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Silent Participants

Dorothy, a teacher for students with learning disabilities, was given the responsibility of facilitating an IEP meeting for Daniel, who was returning from a psychiatric day-treatment program. Daniel’s teacher was a general education teacher committed to including Daniel in her class, but she was struggling with how to deal with his behavior. Dorothy did not feel she had the expertise necessary to deal with emotional problems and was also concerned that Daniel’s teacher was taking on too much. She had hoped to find some solutions at the Child Study Team (CST) meeting.

 

"I’ve never seen anything like it!" Dorothy Vasquez exclaimed to her friend Sara Jones. "Nine professionals sitting around the table and almost no one opened their mouth!"

The two women were reviewing a Child Study Team (CST) meeting that had recently taken place at the elementary school where they both taught. Ellwood, located in a small city, was a Title 1 school with an diverse enrollment of approximately 300 students. Dorothy had taught students with learning disabilities at Ellwood for several years, and because she was the only special educator assigned to the school, she often handled the meetings and paper-work for students enrolled in other special education programs. This meeting had been scheduled to review the goals and objectives for Daniel Littledeer, a Native American student with an emotional disorder who was returning to their school after an absence of two years. Also in attendance at the meeting were: Daniel’s mother; Alma Meadows, the head of a parent's advocate group; the school psychologist; Alice Jamison, the principle at Ellwood; 2 principals from other schools in the district that had programs for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities; two therapists from the two treatment centers where Daniel had been treated; Julie Barnes, the fifth grade general education teacher who currently had Daniel in her class; Jim Stevens, the district's Director of Special Education; and John Blevens, a behavior management specialist from the district.

 

"Why didn’t anyone say anything?" Sara asked Dorothy. "After what happened when Daniel was in my class two years ago, how can he be put back in another regular classroom just like that? We don't even have a teacher for kids with emotional disorders on staff at Ellwood. Isn't anyone else worried about what might happen if he gets upset and loses control again? Why didn't Mrs. Jamison speak up during the meeting? Surely she has some concerns, I mean after what Daniel did to her office."

"She probably didn’t want to prejudice the situation. You know how fair she always tries to be and how dedicated she is to keeping everyone in the regular classroom," Dorothy said, referring to their progressive principal, Alice Jamison. Under Alice’s leadership, the faculty at Ellwood worked to include all children in the general education classrooms whenever and wherever possible. Daniel, however, had become a challenge to that philosophy.

Dorothy's thoughts returned to that day more than two years ago when she watched in dismay as Daniel, accompanied by Mrs. Jamison and his mother, was driven away from school in the back of the police car. She often thought about the role she had played in the events leading up to it.

It all started when Daniel, then a third-grader in Sara's class, began falling behind in his schoolwork. Sara was concerned because he often simply refused to work at all and frequently made rude comments or violent threats. Dorothy was asked to do some academic testing.  She discovered that Daniel was very bright and performed well in all areas: reading, math, and written language. He was cooperative and engaging throughout the evaluation and was basically a pleasure to test.

Daniel's father had died from an illness several years ago. His mother was reported to be a caring and supportive parent who was devoted to her children. She cooperated with attempts to bring Daniel back into line at school but openly admitted that she had lost control of him at home. She was worried about Daniel's behavior and wanted to find help for him. Eddie, Daniel's younger brother and a 1st-grader at Ellwood, was reported by his teacher to be doing well.

Dorothy reported back to the Child Study Team that Daniel's problems in the classroom and at home appeared to be behavioral/emotional in nature. Her diagnostic results did not indicate any underlying learning or cognitive problems. Dorothy had observed Daniel in class on several occasions and pointed out that he did exhibit some symptoms of ADHD: excessive fidgiting, restlessness, impulsiveness, and distractability. As a result of Dorothy's findings, the team recommended a referral be made to John Blevens, the behavior management specialist from the district. He could observe Daniel in the classroom and determine if his problems warranted placement in a special education program for students with emotional disorders.

Then, before the plan could be implemented, Daniel lost control in the classroom one day to such an extent that Sara called the office for assistance.

Alice came down to Sara's class and observed Daniel lying under a table crying and hurling threats at anyone who approached him. She often worked with troubled kids and was usually able to de-escalate situations quickly by getting the child away from the classroom to a calm place. On this occasion, however, this approach did not work.

With a good deal of coaxing and assistance from the school coach, Alice was able to get Daniel out from under the table and down to her office. Once there, Daniel, still in a rage, destroyed her office. Chairs and plants were overturned, books were torn from the shelves, curtains were ripped from the windows, and the surface of her desk was swept clean. Daniel had to be restrained by several adults for almost 30 minutes, spitting, kicking, and screaming threats and profanities all the while. Somehow he broke free and ran from the office. He was apprehended on the playground and again restrained by several staff members. By then, his mother and the police had been called and both had arrived.

