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Why we've given up on I.E.P.'s and Special Ed
Our 15-year-old son's experience with an I.E.P. isn't new, and I suspect many who have had dealings with their school district's Special Ed program will be able to relate to our story.
While I'd like to publicly expose the people who made our son's school hours a daily torment for him, I'd rather avoid a lawsuit, so I'll limit myself to either general terms or fake names.
I should say right off that I don't assume that every school's Special Ed program is as unhelpful, micro-managing, and abusive as ours has been. But of all the Special Ed staff we've met, those who genuinely cared about our son and interacted with him in a helpful way were in the minority -- and they had (or exercised) little control over those who bullied him.
So, when we hear of cuts to Special Ed services in schools -- after hearing what our son has gone through in three different schools in the same district -- it's hard to be upset about that. The people (mostly women) who bullied our son shouldn't be allowed to work with children -- much less the most vulnerable among them.
This all started for our oldest when was three and a well-meaning relative suggested he might be autistic. He was displaying some of the same traits she observed in her own autistic son, and she suspected Asperger's.
We had him evaluated, but the pediatric neurologist hesitated to label him with Asperger's or ASD (autism spectrum disorder), since he was so young. Only later, when he was 14 years old, did he undergo an evaluation with Fraser Clinic in Minneapolis, and they were more than happy to diagnose him with ASD and recommend counseling.
They told us they no longer consider Asperger's a separate diagnosis -- nor do they distinguish high-functioning from low-functioning autism.
This may explain in part why so many ASD "experts" assume that if you have an autism diagnosis, you are therefore "mentally disabled" and in need of strict management. That said, I do honestly cringe when anyone is described (even in his presence) as "low-functioning."
His first I.E.P.
When we looked into preschool with the local school district, we learned of the local Special Ed co-op, which evaluated our son for ASD support services.
Since the results of their evaluation qualified him for Special Ed services, he started (free) preschool with an I.E.P. -- his first -- from which we ended up withdrawing him during his second grade year.
Preschool wasn't really the problem (though he hated the insipid music they played), and, for the most part, he seemed to enjoy his first grade year and part of his second.
But when the school's Special Ed staff recommended mainstreaming him and assigning paraprofessional only to keep him from disrupting the class, his life at school took a turn for the dismal.
There were a few paras (paraprofessionals) assigned to keeping him in line, and one in particular was a bully. Like the micro-managing caseworker at the high school he now attends, she seemed more intent on controlling him than on helping him.
Here's a sampling of what she put him through:
- She would take his things from him (a set of keys he loved and a padlock) and threaten to keep them for herself, claiming the right to do so -- refusing to give them back when asked and threatening to keep them for another week or two, and to call his parents (whom she said would be angry with him) if he argued. She never did return those keys or the padlock to him.
- She would tell him his parents agreed with her that he should be left in the EBD room, because he'd been bad and he deserved to be left there all day.
- She threatened to hold him there overnight and said she was allowed to do that. She would also push him into the room and turn out the light, knowing he hated to be in darkened rooms.
- She refused to let him use the bathroom during recess, and when he said he really had to go and would wet his pants, took him to a dimly-lit bathroom and said that was the only one he could use, and when he pleaded with her to let him use a well-lit bathroom, she yelled, "No!" and threatened to put him in the EBD room if he didn't either use the bathroom or go back to recess. He decided to hold it, because he was terrified of going into that bathroom. She didn't care.
- She forced him to go down the slide during recess, saying, "C'mon! You're boring. I want to see you do something exciting." He hates slides, and when he tried to use the ladder to come back down, she prevented him and told he he had to come down the slide. He pleaded with her, but she threatened him with the EBD room if he disobeyed.
- She would hover at his elbow in class, not allowing him to sit next to his friends, and when he asked her to give him more space (because she was inches away from him, pestering and scolding him), she hauled him off to the EBD room.
- She threatened to force him to go on a field trip to a theme park and to force him to go on the roller-coaster with her. She used this threat against him, giggling in anticipation, because she knew he was terrified of roller-coasters. She used that fear to make him do what she wanted.
- She lied to us and to him -- giving us the impression that Michael was misbehaving at school for no discernible reason (other than his "disability") and convincing him that his parents agreed with the way she was treating him and that there was no escaping the misery she subjected him to throughout the school day.
Our son became suicidal in second grade.
Let me repeat that: our second-grade son wanted to kill himself -- because he thought there was no escaping the bully who was put in charge of him. In his mind, no one believed him -- they believed the bully who lied about him.
To him, there was no escape and no relief in sight. He came home with his head hanging, depressed and anxious, not knowing how much he could say to us -- or whether we'd believe him.
