Monday, October 20, 2008

Follow up on Feeling....

Thank you everyone for your comments, and apologies for not responding individually. This post generated a significantly larger response than I'm accustomed to, so I wasn't prepared to propel the dialog.

There are themes that seem to keep coming up that I think need to be addressed. I'm referring to the comparison to ADD, ideas about medication, and insinuations of lazy parenting.

The first step in treating a child with Autism is not to medicate them. Nor is it the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th. etc...Autism is not treated with medicine. There is no known "Autism drug." There is no Autism equivalent of Ritalin.

My son has never taken any medications. No one has ever suggested that he take any medications. I would sooner spend a weekend with George W. Bush and Michael Savage than see my son put on medication.

I have worked with dozens of people with Autism over the years. I have yet to meet one who was on any medication for the purpose of combating autism. Some are on medications to prevent seizures, as seizure disorder can sometimes accompany Autism. Some are on anti-depressants, because they seem to have fewer instances of aggression when taking these. Some might take meds to help them sleep, as Autism can sometimes cause a person to go without sleep for weeks, to where it becomes a serious health risk. None are on medications to make them "less autistic."

Autism and medication simply do not go hand in hand in anyone's mind who has any first hand knowledge of Autism.

Therefore, claims that people seek out Autism diagnoses out of lazy parenting are nothing if not tragically comical. Any parent who tries to get his or her child branded Autistic out of laziness has a unique and brutal form of comeuppance in store.

Upon receiving a diagnosis of Autism, the parent is promptly assigned the task of getting their child into the system of their local Division of Developmental Disabilities, of working with the school system to make their child eligible for special education services, then negotiating an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) and locating a classroom suiting their child's needs. He or she can then move on to the process of researching all the fine print of their own insurance policy, and then the finer print of dozens of other insurance companies, searching to see if his or her child's therapy needs will be covered.

Upon realizing that they won't, the parent can then begin researching and networking online with other parents as to where in the country or the world they might be able to move where there will be some governmental support for such therapies.

Upon realizing that this place does not exist, the parent can then begin paying out of pocket for extensive therapies - speech, occupational, physical, behavioral, etc. This entails lots of research, phone calls, and visits. Once a therapist is found and wait lists are waited through, the parent is then free to drive their child to random places in the general vicinity of where they live, before or after school to go through the repetitive, often mundane rituals required to improve the cognitive functioning of a child with Autism.

The lazy parent is then free to work second jobs in order to pay for all these therapies.

The pie in the sky for parents of children with Autism is Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy. This is the therapy that supposedly brings about the greatest advancement for people with Autism. This treatment does not involve medication, nor does it allow for laziness.

The therapy is intensive, often 30 hours/week. It involves breaking down each task into minute steps. Through exhaustive repetition, combined with consistent encouragement and reward for each proper step the child performs, the child can eventually learn to do simple tasks. Simple tasks that previously had seemed impossible.

And none of these therapies involve the therapist doing all the work while the lazy parent convalesces. The therapists merely employ strategies and offer an intensive refresher each time they see the child. These strategies are then placed into the lap of the parent and it is well expected that they work on them every waking moment. Therefore, over the course of a typical week, child, parent, and therapist all engage in an ongoing process requiring utmost patience and diligence.

If you stare down a parent of a child with Autism and claim they are lazy, I would encourage you to then go to a zoo, stare down a giraffe, and accuse the giraffe of having no neck. Whether you genuinely believe the giraffe has no neck, or if you simply aim to antagonize the giraffe with your outrageous claims, I can guarantee you will get the same result: the giraffe will continue doing his or her work, pausing only momentarily to give you that inimitable, quizzical, giraffe look of puzzlement.

I never want to cast aspersions or hurt feelings, but if you are someone who knows little to nothing about Autism, and your aim is to hurl insults, I urge you to remain silent on the subject. There is a time for speaking and a time for listening. If you fall into this camp, your time for the latter is approximately now.

Thank you all again...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Feeling Savage and Leary

This has been much written about in many spaces with far greater readership than this blog, but I feel compelled to take a break from my tales of school placements to share some comments that reveal the emergence of an inevitable Autism backlash.

