If it Ain’t Broke…

You know the tried and true maxim, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Just about everyone believes that is a sound way of living one’s life. That’s what I thought too until a few weeks ago when I went to the funeral of Will Simmons, the son of a friend of mine and great disability advocate, Liz Hecht and her husband Scott Simmons.

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I got to know Will through my synagogue, as Will had his Bar Mitzvah there about 14 years ago. Since I was President of our synagogue, I had the good fortune of saying a few words of congratulations to Will and bestowing upon him a gift from our synagogue.

Will’s Bar Mitzvah was not a typical Bar Mitzvah. Will had some disabilities, and as a result his speech was very hard for most people to understand. To accommodate his disability, Will read the Torah and led other parts of the service using a computerized voice. This was the first, and is still the only time, that I have seen anyone become a Bar Mitzvah using assistive technology.

Will went on from his Bar Mitzvah and earned a college degree. He even became certified in scuba diving despite many physical challenges.

Sadly, Will died unexpectedly in his sleep a few weeks ago, and I was fortunate to be able to attend his funeral service. Many beautiful eulogies were given by friends and family, but the most profound eulogy came from his roommate and best friend, Sam Katz. Sam also has some disabilities, but like Will, he is also a college graduate, and refuses to let his disabilities stop him from accomplishing his goals.

During Sam’s eulogy, he shared with the hundreds of friends and family members who gathered to pay tribute to Will, that Will’s favorite saying was,

If it ain’t broke, you’re not trying hard enough.

As you might imagine, hearing this tried and true phrase turned inside out made me and probably everyone else, think about why one would prefer to break things rather than leave well enough alone.

As soon as I heard Sam share this inside out version of the truism, I smiled, as I realized that Will had a passion for viewing the world in a way that would work for him, rather than  remain content with a world that was not built for someone who used a wheelchair and whose speech was difficult to understand.

As someone who has dedicated most of my life to systems change, I realized that Will’s view of the world makes a lot of sense. While it might be easier to leave things alone if they are not broken, the truth is that the status quo is simply not acceptable for the vast number of people that do not fit neatly into mainstream society’s norms.

For Will, if computer software did not perform in a way that fit his needs, even if it was not necessarily broken, he knew that he would have to try harder to make the software (or any other tool or device) fit his needs, even if it meant breaking it to do so.

Nobody ever discovered anything new by remaining content with the status quo. Will refused to be content with the status quo because it was not built for him. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires reasonable modifications and accommodations to buildings and programs so that those with disabilities can fully participate in society.

Will’s abbreviated life, and the way he chose to live it, with tremendous support from his  parents, sister, family, friends and caregivers, which sadly ended too soon, provides important lessons for those who may be square pegs trying to fit into society’s round holes. As he said, “If it ain’t broke, you’re not trying hard enough.”

May Will’s memory be a blessing and his lesson help many live a better life.

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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.

Inclusion in the Family

We all have telephone calls we receive that we never forget. Two calls which I will never forget came from my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Jeff and Miriam. The first call informed us that their 4th child, Arielle, was born, which was wonderful. However, they reported that Arielle had a stroke in utero which resulted in cerebral palsy.

Much to the credit of Jeff and Miriam, they were determined that Arielle would get the medical and therapeutic care that she needed, as well as a high quality education. Her 3 older siblings, were very supportive, and the family included Arielle in all their travels and adventures. Although the cerebral palsy weakened Arielle’s right side, she persevered and participated in all the physical activities at school and in the neighborhood park, as well as the many hikes her family enjoyed.

Her mother, Miriam, is a Rabbi, and her father, Jeff, is a Jewish educator. They made sure that she got a high quality Jewish education, including learning the Hebrew language and prayers, and most important of all, Jewish values.

When Arielle was growing, she often needed to use a brace to support her left lower leg. This made her disability visible to others, including some neighbors, who created the reason for the second call that I remember so clearly. Apparently, a neighbor did not think it was appropriate for Arielle to ride a bicycle like all the other children her age, so she called the police. The police, in turn, contacted child protective services (CPS), who contacted Jeff and Miriam, to investigate. Jeff and Miriam called me for legal advice and I supported them in being completely honest with the county social worker to inform them that they wanted Arielle to have all the joys of childhood and that she was perfectly capable of riding her bicycle regardless of the misperceptions of their neighbor. Fortunately, CPS closed the case without further action.

