‘Catch Me If You Can,’ Part 7
Over a decade ago, attorneys representing the small boy abused in the Preschooler II case suggested to the Clark County School District a way it could prevent similar problems in the future.
If cameras were installed in the classrooms where nonverbal autistic kids were being taught, they said, physical assaults on them by district employees would be much less likely to occur.
Also, when misconduct was alleged, administrators could get to the truth of the matter much more quickly.
Cameras would not only protect the youngsters, went the argument, they would also protect district employees from unfounded accusations.
The proposal had been made as one of the equitable remedies that attorneys for four-year-old Bobby had suggested during settlement talks. Although afflicted with Tuberous Sclerosis, the four-year-old preschooler had been physically assaulted, first by an aide, and then multiple times by the teacher.
But CCSD, for some reason, was extremely hostile to the idea.
“We’ll go to the Supreme Court over that. We’d rather pay a lot of money, but cameras will never happen,” said the district’s people.
That’s how Marianne Lanuti — one of the boy’s attorneys at the time — today remembers CCSD’s response.
She recounted it September 17 when speaking to an advocacy conference sponsored in Las Vegas by Azulblue United by Autism and attended by some 120 concerned parents and advocates.
Azulblue was founded by Olivia Espinoza, mother of a boy subjected to both physical and verbal abuse by teacher James Doran during the 2014-15 school year.
Although untrained and unlicensed as a special-ed teacher, Doran had been placed by CCSD in control of an autism classroom at Forbuss Elementary School. Previous installments in this series have reported on the abuse and subsequent lawsuits against CCSD and Doran.
Lanuti is again seeking passage of legislation, during the upcoming 2019 Nevada Legislature, to put cameras in classrooms where more than half of the students have speech and language delays that make them unable to communicate effectively.
Only classrooms receiving special education for at least 50 percent of the instructional day would be involved.
In 2015, the State of Texas passed such a law, and then amended it in 2017.
During Nevada’s 2017 session, similar legislation — Senate Bill 224 — was introduced by Senator Becky Harris, a Republican representing Clark County. With Democrats controlling both houses of the legislature, the bill failed to pass out of either chamber, although no one spoke on the record in opposition to the legislation.
Indeed, the Clark County Education Association teacher union went on record in support of the legislation.
But while CCSD did also, three statewide organizations over which the district has significant leverage — the Nevada Association of School Administrators, the Nevada Association of School Superintendents and the Nevada Association of School Boards — all spoke negatively about the idea, couching their opposition in fiscal terms while presenting themselves as “neutral.”
That was also the tact taken by the Washoe County School District, which has its own ample history of lawsuits from special-needs parents.
Consequently, some parents now doubt CCSD’s backing for the idea in 2017 was genuine, but see it instead as mere public relations.
That’s also the suspicion of some other longtime close observers of CCSD’s special-ed scene.
“Never in a thousand years” would the district go for that idea, said one advocate who’s worked closely — and harmoniously — with CCSD’s special-ed division.
So Lanuti, who has been pressing since 2004 for cameras in nonverbal kids’ classrooms, was at the Azulblue event to collect both petition signatures and parent activists — people who will corner lawmakers and get firm commitments from them that the 2019 session will finally give a voice to the voiceless and put cameras in the classrooms of nonverbal children.
If Lanuti succeeds in her campaign, public-school special education could, indeed, be in for a revolution — one that completely upends the default business plan long followed by CCSD and most big school districts around the U.S.
As noted by the federal independent monitor appointed over the Los Angeles Unified School District, David Vetter, that default business plan is for districts to routinely ignore violations of federal education law until the district is sued by parents, and then litigate as long as possible.
The revolution resulting from classroom cameras, however, would be that virtually all assaults of teachers and aides against nonverbal students in closed classrooms would now be subject to review by police and public prosecutors.
Currently, it is unknown to what extent misconduct by teachers and aides has become routine against nonverbal children in CCSD’s “self-contained” classrooms.