Michael Savage is a UC Berkley Graduate and former herbalist, turned "Compassionate" Conservative talk show host. In 2003, he was fired from his show on MSNBC for the following rant after a caller insulted him, then identified himself as being gay:

"Oh, you're one of the sodomites! You should only get AIDS and die, you pig! How's that? Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig? You got nothing better than to put me down, you piece of garbage? You got nothing to do today? Go eat a sausage and choke on it. Get trichinosis. OK, got another nice caller here who's busy because he didn't have a nice night in the bathhouse and is angry at me today?"

He later defended his actions by claiming he didn't realize he was on the air when he said it. Savage has waged a long-term (and still ongoing) assault on the gay and lesbian community, often referring to "the gay mafia," likening the legalization of same-sex marriage to making it legal to marry a horse or a mule, and comparing flamboyant homosexuality to the excesses of the Weimar Republic, which he claims gave rise to Hitler and the Nazis.

Despite having lost his show on MSNBC, Savage remains one of the most popular radio talk show hosts in the world. His show is broadcast on 350 stations, with 8.25 million listeners.

On his July 16th show, Savage took time out from the gay-bashing to unleash a sickening attack on some old standby targets of conservatives - minorities and the poor - and also upon two new targets: asthmatic children and children with autism.

From the July 16 edition of Talk Radio Network's The Savage Nation:

'Now, you want me to tell you my opinion on autism, since I'm not talking about autism? A fraud, a racket. For a long while, we were hearing that every minority child had asthma. Why did they sudden -- why was there an asthma epidemic amongst minority children? Because I'll tell you why: The children got extra welfare if they were disabled, and they got extra help in school. It was a money racket. Everyone went in and was told [fake cough], "When the nurse looks at you, you go [fake cough], 'I don't know, the dust got me.' " See, everyone had asthma from the minority community. That was number one.

Now, the illness du jour is autism. You know what autism is? I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is.

What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, "Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot."

Autism -- everybody has an illness. If I behaved like a fool, my father called me a fool. And he said to me, "Don't behave like a fool." The worst thing he said -- "Don't behave like a fool. Don't be anybody's dummy. Don't sound like an idiot. Don't act like a girl. Don't cry." That's what I was raised with. That's what you should raise your children with. Stop with the sensitivity training. You're turning your son into a girl, and you're turning your nation into a nation of losers and beaten men. That's why we have the politicians we have.

It can be daunting, even awe-inspiring, to stare straight into the face of such galactic proportions of stupidity, wretchedness, and depravity as these comments. There's also a temptation to just ignore it. After all, why even dignify such pap with a response?

But consider this: 8.25 million listeners. And consider this: now we have "comedian" Denis Leary joining in on the fun in his newly released book:

“There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don’t give a shit what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you - yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.”

Pardon me for the jarring juxtaposition, but let's go straight from Savage and Leary to a slightly more enlightened human being, Martin Luther King:

“Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”

And let us make no mistake about it: the Savages and Learys of the world are cowards. They are cowards, and thus the question "is it safe?" comes up. Sadly, they don't even need to consciously ask this question any more. Of course it's safe. Assaulting children is always safe. Persecuting those without a forum to defend themselves - whether they be children, people with disabilities, the impoverished, the sickly, or some blessed combination of these - is always safe.

And there's no doubt it is all expedient and politic. It is vitriol such as this that fuels the allegiance of the "Savage Nation," keeping the ratings up. And as far as Leary, the "edgy" persona he cultivated in order to propagate his comedic career has now expeditiously found a tow hook in the form of Savage.

And so where does conscience and what is right enter in? Sadly, it once again is left to the muted voices of those who are being attacked, those voiceless people that bullies like Savage and Leary delight in piling on. Usually, those people consist of people of color, homosexuals, immigrants, poor folks, Muslims, or some combination of the above.

Today, as a parent of a child with Autism, it's my turn.

Let's start with what is not right.

The assertion that minority children fake asthma in order to garner excessive welfare benefits - even when divorced from the repugnant and typical insinuations that people or color are lazy free-loaders who devote their lives to exploiting "the system" - is inane.

According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH), low-income children with diagnosed asthma, compared to children generally, suffer disproportionate levels of hardships such as gaps in insurance coverage, housing problems, and insufficient food after diagnosis.

