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Press Release from Executive Director John M. Flanders

June 14th, 2018

Last week Governor Malloy’s vetoed PA 18-89, An Act Concerning Classroom Safety and Disruptive
Behavior. We are asking the members of the General Assembly to allow the veto to stand and to work with all
stakeholders to create a new bill that will support the admirable goal of classroom safety, but without sacrificing
the rights of children with disabilities. We believe that this bill, although clearly well intended, will deprive
students with disabilities of their right to an appropriate education; and it will exclude too many children with
disabilities from classrooms for actions related to their disabilities, actions that their education programs should
be helping them to address.

It may seem strange that an organization like CPAC that provides support for children with disabilities would
oppose a bill promoting classroom safety. It has been plainly established that students with disability are
subject to bullying and injury in school at a rate far higher than typical students. We do so reluctantly. We do
so because his bill, unfortunately, tries to achieve classroom safety, but at the expense of the protections
provided to students with disabilities under state law and the Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA). Simply put, the cost PA 18-89 will exact from students with disabilities is too high to justify the possible
benefit in classroom safety.

IDEA provides controls over when a student with a disability can be removed from a classroom. It defines a
process for determining: where they should be educated, and what supports and teaching they may
require. Supports designed to enable them to learn how not to act in ways that disrupt their classes or even
potential harm their classmates or teachers.

The authors of Public Act 18-89 clearly do not seem to have understood this process, nor to have considered
how this law would conflict with the rights and responsibilities under the IDEA. It is not surprising that they
would not. Far far too often schools fail to follow the process, and students are deprived of the education they
are entitled to under law. Every year our office receives dozens of calls for parents whose children have acted
out and even caused injury because they have not yet been taught how to respond appropriately. Far too
many of these situations result in discipline and anger and not the planning and programming for the education
and support the children so clearly need. In these situations, we work hard to empower parents to persuade
their children’s schools to do the evaluations and the planning necessary to craft Individual Education Plans
that appropriately address behavior problems.

The process should even work for students who are not in special education. IDEA requires schools to take
affirmative steps to identify those children who have conditions that interfere with their educations. Clearly an
action that causes to potential for injury and requires the removal of the child from education should raise the
question of whether this child has a problem that requires support. In that case IDEA has a process for
evaluating the child and bringing together educators and the family to determine if he has such a problem, and
if so what would need to be done to address it. Teachers, administrators and others with knowledge of the
student’s education are all encouraged and required to refer a child for evaluation and planning when warning
flags like this occur.

The bottom line is that mechanisms to address the problem of students engaging in dangerous and disruptive
behavior already exist. Unfortunately, they are so often ignored by schools it is not surprising the authors of
this bill would think new methods were needed. Were the special education process used as we believe
Congress intended, bills like 18-89 would not be needed.

A further problem with PA 18-89 lies in the real danger that this law will disproportionally impact children with
disabilities, as well as students of color. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that students with disabilities and
those of color are subject to school discipline well beyond what should be expected. For those with disabilities
discipline is often applied despite the fact that the student’s condition caused the behavior and the school had
failed to provide an appropriate program to teach him appropriate understanding and control. It is even often
applied when the student has a plan to modify the behavior in question that was not being followed by the
educators. Just this week we heard from a mother whose eight-year-old child with autism was removed from
school and arrested for throwing a hula hoop at a teacher.

Although this is ostensively not a law covering discipline and punishment it does allow students to be removed
from a class by a teacher virtually without limitation, and requires a process that need not consider the
educational impact on the student to enable him or her to return, a process that clearly meets the legal
definition of suspension. History has shown us that this process is going to fall too often on students with
disabilities. Whether the removals are called suspension or any other name, a student with a disability, one
who badly needs educational support is going to be taken from the educational environment.

CPAC regrets finding itself in a position of arguing against a law that intends to promote classroom safety. Nor
do we like opposing a bill that calls for support for students and teachers. We are convinced that it is possible
to craft another law that promotes this aim without unduly impacting children with disabilities or depriving them
of their legal rights. We would have been very happy to have been invited to participate in the crafting of such
a law. We encourage the Legislature, educators and parents to approach this problem again, and use our
experience to help craft a law that will improve classroom safety and protect students with disabilities.

Sincerely,
John M. Flanders, Esq.
Executive Director

Director’s Corner February 2018

February 27th, 2018

Not long ago I came upon a meme from one of the Facebook groups I follow. It read “How many of you cry after every IEP meeting?” At the time it included over 120 comments and by my count only three disagreed. It included things like:

I left many IEP meetings in tears. In one meeting in particular, we had to sit through various psychologists, teachers, and administrators tell us how our first grader was one of the most violent, ill-behaved children they had ever seen. The reading specialist told us “why bother” when we expressed the desire for our son to learn to read. We walked out of the meeting in tears. So, I feel for you!

