Resolving Special Education Conflicts
Oklahoma's Special Education Resolution Center is a helpful resource for parents and schools.
Despite being identified as an exemplar program by the Office of Special Education Programs, Oklahoma’s Special Education Resolution Center (SERC) is a resource that continues to fall under many parents’ radars.
“Sometimes I think special education is the best kept secret in Oklahoma,” said Program Manager Jo Anne Pool Blades. “People ask me what I do, and when I tell them, they say ‘I didn’t even know that that was an issue.’”
Founded in 2005, the SERC helps parents and school districts settle disputes centered on the Individualized Education Programs (IEP) of disabled students. Specifically, IEPs cover learning needs, school services and progress measurement of students with special needs.
The SERC itself offers several services and programs, including mediation, due process hearing and stakeholder training. Since its inception, the Center’s mission statement has been to help schools and families resolve disputes at the earliest stage possible.
Blades herself often counsels parents in an attempt to understand the nexus of their problems.
“A lot of the time, it’s because somebody doesn’t understand the requirements of education,” she said. “Sometimes it’s because the school has become a brick wall and they’re not listening. Sometimes it’s because the parent is so upset that they don’t know how to communicate what the problem is.”
Indeed, based on Blades’ experiences, there are many instances in which parents are driven by fear. When that becomes apparent, she helps parents express their concerns in more educational terms so that the school has a better understanding of what they are saying. Unless specifically told not to by the parent, the Center always makes contact with the school district.
Parents will often make what Blades calls “positional demands,” the most common of which is “I want a one-on-one paraprofessional for my child.”
“That’s always requested because that’s all parents know about, but they (paraprofessionals) are really there for only the most seriously disabled children,” Blades said. “They believe if someone is sitting there with them and doing their homework, then they’ll get it done in class, but there are other ways for that to be accomplished.”
That being said, the SERC focuses on the interest of the child rather than the positional demands of the parent.
“What we’re doing is looking at solutions,” Blades said. “Why is the child not getting his work done in school? Are there peer buddies that they can work with? Does the teacher need to be watching the child more? We want to know what’s going on because the child will eventually need to learn how to do that.”
Blades often hears from both parents and teachers that a student who doesn’t complete his or her homework is “just lazy.” However, she encourages them to use more direct language such as “the child is not completing assignments,” as it’s all about looking at the child’s behavior and figuring out how it can be modified.
“It could be that they have trouble focusing and it just takes them a bit longer to turn to something new,” Blades said. “They could just be distracted. What’s causing them not to do it?”
According to the manager, children being put on reduced school days is the Center’s No. 1 issue. When children have behavioral issues and the school doesn’t know how else to handle the issue, it will often shorten the student’s school day by as much as several hours.
“We are seeing more and more severe behavior in children where they’ll clear the classroom and throw desks,” Blades said. “These kids are allowed to go to school from only 8 to 11 a.m. because the school says they’re overstimulated for the rest of the day, but that’s not really the case. They need to bring someone in with behavioral knowledge to help the teachers learn how to deal with the child’s behavior.”
Perhaps the most common misconception regarding special education is that these children are not intelligent.
“You can be gifted and still be in special education,” Blades said. “All special education means is that we need to somehow adjust the requirements to give them the ability to show that they’re learning, or to teach them in a little bit of a different way.”
Before the SERC was founded, Blades represented parents as an attorney for 10 years. Although lawsuits and litigation may change things for one child at a time, she said that that line of work fails to change the system itself.
“We’re trying to resolve things before they break down because children benefit when we’re working together,” she said. “The most rewarding thing is helping people come to a place where we can focus on the child and get past whatever anger or issues are keeping us from helping them.”
The SERC is located at 9726 E. 42nd Street, Suite 203. It can be reached via telephone at 918.270.1849.
In the November issue, we will be highlighting the Oklahoma Parents Center, another important resource for families with children who have special needs. The article will also be in TulsaKids’ All Kinds of Kids e-book, available at www.tulsakids.com in October.