Furthermore, the children most likely to experience hardships are those afflicted with severe asthma. In fact, 78% of low-income children with severe asthma experienced one or more of the above-mentioned hardships, compared to 64% for children with mild to moderate asthma.

And, in spite of this obvious need for services, according to NIH, "children with severe asthma were no more likely to use housing, childcare or SSI benefits, and were less likely to get WIC benefits than children with less severe asthma."

So not only are children with asthma not reaping untold fortunes from the debilitated social welfare system of the United States, they are actually suffering most from its failures. And the more severe their condition, the less assistance they are likely to receive.

The reason minority children are suffering disproportionately from asthma is because minority children are suffering disproportionately from poverty. And with poverty comes greatest exposure to the side-effects of our corporate, toxic culture.

Environmental Racism. What could possibly be more tragic than the fact that such a phrase needs to exist? Yet it exists out of perfectly legitimate reasons. Our society, as presently constructed, necessitates the creation of massive quantities of filth and toxicity, and all that toxic mire must be generated, exploited, and dumped somewhere. And you can rest assured that isn't going to happen in an affluent white community. It's going to happen somewhere where the people are poor, powerless, and disenfranchised. It is going to be inflicted upon the same people that the Savages and Learys of the world inflict their vitriol.

Take an extreme case for example. East St. Louis. East Saint Louis is 98% African American. It has one of the highest rates of child asthma in America.

The people of East St. Louis are impoverished and powerless, as is the City itself. Most rely on welfare to survive, as local commerce and industry are almost non-existent. Even the city government has laid off most of its employees over the last 20 years due to lack of funds.

East St. Louis lies in the Mississippi River's floodplain, surrounded by the Illinois Bluffs. The bluffs, predominantly white and middle to upper class, have never been compelled to pay taxes to assist with flood control, despite the fact that it is their drainage that floods the floodplain and East St. Louis. East St. Louis lacks the funds to be able to pay for this itself.

The flooding in East St. Louis is especially problematic, because the deficient sewage systems of the town are entirely contaminated with the toxins of the chemical plants that surround the town. When flooding occurs, the poison in these sewers flows through the streets and the homes of East St. Louis.

Monsanto and Pfizer have maintained chemical plants here for years. Apart from the release of toxins into the sewer system (not to mention the soil and the drinking water), the plants release a steady stream of smoke that literally forms a perpetual cloud over all of East St. Louis. From time to time, the plant emits a blast considered to be toxic, at which time an alarm sounds. People who have breathed the smoke get a payment of a few hundred dollars, if they first sign a release relieving the company from liability. The companies that operate these plants have formed small incorporated areas, outside the jurisdiction of East St. Louis, and therefore are exempt from paying any taxes to the city.

So, to recap: affluent white communities on the bluffs are excused from assuming fiscal responsibility for the preventable occurrence of the flooding of East St. Louis. Multinational corporations, earning billions of dollars in revenue, are excused from taking responsibility for preventing the release of their toxic chemicals upon the environment and the residents, and from cleaning up the released toxins. The voiceless people of East St. Louis absorb all the misery that comes from all this, and their children become afflicted with asthma and other diseases, such as lead poisoning, liver tumors, and abscesses.

But heaven forbid a mother in East St. Louis, out of desperation, should ever once coach her child to fake a cough in the misguided hope that this will somehow derive them an additional benefit of some sort. For this act will surely be noted by the ever-observant, astute mind of Savage, who will quickly pass it along to his 8.25 million "listeners" as evidence that their bigotry is actually righteousness.

As for Leary...Diagnoses of Autism tend not to come from a "shrink," or a "crackerjack whack job" as he so assonantly describes them. Perhaps Leary has not heard, but Autism is not a psychological or psychiatric condition. It is a neurological disorder. Diagnosis, in our case, initially came from a medical practitioner, with the advisory of licensed physical, occupational, and speech therapists. Eventually, a proper diagnosis should come from a neurologist, a process we have yet to go through, but will likely have to if we ever hope to receive a state-provided benefit.

Between the two of them they did say something that is right. That would be Savage. He is right that Sharky - a child diagnosed with autism - lacks a father who calls him an idiot, a moron, a putz, a dummy, a brat, or a fool. He is right that Sharky lacks a father who tells him not to cry, not to act like a girl.

