Sunday, October 25, 2015

It's All About the People, Part 1: A Reason

So you, our loyal readers, know we have seen some terrific places and scenery from Texas to Alaska, New Mexico to Minnesota and Maine to New Jersey.  The pictures of sunsets, wildlife, and landscapes have allowed you to be with us on many of our adventures, but many of the things we experience are not about where we are.  It's about making connections with the people whose paths we've crossed and who have crossed ours.  Our blog title, "A Reason, A Season, Or A Lifetime," is really about the people we meet and discovering where they belong in that list.  While in New Mexico, we had the opportunities to connect with some from each of those categories.  

In November, shortly after settling in and surviving the Festival of Cranes, we went into town to go shopping.  More often than not, shopping trips are an excuse to get back to civilization and find some local cuisine.  This was one of those days.  We settled into our booth at one of the local diners and began to peruse the menu.  Seating was arranged so that we were sitting directly adjacent to a booth - separated by only a short wall.  While deciding what to order, Kathy's ears picked up the term "ARD" being spoken at the booth adjacent to us.  She leaned in to me and said, "They must work for the school. They're talking about special education." ARD stands for Admissions Review and Dismissal and usually refers to a committee or a meeting.

Kathy had learned much of the alphabet soup of special education as I have taught students with special needs throughout my career.  I put my teacher ears on and quickly learned the waitress's son was the student being discussed.  After the customers, who we presumed to be school administrators, departed, the waitress appeared to be very upset.  When she came to our table to ask for our drink orders, I asked if I could help.  She nearly broke down as she explained that her son had been suspended for bringing a knife to school and that an expulsion hearing was just a few days away.  I introduced myself, apologized for eavesdropping, and asked if I could I could be her parent advocate. We exchanged phone numbers and, after enjoying my Indian tacos, told her I'd call the next day to set up a meeting.  

Within a few days we had met, reviewed her sons documentation, and prepared for an expulsion hearing.  According to him, he had mistakenly carried a pocket knife into school after he had been unpacking boxes in his room and forgot to leave the knife at home.  At school, a teacher had noticed it clipped in his pocket, asked him to turn it over to her.  Since the school rules do not allow weapons, he would have been expelled immediately and, if he were not a special education student, the case would have been closed and he would have no recourse.

Since he was protected by educational law, the school must review his case at an expulsion hearing to determine if his disability could have caused his inappropriate behavior.  As I reviewed his school documents, his mother told me things had changed for him in junior high and now his first year of high school was looking even more grim.  I learned he had a moderate learning disability which could affect his working short term memory, so forgetting to leave the knife at home might be excused by the committee.  I further learned that he should have been taking the majority of his classes in a regular education setting with his non-disabled peers, but, since his junior high was short staffed in special education instructors, they had combined the moderate and more severe classes together.  It apparently was easier for the special education teacher to keep him in her self contained setting rather than providing him support in the regular education classroom.  

He was trapped!  Instead of being in special education for 1 1/2 hours a day, he was segregated from his regular education peers for 6 1/2 hours a day.  This was done only for the convenience of special education personnel at the junior high.  When he transitioned to high school, they simply maintained the schedule given to them from the junior high without review.  It was quite obvious to me that this parent needed an advocate who could explain to her what the school's responsibilities were and ensure that she was not buffaloed by school personnel who clearly didn't care about adhering to federal education law where her son was concerned.    

The hearing began with the evidence , aka the knife, being misplaced.  When it finally turned up, it was much longer than a three inch blade so, according to the school, it was a mandatory expulsion. During the ARD,  the assistant principal was hostile and unprofessional, spending most of the meeting leaned back in her chair with her arms crossed or typing away on her cellphone.  The committee did not want to budge on the expulsion so I decided to play my trump card.  

"What is his current placement?"

His current placement was in a self contained special education classroom for child with emotional disturbances.  

"Had he ever displayed inappropriate behavior?"

No. He was a model student who helped modify other student's behaviors.  

"What was his disability?"

Learning disabled.

"And his current placement is what???!!"

At this point, the administrator sat up and finally paid attention. She realized that the school had not been protecting the student's right to least restrictive placement for over two years.  There's no way this kid should have been in restrictive special ed classes for the majority of his school day. 

"Mom won't sue if we can fix this now," I said.  Now that we had the team's attention, we worked collaboratively to create a new schedule for the student and the principal had the suspension taken out of the system and his current grades promoted to a level that will allow him to pass the semester if he continued to do well.  

On our way out, the assistant principal walked up to me and asked, "Who are you???"  I left with a very happy mom and student and hoped that I changed a life for a reason.