Blog

If you have any questions that you would like answered in my blog, please send these to me at diane.willcutts@gmail.com. Questioners are kept anonymous.    

How much progress is "appropriate?" Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

posted Feb 17, 2016, 5:04 PM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Feb 17, 2016, 5:05 PM ]

Sometimes parents hear from school teams that it is unreasonable to expect a child with disabilities to progress more than a year in a year's time.  

A recent letter from the U.S. Department of Education says otherwise.

"In a situation where a child is performing significantly below the level of the grade in which the child is enrolled, an IEP Team should determine annual goals that are ambitious but achievable. In other words, the annual goals need not necessarily result in the child’s reaching grade-level within the year covered by the IEP, but the goals should be sufficiently ambitious to help close the gap."

The letter is attached to this post.

Can a service or support that is available to all students go into the IEP?

posted Feb 13, 2016, 2:01 PM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Feb 14, 2016, 8:11 AM ]

Yes.

Sometimes parents will hear that we can't put something in the IEP because it is just "good teaching" or is something that is available to all students, not just those receiving special education.  

However, if a student has an IEP and that service is essential to an appropriate program, it must go in the IEP.  

From the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Letter to Chambers (bold added):

The IEP Team is responsible for determining what special education and related services are needed to address the unique needs of the individual child with a disability.  The fact that some of those services may also be considered “best teaching practices” or “part of the district’s regular education program” does not preclude those services from meeting the definition of “special education” or “related services” and being included in the child’s IEP.  The LEA must provide a child with a disability specially designed instruction that addresses the unique needs of the child that result from the child’s disability, and ensures access by the child to the general curriculum, even if that type of instruction is being provided to other children, with or without disabilities, in the child’s classroom, grade, or building.

This makes sense, as what is available to all children in one school may not be available to all children in another school.  If the child moves, their IEP goes with them, and it would need to be implemented by the new school.

OSEP's Letter to Chambers is attached to this post.

Children have a right to an independent educational evaluation (IEE) when the district refuses to evaluate

posted Dec 30, 2015, 3:42 PM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Dec 30, 2015, 3:46 PM ]

The CT Bureau of Special Education recently issued guidance that describes when school districts must respond to a request for an independent educational evaluation (IEE).  

Generally, parents have a right to request an IEE when they disagree with a district evaluation.  The district then must either (1) agree to pay for the evaluation (with a qualified evaluator that the parent chooses) or (2) file for a due process hearing without unnecessary delay to demonstrate its own evaluation is appropriate.  

The CT guidance also states that parents have a right to request an IEE when a district refuses to conduct an evaluation or re-evaluation.  

See attached for the specifics.

For more information about independent evaluations, see here and here.

Controversy around CT's new restraint and seclusion law

posted Sep 29, 2015, 8:51 AM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Oct 3, 2015, 11:27 AM ]

I was ecstatic when PA 15-141, Connecticut's new restraint and seclusion law, was passed a few months ago.  The new law limits the use of restraint and seclusion to emergency situations only.  Whereas the previous law also permitted the use of seclusion to be part of the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) as a planned intervention.  

So what's controversial?

The Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) is saying that the law doesn't mean what it says and has provided guidance to districts stating that they can continue to use seclusion as part of the IEP for a child with disabilities.  

This is in stark contrast to guidance provided by the Office of the Child Advocate and the Office of Protection and Advocacy, which states that schools can no longer use seclusion as a planned intervention but must limit its use to emergency situations.  

The CSDE's guidance also contradicts the legal interpretation of one of the largest Connecticut law firms representing school districts, Shipman & Goodman, who notified districts last June that they were no longer going to be permitted to use seclusion as part of the IEP.

So why is seclusion a bad thing?  Don't students sometimes need a quiet place to calm down?

Sure, many students can benefit from going to a quiet space.  But seclusion rooms (also known as "scream rooms") are not the average quiet space.  

Seclusion is defined in PA 15-141 as "involuntary confinement," and this usually involves a locked door or an adult blocking the student from exiting a space.  Too many students have been traumatized by being placed in scream rooms, some have been injured, some have urinated/defecated on themselves, some have ended up being restrained when they negatively reacted to staff putting hands on them to "escort" them to the scream room, etc.   