Savage claims to have a father who told him all these things, and out of cowardice proclaims his father was right, and begs us all to not deviate from his father's methodology, perhaps out of some desperate dream that universal adherence to this cancerous way will somehow vindicate it, and provide Savage with a specious peace in the sewage-flooded nest he has sought shelter in.

Despite his venom, despite his daily efforts to seduce 8.25 million listeners into his own cauldron of hell, I feel genuine compassion and pity for him.

Years ago, in his HBO special, “No Cure For Cancer,” Leary spoke – touchingly in fact – of his tough Irish father, and the understood rule that even a small child was not permitted to cry, even upon having an arrow lodged in his head.

I feel genuine compassion for him as well.

I cannot, however, adhere to the path they beckon us toward. I will never do my child like that, and I trace it back to a lunch break years ago at a Wendy's in Bellingham, Washington.

I was working as a barista, and if I neglected to bring a lunch with me to work, the only place I could make it to during my 30 minute lunch break was the Wendy's adjacent to the the coffee shop. I sat there one day, eating a salad, and noticed my place mat was adorned with rows and rows of pictures of children.

I read that these children were all foster children, and we fast-food eaters were being asked by the Wendy's corporation to consider adopting one of them. About 3 rows down, slightly to the right of center, my eyes locked in on one of the photos. Even in small size, on a fuzzy printout discolored slightly by my soda's condensation, this child's eyes burned. The look was simply, purely, unmistakably one of wounded pride. The child was cooperating with the adults around him by posing and smiling for the picture, perhaps realizing that the emotions he exuded for this photo could very well dictate whether or not he found a home to live in. And at the same time, he seemed fully aware of how wrong this all was.

This child, as all children, had an innate sense of the promise of existence, and consequently knew that this promise had been broken. Born a proud warrior, and now, by the age of 8, disillusioned and hurt. Wounded pride.

And I thought to myself right then and there, that should I ever have a child I will fight with everything I have to make sure this never happens to him. And years later, when I found out I was to be a father, I made this vow to myself and to my unborn child:

Whatever happens, no matter how tired, frustrated, or desperate the challenges of raising you make me, I will never shame you. I will never insult you. I will never, ever do anything to take away your pride. If I ever were to do this to you, it would be a violation of what is right, and it would be a betrayal of you. And should I ever betray you as such, I would not at all blame you if you found it difficult to ever trust another soul. And my apologies would then go out to the world for having cast another lost, hurt, betrayed soul into its midst.

And I thought clearly of what my hopes were for my child. And they were simple. I hoped that I would have a healthy, happy child. And I hoped that my child, both from his own innate strength and from my support, would have the self-confidence, pride, and strength of character to be his own person, to follow his own path, and withstand any indignities the world might throw at him and stay true to himself.

That, to me, is what it means to be a man (not a beaten man: Savage and Leary are the beaten men). And at the same time, let's not draw lines along gender. Sharky is a boy, and so I talk in terms on what it means to be a man. But truth be told, this is what it means to be human.

There exists a higher plane of being, one that transcends this messy matter of arguing with the crippled and wounded thinking of Savage and Leary. Having just now sufficiently vented my spleen, I now am on this plane, and I find myself – oddly yet comfortably – capable of devoting the same vow I gave the unborn Sharky to Savage and Leary.

The Savages and Learys, when taken in proper context, are our Bodhisattvas, always nudging us closer to enlightenment. Their attacks on children with Autism, people of color, the poor, and homosexuals, have reawakened me to the presence of all of these communities within me.

I am the parent of a child with Autism, and am raising that child with a lesbian couple. I am the child of a man who grew up in abject poverty, suffering all the hardships outlined in the NIH reports. The same man spent the better part of his adult life as a devoted teacher and advocate for low-income youth, incarcerated youth, and miseducated youth - the vast majority of whom were people of color.

All of these communities come together within me, just as many communities come together within most of us. And as the attackers grow bored with their usual punching bags, their expedience and cowardice compels them to seek new targets that they perceive to be voiceless. But with each new community they attack, they step upon the sacred grounds of more and more of these "voiceless." And in doing so, they awaken us to our commonality, they drive us towards the realization that we are all together. And perhaps this realization will give us our voice.

For Savage and Leary, I truly have the same hopes as I do for Sharky, just as I hope for this for myself, just as I hope for this for all of you.

