Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Local school boards dealng with special needs children

My husband and I have worked with many wonderful people who have eased our way while raising our son with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD)  – teachers, doctors, fellow parents, social workers, friends and family.

But as parents of special needs  children know, you also have to deal with people who make life more difficult than it already is. In particular, many parents run into problems dealing with their local school boards while trying to get their child a proper education.

Our son had trouble the minute he entered Grade 1 in the public school system in Toronto. Within a few months, we were told that we had to attend a meeting called an IPRC where a committee would determine whether Michael would be placed in a Learning Disability class or a class called Behavioural. 

The unpleasant experience we had at this meeting taught me one important lesson. My husband and I would have a long future advocating to make sure our son's needs were met. Clearly, no one else was going to do it. 

The episode was a real eye-opener.

I'd like to share with you (below), an excerpt from my recently finished memoir where I describe our experience at the IPRC meeting. My hope is that it can provide other parents the strength and courage they need to speak their mind when dealing with similar situations.

                                                 * * *
Robin, Michael’s previous Montessori teacher and I walked into the dimly lit corridor of a1950s-built elementary school and up the stairwell to the second floor. As we entered the conference room, a thin woman in a dark-grey tailored suit motioned for us to take a seat on what turned out to be remarkably uncomfortable chairs.
We sat facing a long table occupied by six people looking like bone-tired members of a jury who had just delivered a guilty verdict to their previous guest. The woman introduced herself as the chairwoman. No one else gave their name, smiled or said hello. Robin and I looked at each other and telegraphed ‘what did we just walk into?’

“We’ve had a look at Michael’s files and have made our decision,” the chairwoman said to us. I was dumbfounded. We had spent hours preparing presentations about Michael for the committee. What was going on?

I felt compelled to say something before the chair went any further. There was no time to confer with Robin or Kathleen.  “Excuse me,” I said,  “but we’ve each prepared a presentation for the panel. We were told we would have the opportunity to speak before you made your decision.”

The chair looked at the other panel members, several of whom gave her minimalist nods. 

“Alright then,” she said, not sounding overly pleased.

Kathleen spoke about various accommodations made at the Montessori school for Michael, how easy they were to make, how little time they consumed. Yes, Michael was in some ways different than the other children, but that didn’t pose any problem. “He was so creative and fun, he inadvertently became a leader,” she added. “We just had to be careful what he was leading the other kids into,” she concluded, with a good-natured chuckle, “but all in all, he was a real asset.”

Kathleen spoke so assuredly, it buoyed my spirits. Robin and I then spoke about Michael’s strengths, our concerns that he may have an undiagnosed learning disability, and our desire to get proper help for him.
There was silence when we finished. No one on the panel blinked, spoke or asked a question. Their response bordered on weird. Eventually, a voice. “Thank you, Linda and Robin. Thank you Kathleen,” said the chairwoman, barely moving a muscle on her severe face. I found it eerily reminiscent of an imperious Queen Elizabeth delivering her yearly televised Christmas message to the world.
 “As I mentioned before you spoke, we have made our decision about Michael’s placement. An opening has come up in a Behavioural class in this district. Our funding formula dictates that the classroom has to be filled, so Michael will be labeled Behavioural.”
She was clear. The sheer inappropriateness of their placement, our willingness to take Michael to a school in another district or to wait for an opening in a learning disability class had no bearing on their decision.
I clenched my hands. “Is there anything further I can say or do to convince you that Michael belongs in LD?” I asked. 
“To get him labeled LD, you would have to attend an IPRC next year and make a case to get the label changed on his official record.”
What happened to this year? “Even if a learning disabilities class comes up next week, we can’t put Michael in it?” 
“Correct. He wouldn’t be eligible.”
“Can we appeal your decision?” I asked, trying to hide my fury.
“Yes, there is an appeal procedure,” the chair said, noticeably stiffening into her chair and pulling down her pencil skirt. “I can explain the process after our meeting.” Her mild display of displeasure – the first crack in her well-fitted armour – fueled my resolve.
“I understand you’ve made your final decision,” I continued, attempting to sound conciliatory. “However, we’re not really clear that you have taken all the relevant factors in Michael’s case into your decision-making. We’re likely to appeal. So may I suggest something?” I paused.
“I’d like you to consider a dual designation for Michael. Instead of labeling him ‘behavioural,’ label him ‘behavioural/learning disabilities.’” They could put Michael into the behavioural class for now, but we’d have the opportunity to get him into LD if space came up. “It would spare us all the cost of an appeal or another time-consuming IPRC.”
Until that moment, committee members had appeared so utterly bored, I wondered if the proceedings had overlapped with morning nap time. But they were now rotating their heads, scanning from left to right, like owls waking in the night. The lay of the land had changed. They were sniffing for scent of the chair’s next moves.
“Yes, alright,” she said. “The committee can do that. We have dual designations.”
I wanted to scream, ‘Oh, you can do that, can you? You uncaring cows. Why didn’t one of you let me know I had the right to appeal? Why didn’t one of you suggest a dual designation? It was pure fluke I came up with the term. I had no idea if such a thing even existed. What will happen to the next poor fool who sits in front of you?’ 

Instead, I said, “Thank you. So Michael will be designated LD/Behavioral.” It was a victory, of sorts. We should just get the hell out. 
Robin, Kathleen and I rushed out of the school. It wasn’t long before we came to the same realizations. Michael’s needs were never on the committee’s agenda. It wouldn’t be the last time this happened. If Michael was to get what he needed in his life, it would be up to Robin and I to get it for him. This was likely just the beginning.

“It’s ironic,” I said, as we walked to the street. “In the 1960s, I was fighting for other peoples’ sons – the demonstrations, pickets, sit-ins, the marches. We were all desperately trying to stop the War in Vietnam and bring our troops home to safety. Well, look how times change. I don’t have to fight for other people’s sons any more,” I continued, “ I have to fight for my own.”

My husband Robin and I looked at each other knowingly. We both knew. This was the first of many battles that lay ahead of us.

1 comment:

  1. This process was wrong on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start!
    To try to give IRPC panel the benefit of the doubt, maybe they were once kind people who are caught in a system with many needs and few resources, and they burned out years ago and ceased caring.

    Besides the cold, rude way you were treated, the glaring unprofessionalness of it all is hard to grasp. You can't just put a child in a Behavioral class in order to fill it up! And you can't just label a student "Behavioral" by just saying the word! Where is the data? Did the teacher record incidents; keep a log? Did a Behavior Specialist observe Michael? How many times? Where was that report, if it was done?
    What were the other students like in the Behavior class. Would they be a peer group for Michael, or would they cause him to get worse?
    Would a parent visit be arranged plus an intake interview with the teacher?

    And, similarly, how can you designate a child as Learning Disability without testing, observation, criteria to be met, etc. etc?

    To think the Canada is a First World country and things like this can occur! So bad and wrong and frustrating.