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School board eyes special-education investment

Parent: 'Public accountability and compliance starts now'

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Palo Alto school board members, staff and parents were largely heartened Tuesday by a district plan to allocate $2.4 million over the next two years to improve special-education services, with trustees requesting more details before they take action on the budget requests.

The funding proposals — which are mostly for additional personnel to strengthen support for teachers and, in turn, students at school sites — follow the results of an internal review of special education, including surveys of parents, teachers and staff.

This was not the first review of special education in Palo Alto Unified, where progress on comprehensive reform in this area has often been stymied.

"The CAC (Community Advisory Committee) at large has asked for accountability and transparency for a decade," Christina Schmidt, a member of the special education parent-advocacy group, told the board Tuesday. "Now that we have this data ... we can actually tackle the relevant issues and improve outcomes.

"Public accountability and compliance starts now," Schmidt said.

Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Initiatives Yolanda Conaway said the funding requests are necessary to bring the special-education program into legal compliance and reduce litigation with families. The need for teacher training was emphasized by all, including the parent-advocates.

"There is no capacity in (the) current system for improvement and compliance," said CAC Chair Kimberly Eng Lee. "It takes training and a mind shift for all educators to include and instruct all kids."

Staff have proposed creating a "learning academy" that would provide targeted professional development for special- and general-education teachers as well as administrators.

Parents pressed for a specific timeline with action items and corrective measures that can be carefully monitored.

Board members also asked Conaway to return with more specifics, including explanations for the amounts of funding requested, a plan for what to roll out first and the areas in which the district is out of compliance in special education.

Board member Todd Collins urged an intentional, phased rollout that would start with a small group of schools to avoid another failed attempt at special-education reform.

"The greatest enemy of most new initiatives and certainly in education are rollouts that are faster than the management infrastructure available to support them," he said. "Part of doing it right is probably doing it slow."

In response, Conaway stressed that there is a structure missing in the district that must be built, sooner rather than later.

"Time is critical," echoed Katie Talbot, a parent of a child with special needs. "Please don't delay on this because every year that you delay is a year my child gets older and loses a year of education."

The school board will next discuss the special-education requests at a budget study session in the coming weeks.


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142 people like this
Posted by Psychologist and Attorney Fees
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 29, 2018 at 1:58 am

Let's hope they do want to become less adversarial and reduce attorney fees. Let's hope they can increase trust of their staff toward students and families. However, looking at the case presented to the Board in closed session before this meeting, the District does not want to. Student vs PAUSD, OAH Case No. 2017110106:
Web Link

PAUSD paid 2 attorneys to attend this case. Was paying for 2 attorneys necessary to fight a single mother of a disabled child, injured in an automobile accident, on disability without work?

The District also paid 4 School District Psychologists to testify against the child. What is worrisome is these are the people who hold the most confidential mental health information in a sacred trust.

Add to this the 5 Special Education Teachers and Therapists, again people held in trust by parents, and 8 General Education Teachers.

Is this what Special Education uses our taxes for? The staff members were out of class while the two attorneys prepared and coached them to testify. They were not teaching while they were testifying.

Couldn't the District have done this more efficiently?

Especially worrisome was the use of PAUSD Central School District Psychologists [portion removed.] While many of these people indicate they are experts in autism or their fields, and perhaps they are in some way, most of them are not, and are sadly overstating their expertise. As Dr. Rodriguez reported at the Board meeting, PAUSD psychologists are generalists and asked to handle too many areas they are not trained in. Also the case reads like there was a tremendous amount of Group Think going on. (Dr. Sheridan was - wait for it - an expert in the child's file! Great, she read the file!)

PAUSD's Mental Health Resources were not put in place to harm children. They were put in place to help children and reduce suicides. This shows this is not how PAUSD is using this staff. More worrisome, this testimony happened after the new Assistant Superintendent and Special Education Co-Directors were hired, and with approval of the Board of Education.

