Are Sped Teachers Being Wells Fargoed? How Special Education Resembles the Wells Fargo Scandal

We trust the teller behind the counter. We have faith that the money we slip into the ATM machine will make it into our account so the check will clear. Those that handle our funds have a fiduciary duty to properly handle our hard-earned money, right?   Recently our faith was shaken.

In order to keep their $12 per hour jobs, low level Wells Fargo employees opened fraudulent bank and credit card accounts in their customers’ names. This came about because top executives pushed managers to pressure their staff to open more accounts per customer. Wells Fargo customers went from an average of three types of accounts to an average of eight. Many workers, fearing for their livelihood, and unable to convince enough customers to meet their sales quotas, opened the accounts without the customers’ knowledge. Hundreds of thousands of customers paid fees for accounts they didn’t even know they had. Pretty despicable.

Matt Levine, a Bloomberg News reporter, investigated and found that employees had three choices:

“1. Open fake accounts to meet sales goals: Maybe get fired.

2.  Don’t open fake accounts, miss sales goals: Probably get fired.

3. Tell executives about all the fake accounts: Definitely get fired really fast.”

Those workers all lost their jobs anyway – and they certainly deserved to. 5300 people in all. Very few of them were in management. None of the top executives were touched. In fact, they all made millions extra because the stock value rose with every new account. The CEO, John Stumpf, blamed the workers. It was entirely their fault. But was it really?

The special education teachers in my district, and districts all over the country, are under incredible pressure to prevent, reduce or eliminate services for disabled students who typically make up 15% of the student population. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, was revised in 2004 to be more inclusive. Several court cases have made it clear that students with severe ADHD, and those with autism, should likely qualify for services – two disabilities that are increasingly diagnosed. School districts have never had enough money to provide all that was needed before the incredible rise in disability rates – which would now really be about 20%. Since they simply can’t make special education work they way it should, they’ve become gatekeepers, corner-cutters, and frauds. Not all of them, just those that can’t take the retribution they’ll receive if they don’t.

The parents of disabled students, whose lives are already extra stressful, rely on state and federal laws, and caring professionals, to ensure their students receive proper services. When they realize that their child still can’t really read, add, behave, etc, they know they’re going to have to gird their loins and do battle with their school district’s special education (the combined slang term is sped) staff again.

They don’t have the extra time, money, and energy to take on an entire school district. The state complaint process is onerous and non-supportive. Eventually, they give up on what they think is really best, and accept what they can get. Unless they can afford a lawyer, they are stuck. Parents who live in poor, rural areas like mine are especially vulnerable because the district administrators know they have the advantage. If I notice that a sped student is getting plenty of support, I know that a close relative is a lawyer or school official.

I know the sped story in my local school district best. I also know, because I participate in online forums, that my district is typical. Our special education director, hired three years ago, came to the rescue. We had a sped load of 25% – which was killing our district. The additional high cost of providing so much service came out of the general education fund – and our poor rural district couldn’t afford it. She came with very little experience, far less than any other member on her staff, but she must have said she the magic words at the interview: “I can fix your special education encroachment!” She pushes her staff to cut sped services by any means necessary. At first I thought she was a Godsend. But it didn’t take long to decide that she may have been sent from the opposite direction.

Occasionally, a parent is savvy enough to file a complaint. She has a patented system for dealing with them – she throws her staff right under the bus. You should see her in action. She puts John Stumpf to shame. She’s the darling of the district bean-counters.

There’s no one to stop her. The regular education teachers have all bought into a myth. They are told that the less money taken out of the general fund, the better for the majority of the students – and the possibility of a raise sweetens the pot. Not only are they penny-wise and pound-foolish, but they don’t realize that they have been tricked into picking up the slack.

On one hand, it’s discrimination, pure and simple to deny a proper education to 20% of our students. Disabled students can’t access their education. They’re stuck. They become frustrated, angry, depressed, anxious and more. In short, they become the students that no teacher wants. They end up in our district’s alternative education programs, which by the way, are also super expensive to run (50% more) – but they are still far less expensive than sped services which are double the cost of educating a non-disabled student – typically $20,000 v $10,000 a year.