It takes me days to recuperate afterward.

I use sarcasm as a shield then cry in my car.

I had one this week and everything went as well as one could ask for. Still totally exhausting.

From what we see at CPAC, it is not an exaggeration to say many parents hate and fear PPT meetings. Most often that is because there is a real power imbalance in them. When they are bad you come in to face a phalanx of six to fifteen people who all know each other work together and often seem to be united against you.

So, what do you do? The simple answer is get help. Sometimes that means getting a lawyer or advocate to come and work for you in the room. I did that for 16 years and I believe helped a lot for most of the families I represented. But lawyers are not cheap and honestly much of the time you have the resources in yourself to effectively represent your child’s needs. But even then, you need help. You need training and information. Online groups can help a lot, but nothing does the job better than talking to someone who has been trained and thorough training from people who really know their stuff.

At the risk of blowing our own horn, one of the best places to start is CPAC, or if you live in another state, your state’s Parent Training and Information Center or PTI. IDEA requires each state have at least one PTI to train an empower you to effectively work for your child in the special education process. You can find a link for your center here.

I’ve been going to PPT meetings for some time, starting with those for my son starting in 1996, as a lawyer since 2000 and those I’ve discussed as PTI Director for the last 2 years. What I have seen are most conflicts between parents and schools involve two things. First and most importantly, lack of data. I have never seen a case where parents and schools disagree where either side had enough actual documented information to support their position. IDEA is filled with requirements that there be data to support an action, and mechanisms where you as a parent can ensure that there is enough evaluation information and that it is of high quality. CPAC’s parent consultants can show you how to navigate this.

Second, parents and schools often speak different languages. Words in special education often mean what the law says they mean and not necessarily what they mean in normal day to day life. So many times, parents ask for something in a way that makes it easy to say no when they could get the service using the right “magic words”. By the same token I’ve seen dozens of situations where a school is telling the parents what they need to do to show the need to be a given service and all mom and dad are hearing is “no”.

There is a reason people say knowledge is power. And heaven knows as parents we need all the powers we can get, so please take advantage of your opportunities to get it. So, take every opportunity to increase your knowledge of the law, or disabilities and your child. Pay attention to which of the things said in your son or daughter’s PPT meeting that are based on knowledge, and which are based on opinion with no data to back it up. This is especially important for what you say. Don’t rely on generalities. It is less important to say that kids with a given disability need something than to say this evaluation shows my daughter, as an individual, needs something different. And listen, even when you are disagreeing. Knowing why that administrator is supporting a course of action is vital in explaining why your alternative is appropriate, and keep in mind that you may be wrong and they right. Only real information can show that for sure.

Use us. In addition to training and individual support CPAC has a lot of on line information and links to other resources. In the next few weeks our website will take on a new look and we will be adding new information every week. We are not going to solve every problem, but I promise we will help.

Director’s Corner January 2018

January 25th, 2018

Our topic this month. evaluations, comes at a good time, because over the past several weeks we have gotten a number of calls about a situation where evaluations are sometimes not appropriately used. So I thought I would write about this, and how we as parents can use our right to ask for evaluations for our students.

We hear from a lot of families who are looking at a recommendation to end their child’s eligibility for special ed. When a school proposes to remove a student from special education the IDEA requires that there be an evaluation before the PPT determines that he or she is no longer a child who qualifies. That does not necessarily mean that new testing must be done, the team can rely on records that already exist, but, and this is the important part, those records must include enough information to document the students current levels of educational and functional performance, and to determine that he or she no longer requires special education. That’s a lot of “ands”.

The evaluations used to show a child is ready to exit special ed must also meet all of the requirements for any other evaluation, including those to determine if the students is eligible for special ed, and those that help the team develop an appropriate IEP. Most importantly, IDEA requires that a team must not rely on a single evaluation to determine if a student is eligible for special education When looking at whether to exit a student from special education the Team is also required to ensure it has data on every potential issue, including functional and developmental weaknesses, not just those typically related t the disability classification, or those limited to academic progress.

So, what does that mean in real life? The most common situation we hear of is a student who has achieved good grades in the past year. “See, she’s passing” they say, “She doesn’t need to have an IEP any more.” Is that enough to remove her from special ed? Probably not.