The District also states it has rich mental health resources at school. It is disheartening the resources some Board members fought so hard for are instead being used to harm children. Here, they practices a common Special Education tactic - stating resources just put in place (if that is accurate), are fully functioning and working effectively. The staff surveys presented that same evening show the opposite.

Special Education employees with their own lawyers, use of multiple employees to attack parents of suffering children. This is exactly the staff behavior and attitude that brought the District into the mess of the past years.

Attorneys for PAUSD:
1.Elizabeth J. Rho-Ng -Attorney at Law
2. Michael L. Turner - Attorney at Law

Here are all the PAUSD teachers who testified against their student with autism:

PAUSD Teachers:
1.World History teacher [portion removed]
2.Theatre teacher [portion removed]
3.Math teacher [portion removed]
4.Physical education teacher [portion removed]
5.Spanish 3 Teacher [portion removed]
6.History and Government teacher [portion removed]
7.English teacher [portion removed]
8.Chemistry teacher [portion removed]

PAUSD Psycholigists and Mental Health Therapists:
9. [portion removed] - a licensed marriage and family therapist, director of ERMHS therapy - testified about Student’s
mental health status and therapy history
10. [portion removed], a contract ERMHS therapist
11. [portion removed] - School psychologist
12. Dr. Stephanie Sheridan, Psychologist, Director of Special Education (Secondary)

PAUSD Special Education Teachers and Therapists:
13 [portion removed] - Academic Communications teacher (Special Education)
14. [portion removed] - Academic Communications class at Jordan
15. [portion removed] - a special education teacher
16. [portion removed] - speech and language pathologist
17. [portion removed] - AT, described as a 'technology expert' who was also a special education teacher

27 people like this
Posted by Old Person
a resident of Green Acres
on May 29, 2018 at 8:28 am

Above poster - your link didn't work, here's one that does -Web Link

Looks like the District prevailed 100% on this case. I assume the ask was a big one, since the family took it all the way to court and had two lawyers of their own listed on the case. I assume that the district would have been on the hook for those attorney fees if they'd lost.

[Portion removed.] You say they are doing it wrong. But on the underlying case, the judge found 100% for the District (last page: "Palo Alto prevailed on all issues heard.").

You think they should spend less money on litigation. But if people are going to ask for (expensive) things beyond what the law requires, and won't take "no" for an answer, prevailing in court is the only alternative. If they were losing it would be different (what a waste) - but they didn't.

26 people like this
Posted by Read the link
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2018 at 8:59 am

Having read through the linked findings, I wouldn't characterize the teachers as "testifying against" the student--based in the judge's ruling, it seems like the staff really did right by this particular student. Something else seems to be going on re: why it went to court. This isn't the case to cite when rallying against PAUSD.

131 people like this
Posted by Psychologist and Attorney Fees
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 29, 2018 at 10:26 am

@ Old Poster and @Read the Link - Thank you for posting the link.

In terms of your comments, I considered these factors for many days after the hearing outcome was posted, but have doubts. Reading it I see a group so completely rallying against a disabled special needs parent for years, along with a group of special education staff and psychologists who do not really know the child ganging up against the mother.

What is most worrisome is the number of PAUSD psychologist's who held the child's private information in trust, presenting themselves as wanting to help the child when all the while they were being coached to testify against the child. If these PAUSD mental health professionals really considered the child's best interests, they would not testify against him/her. Psychologists report directly to Special Education, a department which has their own lawyers available at all times. The child and parent did not.

Further, because a District prevailed in a case does not mean they did right by a child. Some of these psychologists are called in when the District wants to obtain more staff to testify against a child. The staff who testified were paid by the District to do so. Some of these same staff quit the District because they were unable to help children under the very programs cited as a success.

The existence of a program does not mean it was a success, and the District has said the vast monies spent in recent years did not work.

The District has the ability to present a very one sided story so readers think the family was overwhelming at fault. For example, they have the advantage of access to a hostile environment. Hearings are held at school district offices, in school district buildings, where District employees can spend time preparing and testifying and go on with their work. It is not a neutral environment. Parents and children must testify against the some 17-19 people the District used and prepped, all in hostile environment on the District's own territory.

