by Laura Savage
Having a child with autism who receives special education in public school is a challenge. It can be more difficult for parents of low income, as is my circumstance. I’ve tried different routes to navigate a very difficult and, at times, confusing system. The myriad of acronyms and policy to be familiar with are overwhelming and it can feel as if you are alone in the process – your family against your school district.
During my journey of trying to advocate for my son, Nadir, I have had to take legal action against the school district, to file suit because of disagreement with the district about the services or placement of a student they propose. I filed suit twice against two different districts and had an attorney draft a letter because another district was out of compliance with my son’s IEP (Individual Education Plan). The latter was particularly difficult because the district was my employer; I worked in the special education department.
I feel that I have had a more informed experience because of my understanding of the law, due to my field of work. Other parents may not be as lucky.
It seems that embedded in special education law is the notion that African American parents don’t care about their children’s academic progress and therefore aren’t invested in the services they’re given by school personnel. It is an obviously racist idea that casts Blacks as inferior.
It seems that embedded in special education law is the notion that African American parents don’t care about their children’s academic progress and therefore aren’t invested in the services they’re given by school personnel.
Federal law, incorporated into California Code of Education Section 56026, requires provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’ “Free Appropriate Public Education for Students With Disabilities: Requirements Under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973”:
“An appropriate education may comprise education in regular classes, education in regular classes with the use of related aids and services, or special education and related services in separate classrooms for all or portions of the school day. Special education may include specially designed instruction in classrooms, at home, or in private or public institutions, and may be accompanied by related services such as speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy, psychological counseling, and medical diagnostic services necessary to the child’s education.”
This law was supposed to ensure that disabled students aren’t segregated from general education, but it also entitles them to educational environments that adapt curriculum to their individual ways of learning. This is intended to ensure disabled students can learn at a pace and in an environment conducive to their cognition.
Theory at play
According to author and educator Dr. Joyce E. King, dysconscious racism is an “impaired consciousness or distorted way of thinking about race,” “an uncritical habit of mind (including perceptions, attitudes, assumptions and beliefs) that justifies inequity and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things as a given.”
This “impaired” and/or “distorted way of thinking,” I believe, is a result of institutionalized racism that says it is acceptable to create, keep and supplement the current hierarchy. It further states that due to whites’ belief in Black inferiority, there is a responsibility to maintain a socioeconomic comfort level for the benefit of whites and persons of color. In my son’s case, placing him in a general education middle school classroom, where he would fall further behind his peers for lack of understanding of academic lessons and his extreme social delays that are rooted in his speech delay and sensory disorder, shows a disconnect and lack of care regarding at-risk youth.
In our IEP, the district administrator hadn’t even read Nadir’s file. She had no understanding of him, nor had she met him before. It was clear she didn’t care about him. To her, her rebuttal that students learn better from their peers and being included was sufficient.
She assumed I had no knowledge of my rights. She also assumed I had no access to legal help and therefore couldn’t advocate for my child. So she, an Asian American administrator with a clear position of power, assumed I was uneducated, too poor to be litigious and her outright inferior – which is why she treated me that way.
It further states that due to whites’ belief in Black inferiority, there is a responsibility to maintain a socioeconomic comfort level for the benefit of whites and persons of color.
An all-encompassing way to look at this dynamic is through bell hooks’ white supremacist capitalist patriarchal lens, which states that not only is race not the only issue at hand, but all of them – racism, sexism, and capitalism – function simultaneously in our lives.
Once desegregation, ordered by Brown vs. Board of Education, was implemented, it did more damage to students of color. Students of color, especially Black male students, are tracked into lower level or special education classes. Their value in society is as unskilled labor. Blacks are here to keep the status quo, especially Black males, according to society and its unwritten racist codes.
Being that my son is a young Black male, there is no need to invest in quality education for him because he won’t amount to much academically in society anyway. On top of him being a young Black male, he is severely autistic. He, therefore, has two strikes against him in society.
Not only is race not the only issue at hand, but all of them – racism, sexism, and capitalism – function simultaneously in our lives.
There was no attempt by our school district to delve deeper into Nadir’s individual case as a student. There was no chance of examining his case through a critical race lens. No, he in society is a threat to white patriarchy and a threat to white peers his age trying to become educated so they might assume their superior position as manager.
That threat is why his education and life don’t matter. The educational system in this country isn’t structured to educate and help all students. It is structured to reinforce the system already in place, not dismantle the unfair, racist, sexist, classist policies in place because those policies help keep those who wrote the laws in power.
The educational system in this country isn’t structured to educate and help all students. It is structured to reinforce the system already in place, not dismantle the unfair, racist, sexist, classist policies in place because those policies help keep those who wrote the laws in power.
Insult to injury
Adding insult to injury, I had to fight tooth and nail to provide adequate placement for my son. I had to file for due process and go through mediation. They still offered the general education classroom. It was draining and at times humiliating. I felt like it was me against the system. I was tired mentally and physically.
I took off from school and work to attend this mediation, and thankfully I had a flexible caretaker for Nadir at the time. Had I not been so lucky with support, my options would have been dire.
Other parents of color, often working class or in poverty, might be intimidated by a long, arduous process. It certainly isn’t for the weak-willed individual. Throughout the day I knew they were expecting me to break and give in.
Had I been pressed for time, money or, worse, had I attended that process alone, I wouldn’t have survived mentally. The language and isolation of Black parents in districts that are dominated by white personnel is daunting and overwhelming.