But, without the sped support they need, the students still can’t succeed. It’s a pure waste. We are just warehousing them. When they graduate, or more commonly, drop out, they are unable to be contributing citizens. Our community has to pay for their incarcerations, welfare, HUD housing, and stints in rehab. Although everyone must take personal responsibility for their lives, we need to ask: who really creates this constant drain on our community resources?

As services dwindle, more disabled students spend all their time in the regular education class without support, and less time receiving the Specialized Academic Instruction (SAI) that they desperately need to succeed. Even without the proper credentials or training, regular education teachers have become the de facto special education teachers. They have five or more sped students in their class of 35 taking up 90% of their time – and there’s a huge untold cost to this approach. I’ll explain.

It’s incredibly stressful to be expected to do a job you’ve never been trained to do on top of your regular full time profession. So why haven’t teachers rebelled? Because the water in the pot has slowly become warmer and warmer, and the kind-hearted, hard-working teachers are poached before they realize. Some have noticed and are jumping out of the pot, hearts broken, leaving the profession in droves before the stress kills them. The ones that don’t jump, hang on for dear life and pray that things will change. Or they stop caring and just go through the motions. Meanwhile very few students, disabled and non-disabled alike, are receiving a proper education. Ironically, it’s the new equalizer.

Who are the minions that connive at the ground level to rob sped students of their education? Why it’s the special education staff! The very people we trust to serve our most vulnerable. And they don’t even realize what they are doing. They are also duped.

They used to put their students first, and really advocate for what they needed. But for the last three years, I’ve watched them slowly turn into zombies who will say and do anything to cut services. Even our school psychologists, who in particular have a legal obligation, the very ones who evaluate our students for special education services, are on board. Because, if they aren’t, their professional lives become a living hell.

Special education professionals have massive amounts of paperwork, and huge caseloads – but they accept it as part of the profession, and they’ve never given it much thought – until recently. As one long-time sped professional told me, “All they have to do to get rid of any sped teacher who speaks up and defies the cuts, is to consistently audit their paperwork and constantly track the caseload. They will always find irregularities. Then they write you up.” Some have been written up for missing paperwork they know they had in place. It magically disappeared. Meanwhile, the ones who go along to get along, are praised, rewarded, and respected.

All over America, those that still care don’t get fired; instead they are hounded out.   They retire before they have a decent pension, or find themselves taking real estate classes.   Their professional record is loaded with incidents that prevent further sped employment, which doesn’t matter anyway, because their professional confidence has been shattered.

In our district, it only took the bullying of a few. Their colleagues got the message. They all have mortgages, children, and community roots. They just can’t go there. They fool themselves into thinking it isn’t so bad.

You probably think I’m exaggerating. Here is an abridged version of the narrative I attached to a recent complaint to the State Special Education Division. I wrote it when we were only five weeks into the new school year. Every word is true except the names:

Dear Special Education Division,

I am the new high school teacher for Ponderosa Home School, the independent study program for Ponderosa Unified School District. This is my 15th year with the District. I replaced a teacher who retired. The administrator is Frank Gray, the Alternative Education Director. This is his first year in that position, but his 7th year with our district. School began on August 15.

Joe Jones, the resource teacher for the district’s alternative education programs, didn’t invite me to an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting that he attempted to hold on 8-25-16 for a disabled student on my roll. I am the student’s only regular education teacher, and a mandatory member of the team. I believe it was because I refused to give the 17 year-old senior student below-grade-level independent study assignments and I also fully expected that we would consider services for escalated behavior and health issues at the annual IEP. My expectations would have added additional cost to his services.

The lack of invitation was just one of many legally mandated procedural violations. In my opinion, these deliberate missteps will prevent my student from receiving a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Mr. Jones is a long-time district special education professional. He’s been with the district for about 20 years. I have always admired him. I’ve worked with him in the past and he was always excellent – and I am not easy to please.

Either Mr. Jones decided not to invite me on his own, or it was at the request of the student’s mother. She initially requested the non-approved curriculum. It also may have been an administrative decision. I really don’t know.

The student had received non-approved, below-grade-level curriculum the previous year from the teacher who retired. I specifically discussed this with Joe. We agreed – or so I thought –that my student didn’t need them. According to Joe, there was no mention of curriculum modifications in his IEP. As far as I could tell, he had a right to receive the same curriculum as every other PUSD high school student. He is their peer. To treat him differently by teaching him less is discriminatory.