130 people like this
Posted by shameful
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2018 at 10:45 am

I read through the case and my opinion is that the student has significant anxiety in the school environment caused by the school, has significant impairments in the area of executive functioning, but the school attempted to place the blame on 'home' anxiety rather than the unmet accommodations. It is clear to me that the issues involved school.

Very telling is also that the testimony included PAUSD refusing to classify a child diagnosed with autism as disabled due to autism. Instead the improperly categorized the disability as Other Health Impaired which is of course a lie.

Rather than work to get a FAPE in place where the staff would ensure that the student wrote down assignments and due dates in a simple binder or calendar toward the end of each class, they put the student in the absolute Zoo of Schoology that the teachers sometimes use and don't use depending upon the whim of the day.

PAUSD failed this child. And then went on attack mode against the student.

[Portion removed.]

147 people like this
Posted by Psychologist and Attorney Fees
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 29, 2018 at 5:54 pm

@Shameful - ditto, reading the case I felt the same. A carefully orchestrated attack on a parent at every turn, designed to overwhelm the family and make them go away.

The case presents the Academic Communications program at Jordan. We observed it, and it is not what the District bills it as. There was little control, and students eloped (left without permission due to autism), and the teachers and therapists didn't even notice. I stood quaking in fear. Finally, after some interval, someone got the child back.

The academic part of that class was more like a busy airport than a learning environment, kids coming in and out of the room. The poor teacher had to teach 3 grades while other kids did computer work, which was learning "executive functioning skills." The same teacher also had to be case manager for multiple kids, whom she may or may not have taught. She had to know all of their schedules the whole day, all while teaching and case managing. She rarely was able to leave before 6pm, and worked on her computer at night. They overworked her to death with no support.

The Academic Communications program was fishy from the start. The District tried to present it as a mainstream class, and not a Special Education Class. They tried to say the child received push in speech and language in a mainstream class, when in reality, this class was a special education class. Special Education made it appear there was a therapist going into the regular classrooms to help children succeed alongside typical children in regular classes. It did not meet District policy for push in services.

We had no idea why the District was misrepresenting this class until private Speech Therapists told us they wanted to make it look as if the kids no longer needed speech therapy, because they now received it in a mainstream class. In reality, it was a special education class that a couple days a week mainstream students with social cognitive problems go enroll in. This was a way for the District to avoid adding these students to Special Education. It kept the numbers of students in Special Education appear lower than they really were. It was a way for them to say "we succeeded, we cured autism", and then take children out of special education services.

Also, it was a way to give one credentialed special education teacher for too many students. The communications class taught 2-3 days a week was not in a separate classroom. It was in an adjoining conference room with a door in between the two room, so the District could list one credentialed teacher with twice as many students. We could never get an answer on who taught it, just a vague "Mental Health Worker", and that the Academic Communications teacher ran it and was wonderful. No doubt she was, but it was clear she was a Special Education English teacher and did not understand SLP or the class content. Her comments about how the student improved are nice, but not a measurement of true lasting improvement.

No one who from the District who testified was an "expert" in autism as they presented themselves to be. Their own comments made in the judge's finding show they were not experts, because real experts would not have made some of the silly claims about improvement. The District's testing was nice as far as it goes, but these so limited it could never show the complete picture in autism. In other words, the tests they relied on miss a substantial amount of true autism deficits, which is why the family paid themselves for an IEE. That was the only way they could determine what was really wrong with the child. These District employees may have convinced a judge they were experts in autism, but that is quite common in PAUSD. Being calm under cross examination (which the District's lawyers, with an unlimited budget, prepped them to be) does not equal expertise.

Sorry to say, it's the same situation that lead to the OCR crises of the past few years. I wish I could say it has changed, but this case record shows it has not.