Really now, what else could I possibly hope for?

“A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave.”

- Mohandas Gandhi

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Citizen Complaint 08-22...Part 1

April and May of 2008 were dark days at the EEU. The hallways and side rooms were like impromptu group therapy sessions. It seemed like each corner you turned brought you face to face with a parent weeping, spitting with rage, or both at the same time. Networks of information exchange formed spontaneously, with each parent sharing with the others what little crumbs of information they'd managed to learn. The sum of all our combined knowledge, however, still left us all bewildered, confused, and frustrated.

Each state in the US, as far as I know, has some sort of office that oversees public education in all of the districts. In the case of Washington, it is called the Office for the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). OSPI has various resources available regarding dispute resolution, including the Citizen Complaint.

The use of the Citizen Complaint is explained as such on the OSPI web site:

Any individual or organization may file a citizen complaint if it believes a school district, another public agency serving special education students, a private agency under contract with a public agency to serve special education students, an educational service district, or the state has violated federal or state laws or regulations implementing IDEA. The complaint must be in writing and it must be signed.

It was awkward writing my complaint, because due to the district's secrecy and lack of communication I didn't really know what I was complaining about. So my goal was to lay out the results of whatever went on - the dozens of special education students without placements - and also make the district's lack of communication an integral part of the complaint.

In the portion of the form that requires a statement of the violation, I wrote:

I believe the District violated Part B of the IDEA by:

The school district has failed to provide a seat in any of the three choices for schools presented by our IEP team, or to place our son in any program currently in existence. We did not receive notice of this fact until April 25, 4 weeks after placement letters were mailed out. The district intends to create a new program somewhere in the district to place him in. They will not provide us with any information as to location, classroom staff, or program model until after the placement has already been made. They will not inform us of the placement until June 1. They have, in effect, eliminated any possibility of input from the parents and IEP team in determining placement, and cut into our window for appealing the placement by two months. There apparently are 35 students in the same predicament as our son – and nine in his current classroom alone – so it is obvious the district has made a serious error in evaluating the space needs in the district's classrooms.

I believe an investigation should be launched that seeks answers to the following questions:

1)How did the district come to miscalculate the demand for seats to such an extent?
2)How did these students without placements come to be the ones left out? (My son and I live 8 blocks from our first choice school, yet were unable to get a seat. Were there actually children his age with Autism seeking Autism Inclusion program model classrooms who lived closer than us?)
3)How could it be that 9 out of 35 students without placement are from the same classroom, room 129 at the EEU?
4)Why was my son not even placed on a waiting list for any of the 3 schools we listed on our preference form?

At the end of the form, the complainer is asked, "What would you like to see changed?"

My response:

I would like to see a special education department that is competent enough to ensure students all receive school placements at the time they are supposed to.

I would like to see a department that cares enough about families to actually be proactive in informing them when a problem such as this arises, or at the very least responds promptly to phone messages and emails from parents asking for information.

I would like for staff in charge of answering phones at the enrollment and special education offices to be trained well enough to provide accurate and helpful information when parents call with concerns (and in particular, I would very much like it if EVERY employee at the enrollment office was fully aware that they are responsible for the enrollment of special education students as well as general education students).

I would like for the date of placement letters to be changed to after spring break so in the ensuing period of time there are actually administrators at their desks, rather than on vacation, to answer parent's questions.

I would like a process put in place where if, for some reason, a student such as my son does not get any of his three choices for schools, we have the opportunity to reassess the situation with our IEP team and make further preferences known, rather than being randomly assigned to whatever school the district's computer determines, or being left with no school at all.

In general, I would like to see the school district held somewhat accountable for their actions and mistakes.

The next step was to exchange phone calls and emails with the OSPI investigator, providing her with additional explanation, as she attempted to determine whether or not they would conduct an investigation. Her principal question to me was if I was alleging that procedures were violated, or that my son had been discriminated against. My response? Both.

...My son has been in the Seattle school district system for about a year and a half now, and it has been one continuous struggle. When we have attempted to speak with people at the district about problems in the past, we have never been able to get even the simplest questions answered. When we attempted to question placement procedures that we felt were unfair from last year's placement process, the district abruptly canceled an upcoming meeting with us and said they would need to reschedule for a time when their legal counsel could be present. They then forbid our son's teacher from meeting with us without theirlawyers there. It is a shameless cycle of deceit followed by intimidation.