It wasn’t a surprise that his mother expected me to continue with the same curriculum – but I had hoped that Joe had already relayed our conversation. She made the request on 8-21-16 when she came to return paperwork.

She caught me as I unlocked the door – not yet fully awake and thinking of what I needed to do right away to get ready for a long day. At first I told her I really couldn’t, and carefully tried to explain, but she began to get upset and argued that the easy work was necessary. She said that it couldn’t really matter that it wasn’t specified in the IEP because he’d received the easy curriculum before and it hadn’t been an issue.

I certainly understood her point of view. This was frustrating. I was the bad guy. To her, this wasn’t about his civil rights; it was just more red tape. Her life was difficult enough. I doubt she realized that our district was responsible to provide whatever support was necessary for him to access the grade level curriculum. I didn’t feel that she would believe me, the regular education teacher she barely knew, when the sped teacher she trusted for years had obviously never said a word about it. “Now,” I thought, “is not the time to discuss who is responsible for this or that.”

I told her that since we were having trouble agreeing, we should check with the sped professional, Mr. Jones. I suggested that we talk to Joe right away, and if he agreed with her, we could then see about adding an amendment until we held the annual IEP. As long as there was some sort of permission in place, I’d be happy to grant her request.

Since I hadn’t yet read her son’s sped file, I was only going with what I’d been told. Maybe I’d misunderstood. Maybe he was one of the 1% who qualified for modified curriculum. Maybe she was right and I was wrong. I hoped so. It would be much easier for both of us.

She then added that her son needed home visits in order to participate in our independent study program due to a new health issue. We had previously agreed to have him participate by video conference due to his agoraphobia. This was such a huge accommodation request that I really wanted to go with her to Joe’s room straight-away. But just then my first appointment arrived, so I couldn’t.

Joe and I arranged to meet later that day so that I could read the student’s sped file. I read every word and asked Joe many questions, which he generously took the time to answer completely. I was in his room for about an hour and a half. It was a pleasant, very professional experience – as it had always been with Joe in the past.

We discussed the new health information the father had disclosed when he met with me on 8-18-16 to sign forms and pick up work for his son. The father told me that his son had become so distraught when they attempted to bring him to a previously arranged school meeting on 8-16, that it triggered a serious seizure – one that required an ambulance trip and hospitalization. He was still so debilitated from the event that he was unable to come to school or participate by video. The father expressed concern that it could happen again. At the time I thought, “That’s a mighty big behavior and health issue. I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Joe and I also thoroughly discussed the student’s ability to do grade level assignments. The information in the sped file made it seem borderline to me, but Joe told me that although the student’s IQ was below average, and despite his autistic-like behaviors, he did not qualify for any accommodations or modifications to the District’s curriculum. I knew this was an important issue because of the 2015 “Dear Colleague Letter” sent by OSERS to every school district. It reminded them that disabled students must receive the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers. Once Joe declared him ineligible for modified curriculum, we were both bound to the letter of the law.

I specifically asked Joe if this student would be able to do grade-level work independently with only 15 minutes of Specialized Academic Instruction from him per week, as was specified in his IEP. He assured me that my student, whom I had still not met, did have the ability to do so, which was very reassuring. I left his room with the firm understanding that I was to give the student the same curriculum as was given to all other senior students in the district. I was confident that Joe and I were in agreement and that he would back me up.

I assumed that I would get the usual Google Calendar invitation to his upcoming annual IEP, which was our district’s standard system for accepting or declining meetings. A phone call, regular email, or verbal invitation, although irregular, would have worked for me too.

On 8-24-16, without warning, Joe came into my classroom while I was working with three students and wanted to discuss our sped student right then and there.

I was concerned about confidentiality, but he told me his message was simple: give the student the below-grade-level curriculum the mother had requested. He said, “I’m not asking; I’m directing you to do it,” which was completely inappropriate. I made my confusion and reluctance quite clear. It wasn’t going to be so simple after all.

We moved to the copier nook in my classroom. I couldn’t leave my two ADHD students to go outside. He became increasingly distressed and angry. He told me that I was to comply, period. He said that since the student had been given easy curriculum before, it was okay to continue – which sounded exactly like the argument the mother had made- but it violated the IDEA, and I knew that he knew it.