When we hear this in a PPT meeting here are a couple of things we can do. First, look at her goals. Have they all been met? Were they enough to ensure she is getting the same educational opportunity as her peers? Should they have been more challenging? Then look at her specific strengths and weaknesses. Do any of them mean she requires specially designed instruction? And then the grades; did they use modified grading? Would she have gotten the same grades if she had to meet all the same requirements as her peers?

For most of the students we see the answer to at least one, and usually all of these questions is really “We aren’t sure. We don’t have all the information.”

That’s where your right as a member of the PPT to ask for more evaluation is so important. If there isn’t enough data to answer those questions you need to remind the team it is our job to get it, and to review and understand it. Ask for evaluations that will give the team all the information it needs to make appropriate decisions.

And remember that your rights as a parent don’t stop there. If the team refuses to call for more evaluation it must provide you with written notice of the reasons for the refusal. “The team doesn’t think it’s needed” is generally not a good enough reason.

Also, when an evaluation is refused it triggers your right to ask for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the school’s expense. If you ask for the IEE the school has only two choices: either give you the qualifications needed for the evaluator, and arrange for the testing or file for due process and prove to a hearing officer that the information the Team has is enough.

Of course every family’s situation is unique, so we can’t cover every possibility in a column like this. That’s why we are available for you to call five days a week. If you think your child’s team is making decisions without enough information, or want to know more about your right to ask for evaluations or information give us a call.

Director’s Corner December 2017

December 18th, 2017

On behalf of all of us at CPAC I want to take this opportunity to wish all our friends, parents, students educators, and professionals the most happy and peaceful Holiday Season, and offer our best wishes for a new year full of educational accomplishment.

Every year we get to meet and work with some of the most extraordinary people in our state: Parents who do remarkable things every day to ensure their children get the education they deserve, teachers and paraprofessionals who do their utmost to help our kids learn every day, and professionals who help us understand their challenges and find ways to help. While challenges can often be frustrating and confusing helping families succeed and students learn is more rewarding that I can hope to describe.

I’d also like to thank our many colleagues and friends who share our work, the folks at the Bureau of Special Education, at Birth to Three, and OSEP who support our work. Equally important the volunteers and supporters who selflessly do outreach and training and spreading the word about CPAC. Of course I can’t forget all those folks who donate to help us do our job. You would be amazed at how much good we are able to do with your dollars. We and the families we work with can’t thank you enough.

In the coming year we hope to do even more. Our new website will debut in January and every moth we will roll out new resources to help and educate.
So again from all of us at CPAC, Adriana, Angela, Beth, Emily, Jane, Jen, Kathy, Kiomary, Kirsten, Laura, Lynn, Mairin, Robin, Vanessa, and myself, Happy Holidays and our best wishes for a great New Year.

Next Steps Parent Leadership Training Series Spring 2018

December 13th, 2017

Next Steps Parent Leadership Training Series Spring 2018

This eight-session intensive series is designed to help parents and professionals gain the skills and knowledge necessary for them to be effective members at the Planning and Placement Team meeting (PPT). This training series will prepare participants for a variety roles at the school, district, regional or state level. Participants will learn about the law related to education as well as state and federal level initiatives that impact students with disabilities and their education. This training is an opportunity to learn how and where to give a voice to the needs of families of students with disabilities. Our goal is for participants to become active and collaborative team members in an effort to support student success. The training covers special education and related topics such as:

The Parent’s Role at the Table: Planning and Progress Monitoring

• Developing an Appropriate IEP
• Laying the Foundation: Educational Laws and their Impact on Students with Disabilities
• Reaching Agreement by Working Together
• Transition to Adult Life and Self-Advocacy
• Supporting Other Families
• Effective Communication Strategies

TWO LOCATIONS, Two different times:

Bridgeport:

The training will be held on Thursday evenings starting on March 15, continuing through until May 3rd. Each session begins promptly at 6:00 p.m. Deadline for application is February 28, 2018.

Putnam:

This series will be held on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. starting January 31st through March 21st. Deadline for application is January 15, 2018.

Application is required for all.

Participation at all eight sessions is highly encouraged. Click here for the application. For more information or questions about the application process, please call the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center at 860-739-3089 or email Jane at jhampton@cpacinc.org.