He wanted to kill himself -- to escape.
And I doubt he's an isolated case.
We pulled him out of the school to homeschool him -- withdrawing him not only from his I.E.P. but from the school that had failed him. When I told one of the ladies who worked with the Special Ed team, she said, "Oh, we're not ready to give up on <your son>, yet!" I told her we weren't giving up on our son, either. I almost added, "We're giving up on you."
She wasn't the bully who'd tormented our son, but if she was aware of that para's behavior toward him, either she had no control over her or chose not to exercise it.
I don't know why I thought the Special Ed staff at the middle school and high school would be any better.
To this day, if I go to pick up our youngest, who is in first grade, and I hear a child crying in the EBD room around the corner, I remember the ordeal our oldest went through, and I want to rush in and rescue whoever's in there.
I also want to make sure it's not our youngest, because so help me . . . !
I also remember my brief stint at the Headstart school recommended to my parents after the IQ test included in my early childhood evaluation. I hated that school. My only friend was a boy who was always getting into trouble and ending up on the "naughty chair." We both knew the teachers were flakes -- and that the school was essentially a prison.
We weren't even first graders, yet, but we knew. If this was "school," I wanted no part of it.
Going to a regular school was a relief, by comparison, though. And for our oldest, just being a regular student at a regular high school is heaven compared to what he was going through with his I.E.P., no thanks to the staff who were supposed to make his school days better (rather than worse).
"We're the professionals, here. We know better."
I can't believe we're the only family who's had to face off against tyrannical Special Ed staff members who were completely convinced they knew better and that parents like us were to be humored but not respected (behind our backs) -- unless we agreed they knew best.
But we don't agree -- because they don't know best. They've got plenty of confidence, but little understanding -- plenty of condescension, but little to justify their arrogance. They're so convinced they know our kids and their potential better than we do as our kids' parents.
They don't know just how little their degrees and expertise are worth to a parent whose child has been belittled and bullied by them.
"We know you're disabled -- but you and you're parents don't seem able to understand that" (said the specialist who dresses like a cougar and who sat primly at the meeting table with a plastic smile that disappeared when I began by confronting her partner in crime).
Our son's mind doesn't work like theirs (and thank Heaven for that!), but he is NOT disabled. He may behave differently and may seem at a disadvantage socially, but he's not.
He was more socially naive when he returned to public school, after being home-schooled for five years -- because at home he wasn't surrounded by foul-mouthed little jerks, who took advantage of his naivete to get their kicks off setting him up for embarrassment.
He has some nervous tics, and he sometimes behaves in a way that isn't socially appropriate -- and he probably gets that from me.
Ask me if I'm worried about that (if you're curious).
Asking for help & the assumptions people make
Our son had the best first day of high school without an I.E.P. He's free, and he starts each new school day with optimism and renewed confidence.
He asked for lists of overdue assignments from each of his teachers (for classes he was struggling with), but he didn't ask them for help, because he knows.
He knows that some of the high school staff will be looking for a reason to say, "See? Your brain doesn't work well enough. It doesn't work as well as normal people's brains. Don't you see, now, how much you still need an I.E.P.?"
He won't ask them for help, because he knows some of them expect him to fail -- or at least they don't expect him to do well without the I.E.P. They're waiting to see just how much worse he'll get before they can convince him and his parents that he needs an I.E.P. -- and the "help" of the Special Ed staff.
But he doesn't. He's better off without them. So much better off that I wish we'd delivered him from that I.E.P. long ago. or that we hadn't re-established an I.E.P. when we put him back in public school for the last trimester of 7th grade.
He comes home, and we work at the kitchen table, and we're getting things done. He asks me for help when he needs it, because he knows I'll be happy to help, and that I don't see his questions as proof that his brain isn't good enough.
I learned at an early age, too, that asking too many questions could get certain looks and attitudes from school teachers. My third grade teacher would sigh in exasperation whenever I raised my hand with a question.
I'm not sure she knew about the I.Q. test I'd had to take before going to a regular school. The tester had declared me borderline retarded and said I'd probably never master anything beyond the most basic arithmetic (2 + 2) or the most basic reading comprehension.
He wrote in his report that I would be a burden to a regular school teacher. I wasn't smart enough to function in a regular classroom, and I would either need to attend a special school or to be enrolled in his Special Ed focus group at the same school.
He was convinced that his knowledge and expertise in Special Ed had informed him during his evaluation of me, and he was certain he knew my intelligence and potential better than my parents did.
[He was fired sometime after that, though we were never told why.]