Educators are taught and trained that Blacks are academically inferior and therefore warrant a relationship of domination by white administrators. Blacks are merely there to follow orders, to do as they’re told. No one questions this mindset because it requires genuine self-critique of actions, perceptions and attitudes in everyday life. That is too much work and may produce realities that are hard to accept on the status quo enforcer’s part.
Educators are taught and trained that Blacks are academically inferior and therefore warrant a relationship of domination by white administrators. No one questions this mindset because it requires genuine self-critique of actions, perceptions and attitudes in everyday life.
Work in progress
For many parents, the IEP (Individual Education Plan) process can be long and arduous if they are unprepared and unfamiliar with IEP or special education terms. Parents should, to the best of their ability, be engaged in their child’s learning and provide opportunities for the school district their child attends, referred to as the “district of service,” to regain parental trust.
The IEP process also provides opportunity for families to establish a working relationship with school staff and keep abreast of their child’s progress. An actively involved parent or guardian is an informed parent or guardian.
As a beginning point for parents to navigate the educational system, my recommendations to parents are:
- Be active participants in their student’s educational career: When parents are involved regularly in their child’s academic career, school personnel are less likely to assume that the student doesn’t have individuals in his or her life who care about what sort of education is being provided. Also, in my opinion it is much more difficult for district or school staff to disregard parents or guardians when they are constantly seeing them. They know that person exists.
- Consult with a parent advocate or attorney about what is written in the IEP: It is always a good idea to consult with a legal expert or experienced special education advocate prior to signing any documents. This is because the parent’s signature is binding until the next IEP. Even though parents have the right to call for a meeting to discuss issues or request a change in services, it isn’t promised that the team will agree or that the district will comply. For these reasons, take time to review the documents carefully with a trusted advocate. Free and low-cost advocates can be found through non-profit agencies that specialize in delivering services to families in need.
- Review the “Procedural Safeguards” handbook, which is distributed at every IEP meeting by law: By becoming familiar with parental rights and having the ability to articulate them, parents will regain their voice among those district representatives who wish to overpower them. [The San Francisco Unified School District’s “Special Education Procedural Handbook” is posted online at http://www.sfusd.edu/en/assets/sfusd-staff/programs/files/special-education/Special%20Education%20Procedural%20Handbook1.pdf. – ed.]
- Become familiar with special education terminology: This will allow parents to understand what is being said during IEPs and other meetings about their student. Administrators and teachers assume that parents understand what is being said, or (and most often) the school or district representatives don’t care to elaborate because it requires them to explain their intentions.
- Request a daily or weekly communication booklet between school and home updating the happenings in the classroom: This is important because you have a written record of what the classroom teacher is doing in the classroom. Parents should keep these communication records in a safe place with other IEP and educational documents for the student. Not only will they provide evidence of what the classroom teacher is telling the parent or guardian, it will serve as a track record of goals being met or unmet.
- Volunteer at your child’s school so staff becomes familiar with you so you have ample opportunities to see things in action (this will give parents a sense whether services are being provided): Like Action Item No. 1, this will give you plenty of face time on the school campus – thus giving you important “watchful-eye” hours. It is a sort of way to check on your child’s daily experience at school and a way to ease worries of how a student is being treated.
- Keep in contact with district therapy providers – i.e., occupational therapy, speech therapy, psychologists, behavior therapists, adaptive physical education teachers etc. – so you are aware of what goals are being addressed: Therapy providers can be difficult, but in my experience they often understand and agree with the position of the parent or guardian about what a student’s needs are. They are in a confined position because they are employed by the district. If a therapy provider is displeased with the classroom teacher or district case manager, they will convey this to the parent and recommend certain steps to take (usually off the record so their job isn’t put in jeopardy, but still extremely valuable) for the parent to secure better or more appropriate services.
For parents seeking services, my suggestions are:
- Track and write down developmental and academic milestones of the child. This recorded information is needed for parents to justify why they feel their child requires services.
- Obtain an official diagnosis from your child’s pediatrician. This, too, provides a professional opinion about the child’s needs. Districts give more weighted consideration to those they feel are professional – which includes medical doctors and agencies. Always know what your child’s diagnosis is before he or she is assessed by the district of service. It gives you the ability to compare diagnoses, if differing.
- Find Resources by asking your child’s pediatrician where to start or researching on the internet for help in your area. The best place to begin, if in California, is the Regional Center. There are 21 offices statewide in California.
- Seek out help to understand the diagnosis, if you are unclear what it means. There is no stupid or ridiculous question for parents with special needs children. Knowledge is power and will make you a better advocate.
- Tackle stigmas as early as possible. Acceptance around having a child with special needs – and understanding that the life you envisioned having may no longer happen – is a difficult task to undertake. But it is necessary to muster the courage and strength to effectively advocate for an education worthy of your child. Remember that you are not alone!
There are more steps parents and guardians can take to keep abreast of their child’s academic success and IEP goals. However, the above suggestions I feel are most important because these steps will empower parents and guardians as informed advocates in their child’s life. An important step to regaining ones positional power and voice is to take back their own power – power in advocating for IEP services.
It is my vision and plan to help parents regain this inherent power by coaching them through the process, by providing current and applicable information about the world of special education, and connect them with other parents and resources.
Laura Savage is a freelance journalist and special education parent advocate in the San Francisco Bay Area. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.