My main hope in filing this complaint is that some of these issues are brought to light and an external entity can take steps to hold the Seattle school district accountable for their actions. I believe that if a large number of parents of children with disabilities were given the opportunity to tell their stories of what they've gone through with this district, it would raise a lot of eyebrows.

I'm uncertain as to where this leaves us. I do not know if it is a matter of discriminatory policies that leads to all of these serious problems, or if the issue is the presence of an ineffectual and callously indifferent group of administrators mismanaging the policies. My inclination, however, it to believe that it is both.

She responded to this email by informing me that they would proceed with the investigation through the IDEA provisions regarding placement. She later explained to me that I could pursue allegations of discrimination through the Office of Civil Rights.

The next step was for OSPI to inform the district that the investigation was being conducted, present them with the complaint, and give them three weeks to respond. The district was to investigate the complaint themselves, and send OSPI a written report of their findings. Seems a bit like the fox guarding the chicken coop, but oh well.

The district's general counsel instead sent OSPI a letter, stating the investigation should be called off, because my complaint was "premature."

To accommodate a systemic capacity issue, the District is in the process of creating six additional special education programs for students in the primary grades the 2008-2009 school year, as well as creating general
education kindergarten classes. The District believes that it is important to note that there are general education families who are in the same position as Mr.Munat as a result of capacity concerns. The District is
attempting to resolve these capacity concerns for all impacted students as quickly as possible.

I was actually disappointed at how poorly done this letter was. I thought their legalese (systemic capacity issue? will probiotics help with that?) was transparent and easily dismantled. I also thought it odd that they seemed to be defending themselves against a discrimination claim (all the mentioning of how general education students also were without placements too - in this excerpt and elsewhere in the letter) when clearly the OSPI investigation was regarding procedural practices.

OSPI gave me the opportunity to respond to this, and give them reason as to why they should in fact continue with their investigation. I decided my response should first off blow apart their legal speak. This would, I reasoned, not only reveal the emptiness of their arguments, but also send a message to all parties involved that I am no dummy, and they are going to need more than sleight of hand tricks to veer me off course.

Dear (OSPI),

I received your letter, along with the letter you received from (the district's counsel) regarding the district’s claim that the Citizen’s Complaint I have filed is “premature.” Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have some comments on the subject.

To begin with, I’d like to take a moment to analyze the phrase used by(the district's counsel), “a systemic capacity issue.” This term is folded neatly into the language of the letter, and seems to imply that the systemic
capacity issue is a naturally occurring event, one which the district is now working to “accommodate.”

As I understand it, the complaint I filed, and the correlative OSPI investigation, seek answers as to the cause of this systemic capacity issue. Therefore, the concept that the district is implying here is specious at best. It has not been established that the systemic capacity issue is something for which no fault or blame can be attributed, because the investigation has not yet been conducted.

(The district's) description of their efforts to “accommodate” the systemic capacity issue is therefore based upon the assumption that the issue is in fact a situation lying outside the realm of the district’s
responsibility. In so doing, she attempts to relegate the systemic capacity issue to being a closed chapter of the past, while at the same time claiming that a proposed investigation into that same issue is “premature.”

The capacity issue exists now, and has existed since at least March 28th, when placements were made for the coming school year. Therefore, investigating why and how the issues came about is not premature. Regardless of whatever efforts the district is making to create new programs, significant damage has already been done.

I can’t help but wonder if it had been members of the school district who had anxiously awaited the arrival of a placement letter for weeks, hoping for the best and fearing the worst, before eventually having the worst confirmed, if they would still consider a complaint on the issue to be “premature.” Had it been they that made dozens of phone calls and emails, queried fellow parents and school staff, only to be told nothing, or told
inaccurate things, or to be completely ignored, would they still feel it is premature to complain? Had they watched as possibilities for private school options went by the wayside as classes filled and deadlines passed,
all the while still waiting for word from the public school system, would they still feel this was a premature time to act?

