Rules, Not Results, For A Student In Special Education

Dec 23, 2015

Special education is about inclusion: making sure kids who need it get extra help, so they have the same opportunities as their peers. But an emphasis on rules and protocol sometimes means schools lose sight of real outcomes for students.

Fifteen year old Christian Ayala is home after school in Sunnyside, taking care of his nieces and nephews and laying siege to invading armies on his Xbox. He just started 9th grade, and this trimester, he’s passing all his classes for the first time in years. Fifth period algebra has gone from a dreaded subject to his favorite class. “I have a really nice teacher and she helps me out,” he explains.

That extra help felt out of reach when Christian was in middle school. His IEP, or Individualized Education Program—that’s the legally-binding document that structures each student’s special ed—called for daily one-on-one help with reading and math. But Christian’s behavior soured relationships with his teachers. When he got stuck on work and asked for help, he got ignored. Sometimes, he took it badly.

“He said he started throwing papers, I think, at another student, so he could get attention from the teacher,” explains his older sister, Nubia Ayala Vasquez. “And the only attention he got was to get out of the room.”

This is where the student and his file started to drift apart. In the voluminous paperwork that often accumulates for students in special education, Christian’s academic troubles were interpreted under one set of rules--those governing students with disabilities--while the school handled his behavioral and attendance problems under another.

To the school, bad behavior and attendance had nothing to do with the ADHD that made Christian eligible for special education. But to his family, it all seemed connected: a lot of Christian’s acting up seemed to be a response to not getting the help he needed. “I would ask him, if he was one-on-one with the teacher, like, ever, and he said no, that he was always in the classroom,” Nubia explains.

That turned out to be true. Christian was missing out on more than 8 hours a week of extra help with reading. Out of frustration, she says he stopped going to some classes altogether. “My mom and dad were always working, and they thought he would go to school, and instead, he would just stay home sleeping.”

The school blamed his academic problems on bad attendance, but his mother Juventina saw it differently. “The only thing they cared about was for him to be present. Not learning, just present.” Eventually, Christian’s parents filed a complaint against the school district. In response, the state superintendent found the district had violated a number of regulations: even though Christian hadn’t made any real progress on his IEP, the school had cut his extra help and moved him into general education without consulting his parents.

For a year and a half, the school didn’t send his parents progress reports the IEP called for, and many of the documents Juventina did get were in English, a language she doesn’t speak or read. Her signature was there, but that didn’t mean she understood what she was signing.

“I knocked on the door and I knocked on the door, and I knocked on the door until they listened,” Juventina says. The next school year, the state ordered the district to provide Christian tutoring to make up for lost time.

But the sessions were either at six in the morning or after school, when Christian hoped to be playing sports. He stopped going after a few weeks. “It was like the school decided for us what was going to happen: they didn’t ask us when the classes should be held or where,” Juventina recalls.

At the end of the school year, Christian had received just nine hours of compensatory services out of more than 120 hours the state ordered. His mother gave up. Juventina Ayala was called to a meeting with the district, where she waived rights to more extra help for Christian. She says she felt pressure to sign a waiver there and then, even without fully understanding it. So she did. “I went home, and I felt bad. I started thinking, ‘What have I done?’ All that work we did and I threw it in the trash.”

The Sunnyside School district declined to comment for this story, but they did provide evidence they contacted the Ayala family multiple times about Christian’s attendance for the special tutoring sessions. Regardless, the dispute raises a troubling question: here’s a case where the legal process was followed right through to the end, but Christian was no better off—he never got the special reading and math help he deserved.

“Too often, it does come down to, did we check these boxes? We did this, we did this,” says Margaret McLaughlin, a special education professor at University of Maryland. “And the parents didn’t follow through, or the student didn’t come back to school. Well, we’ve done our part. Legally, we checked our boxes.”

When kids don’t do well in special education, McLaughlin says it’s usually up to parents to advocate for improvement. So, imagine you’re a parent at a school meeting, going over an IEP: “You’re gonna be confronted maybe with five professionals, and everybody in that room is gonna be talking about, ‘Here’s the this, here’s the that, here’s what we need to do,’ and you double that with parents whose first language may not be English, even with a translator, and this whole thing is gonna be pretty overwhelming.”

There’s also a lot for schools to juggle: arranging the schedules of those five professionals to be there all at once, and keeping track of thick files on every special ed student. Often, all of that has to be done with far less school funding than the law calls for.

That’s part of why compliance—getting the right signatures and check marks—sometimes comes before understanding and communication. “So we have this document with good legal protections and procedures, but I think in some school systems, that has become the tail that wags the dog.” For Christian, starting out at a new school in the district seems to have accomplished some of what his IEP couldn’t do—he feels he’s getting the help he needs, and his parents aim to keep it that way.

Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Rado