We’re back to school. Pencils, books, teachers’ beautiful looks, all that. It’s a delight.
I’m also back to fighting with school staff. I swear, they started it!
I’ve mentioned before that I am a product of the New York City public school system, among other things. I got a good education. Partly because I had access to quality gifted programs, partly because we weren’t in the absolute worst district (we’re number two!) and partly because I had a mother who worked in education, knew the system, and knew her kids’ rights. She also knew not to believe us when we said we didn’t have homework.
Most of the kids I work with aren’t so fortunate. We can talk about kids getting lost in the shuffle, who don’t get to live up to their potential, all that. But then there are the kids who just get completely left behind, because they’re not even in the right classroom.
Not the little weirdos who wander into the wrong room well into December. (That wasn’t just me, right?) The kids with special needs who are expected to sit in a mainstream class that’s in no way suited to their needs. The kids for whom individualized education plans (IEPs) were created.
“Oh, come on SJ. They’re saying everyone has ADHD these days, they don’t all need a special class!”
For the last time, who are you and how do you keep getting access to my blog? If you don’t spend much time in schools, you might think I’m talking about kids with a slight behavioral problem whose parents want the latest, hippest diagnosis.
I hope “she’s caught the vapors” makes a comeback, I really do.
But I’m talking about kids who, no question, need services.
I work with a visually impaired child who was expected to take his state exams without any special equipment and without any additional time.
I work with a girl who was told that she had dyslexia from the time she was in kindergarten, whose mom couldn’t get the school to evaluate her for three years.
I work with parents who were told that they didn’t need to request an evaluation in writing, only to find out months later that yes, they did.
I work with parents who were told not to bother having their child evaluated, they need to transfer them to a special school because the current school can’t meet their needs. (What do you need to effect that transfer? An IEP!)
I work with kids whose 504 plans (IEP lite) have been completely ignored.
And I work with many, many children whose parents had concerns, and wanted their kids evaluated, and were made to wait and wait and wait. It can take a full year.
It’s not supposed to, legally. But what’s to stop the school from losing (I am giving them the benefit of the doubt and not using sarcastic air quotes) the letter the parent wrote requesting the evaluation? Three times, in one case.
Parents can pursue outside evaluations. But for people with no money to pay out of pocket, chronic insurance problems, and little time and money to travel to even more appointments, it’s not usually an easy option.
The most important thing, I’ve learned, is to know what your kid is entitled to. Know the law. Tell them they have sixty days to get this done. If they disagree (“oh no, it’s actually ninety”) let them know you’re happy to use the Google right there until you sort this out. That phone in your pocket is not just a Candy Crush machine, don’t be afraid to break it out! Ask staff members, “is the case still in compliance?” They will get chills, and know you mean business.
And get other people on your side. I have seen the way some school staff ignore parents I work with. I’ve seen how they change when I walk in with that parent. Some parents are intimidated by their kids’ schools. Maybe they didn’t graduate themselves, and feel out of place. As much as we want to empower families to do it themselves, sometimes we need to advocate.
That’s how my weekly calls to one school started. I just wanted to check in on progress! My hope is generally that they’ll get so annoyed with me that they’ll give me what I want just to shut me up.
School SW: “Well, I told the mom we’ve had a lot of requests and are extremely busy with IEPs.”
SJ: “Yes, I understand. You have sixty days to complete it, correct?”
SSW: “Yes, that’s right.”
SJ: “Ok, great! So she submitted it the first day of school…let me just get my calendar out and we can count to exactly when we can expect this to be done…”
SSW: “Sure…I mean we are really swamped with requests…”
SJ: “Oh, I understand, we’re all so busy. November 8th! That sounds doable. I will look forward to hearing from you. I wasn’t able to talk Ms. M into filing a complaint with the city when the school failed to have this done last year, so I’m so glad we’re doing the evaluation now!”
Then I had to reassure this meek, deferential woman that there is a fine line between rude and assertive. Occasionally I cha cha slide across it, but there’s nothing wrong with strongly advocating for your kid.
Now, was it this school social worker’s fault? No. The school has a psychologist one day a week. The psychologist has four other schools to serve. She’s there to provide services, and she’s not the enemy. So we need to demand better for our kids (whenever the government comes back.)
In the meantime, we need to do for our kids. We need to work with the system we have now, while agitating for change. Know your rights. Don’t take no for an answer.
And don’t be afraid to get a little rude if you have to.