Enough lawsuits have illuminated the situation, however, to establish that the problem is significant.
Indeed, as this series has documented, CCSD adults in special-ed too often model and thus effectively teach misbehaviors — by hitting, pulling hair, grabbing, slamming, using vicious language, etc. — right in front of their charges.
Teachers and aides of this sort clearly have reason to fear cameras in the classroom — as do the district’s central-office brass, given the fact that the videotapes could constitute legal evidence before courts of law.
Until now, throughout the history of public-school special-ed in Nevada, such solid forensic evidence has only rarely been available to parents.
The ‘best practices’ deception
There is also the likelihood that cameras would, over time, lead to a much wider public understanding of the basic inadequacy of much of the alleged “teaching” being conducted in autism classrooms.
As State Review Officer Joyce Eckrem found in the Preschooler II case — following an extensive review of the record and detailed questioning of CCSD witnesses — the district’s claims to be conducting special education according to “best practices” were false:
… testimony and a preponderance of the evidence as a whole establishes that contrary to CCSD’s own purported “best practices” for the KIDS Program, this classroom failed in implementing “best practices” related to addressing Student’s behaviors that impeded learning…. There is little if any evidence on the record that staff members intervened consistently when addressing Student’s behaviors of throwing, spinning, hitting, pinching and biting…
There was simply no evidence that Teacher, as the leader of the team, would state to the team: OK, today we’re going to target Student’s hitting behavior. We have activities x, y, and z where we will specifically watch for hitting. If it occurs, whoever is working with Student should do a, b, or c.”
…the LIFE consultant testified to her observations of the classroom. She observed that Student would frequently wander off and had to be redirected, but as soon as staff were otherwise engaged, he would wander off again. She also testified that he needed constant redirection during periods of transition. She testified to observing an incident where Student was directed to playing with cars, but instead of appropriately playing with the car he was allowed to sit and “spin the wheels,” which she observed was a maladaptive “self-stimulatory” behavior.
Mother testified as to being confused over why, when “spinning” was identified as a maladaptive self-stimulatory behavior, the staff used it as a reinforcer….
The SRO finds that contrary to CCSD’s own stated principles of “best practice”, CCSD failed to establish that Student’s behavioral interventions were implemented in a consistent fashion where all adult members of the team knew what was expected of them vis-a-vis Student’s specific maladaptive behaviors….
… While CCSD proved that the KIDS Program as conceptualized could have met Student’s needs without further specificity in the IEP, CCSD failed to prove that the KIDS classroom to which Student was assigned followed the principles upon which the KIDS Program was based and failed to prove that, as implemented, it addressed Student’s unique behavioral needs. Further, CCSD failed to prove that with respect to his specific maladaptive behaviors Student made meaningful progress…. (Emphasis added.)
The KIDS Program depended upon consistency and good communication among staff members working with Student. It was not established that this occurred. Had NAC [the Nevada Administrative Code] been followed, at a minimum there would have been team agreement about what methods to use consistently with Student to address these maladaptive behaviors and to increase adaptive ones. The SRO thus concludes that the failure to follow the requirements of NAC 388.284 resulted in a loss of educational opportunity for Student…
The evidence establishes that as late as September, 2003, Student still exhibited the targeted maladaptive behaviors. Therefore, the SRO concludes that Student was denied FAPE as to his behavioral issues for the entire 2002/2003 school year.
Maladaptive behaviors like Preschooler’s in the early 2000s are still common throughout public education’s special-ed classrooms — obstructing instruction not only for these “triggered” students themselves, but also for the other children in these closed classroom, whose issues may not be as severe.
As the then-Nevada-state senator, Becky Harris, told Mark Keierleber, a reporter for The74million website, in 2017,
I do regularly hear from teachers that children throw things at other children, that sometimes children throw a temper tantrum and throw themselves on the floor, against a desk, or a chair, and mark themselves, and there’s no way to document what has happened.