Two years ago, Arielle and her parents moved from Massachusetts, where she had lived her entire life, to Greensboro, North Carolina, which was a challenging change for Arielle. In addition to a significant cultural change, it required her to make new friends and navigate around a brand new school. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were pleased to travel to Greensboro to watch Arielle receive her diploma with a variety of academic honors, from Grimsley High School.

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Arielle in cap & gown with her parents Jeff & Miriam, and sister Leora, who recently graduated from Washington University.

The graduation took place in the evening. After the graduation, the school held an overnight alcohol-free party for the graduates. Arielle does not drive yet, so her mother took her to the party which started at 11 PM. Her parents assured her that they would keep their cell phones on overnight by their pillows in case she wanted to come home early.

My wife and I were staying in a guest house across the street from Jeff, Miriam and Arielle’s home. I am an early riser and shortly after I wake up, I meditate. While meditating, I relax my eyes and while they are often closed, occasionally they open. The morning after Arielle’s graduation, while meditating, I opened my eyes to see Arielle walking up to her house at around 6:15 AM, after being dropped off by a friend. That is a beautiful inclusive vision that I will never forget.

Arielle has been admitted to the University of Hartford, but she is contemplating taking a gap year before starting college. I am confident that whatever she decides, she will continue as she has done thought her life, to move through life with joy and confidence that she can and will be included in whatever she chooses to do.

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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.

Saving IRIS…one more time

About a year ago, in my role as a member of the Board of the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin, I joined with other disability advocates to encourage the Joint Finance Committee to reject Governor Walker’s budget proposal to eliminate IRIS, which stands for, “Include, Respect, I Self-Direct.” IRIS is Wisconsin’s self-directed, community- based, long-term care program for adults with disabilities & older adults with long-term care needs. People using IRIS have the flexibility to self-direct their plan of care within an authorized budget based upon their individual needs and desired outcomes. IRIS participants choose and direct the services and supports that make it possible for them to live, work, and participate in their communities, allowing more people to stay in their homes and avoid costly nursing homes and other institutions.

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We were partially successful. Both the Joint Finance Committee and the Wisconsin legislature rejected Gov. Walker’s radical upending of Wisconsin’s long-term care system. However, in doing so, the budget which ultimately passed directed the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to obtain public input and propose a new system that would be managed by private health insurance companies, instead of the current non-profit care management organizations. This has become known as Family Care/IRIS 2.0.

Yesterday, I co-signed a letter from the three Autism Society affiliates to the Joint Finance Committee in which we state that we:

do not believe the Department of Health Services has justified the disruption of care to the 55,000+ people currently enrolled in Family Care and IRIS programs.

Specifically, we are concerned about:

  •   The uncertain future of self-direction and the IRIS Program: The concept paper does not reflect the level of self-direction of the current IRIS program. There remain significant questions as to how current IRIS participants will experience self-direction as they do now.
  •   The uncertain future of Behavioral Health Services: The concept paper is lacking details on how behavioral health services may be integrated in the new model.

    We also share many of the conclusions made by the Wisconsin Long Term Care Coalition in their Analysis of the Numbers behind Family Care/IRIS 2.0 on May 11, 2016.

    Given that there are no projected savings in long term care as a result of Family Care/IRIS 2.0 and there are still significant questions about the concept plan, we believe that moving ahead at this point would unnecessarily disrupt the lives of over 55,000 Wisconsin residents.

    We are writing to ask members of the Joint Finance Committee not to move forward with the Family Care/IRIS 2.0 concept plan as currently written.

The good news is that since Family Care and IRIS operate under a federal Medicaid waiver, they cannot be modified without federal approval. The Walker administration has already conceded that it understands this cannot happen until at least 2018. Hopefully, the next President will accept the recommendations of Wisconsin elders and people with disabilities, their families and friends, who are generally satisfied with the current Family Care/IRIS long term care system and do not want their lives disrupted, their independence lost, and their futures controlled by for-profit health insurance companies.

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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.

 

 

Stop Paternalizing Children with Disabilities

In the many years I have advocated for children with disabilities, I have frequently encountered those who purport to care so deeply for children with disabilities (rarely their own) that they support methods of care and support and even legislation that purports to protect these children, but when analyzed more closely, does a great disservice to these children by preventing them to live as fully and independently as possible.

My advocacy has included combatting paternalistic policies and practices including segregating children with disabilities in separate schools, which prevents them from making friends with non-disabled children who will help them with sustaining networks in their adult lives.  Even worse, is institutionalizing children with disabilities under the guise of protecting them, but ultimately ruining their chances to live free and independent lives.