5 people like this
Posted by Old Person
a resident of Green Acres
on May 29, 2018 at 11:26 pm

Above poster - thanks for the thoughtful analysis. Which makes sense - except the judge disagrees. Marson appears to be an experienced judge (13 years in his current role, 50 years in the law) and the finding is lengthy and thoughtful. So maybe the district fooled him through extensive prepping - or maybe, as he wrote,

"These witnesses were well qualified and had more extensive training and experience than typical secondary school teachers. Their testimony was uniformly detailed and knowledgeable, and in no case did cross-examination reveal any weaknesses in their testimony. All of them were credible and persuasive witnesses...."

The biggest difference I see with the OCR cases is that in those, the legal authorities said the District did things wrong. In this case, the legal authority (a judge) says they did things right. Maybe he's wrong, but not sure why we should think so.

123 people like this
Posted by Psychologist and Attorney Fees
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 30, 2018 at 12:30 am

@Old Person - Again, that just says the District spent a lot of money on preparing a case and coaching the witnesses they called. They were credible and persuasive because they were rehearsed and coached, to a ridiculous degree if you read the finding, which cost the District taxpayers (us) a lot of money. It was overkill by the District.

Being in a job 13 years does not indicate a strong knowledge of autism and the judge can only consider what is put in front of him/her. I have talked to OCR judges about this problem. Districts know this, and here they didn't even try to put forth a real knowledgeable expert in autism or question the silly claims some of their employees made. Autism experts are accustomed to the statements from school Districts, especially PAUSD.

Especially troublesome is reading them add staff designed to testify against the child, who really had nothing to do with the child. It is a common strategy, let the child fail with a School Psychologist, who has so little training they are not allowed to work anywhere outside a school district, then bring in MFT's, than PhD.'s who "know the case".

Some of Dr. Sheridan's tricks were troubling. Saying words to the effect of 'it was a total surprise when the doctor suggested a school placement at an IEP meeting' - Uhm, that is the purpose of an IEP meeting. Where else was he supposed to suggest it? I am sure the District was shocked, shocked that any evaluation not done by their own school psychologist with no license acceptable outside the school doors gave them different results, ones they wanted to hear. The doctor had the strength to make a recommendation in front of room of hostile District employees, all playing the "we are so surprised" game. It is just a way to try to discredit a doctor and scare the parents.

The new Special Education management is PAUSD, a very top heavy staff, were hired with the promise to the public they would solve these problems and treat the disabled fairly. It didn't happen here.

There is a difference between what a District can legally get away with to win in court and what is ethically right. Here, the District failed this child for many years. Winning a court case may make a District legally 'right', but it does not make them ethically right.

9 people like this
Posted by Old Person
a resident of Green Acres
on May 30, 2018 at 8:17 am

Above poster, thank you for the clear response. We do disagree on what the right standard is. You have an "ethical" standard that you are applying based on your own assessment - I'm accepting the legal standard, which is determined by the law and regulation and decided by a judge. The judge is quite experienced and there's no reason to think unqualified; both sides appear well-represented; plenty of time was available both for preparation (months it appears) and the hearing itself (almost 10 days?).

Your views are certainly relevant (and for me, welcome), but I don't find them persuasive. This looks like a family that asked for more than the law entitled them to, and the district telling them "no." Since we know the community can be demanding, it is important that the district adhere to legal standards - not too little and, depending on costs, not too much. As another poster said above, this isn't a good case to use to rally people against the district.

118 people like this
Posted by Public Record
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 3, 2018 at 1:16 am

@Old Person - Your answers seem so pat, too perfectly written. Do they relate to the fact that the Attorney Contract is up for Board of Education Review this Tuesday?
Do you work for the school district? For their attorney? For their P.R. firm?

District Psychologists Behaviors -
I doubt any disabled child or their parents visits or has sent their child to a PAUSD psychologist knowing the District intends this professional to testify against the child. I doubt anyone could ever imagine their children's psychologists and special education teacher doing anything so horrific as what they did here. It is important to shed light on it. They did not act in a position of trust. They did not keep disabled children's psychological information collected in the course of their treatment of the child confidential.