Had they been the ones to spend countless hours researching, touring, and visiting schools, then hours more discussing options with their children’s I.E.P. teams, only to have the child denied access to any of the schools
considered, and consequently find themselves on the outside looking in without input as to what happens next to their child, would they still at this point consider objections premature?

This describes only a fraction of the stress and anxiety my family, and the other families I have spoken to in our situation, have been experiencing over the past six weeks as a result of the so-called systemic capacity issue. Our plight is a living, breathing reality, not doublespeak, and the cause of it deserves to be investigated as soon as possible.

The district casts itself in the light of an entity attempting to “accommodate a systemic capacity issue,” and “resolve…capacity concerns.” What are the causes of these issues and concerns? That is what this investigation is about, and there is no need to wait to see how the district responds to the issues and concerns before looking into what caused them in the first place.

(The district's counsel) closes her letter by stating that “Mr. Munat can again raise the issue if he still has concerns regarding the process for his son’s assignment” after a placement has been made. This statement makes me suspect that the district’s true motivation in seeking to delay the investigation lies in the belief that a placement will pacify me. This is incorrect. My motivation in filing the complaint is not to compel the district to give my son the placement of our choosing. Rather, it is to illuminate any deficiencies in the placement process that could potentially continue to bring harm to special education students and their families in the future. In short, I want to make sure that my family, and other families of children with disabilities in Seattle, do not ever have to go through this again. The district has offered no such assurance.

I would be happy to discuss this matter in greater detail with you if you feel it would be helpful in making a decision as to whether to proceed. Please feel free to call me or write at any point between now and the May
16 date of your decision. Thank you again for keeping me included in the process.

Yours truly,

Ted Munat

I really don't communicate in this manner in real life. Whenever I read these letters I'm always a little shocked: "did I write that? goodness that's pretty blunt!"SPS just brings it out in me, particularly when discussing my all time favorite past time, "systemic capacity issues."

I received this response from OSPI a day or two later, and so did the Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools...

Dear Dr. Goodloe –Johnson and Mr. Munat:

I received a letter from (district counsel) raising an issue regarding whether or not this complaint was premature, and response from Mr.Munat regarding this issue. I spoke to them both today, regarding this issue.

After discussing the issue with both, we have determined that OSPI will proceed with the complaint. The due date for the district’s response would have been May 25, 2008. The due date for the District’s response is extended to June 10, 2008. We are not extending the date for the decision at this time.

So, I win a round. The investigation proceeds. Of course, the district has accomplished its everlasting goal, detailed on this blog before, of stalling. They got themselves an extra 16 days to conjure up a response. That extension also takes it past the June 1st promised date of informing us of Sharky's school placement.

Onward we plunged...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Return of the Living Dead Shark Blog!

Yes, it's been a long time since this blog was added to. Call it summer vacation. But rather than dwell on any reasons for the absence, let's get right back to it. I'm here, I'm ready to go again, there's much to tell, I still love my son and I'm still a disgruntled dad. So without further ado...

I had left off with the battle we had just to get an IEP meeting to discuss placements for the 2008-09 year. It was a bruising heavyweight bout, but it ended seemingly happy. We had three solid choices of schools. Choice 1 was Bagley, which is a great school with the unique element of an Autism inclusion program meshed with a Montessori model classroom. Choice 2 was a return to the EEU, which we love for too many reasons to outline in this space. Choice 3 was North Beach, a blended kindergarten that was not as distinctly excellent as the others but still some place we'd have been more than happy to have Sharky attend.

We also felt confident that we'd get one of these. Bagley is 8 blocks from my home and distance is one of the first determiners for placements. EEU is further away but is an "all-city draw," so distance ceases to be an issue, and Sharky had already demonstrated that he thrived in that environment (and the bureaucrats care about such things right? right?). North Beach was about 1 mile from my home.

Plus in a karmic sense we just kind of figured they'd give us one. Just this once.

They did not give us this one just this once.

March 28th was the date for placement letters to be sent out. The day came and went. No letter for us. Several more days went by without word. Finally, about a week later, I started making phone calls.

Now this brings us to a lovely tradition employed by the district. March 28 is the day before spring break. They send out the placement letters (or in our case they don't) and then they all flee for the hills. They carefully select the most incompetent and socially inept employees to remain in the office to dispense as much misinformation as possible to any hysterical parents who call up with questions such as, say, why haven't we gotten any word about where, or if, our son is going to go to school in the fall.