It has recently come to my attention that under the guise of helping students with disabilities, Louisiana’s legislature is proposing 2 bills that would undermine those children’s access to a quality education.

House Bill No. 993 contains the following highly damaging provisions:

  1. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities must meet state and local performance standards in order to graduate high school;
  2. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities must pursue the same “rigorous curriculum required for his chosen major by his school as approved by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education,” as all other students.
  3. Waives all state and local graduation requirements for students with disabilities.
  4. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities (along with all other students) must read at the “approaching basic” level on either the English/Language Arts or mathematics component of the 8th grade state assessment, as well as the other objective criteria established by the local school district, in order to be promoted from 8th grade to 9th grade.
  5. Waives the requirement that students with disabilities (along with all other students) who score at the unsatisfactory level on the state assessment, must complete a summer remediation program in that subject area in order to complete a high school major in that subject area.
  6. Provides that all pupil grade progressions for students with disabilities shall be determined by the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team.
  7. Provides that if a pupil with disabilities meets her IEP goals, she can receive a high school diploma.

House Bill No. 1015 goes even further down the road of degrading the education of children with disabilities in the name of protecting them.  It would:

  1. Exclude children with disabilities from the same grade promotion standards as all other children and simply allow their IEP team to determine whether to promote the child to the next grade.
  2. Excludes all state and local assessment scores from children with disabilities from the state’s accountability system.

While some may believe that these provisions serve to protect children with disabilities, my experience has demonstrated otherwise.  If these bills pass, Louisiana will be able to graduate its children with disabilities after 12th grade, even though federal special education law clearly allows students with disabilities who need up to 3 more years of education to receive those critical additional years of education.

Furthermore, these bills will make it impossible for parents of children with disabilities to determine how well their school districts are educating their children.  Parents and advocates of children with disabilities fought long and hard for the federal law provision that requires schools to educate children with disabilities in the general curriculum.  These bills take Louisiana down the road of a separate and unequal education for children with disabilities.  This is particularly troubling because the vast majority of children with disabilities are of average or greater intelligence.  Why take those students out of the the accountability system unless Louisiana simply wants to wash its hands of its responsibility for them?

The National Center for Learning Disabilities published an excellent report about the low graduation rates of children with learning disabilities (who by definition have average or greater intelligence).  That report reveals that Louisiana has the 2nd worst graduation rate for such children in the nation (only Nevada is worse).

This graph shows how badly Louisiana’s students with disabilities are faring when it comes to graduating from high school.  As you can see it fares poorly in comparison to both national and other state data.  Indeed, currently more students with disabilities drop out of high school in Louisiana than graduate.

HS graduation rate graphIf these bills pass, Louisiana will look like it is graduating the most students with disabilities even though it is providing less education to them.  Parents and advocates of children with disabilities cannot allow this to happen. Indeed, my fear is that if it happens in Louisiana, your state could be next.  For that reason, national disability advocates should weigh in to oppose these problematic bills.

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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.

The Synergy of Individual Advocacy & Systems Change

Recently, I had the opportunity to demonstrate, once again, the synergy of individual advocacy & systems change.  For nearly 20 years, I have been combating the schools to prison pipeline, as I wrote about over a year ago.  In January, I started writing a series of blogs and submitted them to the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) school board as its administrators developed a series of 4 drafts of what started out as a proposed revision of its discipline plan, but on my advice, became the new Behavior Education Plan, which will go into effect on September 1, 2014, and you can review here.  That plan had been sailing under the radar with relatively minimal public input, until my clients and I recently went public with an expulsion case which was a classic  example of zero tolerance run amok.  Fortunately, in one night, the school board ended my client’s expulsion, and then proceeded to approve the new Behavior Education Plan, in front of a packed auditorium, putting 2 nails in the coffin of zero tolerance.

As I testified to the school board that night, MMSD’s new, improved plan is not perfect, as it fails to set specific goals for reducing out of school discipline such as suspensions and expulsions, and accordingly fails to set specific goals for reducing the racial and disability disparities in both discipline and academic achievement which the district has long struggled to overcome.  In addition, I encouraged the school board to place advocates in each school to assist students and their parents through the discipline process as well as other challenges, including academic, which students may encounter.