Maybe my third grade teacher had read that report and believed it. She seemed convinced that I didn't belong in her class, that I was slowing the rest of the class down, and that I wasn't smart enough to understand the material without lots of help (which she obviously resented being asked for).
I think she saw my being in her classroom as a strike against her or as a kind of punishment. Maybe she was afraid my performance would reflect poorly on her. She wanted students who would excel with minimal effort on her part.
Most people have had a least one teacher like that, right? Remember that edge that would creep into the teacher's voice after maybe the third question -- because you weren't "getting it" quickly enough to suit her (and I'm sorry, but in my experience, it was usually a her).
I learned to keep my hand down. I learned to struggle on my own. Because asking for help wasn't worth it. Asking questions only got me into trouble, and the teacher's behavior toward me confirmed my reputation as an idiot.
But I knew I wasn't. I was distractible, yes. I was often bored at school, and I had a very active imagination.
My kids inherited this from both their parents.
They also share my strong sense of justice and my tendency to question authority when a rule I'm supposed to follow is patently ridiculous or unjust -- or when an authority figure is targeting one student for punishment when other students are doing the same thing in full view of the same authority figure.
Targeted for micro-management
Our son knew he was being singled out, and with his strong sense of justice, he was quick to point that out -- which usually resulted in his being sent to I.S.S. (in-school suspension) by the teacher who expected immediate and unquestioning obedience.
I want to tell these teachers something:
- My son is not a doormat.
- He's not disabled.
- And he's not your bitch.
He's also noticeably smarter and more empathetic than the women who seemed obsessed with keeping him under their control. And he's quick to come to the defense of others who are being unfairly targeted by micro-managing staff members (Special Ed or not).
I'd ask why it is that the education field attracts so many people who have a desperate need to be obeyed in all things and without hesitation.
"Don't you dare question my authority! Follow my directions, or go to I.S.S.!"
Seriously? Is that what they're after -- the illusion of absolute authority?
Because they don't have it over my kids. And I won't hesitate to let them know. And if one of my kids tells them and ends up in I.S.S., I think it's only fair to let the school know that if I have to choose whom to believe -- my kid or the staff member who is calling him or her a liar -- I will choose my kid. Always.
I've learned (the hard way) not to trust everything that comes from the mouth of a teacher or Special Ed staff member. Our son suffered far too long as a result of our trusting the Special Ed staff more than they deserved to be trusted.
The Bully Registry
There should be a registry for teachers and other staff members who've bullied students and have even made them suicidal (because it seemed there was no escape and no relief in sight).
I would honestly love to see the names of the staff members who tormented our son on such a registry -- and to see that registry published widely and used as a tool to prevent the hiring of these bullies to positions where they'd have authority over children.
The problem lies, I suppose, in putting the maker of such a list in danger of a defamation lawsuit.
But aside from confronting these bullies where they work and making it known that we want them kept away from our kids, I can still warn other parents of children with I.E.P.'s to be vigilant and not to take the Special Ed staff's words as gospel -- and not to assume their kids are lying if they say one thing, and a Special Ed staff member contradicts it.
Adults lie, too. And some of them are petty, manipulative, and sadistic bullies. And they shouldn't be allowed near our children -- much less given authority over them.
Once he was free of his I.E.P., our oldest told me of some other troubling statements made by his case-worker and other Special Ed staff. So, I emailed the vice-principal to let her know, and to ask for assurances that those women would be kept away from our son. They're to have nothing to do with him.
Our youngest has an I.E.P. for "speech articulation" services (services we enrolled him in before we knew how our oldest was being treated by the Special Ed staff in middle and high school), but we won't approve any services beyond that, and when he no longer needs help with speech articulation, goodbye I.E.P.!
As far as we know, the staff member who meets with him to help him better articulate his letter sounds has never been unkind to him. And as long as these services help our son -- and he's not being micro-managed or bullied by the same woman who made his older brother suicidal (or by any other staff) -- we'll allow the services to continue, though I'm not sure they're making a difference.
It'll be a relief to us both when we withdraw him from the I.E.P., thereby ensuring that the Special Ed staff of that school and those he attends afterward have no reason to see him as someone who needs to be under their control.
So, yes, when it comes to our district (at least), I'm completely jaded with regard to Special Ed services. I regard them with distrust -- for good reason.
And I very much doubt we're alone in that.
Do you have any experiences with Special Ed staff you'd like to share -- maybe something positive to prove there are Special Ed "teams" out there that are both competent and caring -- or maybe another story like ours?
Please share, if you do, or feel free to comment on anything in this post that resonated with you -- or bothered you.
I look forward to reading from you, too.