Your statements -
"looks like a family that asked for more than the law entitled them to,.."
You can't actually know that. The decision does not state what the family requested.

"this isn't a good case to use to rally people against the district."
The posters on this group are Registered Users having a civil discussion based on both reading the finding AND their knowledge of the system AS IT RELATES to the meeting the article refers to. No one is rallying any one to do anything. You say people are "too demanding", but we do not know anyone was.

This discussion relates directly to the above article about the Board of Education meeting with a Special Education presentation requesting $2.4 million dollars, giving the reduction of legal fees as partial justification for the increased budget request.

Special Education had to expect this discussion would come up, because at the same Board meeting the Board met in a closed session to discuss this legal case which, as you point out, the same Special Education employees spent 10 days of District resources on. Here is the Agenda item:

[√] 4. Conference with Legal Counsel – Existing Litigation pursuant to Government Code
§54956.9(d)(1) - One claim: Student vs PAUSD, OAH Case No. 2017110106
Web Link#

If the District did not want it discussed, they could have placed it on a different meeting Agenda. That is not 'rallying.'

In fact, taxpayers have a right, no a duty, to ask if the District needed to pursue this expensive legal path. The District and it's attorneys had other options available, and the posters are correct in asking if they were used, especially given the incessant tone in the finding that the District blamed and attacked the single disabled mother of a disabled child. It doesn't much matter that you like the judge or that he has 13 years experience, or 100 years experience. There are deep flaws in the system, which the District takes advantage of for it's own benefit. The District may prepare "for months", largely because they request the court delay cases as much as possible. Districts have an overwhelming advantages over any disabled child or families, such as PAUSD's half million dollar legal fund used at all time, the training and coaching of all their employees at all times to do and say exactly what the lawyers tell them to give the appearance which you cite as doing everything 'right'.

No doubt they were 'Right' in many legal procedural regards. Right in all areas except those that were the most crucial - helping the disabled child. Right in areas except what they are actually here to do - Educating disabled children, which the District itself says they continue to fail at. Improving their credibility and trust among families, which they say they want to do.

Families knowledgeable about the District attend Board meetings, watch the recordings of meetings, and speak at the meetings.

Liking a judge based on a limited reading of a case is cold comfort to the suffering children and families whose money went to this.

Palo Alto Online Editor - This case is a matter of public record. The court finding with the names of the staff who testified and what they said is in the judge's published finding. There is no reason to remove the names of the District staff here. The child's name is not a part of the court record, and is not public. However, the information about the employees who testified is already available online and in the public court record.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Charleston Meadows

on Jun 3, 2018 at 4:29 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

6 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 3, 2018 at 4:33 pm

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Old Person
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 3, 2018 at 6:44 pm

Above poster, There may be "deep flaws in the system" - but the schools operate within the legal and regulatory system set by others, and following the law is a critical part of doing their job (as they've found out the hard way over the last several years). I'm glad to see that in this case, they seemed to have hit that standard.

There might be other standards, but costs and fairness also enter in - if an expensive or hard to deliver service benefits one child, above and beyond "free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment" (as the federal law reads), are others entitled to it? The answers aren't always clear, which is why judges sometimes are needed to help sort them out.

And yes, I have some experience in this area - one of my children, now grown, was 16 years (ages 5 through 21) a special needs student in PAUSD. We did get to think about these issues a fair amount over the years.

114 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 7, 2018 at 1:39 pm

“The educational life of a twice-exceptional student is often littered with negative experiences that can cause students to feel like a failure and to have low self-efficacy, increased internalized and externalized anger, and anxiety and depression.” (Ronksley-Pavia, & Townend, 2017, p. 1). “[O]ur educational system is far from adequately addressing these students’ multifaceted needs.” (Foley-Nicpon et al., 2013, p. 176). There is an immediate need to fill the “void” of knowledge about empirically validated treatments and interventions for twice-exceptional students. (Foley Nicpon et al., 2011, p. 13).

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