Amazingly, during all that time no one, not even his mother, had been able to calm Daniel down. It was as if he were fighting for his life. No one was ever able to determine exactly what had set him off that morning. Daniel was still fighting and kicking as he was loaded into the back of the squad car and driven to the hospital. Dorothy would never forget the stricken look on Mrs. Littledeer's face as she struggled to subdue her son in the back seat.

Ultimately Daniel was taken to a psychiatric residential program, where he was treated for approximately six months before returning home and being transferred to a day-treatment program. He remained there for a year and a half and received a number of diagnoses: oppositional defiant disorder, underlying thought disorder, ADHD, and depression. The doctors prescribed medication for his hyperactivity and depression.

With the psychiatric diagnosis, Daniel was classified as emotionally disturbed and an IEP was written. Daniel’s mother received some guidance as to how to handle Daniel at home, leaving her feeling more confident and in control. She had also become active in a parents' support group. Mrs. Littledeer was encouraged by the improvement she saw in her son and wanted him to return to Ellwood when the new school year began. Daniel was continuing to receive in-home counseling on a weekly basis. and his counselors agreed with Mrs. Littledeer that Daniel was ready to go back to school.

Daniel was put into Julie Barnes' 5th grade class with consultative services from the district program for students with emotional disorders. Julie had her hands full for sure with Daniel and one other student identified as emotionally disturbed in her class of 30 students. She was known as a resourceful teacher who seemed to go the extra mile with every student. Children with difficult behaviors were often placed in her class because she was always willing to accept a new challenge. Julie was usually able to help these students bring their behavior under control and gain acceptance within her classroom. However, even she was not prepared for Daniel.

Three weeks into the school year, the honeymoon period was rapidly coming to an end. Daniel was beginning to display many of his old behaviors: constantly being out of his seat, destroying materials, shoving other students, calling out and demanding attention, and rarely completing any assignments. Julie was frustrated and asked for help, making it clear she did not want Daniel removed from her class. She hoped she could turn him around as she had done with other kids in the past. She knew Daniel's potential and hoped she could be the one to bring him back.

Dorothy was not so sure. How could Julie, teaching 30 students alone, possibly handle the challenge this child presented and still give the rest of her class the attention they deserve?. Dorothy had visited Daniel in Julie's class several times and had observed that she was "helicoptering" (hovering over) him much of the time. She was doing everything possible to keep him busy and out of trouble but it was taking up a large percentage of her time. Daniel was becoming more bold and demanding, disrupting the class and threatening other students. Dorothy admired Julie for her diligence and commitment to helping Daniel, but she feared there was trouble on the horizon.

When Dorothy realized that the IEP written for Daniel at the treatment center needed to be reviewed, she approached Mrs. Jamison about how to proceed. Together, they agreed that a meeting should be scheduled to write new IEP goals as well as to consider options for giving Daniel the least restrictive environment while providing the optimal level of support. In addition to the CST members at Ellwood, John Blevens and the teachers and therapists who had worked with him at the day-treatment center were invited. Because Dorothy questioned the appropriateness of Daniel's full-time placement in a general education class, she suggested to Mrs. Jamison that the principals from schools in the district with special classes for students with emotional disorders should be invited as well.

"I really hate to give up on Daniel so soon, but he is already showing some signs of distress," Alice said thoughtfully as she considered Dorothy's suggestion. "I don't know, maybe he does need more support than Julie can provide alone in her class. I guess it might be a good idea to invite some representatives from schools with ED programs just in case we decide that he needs a more restrictive setting.

The meeting was planned for Friday afternoon at 3:00. At the last minute Alice had asked Dorothy to invite Jim Stevens, the district director of special education. Alice did not share with Dorothy her reasons for wanting Jim there but it was clear that this would not be a typical IEP meeting. As the professionals assembled around the conference table, Dorothy felt the tension rise. Daniel's mother arrived with Alma Meadows, a parent advocate with a reputation as a "tough customer."  She had been successful in securing additional support and services for many students and their families while demanding that they remain in the least restrictive environment.

Dorothy knew that Alma considered the least restrictive environment for every student to be the general educational classroom. She disagreed with many of Alma's tactics but realized that she did lend strength and support to parents who were often intimidated by the nature of these meetings. As the two women took their seats at the table, Dorothy made note of the fixed expressions that settled on the faces of the others in the room.

Aware of Alma's agenda, Dorothy worried that it would be difficult to honestly discuss the best course of action for Daniel. As she got a sense of the dynamics around the table, she felt panic set in. "What have I gotten myself into here?" she thought as she welcomed the participants and thanked them for coming.

It had been the longest two hours of Dorothy's career. Julie had spoken first, describing Daniel's behavior in her class that morning. She reiterated that she was committed to keeping him in her class but admitted to being frustrated by his behavior. When Julie finished there was complete silence from the group.

"Well, I guess we should look at the goals that were written for Daniel last year at the center," Dorothy proceeded hesitantly, realizing that she was out on a limb. She breathed a sign of relief as the counselor from the day-treatment program where the IEP was initiated raised his hand and stood to speak.