How often are scream rooms used?

According to the the CSDE's Annual Report on the Use of Restraint and Seclusion in Connecticut, 2013-2014, there were 12,350 emergency seclusions, resulting in 46 injuries.  423 of emergency seclusions lasted more than 60 minutes.  

There were 5,439 non-emergency seclusions (conducted as part of a planned intervention in the IEP), resulting in 32 injuries.  89 of the non-emergency seclusions lasted more than 60 minutes.

Why would anyone place a child in seclusion in a non-emergency situation?

Really, it makes no sense.  The State Department of Education says that seclusion should be placed in the IEP only after other positive, less restrictive interventions have been tried and failed.  But there is no research supporting that seclusion changes behavior.  Further, many school districts do not exhaust efforts to positively address the underlying causes of the behavior before putting seclusion in the IEP.  I have had students come to me who had seclusion in their IEPs, even though they had never been assessed by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), a specialist in behavior intervention.  No one had conducted an ecological assessment (which can help identify skill deficits that can trigger behaviors).  No inclusion specialist was consulted.  No psychiatric evaluation had been done.  In reality, putting seclusion in the IEP translates to the educators saying, "We give up."

If the new law says that restraint and seclusion cannot be used in non-emergency situations, why would the CSDE provide guidance saying it can be used in non-emergency situations?

I asked the CSDE about this and received an email from Gail Mangs, a consultant at the state Bureau of Special Education, which states, "This is based on our reading of Public Act 15-141 which includes Section 1(j)(1) in which it states that in recording each instance of physical restraint or seclusion it must be specified whether the use of seclusion was in accordance with an IEP."  I double-checked, and yes, indeed, that language is in the law.  I sent a reply to Attorney Mangs, copying Isabelina Rodrigues, the Chief of the CSDE's Bureau of Special Education, that said ". . . apart from the reference to data collection for seclusion in accordance with the IEP (which seems like it may have been an oversight), it looks like all the other language from the previous law regarding a District's ability to include seclusion as a planned intervention in an IEP was explicitly deleted.  I am very concerned that Districts are going to continue to seclude students in non-emergency situations, which seems to be in direct conflict with the intent of PL 15-141."  To date, I have received no reply.  

Where can I find more information?

Attached to this post:
  • A powerpoint of the CSDE's Bureau of Special Education's legislative update, which includes their guidance stating that districts may still use seclusion in non-emergency situations  
  • Guidance from the Office of the Child Advocate and the Office of Protection and Advocacy, which contradicts CSDE guidance
  • Guidance from Shipman & Goodwin, a large law firm that represents many Connecticut school districts, which contradicts CSDE guidance
  • A copy of PA 15-141.  Note that the bracketed items in the statute include language that was deleted from the law
  • The CSDE's Annual Report on the Use of Restraint and Seclusion in Connecticut, 2013-2014
If you want to see the CSDE's video presentation of their guidance (made to about 100 Connecticut special education directors), go to http://ctserc.org/bts15  Scroll down, and click the upper left-hand corner of the video screen for the playlist.  Select "Legislative Updates - Gail Mangs."

New CT Law Prohibits Expelling or Suspending Students in Grades PK-2.

posted Sep 11, 2015, 5:34 AM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Sep 11, 2015, 5:39 AM ]

Believe it or not, this law is necessary.  In the 2013-2014 school year, Connecticut schools suspended students under the age of 7 over 1,200 times.  This law applies to all students, but we should note that students with disabilities are suspended 2-3 times as often as their peers without disabilities.  

Why was this happening? Because teachers often have not been provided with enough training or support in their classrooms to be able to effectively address "behavior" in a positive way.  Suspension and expulsion do not change behavior; they simply provide school staff with a break from the student. Instead of using these ineffective methods, we need to provide teachers with more support.  Supports could include providing teachers with training in effective positive behavior interventions, bringing in a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to analyze the function of the student's behavior and to advise how to effectively address it, consulting with a social worker, instituting smaller class sizes, exchanging our "zero tolerance" discipline policies for something effective, or something else.

