Tuesday, August 14, 2007

504 Reasons to Soak My Head

My youngest son has a 504 plan, and, now that he’s starting high school, we needed to do a review of his existing plan. If you are unfamiliar with what a 504 plan is, the short version is that for kids with learning disabilities of any type, they’re evaluated to see if they need special services and would then qualify under the federal program IDEA or if section 504 of the ADA would be more applicable. 504 plans are generally considered less expensive for the school district and generally include things to take place in the regular classroom.

Seven years ago I started my journey on learning more about special education law and the various twists and turns along the road to FAPE because Spawn also has ADHD and needed a 504. My first year was an introduction to the gatekeeper mentality of my local district, which is the most pervasive point of view of most school districts. They dithered for a year, using the Intimidation Triangle of gate keeping.

The Triangle has three levels. The first level is delay – stall, put meetings off for as long as possible, find ways to avoid having meetings, question the same things over and over again on tiny technical details, hoping to run out the school year clock. One of the favorite tactics at this level is to pretend that “necessary” people are constantly unavailable, the person in question changing for each proposed meeting. Also included is feigned ignorance – we don’t understand the law, so we need to research it to find out how we can best serve your child.

The second level is denial – your child doesn’t require services or accommodations or modifications, tough luck, better luck elsewhere, we’re not going to tell you about your rights to mediation, that you can file a complaint, or how to resolve the issues otherwise. And, the third level is intimidation – you don’t know what you’re talking about, you wouldn’t want the teachers to cop an attitude towards your child because YOU are being so difficult, or, my favorite, larding the meeting room with as many people dressed in suits and dour expressions and sour attitudes as will fit in order to really impress upon you how outrageous your request is and how much valuable time of theirs you’re wasting.

I survived that year, bringing in the same plan I’d suggested a year earlier. We were one day away from formal mediation when they buckled. I have not had a problem since in dealing with the district or the Special Ed Cooperative. Most helpful was this website and the information on it, Wrightslaw . I read, reread, studied, memorized, highlighted and printed out reams and reams of data. I also made friends with the regional Office for Civil Rights, speaking with the head of the office, and contacted the State Board of Education as well, following the guidelines on the Wrightslaw site.

This year, in the transition to the high school for Doodle, which is in a different functional district, I’m facing gatekeepers again. Fortunately, my skills are still sharp. I started the meeting by placing a tape recorder facing the staff and nicely offered to provide them a copy at cost, if they desired. We each introduced ourselves to the machine and carried on, discussing various issues such as extra copies of texts for home (I volunteered to pay an additional book fee – always a key ingredient – make it easy for them to say “yes” and thereby remove objections proactively), they indicated they’d need documentation on extended test time, we discussed discipline factors, and then the big issue came up.

In addition to ADHD, Doodle has a slight processing disorder. It has the most significant effect in on-demand writing tasks, be they longer essays or short answers to questions. He locks up and his brain locks down. When it was originally diagnosed, it affected a wider range of areas, but over the years we’ve strategized, worked around it, and gotten him habituated to working past it to the extent that he is a fantastic student in math, science, and all other subjects that don’t require writing, and his marvelous brainpower can shine through. Not so with writing, unfortunately.

Up until the last two years, that hasn’t been a critical issue. We worked with prompting, outlines, brain mapping, and a wide variety of approaches here at home and in school. He was able to do extra credit work to counteract his classroom problems and get a reasonable grade. Standardized tests requirements for writing on demand have become increasingly more difficult, and the problem is becoming more significant. His last set of tests showed the problem in glaring relief – 100% in all multiple choice questions and next to no points at all in extended response or essay areas. His teachers last year tried and tried, but nothing worked.

So, this year, I specifically asked for Special Education services to be implemented to assist him in overcoming the processing disorder’s effect on writing initiation. It’s not that I want him to become Shakespeare; I’d be happy if he became a midget Dave Barry. Heck, I’d be happy if he could manage to squeeze out the bare minimum. I was very clear and very specific about my request. I included references to FAPE intents of teaching students to state standards, and indicated that he was clearly falling below those standards in this area. Nevertheless, I could hear the gatekeeper mentality locking into place.