"Daniel did very well in our program and attained both of his prescribed goals," he began. "The goals that we set for him were to sit quietly at his seat and to work independently for a short period of time. We also hoped to decrease many of his calling-out behaviors. Before leaving our program he was able to work independently at his seat for up to 5 minutes at a time and we are very pleased with his accomplishment." The counselor took his seat.

Again, the silence from the group was deafening; Dorothy did not know what to do next. She was a LD teacher, she wasn't comfortable writing social/emotional goals for a student who wasn't even in her program.. So far the real issue--how and where Daniel's needs could best be met--still had not emerged in the discussion. She looked in Alice's direction for support but Alice did not return her glance.

"I'd like to say something if I could," Mrs. Littledeer said meekly as she looked in Dorothy's direction. "I really want Daniel to be successful here at Ellwood, and I know he can do it," she continued, gaining confidence as she spoke. Both Daniel and I have learned a lot from his treatment experience and I feel good about the progress we have made at home. I just know that the success we are experiencing can be carried over to school here at Ellwood."

Alma smiled at Mrs. Littledeer and gave her the thumbs-up signal. Dorothy felt sure they had rehearsed that comment once or twice before today. She decided it was time to act boldly and address the real issue that was on every one's mind.

"Thank you, Mrs. Littledeer. I think I speak for everyone here when I say that we all want Daniel to succeed. However, it's not clear where he can be the most successful. Given his difficulties, we need to determine the least restrictive environment (LRE) for him. Being able to sit and work independently for five minutes is a wonderful accomplishment for Daniel but will it really be enough to ensure his success in a 5th-grade classroom? Does anyone else want to speak to this?" Dorothy asked, knowing who would respond.

"What do you mean by least restrictive environment?" Alma spoke out abruptly. Dorothy knew it was a rhetorical question. She had expected it and because no one else chimed in she continued.

"The least restrictive environment for Daniel is the environment that will not restrict him from developing his abilities to the fullest. Do we really believe that in Daniel's case, a general education class is the place?" Dorothy asked as she looked around the table.

An awkward silence stretched from person to person.

Mrs. Littledeer jumped in, "I do believe that Daniel will be successful here. Things have been going well so far. I am sure they will continue."

"Ms. Barnes has told us of the difficulties she is encountering with Daniel in her class. She is spending much of her time just keeping him on task and his negative outbursts have already escalated even with her support. I know she is willing to keep working with Daniel but I think perhaps he needs more support than she can provide in a class of 30 students." Dorothy knew she had probably said too much, but she felt that her concerns were warranted.

"Why don’t we talk about what supports can be offered to Daniel IN his regular classroom to ensure his success?" Alma countered.

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"That was it? Nobody said anything?" Sara asked incredulously as Dorothy finished describing the meeting.

"The room was silent. The therapists, counselors, and psychologists who had worked with Daniel said nothing. The other principals said nothing. John Blevens said nothing. I couldn't believe it.  No one from the district said a thing except for Julie and me," Dorothy replied. "And he's not even my student!"

"Why do you think everyone shut down like that?" Sara asked as she shook her head. "Do you think they were intimidated because Alma was there?"

"Maybe, I'm not sure." Dorothy responded. "I don't think anyone knew what to say. LRE is just such a emotional issue right now. Some people feel very strongly that the general education class is the right place for everyone, but in Daniel's case, I don’t know. Everyone wants to believe that he is better and what happened in your class won't happen again." "Am I the only one who thinks there's a problem?" Dorothy asked herself.

"How did the meeting end?  I mean, did you actually have to sit there and write his goals by yourself?" Sara asked.

"No, Jim Stevens, the director of Special Education for the district, finally stepped in and suggested that we table the meeting for two weeks to do some additional observations. We've rescheduled again for next Friday to make recommendations and write the IEP." Dorothy answered.

"But then what?" Sara questioned.

"I have no idea," was Dorothy’s reply.

 

Discussion/Study Questions

1.    List what you know about each of the characters in the case.

2.    What do you think is motivating the thoughts and actions of each of the characters?

3.    What are the issues and problems in the case?

Additional Questions

 

1.    Why do you think that the participants at the meeting for Daniel were silent?

2.    What are all the possible options for Daniel's placement? 

3.    What are the ramifications of each placement and what supports would be needed for Daniel in each?

4.    Was the preparation for Daniel's meeting adequate?   What about the timing and leadership?          

5.    What additional information regarding Daniel would you request?

6.    Who should have attended this meeting? 

7.    What steps can be taken to prevent such an occurence?

8.    What different perspectives of least restrictive environment (LRE) are represented in this case?

 

CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major:

Developing individual student programs working in collaboration with team members.

Roles of students, parents, teachers, other school and community personnel in planning a student's individualized program.

Minor:

Models, theories, and philosophies that provide the basis for special education practice.

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.

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