You see, the district is all about stalling. In the previous post about this whole sordid affair I described the hand behind the back game. Once that runs out, there's the run for the hills and hide game. The more stalling, the less time there is to file appeals, complaints, or other quests for justice. Also, the more stalling there is the more likely the parent just gives up, unable to sustain the level of rage that was initially fueling their actions.

I called the enrollment office. The person who answered the phone asked me for my son's name. She looked it up and said "Oh. He's special ed." I replied that yes indeed, he was enrolled in special education. She then informed me that "special ed. kids don't get their placements sent out at the same time as the rest of the kids."

I found this rather difficult to believe, but nonetheless I asked her when the special ed. kids did get their placement letters. She told me, "I have no idea, we have nothing to do with that."

Apparently, the district's enrollment office staff does not realize they have responsibility for enrollment of my son or the hundreds of other children in special education. I informed the EEU principal of what had been said, and she emailed me back to say simply: "they're wrong."

In fact, the placement letters for special education students ARE sent out at the same time as everyone else's, and their enrollment IS handled by the enrollment office.

But this keeper of the phone lines did manage to delay my attempts to figure out what was going on by at least 12 hours. Excellent stalling. Mission accomplished.

I tried calling the special education department. They did nothing to refute the absurd notions the enrollment department had imparted upon me, and were equally unhelpful and rude. When I mentioned Sharky was at the EEU this year, she transferred me to the line of the consulting teacher for the EEU.

This didn't make much sense, since the consulting teacher responsible for his current placement is not necessarily going to be the authority on his placement for next year. It made even less sense considering that she transferred me to the former consulting teacher for the EEU, not the current one.
Apparently the folks who work the phones over spring break at the special education department missed a memo. And of course, the former EEU consulting teacher was out of the office for break anyway. I left a voice mail. One that was never returned.

It was not until the following Tuesday, April 8th, that I managed to speak with the appropriate consulting teacher. She said she would look into it and get back to me, which she did. She informed me that Sharky was one of a group of special education students who did not receive a placement.

She explained that there had been a shortage of seats for Autism Inclusion programs and some other models as well. But they had approval from the district to open more classrooms. She had no further information for me.

In the ensuing weeks, I learned that there were 35 kids at or around Sharky's grade level, with IEPs, without placements. Oddly enough, 9 of those students were currently enrolled at the EEU. So out of dozens of K-1 special education classrooms in the district, more than a quarter of the unplaced children were from one school.

At the very least, it seemed as though the district's failure to adequately estimate the demand for seats bordered on criminal. Throw in the fishiness of that ratio of unplaced kids at the EEU, and I suspected something very wrong had gone on, and the district was frantically working to cover its own ass - working so frantically on that, in fact, that there was apparently no time available to actually meet with the families of children without placements and address our concerns. And the concerns were many. They included:

Why did we spend all those hours upon hours evaluating schools, going on tours, meeting with teachers, culling down a list of our preferences, only to be denied them all? Where exactly do they intend to stick my child? Do I get any more say in the matter? Will this school they put him in be anywhere close to my home, or will he be on buses for hours per day? How can a classroom they throw together at the last minute possibly be adequate? Who will staff it? What space will be available – will it be in some portable unit dropped next to the parking lot behind the school building? Will the administration of the school embrace this last minute program, or will they resent having this put upon them?

But instead of allowing us to dialog with them about this, they hid out, and sent a form letter written by their legal department three weeks after we all had expected to be getting placement letters. The letter carefully avoided any wording that conceded errors in any way. In fact, it didn't even acknowledge that there were students who had ended up without placements. It just said the district was working diligently to create seats and would have them for us by June 1st.

June 1st.

I'd had enough. I spoke with a lawyer, and on her advice I filed a citizen complaint with the WA State Office for the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Then I did the same with the Federal Government's Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

With OSPI, they can investigate a complaint to see if procedures laid out by IDEA were properly followed. With OCR, they can investigate to see if the children were discriminated against by the district because of their disabilities. In my case, the claim I made was that the district's placement procedures are inherently discriminatory against students with disabilities.

Which brings us to the next phase of the saga, which I will cover in another post, which I promise will be coming henceforth!

Thank you for coming back!