkably, despite these advantages, the percentage of US elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction has fallen dramatically.

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On a recent visit home from college, my son wisely commented that he believed that a lot of fear in the world would be reduced if people only understood each other’s languages. He is currently studying  both Hebrew and Arabic in an effort to bridge and reduce the fears that exist between Jews and Arabs. He made note of how important it was that he could understand both the Spanish and Arabic on this sign in our front yard.

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While it is true that no one can learn every language in the world, it is also true that even if one is not fluent in a language, when one travels or meets people who speak another language, it goes a long way to find out how to be courteous by learning how to say, please and thank you in the native language.

Since last November’s election, our President and his allies are fanning the flames of xenophobia, highlighting Islamophobia and deportation of many of our neighbors with Latin American roots. But each of us can do our part to counter these fears by learning even a few words of Spanish and Arabic (or other languages of your neighbors and co-workers). For my part, while not fluent, I have studied and speak Spanish, Hebrew and German.

Oh, you want to know what that Arabic word above means? Inshallah literally translated means, “God willing.” It is often used at the end of a sentence to add a hopeful note of success to whatever good wishes the speaker is conveying, such as, “our team will win tomorrow’s game, inshallah.”

Indeed, the Spanish word, ojalá is borrowed from the Arabic inshallah and means the same thing: God willing.

So, the next time you hear a word you do not understand, rather than sinking into fear, you may discover that the speaker is sending you good wishes from above.

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

Five Years of Systems Change Consulting

Five years ago this month, I launched Systems Change Consulting. My goal then and now, is to provide consulting and training to individuals, non-profits, and public entities with a focus on making progressive systems change in the areas of civil rights, disability rights, general and special education, and combating abuse and neglect of vulnerable populations.

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I am pleased with what I have accomplished to date, although the state of our local, state, national, and international affairs means that I have a lot more work to do. While I continue to provide training and consulting to non-profits and public entities, a significant portion of my work involves individual representation. However, even when representing individuals, my clients usually retain me because they appreciate that when I represent them, I often try to leverage the results in their case into larger progressive systems change to help others. They often tell me that they are retaining me because they do not want anyone else to suffer as they or their children have suffered, which is the essence of systems change.

Early on in this venture, one of my best friends suggested that I start a blog. Initially, I dismissed his suggestion, but in October, 2012, I decided that he was right and that this blog could be another vehicle for systems change. Little did I know that nearly 5 years after launching this blog, I would have written 235 posts, and that my blog be viewed nearly 40,000 times in close to 120 countries all over the world. A review of my 10 most viewed posts gives a snapshot on the wide array of issues in which I have engaged over these past 5 years. You can read them by clicking on the title.

  1. Disrespectful Justice: discusses an appalling view of our legal system as presented by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley.
  2. Special Needs Voucher Scam Fully Revealed: in which I expose how special needs school vouchers are really a scam.
  3. The Morning After…the Sun Still Rises: which reminds us that even after bad election results, we have accomplished a lot and will continue to accomplish more.
  4. Welcoming the Homeless to Our Neighborhood: describing a proposed homeless day resource center in my neighborhood, which I am pleased to report is about to finally open, albeit in a location about a mile away from where it was originally proposed.
  5. Building Community: Now More than Ever: reminding readers that in order to improve our world, we need to focus locally and build community.
  6. Wisconsin’s New Law on the use of Seclusion and Restraint of School Children: points out all the protections we achieved when we passed Wisconsin’s first law to protect school children from the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint.
  7. Building Community through Queerness: in which I describe how my niece and her partner created community with family and friends through their open queerness.
  8. If it Ain’t Broke…: in which I use words of a dearly departed young man to urge us not to fall into complacency.
  9. Sun Prairie Police Brutality Case Headed to Trial: it turns out that I settled this police abuse case on behalf of my middle school age client before trial.
  10. Key Protections for Students with Disabilities: describes critical protections by students with disabilities issues by the Obama administration which advocates will need to fight to preserve under the current administration.

In addition to my blog, I also used the media to accomplish systems change. My most recent articles include (click on title to read article):

I have often joked that I wish the world was a place in which my work was no longer necessary. Sadly, I do not expect that to happen in my lifetime, so I continue to roll up my sleeves and work for progressive systems change, using every tool in my varied arsenal.

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

 

If Not Now…

One of the most revered Jewish sages, Hillel, famously asked three important questions that continue to have relevance to this day:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, when?

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Every one of us should ask our selves all three of these questions on a regular basis. The first question reminds us to take care of ourselves, as while empathy for others is important, failing to engage in self-care and self-advocacy will ultimately result in an inability to thrive as a human being and care for those who matter most.

The second question reminds us that those who engage in purely selfish behavior must ask themselves why they are on this planet as their purpose cannot simply be to ignore others to simply engage in self serving behavior.

The third question is a call to action. Specifically, it challenges each and every person who may be tired of the endless bickering of politicians and pundits that if you are not prepared to take action now, when will you do so?

Hillel’s questions have inspired a movement which calls itself If Not Now which is dedicated to ending American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It is a non-violent movement striving to win the hearts and minds of the Jewish community.