Unfortunately, after I made that suggestion, the President of the MMSD School Board, publicly criticized my suggestion, as he does not view the discipline process as “adversarial,” which is fairly remarkable given his work as an attorney, but even more remarkable given that he truly does not understand the role that advocates actively play not only to improve outcomes for the children for whom they advocate, but to help change flawed systems for the better.

For nearly 30 years, my career as a civil rights attorney has involved taking individual cases and evolving them, when appropriate, into positive systems change.  This includes the struggle to finally pass a new law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint, which only occurred after representing many students harmed by this horrific practice and shedding the bright media light on it.

Any system that desires continuous improvement should recognize the value of advocacy as both an individual corrective tool, as well as a vehicle for identifying systemic problems. Dane County, Wisconsin, has recognized the value of having an internal ombudsman in its human services department to “ensure that people are getting appropriate services.”

While it is unclear whether MMSD can afford to place ombudsmen or advocates in each of its schools, it should certainly examine its budget to pilot such a program in schools with the highest discipline and academic problems.  Moreover, it could partner with outside agencies, which have existing advocacy services, such as Wisconsin Family Ties, which uses non-lawyer professional advocates, Wisconsin FACETS, which uses non-lawyer paid and volunteer advocates, and Disability Rights Wisconsin, which uses non-lawyer advocates with legal back-up and occasional direct lawyer involvement.  However, all of these agencies only work with children with disabilities, and I know of no agency providing school advocacy services to non-disabled students.

If the MMSD truly wants to ensure that its new Behavior Education Plan succeeds, it should actively engage with existing advocacy organizations, and work to obtain foundation support to fund advocates for non-disabled students.  Working together with the school district, on behalf of students, these advocates can correct natural human errors in the new system, and provide useful data to the MMSD administration so it can take corrective measures when repeated problems inevitably crop up.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Wisconsin Fails to Protect the Civil Rights of Children with Disabilities in Voucher Schools

As I reported last May,

I joined with the ACLU in filing a complaint with the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ) which clearly documents that Wisconsin’s private school voucher program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Recently, after a lengthy investigation, DOJ issued a directive to the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), which makes clear that DPI must eliminate discrimination against children with disabilities in the Milwaukee voucher program.

Since I am no longer at Disability Rights Wisconsin, I am not directly involved in that complaint.  However, my sources recently provided me with DPI’s stunning rebuke to DOJ in a letter dated November 25, 2013.  This letter is stunning for the length of time it took DPI to reply (over 7 months) demonstrating DPI’s utter indifference to the plight of children with disabilities in Wisconsin’s voucher (Choice) school program. It further disappoints due to DPI’s failure to accept responsibility to address the very real discrimination these students experience in this program.  As this letter is not available on-line, you can e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick if you want a copy.

First, DPI takes the position that it does not discriminate against children with disabilities in the administration of the voucher school program.  This, of course, misses the entire point of the complaint, which never accused DPI of such discrimination.  The complaint alleges massive discrimination by the voucher schools in keeping children with disabilities out of their schools, and further, that as administrator of the program, DPI must prevent and remedy such discrimination.

Next, while DPI has agreed (in an unspecified timeline) to,

establish and publicize a complaint procedure for individuals to submit complaints to the DPI regarding disability-related discrimination in the Choice program,

it goes on to express concern that it has no authority to do anything about many of those complaints, by stating that it can only withhold voucher funds regarding discrimination by voucher schools in the admission of students with disabilities.  While this is some progress, it does not address the very real failure of voucher schools to accommodate the educational needs of children with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In response to DOJ’s request that DPI gather disability related information from voucher schools, it then goes on to complain that it,

lacks statutory authority to force Choice to schools submit the information required for items requested.

What is so utterly disappointing about this continual denial of responsibility is that:

  1. DPI has done nothing to seek the authority it alleges it needs; and
  2. DOJ has made it clear that DPI’s obligation is under federal law (the ADA), so the lack of a state statute providing similar authority is irrelevant.

Can you imagine if DPI took the position that it had no authority to respond to discrimination against racial, ethnic or religious groups by voucher schools?  The public outcry would be tremendous, and so it should be in this instance as well.

Fortunately, DPI has agreed to conduct public outreach about the school choice program to students with disabilities, including the rights of students with disabilities in those programs. The problem, of course, is that if DPI will not enforce the rights of those students, there will be a serious credibility gap in that outreach.

Remarkably, DPI even refuses to provide ADA training to voucher schools, stating that,

DPI does not provide ADA training for any public schools in Wisconsin.

Instead, it is “willing” to have the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) conduct that training.  