Questions and Answers (Q&A) on U. S. Supreme Court Case Decision Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1

December 10th, 2017

On March 22, 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court (sometimes referred to as Court) issued a unanimous opinion in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1, 137 S. Ct. 988. In that case, the Court interpreted the scope of the free appropriate public education (FAPE) requirements in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Court overturned the Tenth Circuit’s decision that Endrew, a child with autism, was only entitled to an educational program that was calculated to provide “merely more than de minimis” educational benefit. In rejecting the Tenth Circuit’s reasoning, the Supreme Court determined that, “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP [individualized education program] that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The Court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

The Endrew F. decision is important because it informs our efforts to improve academic outcomes for children with disabilities. To this end, the U.S. Department of Education (Department) is providing parents and other stakeholders information on the issues addressed in Endrew F. and the impact of the Court’s decision on the implementation of the IDEA. Because the decision in Endrew F. clarified the scope of the IDEA’s FAPE requirements, the Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) is interested in receiving comments from families, teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders to assist us in identifying implementation questions and best practices. If you are interested in commenting on this document or have additional questions, please send them to OSERS by email at EndrewF@ed.gov.

Read more>>

Director’s Corner November 2017

November 20th, 2017

I have been thinking about what to write for this month’s column for quite some time. Given our theme this month of law and parents’ rights and the fact that I am a lawyer you would think it would be easy, but it’s not. For one thing there are so many issues it’s hard to settle on just one.
But more importantly the fact is that the law in this area doesn’t always work they way we think so it’s often not enough to just talk about what the law says. Often we need to look at how it really works.

When most of us look at the law we see statutes and regulations and think it is pretty cut and dried, but if you have been involved with getting your student the services she needs for any amount of time you find that it isn’t. We have laws but everything really depends of the specific
facts, your child’s strengths and weakness, what you think she needs, what the school thinks she needs and what the experts think she needs.

I often get the question about how to advocate for a child, “Can I say X?” The answer is of course, unfortunately, while you can say X, and even if it strongly supports the point you are trying to make very seldom does it make a district that is declining to provide a service you need change its mind. They always have reasons why that service is not needed and your argument, although I find it convincing doesn’t move them. You are both looking at the same law, and the same kid but are reaching very different answers. How can that be?

Here’s an example of a question we have been seeing a lot of lately that may help us understand. The child is 4 years old with autism, in pre-school having recently come out of birth to three. The family has asked for toilet training to be included in his IEP. The school declines saying that it should not be included because 4 to 5 is an appropriate age to be reaching that skill so the team cannot include toileting as an activity of daily living that is not age appropriate on page 5 of the IEP form. And if there is no weakness the PPT cannot draft a goal and so cannot include the services needed to work on that skill..

So who’s right here? The answer, as frustrating as it may seem is “It depends.” The law does not give us a clear answer, we have to rely on the facts.

The law does give us one part of the answer. IDEA includes an equal educational opportunity objective. That means the expectation is that your child will finish school with the same education as his peers unless it is not possible for him to do so. What that means in this case is it is perfectly reasonable to have an age appropriate goal in his IEP. If most four and half year olds are potty trained there is no reason that cannot be included as a goal for your child. So it’s not prohibited, but is it required?

In one of our training programs, Parent Consultant Kristen Williams, has a really good way to look at defining skills that need support. You break using the skill needed to independently use a toilet down to its components and then see how those fit in his program. Does he have or should he have a self advocacy goal? One important aspect of using a bathroom effectively is knowing when it’s needed and asking to go. Clearly an important self advocacy skill, and also possibly a speech and language skill, so maybe we have one element of his progress that is part of toilet training and may not be age appropriate. To use the bathroom he needs to take off or at least move part of his clothes. Does he have a PT goal? To get off his clothes he needs to be able to manipulate buttons snaps and zippers. Does he have an OT goal? He needs to wash and dry his hands. Does he have a goal for identifying letters like H and C to know what faucets to use? And does he have a Activities of Living goal to learn about dangerous situations around the house, like scalding himself by using only the hot water?

What we have done by breaking what looks like a simple skill, that may not be identifiable as not age appropriate, into a set of possible weaknesses that need to be considered by the PPT and require a goal and service. When we then look at all those goals combined they lead us to support for learning toilet training; pretty cool. The law has not changed, the school is correct that they do not need to provide support for a skill that cannot be identified as not age appropriate. But we, by changing the way we look at the skill have demonstrated to his PPT that providing toilet training is part of addressing his other skill needs.

If it sounds more complicated than it should be, it is. But our job as parents is to how to use the system the same way our schools do. So in the end we can follow the same regulations but come up with the results our children need.

As always our parent consultants are here to help you work through these complicated questions, so reach out whenever you need help.

Director’s Corner October 2017

October 20th, 2017

This past weekend I had the opportunity to participate in our sister organization, AFCAMP’s Youth Summit. Dozens of young people from Hartford and surrounding communities participated in workshops and discussions on a number of topics. I was there to facilitate two groups discussing bullying and bias against students with disabilities.

