ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)

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Saturday, July 15, 2006: 10:00 AM-11:15 AM
Narragansett Ballroom A
#1970- Empowering Parents to Advocate for Real Educational Benefit under the Reauthorized IDEA 2004
Explore legal and institutional hurdles that face parents when a school district and the parent disagree with what may be the most appropriate choice of a method for teaching a child on the Autism Spectrum. The presenters have fought substantial legal and/or institutional battles to champion the rights of children on the Autism Spectrum. They will offer their unique experiences and knowledge, highlight their successes and failures, and explore the potential impact of the Reauthorized IDEA 2004.

Presenters:Glenn R. Friedemann, J.D., Tillinghast Licht LLP, Esq. - Trial lawyer with 20 years of courtroom and jury trial, arbitration, mediation and appellate experience, who advocates on behalf of children on the Autism Spectrum and their parents. He has advocated in precedent setting cases pertaining to due process hearing rights of disabled children, the confidentiality of IDEA education records and the creation of a school–disabled student privilege against disclosure of such records under the IDEA. He provides counsel to parents and often lectures about the IDEA and rights of disabled students to Parent Advocacy Committees at religious, private, charter and public schools.

Mark W. Dana, J.D., Law Office of Mark Dana, P.C., Esq. - Former prosecutor with over 17 years experience as a criminal and civil trial attorney. Since 1996, Attorney Dana has concentrated in special education advocacy on behalf of disabled children/ their parents. He is a recipient of the Dorothy Lohmann Community Service Award for his pro bono work with disabled children. Attorney Dana brings with him knowledge and experience with handling significant IDEA cases, such as those involving autistic children where methodology was at issue and a school district's program is presented as one of "reasonable choices" among "appropriate instructional methods."

Gail K. Weisberger, M.S.W., Providence School Department, Special Education Department, Autism Team, Social Worker - A social worker with over 25 years experience in both clinical settings and school districts, she is committed to find better solutions for students with Autism and developmental disabilities. In the past three of the 14 years that she has been with Providence School Department, she helped develop, coordinate and implement social skill curricula for inclusive classrooms that are designed for middle and high school students with Asperger Syndrome, and provides training for teachers within these unique classrooms. She has given seminars on respite care for parents of disabled children.

Merrill J. Friedemann, J.D., Friedemann & Associates, Esq. - Member of Coalition of Parent Advocates and Attorneys. Attorney Friedemann has been a committed civil trial attorney for 15 years. She has advocated on behalf of, and focused her attention to improving education for disabled children under the IDEA. Not satisfied with special education services in her district, she ran and was elected to a school district committee, where she serves as Vice-Chair. She now works to restore confidence in that district, making many organizational/management changes which are desperately needed to improve the learning environment in the district for students with disabilities.

Karen D. Vessella, M.S., Providence School Department, Special Education Department, Autism Team, Director, Student Services - Ms. Vessella is the Director of Student Services, Providence School Department. She has worked for the Providence School Department for 18 years serving as a teacher for 5 years and an administrator for 13 years. She developed a district-wide autism/alternative program starting with one classroom at Springfield Middle School. Today, the School Department has an Autism team with three classrooms at the elementary level, two classrooms at the middle level, and two classrooms at the high school level. She is committed to providing quality programs for students on the Spectrum.

Why can't parents dictate methodology? Why do courts, with few exceptions, ignore reviewing the merits of a plan? Can you obtain the Cadillac of plans in a Yugo school world? What is the impact of the Reauthorized IDEA 2004 on methodology? What are some schools doing to address their obligations under the IDEA 2004? What is the impact of cookie cutter programs that provide scientifically researched-based instruction and are tailored to the individual student? Are such cookie cutter programs an oxymoron of individualized plans? What are some of the institutional hurdles that face administrators and special ed teachers in creating such cookie cutter programs? What are some of the hurdles faced by parents who disagree with most appropriate choice of a method for teaching a child on the Autism Spectrum? What can parents do to protect their children and ensure that a school provides the appropriate methodology and plans? How will courts interpret post- Rowley cases in light of the changes imposed by the IDEA 2004? These are some of the issues that will be discussed by our presenters in this program styled, “Empowering Parents to Advocate for Real Educational Benefit under the Reauthorized IDEA 2004.”

Our presenters are all Rhode Island residents and present day “crusaders,” who have fought substantial legal and/or institutional battles to champion the rights of disabled children on the Autism Spectrum. The panelists consist of three attorneys, one a local school committee member, and a school administrator and social worker, the latter two who were instrumental in creating an inclusive but specialized public school program for children on the Autism Spectrum. The presenters offer their experiences and knowledge, and will highlight some successes and failures within the legal and institutional settings for teaching a child on the Autism Spectrum. Their discussion will include advocacy for successful programs, and against programs which have been historical failures.

While, for the last 30 years since Congress enacted laws to prevent discrimination against disabled children, the courts, in accordance with Board of Education v. Rowley (1982), have held that school districts do not have to provide the “best” education for disabled students but merely must provide services so the child receives “some educational benefit.” Courts have used analogies in their decisions acknowledging that school districts need only offer disabled students a "serviceable Chevrolet" as opposed to a Cadillac. Whatever analogy used, parents and school districts have always had much difficulty in arriving at a consensus regarding the method of teaching, especially when there is ample evidence that the teachers are untrained and the children have not benefitted. Nevertheless, as evidenced by the court decisions in many due process hearing disputes resolved in favor of school districts, courts defer to the school district for its expertise in determining what is an appropriate methodology and plan. Indeed, in a recent significant IDEA case, Lt. T.B. v. Warwick School Committee, argued by one of the presenters on behalf of parents, the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the administrative findings in favor of the parents because the school district's program was appropriately presented as one of "reasonable choices" among "appropriate instructional methods."

Prior to the recent spate of autism cases, the courts have been either unwilling and/or unable to impose standards by which to assess the appropriateness of an educational methodology. While research about what may be an appropriate methodology and plan is now plentiful, and parents are becoming much more educated about the types of successful instruction, schools have not kept up with the research, nor adequately trained their staff, and/or have stopped funding intensive one-on-one programs. This problem has been exacerbated by the acute incidence of Autism, the substantial increase in cost of services to educate children on the Autism Spectrum, and the lack of funding for special education programs.

With the passage of the Reauthorized IDEA 2004, new standards have been created, or borrowed from the No Child Left Behind Act. School districts must now ensure that all children have the opportunity to obtain a high quality education and proficiency. School districts must “clos[e] the achievement gap between high- and low-performing children” and “ensur[e] access of children to effective, scientifically based instructional strategies and challenging academic content.”

IDEA 2004 counters low expectations of School Personnel for a disabled children, who may be two, three, or more academic years behind their nondisabled peers, by requiring more than one year of academic progress in one year. School personnel who work with children with disabilities must receive “high quality, intensive” professional development and training to ensure that they have “the skills and knowledge necessary to improve the academic achievement and functional performance of children with disabilities, including the use of scientifically based instructional practices, to the maximum extent possible.” Disabled students must now be given the opportunity to “improve academic achievement and functional performance . . . to the maximum extent possible.”

As a result of these new legal standards, a small minority of schools have responded by creating new classroom based programs that incorporate generally endorsed research methods. These new standards will be explored from a legal and an educational perspective. The presenters will examine how some school districts have responded, how they should respond, and what parents should learn about these new standards to ensure that their children on the Autism Spectrum are provided with a real prospect of educational benefit.

See more of The ASA's 37th National Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders (July 13-15, 2006)