As one of the initial filers of this complaint, I certainly hope that DOJ will not simply accept DPI’s excuse that it has no authority under the ADA.  Further DPI should use this as an opportunity to push for more authority to hold voucher schools accountable for their long-standing discrimination against children with disabilities.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

One of the phrases I often use as a reminder to clients is to, “Keep your eye on the prize.”   The roots of this phrase come from one of the Civil Rights movement’s theme songs, reminding those struggling for civil rights to maintain their focus on what the struggle is all about.  Mavis Staples released a beautiful version a few years ago.

The reason I need to use this phrase as a frequent reminder to my clients is that they often get caught up in the anger, frustration and resentment of their struggle, lose sight of the purpose of their battle, and shift focus to “winning,” or worse yet, “getting revenge.”  While winning or getting revenge may provide some temporary psychological satisfaction, they will rarely earn those who are struggling for civil rights the real prize they are seeking, i.e., equal rights.

This often happens as parents struggle to obtain appropriate education for their children with disabilities.  They often experience years of frustration and want to teach the school district a lesson by taking legal action to punish those they perceive as wrongdoers.  The problem is that although it is critically important for students with disabilities to have legal rights, and to be able to enforce them, such enforcement alone will rarely provide them with the prize of a quality education.  Thus, I will often use Getting to Yes strategies as I described previously, to try to achieve a win-win solution rather than a possibly Pyrrhic victory of a legal win.  Sometimes this involves direct negotiation.  At other times it involves mediation.  In either case, it may include the threat of legal action to force the school district to take the parent’s concerns seriously. But, as I remind my clients, proceeding down a litigation path does not guarantee the prize they seek, and even if they win the case, their child’s education may not improve and relations with the school district will undoubtedly sour.

Keeping your eye on the prize also applies to systems change advocacy, which the civil rights leaders and marchers understood.  Today, our political leaders spend too much time worrying about the next sound bite, and political positioning, rather than acting as statesmen to accomplish the greater good, as I dubbed them Pressmenthe opposite of Statesmen.  I described a more productive approach for achieving progressive change for the common good in How Systems Change Happens.  In sum, systems change advocates who keep their eyes on the prize must follow these key steps.

Those who want to fight powerful, well-financed special interests, must be willing and able to use the truth, educate all concerned, organize well, litigate enough of the right cases, and be persistent. Moreover, they must do so strategically and effectively.

Anyone involved in civil rights struggles knows that it can be challenging to keep your eyes on the prize, but with good training, and able assistance, it can be done successfully.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Celebrating Independence Day–Escaping Institutionalization

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In a recent case of mine, frantic parents retained me worried over the future of their son, who has autism and challenging behaviors.  Equally troubling was their fear that government overreach was in the process of removing their parental rights.

These parents had done everything they could to help their son succeed at home and in school, but due to state funding limitations of the Children’s Long Term Care waiver, in-home services declined and then virtually disappeared over the past year. Not surprisingly, this evaporation of critical child and family supports resulted in a downward spiral.  First, in mid-fall, the school district determined that it could no longer educate the boy in school and started providing his education in the family home.  Then, the boy’s challenging behaviors escalated.

As the parents sought answers, they received recommendations to send him to a state Institution where the state no longer admits long admits long-term residents, but does provide 30-60 day assessments to, in theory, help families in situations such as these.  Unfortunately, my clients’ decision to send their son to an Institution developed into an over 5 month stay there because the County determined that it needed to take over parental medical decision making and further determined that the child was not fit to return home.  The County pursued this case in court seeking to send the boy to another Institution 4 hours from his home, without a plan for returning him home.  The County even took the drastic step of seeking transfer of medical legal custody of the boy from the parents to the County.

The parents retained me only a few weeks before the scheduled 1/2 day trial. Initially, I contacted the county’s attorney to determine whether settlement was a possibility. Sadly, the County was unwavering on its Institutionalization path and had no interest in settlement.

As the trial began, my first witness was the child’s pediatrician who was strongly supportive of returning the boy home to his family and fully supported the parents’ medical decision-making.  Initially, I felt a need to rush through the case because the court had only allotted a few hours for the trial.  Fortunately, the judge quickly realized that this case was too important to rush and announced that he had cleared his calendar for the following business day as he knew we needed to carefully put on all relevant testimony.

Another compelling witness was the boy’s 17 year old brother.  He told the court that he was the only one who could get his brother to talk and calm down and that he had no regrets that he needed to spend most of his non-school hours at home helping to care for his brother.