As always when I am with groups like this I am pretty sure I learned more than the students did. Our conversations focused on bullying, and I thought I should share what I learned.
The first thing I learned was that every student in both of the sessions I participated in had stories of being bullied. We often site statistics that say that twenty to thirty percent of students experience bullying, but if these students are to be believed seems that it much be far higher. I think it is sometimes a matter of perception. Many of the students said that the incidents didn’t really bother them; “I don’t have time for that stuff.” But it was clear form the fact that they wanted to talk about things that what might seem to be relatively minor incidents had an impact.
I asked them what adults could do to help the situation and got my second lesson. There was pretty universal dismissal of intervention by the school. “They have cameras everywhere, but they never do anything. I don’t think they ever watch them.” Clearly this is a red flag showing us where we can do better.

All this might sound pretty grim; but honestly I don’t think it is, and that was my third lesson. These were all kids who had not known each other before the summit, they had a six year range in ages, they had a lot that was not in common. But the sympathy and understanding they had for each other, the real concern and desire to help each other was truly remarkable. I mentioned reading that studies had shown that the most effective way to stop bullying was when another student stepped in and stood up for the victim. That set of another series of stories about how each of them had seen something and stood up for another student, sometimes even for a student they did not know. Several talked about making an effort to be friends with bullied students, and they all talked about their particular unhappiness when the student being bullied had a disability.

It did my heart good to see that there are a lot of students out there who do care about each other and who are willing to do things to ensure their classmates don’t face things like bullying and discrimination because of their disabilities. But, it does mean work for us as parents and educators. We need to ensure that our kids’ schools provide their students with an educational environment where they can succeed. We need to work together as partners to ensure our students understand how we are working together to protect them. We need to ensure that students with disabilities are spending as much time as possible with their peers so the human relations have a chance to develop. And we need to ensure that our schools are training and reminding all students that they are a community and they have the ability to protect and nurture each other.

Acceptance, understanding and care for each of our students by each of our students will clearly go a long way to help make our schools safe and appropriate learning environments for all our kids. We know you all want that and we want to help, so please call us to see what we can do together.

Special Education Concerns Rise As School Districts Grapple With State Cuts

October 14th, 2017

The state’s budget crisis is hitting Connecticut schools hard, and special education programs might also be feeling the pain, even though these services are protected by federal law.

Paraprofessionals across the state say that schools are not fully staffing these positions, which are often used in the classroom to aid students with disabilities. And that could violate students’ rights to a free and appropriate public education, which is codified in federal law.

John Flanders, president of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, said paraprofessionals have been calling his office, worried that students aren’t getting the services they need.

“I’ve been one-on-one with this kid for two years and now they’ve got me splitting my time between two kids,” Flanders said, paraphrasing the many calls he’s received. They also told him they worried that they wouldn’t be able to adequately support each child.

Now that might not sound like such a big deal, but for some kids with significant needs, Flanders said it could be.

“If this is a student who needs somebody translating or supporting or helping them navigate through a piece of material, and that educator — that adult — isn’t there for half of the class, then there’s a real possibility of missing what was being presented in the class,” he said.

Valerie Bruneau, former principal at Torrington Middle School, agreed with Flanders.

“If a district has an IEP for a child and it requires this resource and it’s not provided to them,” she said, “it would be detrimental, because there’s a team of people that said that this is what this particular child needs, and so absolutely it would be detrimental.”

That IEP she mentioned is an Individualized Education Program. Each child in special education gets one, and it’s made by a team of parents, teachers, and other educators. It’s a legally binding document that districts must follow to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Bruneau said she was let go from her job in Torrington soon after she raised concerns about her school needing more paras, although it’s unclear whether the two are related. She’d been on the job fewer than 90 days.

The district’s superintendent didn’t respond to several requests for comment. It’s unclear if Torrington has fully staffed its paras this year. Last year, the district laid off 40 of them, and paras fought to get 21 rehired.

State officials said they’re working with districts to make sure IEPs are being followed.

Click here to listen.

August 2017 E-Newsletter Correction

October 1st, 2017

Correction: Our August e-news included an article from Disability Scoop entitled “Feds Find Fewer States Meeting Special Ed Obligations.” The article included a list of states that had received a letter from the U.S. Department of Education stating they had met their obligations to students with disabilities. The list incorrectly did not include Connecticut. The Office of Special Education Programs has issued a corrected list that can be seen at: https://www2.ed.gov/fund/data/report/idea/ideafactsheet-determinations-2017.pdf. We regret the error.