First was the round of “is it because he doesn’t like the topics,” then “is it just essays,” all followed by “that would mean a case reevaluation” which was supposed to dissuade me from pursuing it further. One staff member even tried to bring up the “severity” gate – that a problem has to be severe enough to cause the student failing grades before services can be suggested.

Experience was on my side. Most of the staff in the room had not been in the district as long as I’ve been advocating for my children. Those with similar longevity had it in areas unrelated to special education law. Kindly, and in a very friendly manner, I pulled out my printouts from the OCR website indicating that special ed services are included in potential 504 solutions, specifically and without restriction. I offered them my copy of the decade-old elimination of “severity” as a determining factor letter from the Department of Education. I told them I’d value a case reevaluation so that personnel trained to the master’s degree level in uncovering learning disabilities would be giving my son the expert attention that would be most helpful in resolving the problem.

I showed them copies of his last standardized test results, backing up my case. I offered to talk with the head of the Special Ed Co-Op, and mentioned him by name, glowingly (because honey catches more flies than vinegar), assuring them that I knew him to be an honorable man whose main concern was adequately and appropriately serving the children of the district. I offered to run interference for them, negating that implied obstacle. I asked for additional suggestions and ideas.

One, clearly unfamiliar with SpEd law, suggested Sylvan. I saw the SpEd representative’s eyebrows shoot up in dismay, as I turned to him and said that if all options within the district failed to serve the purpose, I was certainly willing to try any alternative the district suggested (and, by law, will need to pay for). I advised that that I had no problem bringing Doodle in early, picking him up late, arranging for transportation for weekend assistance, that my goal to was to do whatever was necessary for us to work together in resolving this one issue where he falls below state standards in performance and ability.

I’m not unsympathetic to the constraints of school districts – money is always abysmally short, and sped costs can put a district in the red in a heartbeat. Specialized personnel are hard to find, hard to keep, and hard to motivate. Often, they’re on the road between facilities for long stretches of time, the workload is crushing, the results few and often fleeting. They’re also faced with people who haven’t done their homework, who don’t want to do anything for their children at home, and nowadays, with parents of perfectly normal kids who are trying to scam extra time at exam time to improve scores for colleges. Their road is might tough, too.

It would have been easy to give up, years ago, when the first district pulled out the big guns and the intimidation triangle. It would have been easy to tell myself I was asking for too much, that I was wrong, that I was odd, that there was something peculiar about my wanting a little extra help or at least a margin of ease for my kid. Perhaps some perverse sense of aggravation, or an overblown protective maternal instinct, or just generalized frustration made me persist, and it served Spawn well. He graduated with honors, with a high ACT score, and with as much of a sense of competence as I could indirectly jam into him. I can’t do less for the Doodle, not ever.

I’d like to say that I feel triumphant, or that I’m sure the district will do what is right. I don’t, though. I will be thrilled if we can get Doodle the help he needs to continue on his journey to be his best self. That’s all any of my requests have ever been about, and they have been few, as well. But there are times when I want to soak my head, nonetheless.


Amber in Albuquerque said...

Aye Carumba! And I thought I was having problems! The people at the school I'm dealing with are just painfully slow (land of manana). It took less than two weeks of 'implied lawsuit' to get them moving, but they've still tried their 'triangle' tactics (thinking I wouldn't notice). Do you know if 'the big M' has any statistics on M's who have kids with learning issues? I'm having to take my oldest for neuropsychological evaluation next month. I'm just starting on this odyssey (first kid, 2nd grade).

Jenn said...

You rock.

BoS said...

I don't think Mensa has any definitive statistics. I do suggest a web search for "twice exceptional" to turn up research that's out there, though.

And, thanks, Jenn.