It’s certainly true that special-education teachers in Nevada’s closed public-school classrooms operate under extremely challenging conditions. Unfortunately, although nearly always genuinely caring and motivated, they — like their charges — are frequently victimized by the secrecy effectively imposed by CCSD and other districts.
Cameras recording classrooms would almost certainly alert parents to the realities within what is often presented to them as the best-available “educational” solution to their children’s special needs.
School districts could benefit from their now-enhanced ability to identify areas of need and to develop corrective plans and training.
Master-level special-ed teachers, for example, could more effectively train new entrants into the profession. They could also ensure that members of a child’s IEP team are actually following the team’s agreed-upon IEP plan — which, in practice, frequently is ignored.
Over time, cameras could also produce much broader public understanding of that extremely serious instructional gap identified by State Review Officer Eckrem — the difference between the education that districts promise families with autistic children and what is actually provided.
The sensory overload
In the years since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — initially known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) — was drafted in the early 1970s, neuroscience has learned much about the human brain that is highly relevant to the phenomenon of autism.
And within that knowledge are many insights suggesting that the conventional responses provided by school districts under the federal-state IDEA regime are clearly suboptimal — as well as penny wise and pound foolish.
One example: While signs and symptoms of autism can begin surfacing as early as six months, the symptoms are usually distinctly present by18 months. Even then, the remarkable early plasticity of the infant brain can allow, in many cases, intensive treatment to effectively rewire the brain and reverse the symptoms.
In 2009, Pediatrics magazine reported on a randomized controlled study of autistic toddlers 18-to-30 months old that in fact accomplished this. The early intervention — with fun, child-directed activities — dramatically improved both IQ and social functioning.
Notes psychiatrist Perry:
The results were so strong that seven of the 24 children given the intervention (known as the Early Start Denver Model) did not receive an autism diagnosis when evaluated by psychologists who did not know whether they’d been treated or not — compared to just one child out of 21 in the control group.
Thus, it would not be an outlandish argument to suggest that many of the autism-spectrum “meltdowns” that occur in public schools’ closed classrooms can be seen as symptoms of the absence, for these children, of the sort of early transformational interventions that could have led them out of their intense-world wilderness.
Under IDEA, of course, such services are not available until age three — if then.
Consequently, most autistic youngsters are under constant physiological stressors, according to some of the most important recent research. Living within the unique, “intense world” they do, meltdowns and aggressive actions can, unfortunately, become their communication “path” of least resistance.
This is especially the case when they find themselves confined within classrooms controlled by uncomprehending and untrained adults — as lawsuits show is frequently the case.
‘Meltdowns’ & physical restraint
So much remains unknown regarding the causes and phenomena of autism that the emergency situations known as “meltdowns” still occur.
Someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioral control. While this loss of control can be expressed verbally — shouting, screaming or crying — it can also become physical — kicking, lashing out or biting.
In such circumstances, emergency situations can arise that do, indeed, require even the most compassionate teachers to physically restrain individual children.
Given Nevada’s aversive-intervention law and regulatory regime, these occurrences necessarily trigger a certain level of fear within teachers.
Under the law, both they and their local supervisors must promptly complete multi-part reports on the incidents and forward them to higher-ups at both district and state levels.
This presents a window of vulnerability for the teacher — especially so if he or she has been more of an advocate for the children than a “team player” for budget-conscious administrators.
Now, should her administrator “forget” to check the little box that says the restraint was “permissible,” she can easily find herself on the road toward unemployment.
As one experienced and admired professional — who had faced that very situation — told Nevada Journal: “I will never ever again work in a classroom without cameras!”
Consequently, professional and responsible special-ed teachers may well be most inclined to welcome cameras in their classrooms: “Going to the tape” would bear them out if they’re accused of misconduct with students.
Alternatively, widespread hostility to the idea within Nevada’s special-ed classrooms will certainly raise questions about what is actually going on there.
In Part Eight, Nevada Journal identifies the broader problem behind the federal with Disabilities Education Act and shows the solution that other states have found.