Monday, March 17, 2008

Yes Rural SpEd is Different, Continued

This post continues my discussion of some of the thoughts that I had after consulting with some of my expert friends prior to a participating in a focused group discussion with Tracy Justesen, the new Secretary of OSERS, among others, about rural special education issues. By the way, I learned of the meeting with the Assistant Secretary after my first post about rural special education. The very informative meeting occurred last Thursday; everyone present really liked to talk! Here are my additional thoughts:

Rural schools are geographically isolated. Some remote schools may be 150 miles away from the nearest small town. There are some school districts where the Superintendent also fixes the boilers, serves as basketball coach and does much of the janitor work. Some places still do not have ready access to the internet. It is not uncommon for parents, students or district staff to have to travel up to 4 hours each way to get to medical facilities that can provide necessary supports.
Isolation causes numerous problems. School districts are far away from resources, including, mental health facilities, and even child care. Parents are somewhat less knowledgeable concerning options and rights because of their isolation from other parents. The opportunity for out of district placements are more limited even where they may be needed. Transportation becomes difficult to coordinate and often takes up a significant portion of the child’s day. Service personnel also spend numerous hours getting to point B. The cost, amount and duration of transportation are significant issues.
Concerning dispute resolution, isolation and distance also causes problems. Even where an SEA offers an innovative program, such as facilitated IEPs, the large distances make it difficult for the facilitator to travel to the location of the IEP team meeting.
A federal initiative increasing the use of technology to help combat the isolation and distance problems would be helpful.

Low number of due process hearings and complaints:
The GAO study a few years ago found that fully 80% of all due process hearings are filed in six states (California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington DC). These states coincidentally include many major urban and metropolitan areas. I do not think that anyone advocates more due process hearings, but this could possibly be a red flag and deserves some inquiry.
There are a number of possible explanations: People in rural areas are less litigious in general-- In some rural areas, the school is the heart of the community and taking on the school is seen by many as taking on the community. There is also an ethic in some areas that you shouldn't sue anybody. These factors would suggest that additional alternative dispute resolution (ADR) solutions should be explored: increased mediation and facilitated IEP meetings. Increased funding for OSEP funded CADRE which assists states with ADR methods and techniques, trains mediators and helps states develop IEP facilitation programs would be excellent.
Because of a scarcity of lawyers and especially lawyers conversant in special education law, coupled with geographic isolation, parents are generally less aware of their rights and their child’s rights. More training on parents’ rights and more CLE, perhaps sponsored by OSEP, in states with extensive rural areas, would be beneficial.
Data: most of us agree that data collection is good, but especially in dispute resolution, I question the data collected and its meaning. SPP/APR indicators 16 through 19 collect only data regarding timelines (for state complaints and due process hearings) and percentage of settlements (for resolution meetings and mediations.) It would be nice to see some demographic data for these dispute resolution methods. How many rural people are taking advantage of these procedural safeguards? Also since so much of rural America is poor, are the suspicions of many that only the wealthiest families take advantage of the dispute resolution methods valid? Wouldn’t it be valuable to learn exactly who is accessing the system of procedural safeguards that is so fundamental under IDEA?
Training: The training of hearing officers, mediators and state complaint investigators varies widely from state to state. In many states there are significant commitments to training. In others, especially the poorer states, despite the new qualifications for hearing officers in IDEA’04, there is minimal or almost no training. In most rural areas, hearing officers and mediators are contractors rather than employees and they receive only one to a few assignments per year. Special Education Law is an ever-growing and complex body of new law. It is difficult for these contractors to stay on top of this confusing body of law by themselves, particularly when they use it so infrequently. In smaller states, the complaint investigator may be whoever answers the phone at the SEA or at best a small number of people who are generally not attorneys but who must master the difficult field of SpEd law. It would be beneficial to the states if OSEP could provide support and assistance in the form of money for the support and, more importantly, the training of these dispute resolution contractors and staff.


  1. I agree with everything you have written about rural special ed and procedural safeguards.

    I too believe numbers related to due process and mediations are being "fiddled" with especially here in Texas.

    In 2003, Texas Education Agency re-organized. The legal department for the agency took over the complaints, mediation and due process hearings officers at the agency. Only lawyers were allowed to be hired as independent contractors for the agency for mediation of disputes between parents and school districts. The mediators and hearing officers attend the same meetings and discuss cases across boundaries. Mediation cases are therefore lawyered up and while legal fees are not awarded at due process hearings, lawyers at mediation negotiate fees as a separate side deal of settlement....when the parents are affluent enough to be able to hire an attorney in the first place.

    I know this because from 1999 to 2003 when the Complaints Division was run by educators and not lawyers non-lawyers were hired as mediators for the federal IDEA contracts.

    To say parents of children with disabilities (503 & 504) are getting a raw deal in Texas is an understatement. Last summer, the inspector general for the agency wrote up the Deputy Director Robert Scott for making sweetheart deals to lobbyists for special education contracts and grants from the Gates Foundation.

    If you have any suggestions on how to investigate this corruption, I would be happy to follow your suggestions. I feel passionately about the preservation of public education especially special education for the children in Texas.

    Thank you for listening.

  2. Hi Linda,

    My best suggestion is that you find a lawyer licensed in Texas who is familioar with special ed law and with the problems you describe.

    Good luck,