The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

Oodles of Trouble

By Frank Gruber

As reported in The Lookout ("Council Withholds School Funding," April 23, 2008) last Tuesday, the Santa Monica City Council looked into the situation regarding special education in the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District. Because of a conflicting engagement I couldn't attend the meeting or watch it live on TV. I had to catch it later in the week by way of the City's streaming video.

By then I had of course read The Lookout's article about the meeting, and I had talked to many people about it. But I still wasn't prepared for the emotion of the meeting that emanated even from the small screen of internet video. I mean it's not often that City Council members cry.

The odd thing was that the meeting started low-key. My suggestion last week that the special ed parents declare victory for now and move onto the next stage of the conflict proved to be irrelevant. Superintendent of Schools Dianne Talarico preempted that by asking the council not to give the District the $530,000 in funding the council has put on hold until she could herself investigate contentions that the District's special education staff had included confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements not at the request of parents, thus violating the District's promise to the City not to do so.

I had heard and read a lot about Council Member Bobby Shriver's questioning of Ms. Talarico, and Mayor Herb Katz's telling her frankly that parents didn't trust the District, but if you watch the video, at least at that stage of the meeting both Mr. Shriver and Mr. Katz come off as trying to be more helpful than confrontational. For her part, Ms. Talarico seemed to accept what they were saying more as the proffering of good advice than as angry admonition.

Mr. Shriver went out of his way to commend Ms. Talarico and the School Board on how they had responded to the Barber report at the board meeting the week before, and Mr. Katz concluded his initial remarks by expressing his appreciation to Ms. Talarico for volunteering to investigate the charges of coercion over the confidentiality clauses before asking the council to release the $530,000.

When Ms. Talarico made her unfortunate -- and what has become emblematic -- comment that she might not stay to hear the public testimony of parents, because she had "oodles of work" to do, she hardly said it in a confrontational way. At that moment none of the council members reacted to it, and she concluded her remarks by thanking -- with a smile -- the council members for their "insightful questions."

The emotions ratcheted up with the public hearing and climaxed with City Council Member Pam O'Connor's tears. What struck me, however, is that the emotions the special ed parents displayed, and those they have displayed at other meetings, are relatively tame compared to what the council and other boards and commissions see routinely.

The parents are fearful that people will think they are "crazy," and representatives and supporters of the District sometimes try to justify District policies on the grounds that some of the parents are, but I've seen much more anger, hysteria, tears, and passion expressed at meetings of the City Council or the Planning Commission over zoning rules and variances.

The juxtaposition was on display last Tuesday, when the two big items on the council's agenda were the school funding issue and whether to approve (as I briefly discussed last week) a non-traditionally designed addition to a building in the back of 2617 Third Street in the Third Street Historic District.

I've attended a couple of meetings of the Landmarks Commission about the project, and at those meetings I saw more tears and emotion, including anger towards the commission, from people concerned with the look and feel of their neighborhood, than I've ever seen, in the aggregate certainly, from parents with real concerns about their beloved children.

About 60 members of the public addressed the council last week about 2617 Third -- passionate people on both sides of the issue. No one calls them crazy or suggests resolving the issue with a private settlement agreement. (The council, by the way, postponed deciding the issue until its next meeting.)

In a sense, this narrative about the emotional special ed parents is just another illustration of the lack of reality that pervades the school district when it comes to dealing with people. There is this sense that school district affairs are somehow above politics, and so there is no place for the usual passions that rule politics. Any criticism of the board or the district is perceived as mortal.

One good deed the council members and city staff could do for their counterparts on the School Board and at district headquarters is to tell them that it's okay to be yelled at by constituents, and that in response they don't need either to (i) go into denial or (ii) devise new bureaucracies or bureaucratic policies that just make things worse. Just deal with the situation and don't be cute about it.

The best way to do this, it seems, would be to develop programs either in-District or in collaboration with the two districts, Beverly Hills and Culver City, that we are supposed to coordinate our special education programs with, that are good enough so that either (i) they will be accepted by parents without going to arbitration or court, or (ii), if not, they will nonetheless withstand challenge in a due process proceeding.

