Bullying is alive and well in our school districts but the nature of the bullying has changed. The administrators have
turned the tables. While they have instituted ‘zero-tolerance’ policies regarding bullying of students, they have institutionalized another type of bullying. Many administrators have become the bullies and their targets are parents of children in special education.
What is Bullying?
Bullying is not about fighting, it’s about power. For this discussion, I’m defining bullying as using power to intimidate and dominate someone with less power. Special education administrators regularly use their power to get their way, at the expense of the children that they should be serving. I’ve heard enough stories over the past few weeks from my fellow parents to confirm that this bullying goes far beyond a few isolated incidents.
Springtime in Connecticut is PPT time. The season when all special education programs are reviewed. The school year, excluding summer, is 180 days with 6 hours of school a day. A child will spend over 1,000 hours in the educational program. Each spring, the school district will schedule a meeting with parents, devoting an entire 60 minutes to the development and planning of the program for the student for the upcoming year. Yes, a whole hour! Meetings are scheduled back to back to back, and there is little time for discussion and collaboration. If everyone is on same page ahead of time, it works out fine. However if there is any disagreement or complications, there is often a push from the administrator to just ‘get it done’. Get an IEP on paper and move on to the next kid.
My description of the administrators’ behavior as bullying is based on recent stories from parents relating their experiences in this process. The stories come from many school districts and involve many administrators. They come from wealthy districts as wells as those that are not as well off. The stories are told by parents with children just entering the school programs and they are told by parents who have been in the special education system for many years.
How They Bully
The administrators that engage in bullying are never mean, and are rarely loud or unprofessional. The exert their power in more subtle ways.
The most common method of bullying is to not tell parents about services that are readily available in the district. The administrator will tell the parents about the services they want to provide and nothing more, withholding any information that could cause the administrator to lose power. When asked direct questions such as “Can you tell me what services you are currently providing to elementary school age students with autism”, they’ll hide behind “Let’s focus on what’s appropriate for your child and not programs that are designed for students with different needs”. Parents have told me that school districts have never mentioned summer services in the PPT meeting even when children with similar needs are attending summer programs. One parent said they were happy the district was providing a half day summer program for their child, until they found out that other children with similar needs were receiving all day programs.
Another common bullying tactic some administrators use is lying. I’ve heard several stories over the past few weeks of administrators telling outright lies to parents. In one situation, a parent asked a district administrator if their child could receive services over the summer. The administrator told the parent that the child was not eligible because the child is verbal and the summer programs are only for non-verbal students. This district is, in fact, providing services to verbal children over the summer. In another situation, a parent asked if a provider from outside the district could be brought in to provide a specific service. The district administrator told the parent that they don’t ever do that. The parent knew the administrator was lying, as they were networked with other parents and knew of a situation in which the district brought in someone for the exact service they were requesting. An administrator in yet another district told a parent that a child was not eligible for special education because their academic level was adequate (in kindergarten). They ignored the significant emotional and behavioral difficulties the child was having.
School districts also bully parents when they insist on identifying a child’s disability as something narrow such as Speech and Language Delay rather than something broader such as Autism. I know parents in several districts that encountered this problem. It’s a tactic used to control services. A child with a Speech and Language disability would be unlikely receive services from the school psychologist or occupational therapists. However, label a child as autistic, and most educational experts would agree that these services should be part of the child’s program. Some administrators have told parents “the label doesn’t matter” but insist on using the one that is consistent with less services. Others have said “You don’t want your child to go through life with a label of Autism do you?”
There are plenty of other less subtle ways that administrators try to exert power over parents. I know of one administrator who always sits at the head of the table, firmly establishing a position of power. This administrator has made other PPT team members move in order to have the ‘power chair’. I know of an administrator that dominates meetings so completely that they have refused to allow discussion on specific topics. Such discussion could result in consensus around an idea the administrator does not support, resulting a loss of power. The administrator controls the meeting in a way as to not lose power.
I suspect that much of the bullying by the district administrators is targeted at specific groups of parents. You are more likely to bullied the first year your child qualifies for special education, primarily because you are probably not experienced enough to advocate effectively. I believe districts are also more likely to bully lower income parents because they are likely to be less educated about their child’s disability and appropriate programming. Lastly, districts target parents that are not assertive and not strong advocates.
I don’t believe that most administrators set out to be hostile and mean. The bullying stems, in part, from the expectations placed on them by the districts. They are not rewarded for providing appropriate programs and the progress of children under their supervision. Instead they are rewarded for getting paperwork in on time, coordinating and services without problems, and finding ways to provide services at a low cost. Many are self-motivated to get this done with the least amount of effort, and the least amount of stress (for themselves). For some administrators these motivations are so strong, they don’t mind resorting to a little bullying and lying if it gets the job done.
What to Do About Bullying?
I grew up before the age of political correctness and zero-tolerance for bullying. I personally learned that the best way to handle bullying is to stand up to it. Provided you were strong enough to do it, or had friends that would back you up, this usually ended the bullying, permanently.
We parents need to do the same and stand up to the bullying. We must be strong enough to stand up to it and when needed, connect with other parents to make us stronger. I could write an entire post about the ways we can stand up to it for the benefit of our kids. Instead, I’ll offer a short list of suggestions to consider if you’re being bullied:
- Invite another parent or an advocate to the PPT meeting (it’s within your rights).
- Find out what other services are being offered to other students.
- Research special education complaints and resolutions at the state level (in the US at least).
- Go to an advocacy class,
- Attend a PPT meeting for another child to help another parent and learn something yourself.
- Attend meetings with families outside of your school district.
- Read up on IEP law.
- Learn what the procedures are for filing a complaint.
- Take detailed notes about everything (it helps to catch lying).
I seem to be making a habit of quoting lyrics from songs in my posts. Today, I’ll close with some wise words from the late Bob Marley:
Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!
Get up, stand up: dont give up the fight!