Side note: it is not uncommon for students with disabilities to act out when their needs are not being adequately met, and many students with disabilities are not even identified.  Families and school staff need to be aware that Connecticut regulations require that students with even marginal behavior must be referred to a Planning and Placement Team meeting (PPT) to consider whether the child has a disability and is eligible for special education.  From 10-76d-7(d): "Provision shall be made for the prompt referral to a planning and placement team of all children who have been suspended repeatedly or whose behavior, attendance, including truant behavior, or progress in school is considered unsatisfactory or at a marginal level of acceptance."  This applies to students of any age.  Most parents and even school staff are not aware of this regulation, but following it could be a huge help to our teachers and students.

For further reading, the new law banning suspension and expulsion of young children is here.  The Connecticut special education regulations, including a description of when a student must be referred to a PPT, are here and here.  There are two links for the regulations because the new and old regulations have not yet been integrated into one document.



New CT Guidance on Independent Educational Evaluations!

posted Aug 29, 2015, 5:20 PM by Diane Willcutts

Dr. Isabelina Rodrigues, the Chief of the Connecticut Bureau of Special Education, recently issued guidance to districts related to the provision of independent educational evaluations.  She explicitly states that districts may not do further testing in an area not previously assessed prior to granting (or filing for a hearing over) an independent evaluation.  So a district's saying "we do not have to provide an independent neuropsychological evaluation because we never conducted our own neuropsychological evaluation" is not valid!  She also states that, if the district refuses to evaluate, the parent has a right to an independent educational evaluation, requiring that the district either provide the evaluation or to file for a hearing.  Great information to share with districts!  See attached file.



The principal said that my child's paraprofessional cannot attend the PPT? Is that true?

posted Aug 20, 2015, 5:23 AM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Aug 29, 2015, 5:10 PM ]

In the past, yes.  Now, no.

During the last session, CT passed a law stating that, upon request, paraprofessionals are to attend PPTs.  For some reason, this was buried in the budget bill?  It states:

(C) Such parent, guardian, pupil or surrogate parent shall . . . (iii) have the right . . . to have the school paraprofessional assigned to such child or pupil, if any, to be present at and to participate in all portions of such meeting at which an educational program for such child or pupil is developed, reviewed or revised.

This is an important revision, as paraprofessionals typically spend more time with the child than any other school staff.  Because most paraprofessionals previously were not permitted by their school districts to attend PPTs, much of the information reported by the special education teacher was second-hand, and the teachers sometimes weren't able to answer parent questions regarding the specifics of the child's day-to-day functioning.  (Worse, paraprofessionals often report that they are ordered to not communicate directly with parents ever, that all communication must go through the special education teacher.  But that's another battle for another day.)  

This law is an important step to ensuring that the PPT is working in the best interest of the child and that parents can act as equal members of their children's teams.

The full act is here.



Good news for children with dyslexia. And really, all students. And teachers.

posted Aug 13, 2015, 11:30 AM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Aug 13, 2015, 12:31 PM ]

As of January 1, 2015, Page 1 of Connecticut's IEP form includes a new disability subcategory:  "specific learning disabilities/dyslexia."  This is due to a law that went into effect on January 1, 2015.  (Attached below.)

So why are so many people excited about a new box on the IEP?  This is just paperwork, right?  

Except now school districts are much more focused on understanding and meeting the needs of students dyslexia, a disability that impacts about 20% of the population.  More teachers are seeking professional development related to dyslexia.  And more districts are now willing to provide peer-reviewed-research-based instruction by qualified individuals who have been trained in the science of reading.

In the past, parents would hear, "We can't assess for dyslexia.  That's a medical diagnosis."  "We can't list dyslexia in the IEP."  As a result, too many students' needs went unidentified and too many IEPs did not include effective, peer-reviewed-research-based reading instruction that was effective in remediating students with dyslexia.  Or even when the IEP did include the right goals and the right curriculum, the IEP was often being implemented by teachers who had only a few days of training in effective programs--vs. the months or even years of training and, critically important, the extensive supervised practicum experience that is needed.  Students with dyslexia typically continued (continue) to read at a level a year or more below their peers, even though research says that most students are capable of remediation and capable of closing the gap.  But our teachers didn't (don't) know that and have said things like, "Of course, students with learning disabilities are functioning below grade level.  They have learning disabilities."  Unfairly lowering expectations and denying students with dyslexia equal access to education.

