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...

1 comment:

snaffles said...

I know the feeling!
I commented about the funding of a program to OSPI and was told by the financial honcho that OSPI did not control local spending of money handed out by the state. The voters pamphlet says that OSPI does. (page 9 of the last one). SPS can spend WA State money anyway they like.

Also I find it utterly discusting that the SPS uses the excuse at INGRAHAM that the portables need to be tore down because Handicap students are in them and don't have bathrooms or running water. WHAT ARE THE HANDICAP STUDENTS DOING IN PORTABLES IF THEY NEED FACILITIES LIkE THAT? WHY AREN'T THEY IN THE MAIN BUILDING? Kids who change classes hourly or don't need those facilities can use the portables.

Oh and the first time I ever heard about the NEW ADDITION being for Handicap students at Ingraham, was on TV the day of the appeal hearing. The propaganda and the attorneys are making a fortune in taxpayers dollars at SPS.