I am BACK!!! Before you breathe a sigh of relief and say, "Finally!", I know you all have been wondering where the heck I've been... I have written this post a thousand times in my head... and several times in the draft section on blogger. I have contemplated how I was going to make my return to blogging... I know many of you do not know what has been happening in our world, and I know you're wondering. I know some of you do know what is going on and are wondering how I'm going to write this post. Some of my drafts have been short and to the point. Others have been long and detail-filled, but would probably make your eyes bleed by the end. And so, here you get the abridged (yet still really long) version.
I know that my readership is comprised of many different facets, and therefore this post is going to touch on many different emotions and opinions. For that reason, I am going to moderate comments on this post. You don't have to agree with me, or how I handled things. I am not a perfect person and I don't always do things exactly the right way. I prayed hard about this situation and handled it the best I knew how. If you are going to disagree with me though, I ask you to do it respectfully, and have the guts to leave your name. Due to the seriousness of the issue involved and the experiences about which I am writing in this post, it is my judgment that anonymous comments should not be published and will be removed. I appreciate your understanding on this point.
In mid-April this year, I posted several entries for IEP week. I did this because many of my friends were getting ready for IEP meetings at the time. There were some fun posts, some serious posts, and some posts that no doubt angered some people. What I didn't say was that those posts led up to my daughter Kennedy's IEP meeting as well. In fact, the last entry posted during her meeting. I didn't talk much about it because a lot of people from Kennedy’s school read this blog, and I didn't want to receive a lot of questions from others that I was not yet in a position to fully answer. After several months, I believe I have (most of) the answers.
My own meeting for Kennedy’s IEP at Barksdale Elementary School did not go well. The positions taken by Kennedy’s school took me by surprise and, more importantly, did not seem to me to be in Kennedy’s best interest. Since that meeting, I've been involved in the process to challenge and appeal the school’s decisions in what is generally called a “Due Process” process with our school system. I found the “process” to be frustrating, one sided, and extremely disappointing in that Kennedy’s needs never seemed to be adequately addressed by the school system. For all intents and purposes, that process is now over, and I feel more comfortable and able to discuss my experience in working to protect Kennedy.
At the beginning of the school year, I was told by Kennedy's special education teacher that as a part of Kennedy's IEP team, neither she nor the team would ever blindside me in an IEP meeting. They would always let me know what they were thinking ahead of time where Kennedy's education and placement were concerned. She assured me not to worry, and made representations to me that I could trust them to look after Kennedy’s best interests. Of course, I accepted her statements at face value and trusted that Kennedy’s educational needs, and her rights to public education, would be adequately addressed and protected.
During the past school year, Kennedy spent her Kindergarten year fully included. She had a wonderful teacher, although she had very minimal support where Kennedy was concerned. Still, the teacher did a good job with Kennedy and brought her a long way. Kennedy reached many, but not all, of her Kindergarten goals. Kennedy made many friends, and she was happy. She was included.
In March, I met with Kennedy's teacher, her special education teacher and the vice principal of the school. During that meeting, we agreed that although Kennedy had made great strides this year, she was not ready for a first grade classroom and that repeating Kindergarten would be better for her. I agreed with the school, and her IEP team, that with an additional year of experience and maturity, Kennedy would thrive even more in kindergarten next year and be able to move on successfully to first grade. Significantly, no “problems” with Kennedy’s general development, and certainly her behavior, was ever raised. Indeed, as I said above, she had made friends, was happy, and had met many of her goals for the year.
After this meeting, and shortly before Kennedy's IEP meeting, I asked for a copy of the draft of her IEP, knowing that school had likely prepared it in advance of our upcoming meeting. I informed Kennedy's special education teacher that I would like to share the report with Kennedy's advocate so we could review Kennedy’s goals for the upcoming year. The teacher told me that nothing on Kennedy's IEP for the upcoming year would be changing, that everything would be the same as it was the previous year, and I could provide Kennedy's advocate a copy of her current IEP to look over. I didn't think I had a reason to worry, so I did exactly what she suggested.
The meeting to review Kennedy's IEP was held on April 26, 2010. At that meeting, I was completely ambushed and blindsided - something the school promised it would never do. Instead of a continuation of Kennedy’s IEP from the current year, as had been represented to me only a few weeks before, the school informed me that Kennedy would be placed in a “Life Skills” class for all of her academic education. I had received no prior notice of this change, and certainly nothing in writing (remember, I had even asked for a copy of the draft plan for the coming year and was told it would remain the same). Under this changed plan, Kennedy would be socially promoted to first grade and no longer on the academic track. She would be removed, for the majority of her day, from her friends and typical peers. The Life Skills setting is also known to have a setting of constant chaos with children who can be violent and have emotional outbursts, and are much, much bigger than Kennedy. Instead of acknowledging the progress that we had only recently agreed had occurred this year, the school had now taken a completely different position. Kennedy's advocates and I were all completely shocked.