Having now expressed my support for the parents and their emotions, I'm going to venture into the territory of those who sometimes express the view that parents, if not "crazy," don't always know best.

I started thinking about this after the school board meeting April 17 on the Lou Barber report and Ms. Talarico's draft response to it. One parent, Kenneth Haker, chair of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, read an email that a special education math teacher sent to the mother of a special needs child.

The email was an angry response to a parent regarding a course of action for the child; the email contained the teacher's defense of the program the teacher had been following and the child's progress (the teacher said "she was really showing improvement"), said that the teacher thought that what the mother was asking for would not be good for the child, and concluded with a statement that the teacher was a professional and that the mother was not trained to be making these decisions, and that the teacher was "done with" the mother's "negativity."

Mr. Haker read the letter as an example of the abuse that parents take from the District. I'll admit that I don't know the facts that preceded the email, but sitting there in the audience I thought I heard something else. No doubt the tone of the letter was emotional (there's that word again), but I also heard the voice of someone who cared about the job he or she was doing and had pride in his or her training.

When I think of bad teachers, I think of indifference, not an excess of passion.

This brought me back to a conversation I had right after the Barber report came out with Mike, an old friend of mine who teaches, with three aides, a class of nine autistic teenagers in an L.A. Unified special education school in a not affluent area. None of the students in the class can speak, although they all have some response to speech; the range of their intellectual development runs from 24 months to five years. Mike would normally have only one aide, but two of the students have behavior issues that require them to have individual aides of their own.

Mike teaches the kids survival signs -- such as walk/don't walk, male/female for bathrooms -- in case they ever get separated from caregivers. Mike told me that L.A. Unified has classes at nearly every one of its high schools for more developmentally advanced autistic children.

Readers are going to have to take my word for it that Mike is a good guy, because some of you aren't going to like what he told me.

After I told Mike about the Barber report, he recounted that when he became a special education teacher a few years ago, the veterans told him that to keep from going crazy (there's that word again), one would do well to avoid teaching the severely developmentally impaired children of rich people and, especially, avoid the Westside.

As Mike explained it, working class parents of severely impaired children realize that life is sometimes tragic, and they had two simple demands of special ed teachers: that they love their children and treat them right, and that they respect the parents. (In turn, Mike told me that good special ed teachers had two rules for dealing with parents -- seek the maximum information from them, and never "wag your finger" at them.)

Mike said that most upper middle class parents of severely developmentally impaired children weren't that different, but that a certain percentage -- small, maybe only one or two out of ten -- of them will not accept the reality that faces their children and as result keep searching for a "cure" when there isn't one. (Or as Mike said, summarizing current research, when there isn't much that can be done after early childhood.)

These parents, he said, could make a teacher miserable.

Before people get mad and before my old friends Irene and Sam Zivi write another angry letter to the editor ("A Thoughtless Cheap Shot," May 31, 2007), let me say two things. First, I'll confess that if my son Henry were developmentally impaired, I would probably be in the group of miracle seekers. I've been obsessed with every aspect of Henry's development as a "typical" child, and I doubt I would have been philosophical about any disability he might have had.

Second, Mike wasn't saying that he admired working class people for their acceptance of tragedy. Mike is an old leftie, and doesn't see any virtue in working class people accepting their lots in life. He's happy that wealthier people have enough empowerment to complain. It's just that he doesn't see those complaints as necessarily helping him or his colleagues do their jobs.

So what's my point? It's not that some parents are irrational and we can't do anything about that, so let's try to ignore them or dismiss them and plod along as we have been doing.

Nor is it that parents should stop advocating for their children because of course the educators know what's best.

What I've observed since starting about a year ago to learn something about special education in the context of the District's long history of not getting it right is that everyone is afraid of emotion when they should hardly expect the situation to be unemotional.

And I mean we need to expect emotion from the adults on both sides of a special needs child -- from both parents and educators.

There are not infinite resources and there are not infinite possibilities; there is, however, or should be, infinite love.

Perhaps it's paradoxical, but to acknowledge that emotion is always going to be present -- notwithstanding lawyers and settlement agreements -- might be one step towards achieving rational solutions that people can agree on.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.
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