As important as ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is, Hillel’s questions go far beyond any one specific issue. Regardless of one’s background, we live in communities, nations and indeed, an entire world that demands that no one sit on the sidelines.

Of course, many may lament the state of the world but simply not know what they can do to change it for the better. Indeed, nobody can engage in every single issue that seemingly cry out for our help every day. In fact, doing so, will result in violating Hillel’s first question as those who try to fix everything ultimately fail to take care of themselves and will end by crashing and burning.

If you are inspired by Hillel’s message and want to take action, but you are unsure of where to start, I suggest taking the following steps:

  1. Identify an issue that you really care about;
  2. Find an organization that is working on the issue you care about in a way that resonates with your values;
  3. See if that organization needs volunteers, and if it does not, or you are unable to volunteer, donate funds within your means to help the organization do its work; and
  4. Support candidates who seek to make the positive changes in the world that are consistent with your values. This can include volunteering for the candidates, sending donations to help their campaigns, and remembering to vote.

While I have spent my entire career doing my best to follow Hillel’s sage wisdom, I understand that for many, it is difficult. There are many challenges that we all face: personal, emotional, financial, and in today’s world, simply a feeling of helplessness due to the overwhelming nature of need. My advice to those who feel frozen in inaction is to start small. Just pick one issue to work on. Ask yourself every day,

what am I doing to make the lives of others just a little bit better?

We all have the ability to lend a helping hand to a neighbor, vote for a candidate who represents our values, or provide support to a charitable organization doing good work. This will not only help improve your community and the world, but it will make you feel better about yourself and less of a victim of those powerful forces which degrade our world on a daily basis. Doing so will allow you to answer all three of Hillel’s questions in a positive manner.

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

Hard Won Independence

In over 32 years of civil rights legal work, I have represented a wide variety of unique individuals in a lot of unusual cases. Many of my cases involve people with disabilities fighting for the right to live the independent lives that all of us wish to enjoy.

Some of my cases involve people who have to fight for independence on multiple fronts. One such case came my way earlier this year, when I was contacted by Nick Rabinowicz, who left his parents home in Massachusetts in late December, 2016, upon turning 18, and moved to Madison. His parents petitioned a Massachusetts court for guardianship over Nick and were awarded temporary guardianship without a hearing. Nick retained me to fight for his independence and get his parents’ petition for guardianship dismissed.

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When Nick came to meet me, he informed me that he was a transgender man who was a high functioning person with autism. He showed me his parents’ petition  for guardianship which alleged that Nick was incompetent because, among other things, he did not shower every day. Although failing to shower every day is certainly not an indicator of legal incompetence, I asked Nick about this, and he provided a perfectly rational response. He told me that on days he does not work out, he might not shower, and on days, he does get sweaty, he might shower twice.

In telling me the story of how he left home, took a train to Chicago on his own, got a ride to Madison, rented an apartment, enrolled in high school, and ultimately found and retained me to fight for his legal independence, it was very clear to me that Nick had every right to live a free and independent life and not have his rights stripped and given over to his overbearing parents through guardianship. As I am not licensed to practice law in Massachusetts, I attempted to convince his parents’ attorney to drop the case, but his parents were unwilling to do so. Even worse, his parents were interfering with Nick’s ability to live independently by refusing to provide him with his health insurance card, his passport and his Social Security card.

Fortunately, despite the barriers presented by his parents, Nick successfully enrolled in La Follette High School in Madison, and graduated this past June. In fighting his guardianship, he was able to obtain very supportive affidavits from his teachers, who were very impressed by Nick. One of his teacher’s beautifully described Nick:

He is an informed citizen of local, national and international news and demonstrated the ability to critically evaluate sources of information and to use acquired information to inform personal decision-making and support his thinking.

In all my years of teaching, Nick’s creative writing is some of the highest quality and most compelling student work I have read. He demonstrates many cultural interests and the ability to both appreciate and create works of art that explore the human experience.

Nick demonstrated the ability to identify himself as a student with autism, explain his learning challenges, and advocate for his learning and social/emotional needs. I observed him respectfully ask to be seated in another area of the classroom where he could focus better, and on occasion during work time, request to move to a quieter location with fewer distractions. Understanding one’s disability and independently and appropriately explaining and advocating for one’s needs is a complex skill that I do not often observe in high school students.

Since the case was in Massachusetts, I arranged for Nick to retain Marty Flax, an attorney who practices in the Boston area, whom I have known for many years, as his local counsel. Recently, Marty and I were pleased to be able to tell Nick that the court had dismissed his parents’ petition for guardianship, and Nick was free to pursue his life as he sees fit.

While guardianship can be appropriate for some people, many do not realize that short of imprisonment, it is the most severe legal denial of civil rights that our law permits. While I do not know all the reasons why Nick’s parents believed that Nick was legally incompetent and sought legal control  over his life, I suspect that being a transgender man with autism had a lot to do with it. I am very glad that I was able to help Nick assert and obtain his legal independence and I look forward to watching him do great things with his life. As his recent picture shows, he is a happy young man, as he deserves to be now that he is free of his parents’ legal challenge to his independence.

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