For its part, the County only put on 2nd hand hearsay testimony (allowed in these types of cases) critiquing the parents’ caregiving.  While it did not budge from its Institutionalization position, the lead county social worker did testify that if the boy returned home, he would need ample in-home services.  Sadly, the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) supported the County’s Institutionalization position.

When the judge announced his decision, he concluded that the parents’ first-person testimony, from themselves, their son, and their pediatrician, far outweighed the county’s second hand testimony, and convinced him that the boy should be returned home with the ample home-based services which the county social worker testified were necessary.  The parents were elated and his father can proudly state that his service to our country in the armed services is that much more meaningful as the family celebrates a very meaningful Independence Day in their home today.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Fighting the School to Prison Pipeline (Update)

In April, I posted this TV story about my client, a 14 year old boy with disabilities in 8th grade in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, who was given a concussion and black eye when he was slammed to the school floor by a school based police officer, without provocation.  Prior to that TV story airing, on behalf of my clients, I wrote the Sun Prairie Mayor and Police Chief asking them to investigate the incident, discipline the police officer, and enter into good faith negotiations to compensate my client for this act of police brutality.  We proceeded with the TV story because the City of Sun Prairie refused to investigate the incident, discipline the officer, or enter into good faith negotiations to resolve the matter quickly and quietly.

My clients and I decided to allow Sun Prairie some time to reconsider its intransigence after the TV story aired, but sadly, to date, Sun Prairie remains firmly committed to refusing to conduct an independent investigation, discipline the police officer or enter into good faith negotiations to compensate my client for the violation of his Constitutional rights to be free from unwarranted police brutality.  This leaves us with only one conclusion.  The City of Sun Prairie and its police department apparently believe that it is ok for its police officers to give concussions to their young residents without provocation.  Accordingly, yesterday, on my client’s behalf, I filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to bring this matter to the courts.  The Wisconsin State Journal covered the story in today’s paper.

My clients and I hope that filing this lawsuit will finally force Sun Prairie to retain attorneys who will recognize that it would be better to use this case as an opportunity to address problems in its police department’s interaction with teenage students rather than engaging in a protracted battle in court.  However, at this point, whether or not Sun Prairie will change its tune remains to be seen.  Until then, both my clients and I are ready, willing and able to assert my young client’s right to be free from unprovoked and unwarranted police brutality while attending school.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Using Special Education Law to Fight Capital Punishment

In an earlier post, I discussed how I used special education law to disrupt the school to prison pipeline by serving as a special education law expert in a juvenile delinquency case.  My testimony in that case resulted in the court throwing out the competency evaluation conducted by a psychologist who refused to review the child’s special education records.  The next evaluator reviewed those records and determined that the child was not competent to stand trial.

After that case, I received an unexpected request to serve as an expert in a capital punishment case outside of Wisconsin (as Wisconsin does not have capital punishment). The defendant has disabilities and received special education while in school. The defense attorney believed that the defendant may have been denied his rights under special education law, and requested that I review 9 years of educational records and write a report if I found that his rights were violated.

I have now completed my analysis of this case and found a large number of violations of special education rights which may have resulted in him making a very bad choice after he was out of school.  These violations included:

  • Failure to evaluate the child for possible emotional disabilities even though the school psychologist and other staff mentioned that he needed counseling due to the tragic death of his mother as a young child, and his abandonment by his father;
  • Failure to provide him the counseling that he needed;
  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) which repeatedly used vague, non-measurable goals, resulting in his continuing to fall further and further behind academically;
  • Failure to provide any transition to adulthood services;
  • When he began experiencing an increased number of discipline problems, no effort was made to examine whether these problems were due to special education needs, and the only result was unlawful lengthy suspensions;
  • Despite failing to graduate high school, he was not afforded the opportunity to continue his education through age 21, as special education law requires.

While it is impossible to know if the tragic events leading to his death sentence could have been avoided if he had received all of his special education rights, if one believes that education in general, and special education in particular, has any value at all, one must at least seriously consider the possibility that the outcome for him and the victims of his crime, would have been much better had he received counseling in school, an appropriate education, and remained in school until he earned his high school diploma, with appropriate transition services to lead to a successful transition to adulthood.

This is clearly unique work.  I have found nothing else written about connecting the lack of appropriate special education to mitigating a death sentence.  The defense attorney is pleased enough with the work I have done thus far in this first capital punishment case that she just sent me a contract for a second case.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.