By Debra Shepherd
Our family has been a part of the Santa Monica- Malibu Unified School District for seven years. I am the parent of a child in general education and a child who requires special education services. There are a lot of great things about this district. My youngest daughter had a dynamic teacher for fourth and fifth grade. My kids went to science camp and my youngest daughter was a member of the honor choir. The best thing about this school district is the fellowship that I have with other families. However, there is something about the SMMUSD that perplexes me. It’s the amount of litigation associated with special education.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the SMMUSD has in-house legal counsel. When a problem arises, there does not seem to be an ability to resolve the problem without input from the attorney. This is evidenced in an e-mail that I recently received from the director of Special Education Services. At the bottom of the page, my 43-year-old eyes see this itty bitty type. After I found my magnifying glass, I see that the itty bitty type is instructions from the lawyer.
Another concern is that the legal fees for Special Education in SMMUSD have increased by 153 percent since the last school year. Some might say that the legal costs are so high because of the “whiny” special ed parents. I say no. When children are denied needed services, the family has the option of filing a due process complaint, but I have yet to meet any families that are just itching to max out their credit cards or mortgage their homes just to prove a point to SMMUSD. Litigation is expensive. There are no clear winners when it comes to litigation. If SMMUSD loses, SMMUSD has to pay the legal expenses of their attorney, the family’s attorney, and provide the services that were denied the child anyway.
The only clear winners are the attorneys, because they are the only ones who are guaranteed to get something no matter the outcome of the case.
Unfortunately, in our school district in special education, it’s breaking down to a point where the kids with the best attorneys or advocates have the best IEPs (Individualized Educational Program). While having a great lawyer/agent is a plus in the NBA, the SMMUSD is a publicly-funded entity. The federal law requires that education be provided in a manner that’s “free and appropriate.” Creating an environment that forces families to obtain legal counsel is neither free nor appropriate.
Although it has been reported that the families in Malibu are primarily happy with the delivery of special education services, in Santa Monica, it’s as if we are in another school district. Despite the creation of the
Special Education PTA Committee, the Fall Forum and dispersing of the Parent Handbook, the IEP process remains muddled and adversarial. There is no staff policy regarding treating families with civility and respect.
There’s a significant amount of conflict that exists in SMMUSD and I don’t think that it will be fixed by an infusion of cash. Changing the culture of an adversarial environment is free.