As you can understand, I was very upset that Kennedy was being mistreated in this manner. Under the advice of Kennedy's advocates, I sought counsel to better understand Kennedy’s rights, one of which is that I could appeal the school’s decision and that the school board could be required to participate in a mediation. While the school made clear that it would make no difference if I asked for a mediation, I saw no down side to such a mediation, and thus it was scheduled.
Once I delivered notice of my intent to appeal the school’s decision to remove Kennedy from the academic classes and place her in a “Life Skills” class, the school turned ugly. The school quickly turned the focus of the appeal process away from Kennedy’s best interests into an attack on me. Their defense was that I am an over-involved parent and "too involved" in Kennedy's education. How horrible of me to care that they wanted to lock my child away. Because of that they fought me on every small concession and compromise my attorney and I tried to make.
During the mediation itself, Barksdale Elementary School’s principal could not provide me even basic information about what was proposed for Kennedy. For example, she could not break down Kennedy's proposed time in a Life Skills classroom. Kennedy would be in this setting for over 4 hours every day, and the school’s principal couldn't tell me what she would be doing. The principal’s attempted explanation was that if Kennedy were working on math, and didn't want to do that after 20 minutes, the Life Skills class would let her go onto something else - like computers, or coloring. There would be little or no structure for my child, who is six years old and should not be able to decide when she stops working. That is not how typical classrooms are run.
While the school asserted over and over that Kennedy would be receiving teaching and assistance from “experts in this setting,” as of June they did not even have any idea who would teach the class. In the past, the classroom has been a revolving door of teachers, and the classroom has been nothing more than glorified babysitting.
All states are required to provide children with special needs, like Kennedy, a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). An Individual Educational Plan (IEP) and the process for its development are intended to help provide this basic right to all students. In Kennedy’s case, however, Barksdale Elementary School, and the school principal, pre-determined Kennedy's placement without a very important member of her IEP team - me. In fact, the school wanted to take her from her Least Restrictive Environment and put her into the MOST restrictive environment possible - one where she would be subjected to children who could harm her, and who are prone to emotional outbursts that would scare her. They wanted to take her away from her friends, seclude her from her typical peers, for over 4 hours of her school day, all but 20 minutes of her academic day, and put her with children who are behind her academically. She would have had no one to model after, in fact, the only foreseeable thing that could have happened is that she would have picked up on the other children's less than desirable behaviors. In short, the school refused to take any steps to assist Kennedy, and if anything, it became more restrictive in what resources Kennedy would have available to her.
My legal counsel pointed out numerous deficiencies in the school’s position and the actions the school had taken as well as the manner in which they had been taken, and we were confident that ultimately we would prevail; a court would order the school system to provide the appropriate accommodations to which Kennedy is entitled. However, there were downsides to pushing forward. The appeal process was being delayed into August. There are teachers at Barksdale who will no longer speak to me, and I have two other children who have to survive there. I would have to listen to these people whom I have known for 5 years, including one with whom I go to church, bash me in court for being “too involved in Kennedy's education.” When we prevailed, the result would be to send Kennedy back to Barksdale, knowing that a few people (not all, and not the teachers) there would like nothing more than to see her fail just to prove a point to me. Thus, I really had to weigh the pros and cons.
And so, I dropped the suit. I simply didn't want what we were fighting for anymore... A free and appropriate public education? Yes. In that school, with that principal? No. And it's really too bad because Kennedy is missing out on some fabulous teachers and wonderful friends... my other children have received a fantastic education at Barksdale and overall it has been an amazing school environment for them. I just simply can't put Kennedy back there. I don't know how I could trust them to do what is best for her from here on out. That said, please don't bash Kennedy's teacher. I think she did her very best for Kennedy and I will always be grateful for the love and care she showed to my daughter.
And so, I am now the definition of the over-involved parent. I am now her mother, her teacher, her principal, her special ed teacher and her aid. It should make IEP meetings a LOT more pleasant. (HA!) And on August 6, when I drop Kassidy and Kameron off at school and Kennedy doesn't get to stay, it's going to break her heart... and mine. But ultimately it's Barksdale Elementary School’s loss because they're living in the 1960's instead of 2010 when it comes to children with Special Needs. They're missing out on the joy of this amazing little girl... They're missing out on seeing that inclusion can and does work. Maybe I should have fought it harder, but I couldn't send her back where she wasn't wanted. At least here I know she will be loved and thrive, and she won't be sitting around coloring all day. At least here I know she'll be treated as a person and not a diagnosis. It's a new journey for me and for Kennedy, and just like with everything else, we will find our way.