I'm not blaming teachers.  Teachers want to be effective, teaching all kids to read on grade level.  I do blame (most) colleges and universities for not providing teachers with instruction on the science of reading.  Schools of Education have failed to teach teachers to assess and to remediate students with dyslexia.  And quite frankly, most teachers have never been trained to teach reading even to garden-variety child.   (OK, that's another rant for another day.)   Most teachers that I have met welcome the opportunity to learn to effectively teach reading to every child.

We are also very lucky that another law passed this past session (attached to this post) that also requires that schools of education provide at least 12 clock hours of instruction related to dyslexia for teachers pursuing certification.  (12 hours is not enough, but it is way better than 0 hours.)  And Connecticut now has a definition of dyslexia (attached), which is also referenced in that law.

The especially good news is that, if teachers can teach students with dyslexia to read, they can teach almost anyone to read.  Connecticut is on the right track.

The Office of the Child Advocate's report on Adam Lanza tells a heartbreaking story.

posted Nov 28, 2014, 9:52 AM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Nov 30, 2014, 11:10 AM ]

I never thought I would feel sorry for a mass murderer, but this report tells the story of a lost child and the systems and adults who failed him.  

In the report, I saw the stories of so many children with emotional disturbance.  And of course, the only reason I was ever introduced to these children was because their school districts were working so hard to not provide them with needed services.  I can't help wondering, did this happen in Newtown?

The 114-page report describes a boy who struggled throughout his school years, exhibiting debilitating anxiety, OCD, and difficulties with social interactions.  Over the years, he became more and more withdrawn and, by middle school, presented as clearly atypical, eventually receiving homebound tutoring from the District.  There was no consideration of a therapeutic school or some other services that might have addressed his needs.

My concern with the report was that it over-focused on the mother, seeming to blame her for refusing help that would have benefitted her child.  However, there was no record of the district ever offering appropriate help.  And from the report, it also seems likely that the mother had psychiatric needs of her own.

In addition, it's important to recognize that it is extremely challenging for many parents with disabilities to meet the child's needs on a day to day basis.  Many put so much energy into managing the immediate needs of their children that they don't ever get to the big picture.  

It reminds me of a story in Winnie-the-Pooh.  It talks about Christopher Robin taking Pooh down the stairs, with Pooh's head going bumpity, bump, bump on the stairs.  And Pooh is thinking that there is surely a better way to go down the stairs, and he might be able to think of it if only his head weren't going bumpity, bump, bump.  

The report describes Adam Lanza as being in agonizing pain for years before December 14, 2012.  I can't help wondering, if he had been given the help he needed, could we have avoided the mass murder in Newtown?  

My district says I can't observe my child's program. . . can they do that?

posted May 27, 2014, 6:50 PM by Diane Willcutts   [ updated Nov 9, 2014, 2:02 PM ]

The federal law is silent on the parent's right to observe their child at school.  

However, if parents of children without disabilities are permitted to observe their child's programs, parents of children with disabilities must be permitted to observe as well.  If the District is saying "no," ask to please see their written policy regarding visits to the classroom.

In addition, Connecticut state regulations do require that state-approved private special education have a mechanism in place to permit classroom observation by parents of current or prospective students, and so it would be reasonable to surmise that public schools have the same obligation.  

Connecticut regulations (10-76d-17) state:

(11) Each private special education program shall have policies and procedures which permit parents of enrolled and prospective children to visit the program and observe children on a reasonable basis in order for the parents to participate meaningfully in PPT meetings for their children;

The spirit of IDEA intends that parents must be equal participants in their children's IEP teams.  To do this, parents need to have the same access to information--including observation of classrooms--that the school team has.  If the District refuses to permit the family to observe, document this refusal in a polite letter and state that this is interfering with the family's ability to participate as equal members of their child's Planning and Placement Team (PPT).  

If your district still refuses, please file a complaint with the Connecticut Bureau of Special Education.  At best, they will compel your District to permit the observation.  Even if not, they will have documentation indicating that Districts are denying families the ability to observe their children at school.  Very important!  If you are interested in filing a state complaint, more information is here.  

If you still feel lost, please let me know!  Chances are, I can help.  My email address is diane.willcutts@gmail.com.    

Good luck!

1-10 of 31