He said that the student was “severely disabled” (which didn’t match our previous conversation) and would never be able to hold a job, so it didn’t matter what we gave him (which made me question his transition services) – and that we must give him whatever would enable him to complete high school quickly because he was “expensive” and nearly 18. I was completely appalled, but finally did agreed – but only because I wanted this overly angry, completely inappropriate professional out of my classroom. I couldn’t believe this person was Joe.

As soon as my last student left, I sent Joe an email that summarized our impromptu meeting, warts and all. I also made it clear that I was not willing to jeopardize my position, or my student’s civil rights by breaking the law – and that our district would just have to step up and help him through grade-level curriculum.

As I drove home, I wondered if Joe’s demands, which were so off-base, came from a higher source. That seemed to be the only way it made any sense. Maybe that was why he seemed so frustrated and angry.

The next morning, I uncharacteristically stopped by the office. I normally park near my classroom at the back of the campus, and go straight in.

I noticed the student’s parents waiting there and discovered that they were about to hold an IEP meeting without me.  I am the student’s only reg ed teacher, so I guess they were planning to have the parents sign an excusal notice. I have witnessed the signing of these notices as a last minute fix at district IEP meetings in the past. I’d certainly never requested to be excused and hadn’t submitted my required information in advance.

I told the parents that my attendance was required, but explained that I wasn’t prepared for the meeting, and would have to go to my room and make arrangements for my student who was due to arrive for her appointment at any moment. Although upset, I was willing to go through with the meeting because I didn’t want to inconvenience the parents.

Joe insisted that I had been properly invited – which made it appear to the parents that I just hadn’t cared enough to remember – and now I was making them wait.

When I returned, Joe handed me a pre-made IEP that didn’t say “draft” anywhere on it – and it didn’t address the new serious developments in our student’s behavior and health – the same issues that I’d spent an hour and a half discussing with him previously.  When I mentioned it, he yelled at me in front of the parents.

The student’s mother got up, declared that she didn’t want me to be her son’s teacher anymore, and that the meeting was over. I asked the school psychologist to explain to the parents that we’d just have to go through this again. The other independent study teacher was already full, so until their son could be transferred to another program – which could only happen with an IEP team consensus – I would remain his teacher and a mandatory team member.

She told me that once a parent declares that the meeting is over, absolutely nothing more can be said – which isn’t a law that I can recall. The meeting might be over, but people are still allowed to talk to each other. Someone needed to step up and try to diffuse the situation.

I sent Joe an email to document the lack of IEP meeting invitation. He forwarded a series of emails that he considered to be proof that I’d been invited. Instead, they clearly showed that I’d been cut out of the email chain – which I clarified to him in my reply. He sent back an apology for the “misunderstanding.”

For the next several days, I constantly checked to see if the student was still on my roll, which he was. I sent my principal an email to let him know that the student had missed another independent study appointment. I asked if I should be the one to call the parents, as is required by district policy whenever a student misses a meeting. Mr. Gray told me that I was not to contact the family for any reason. He promised to let me know about any developments concerning my student.

As the days went by, I was beginning to hope that it would all blow over, and we would figure out a way for my student to attend school. I thought that if the parents were serious, Mr. Gray would figure out a way to shift my student to another teacher within the program – maybe work out a trade. It was very concerning; the longer he stayed away, the more lack of FAPE. He’d already missed a month of school.

Despite the promise from Mr. Gray, I didn’t hear anything about my student for two weeks – and then it was only by chance. The District’s new behavior specialist was being shown around the campus by our counselor, James Pell. I told them I could use their help with a student whose behaviors prevented him from attending our once-a-week independent study meetings, even by video conference.

Mr. Pell said something like, “I know who you’re talking about. We have an IEP scheduled for him on the 22nd.” I told him that I hadn’t been invited. He pulled out his phone and verified that I was not on the list. I went straight to Joe’s room.

Joe was alone, so I asked for an explanation. He told me that the student had been transferred to the continuation high school. I reminded Joe that the student’s placement could not be changed without an IEP team consensus – but he knew that.   He told me that he was not the one who’d done the transfer. He then told me to leave.

I checked my computer data. Sure enough, he was listed as “Withdrawn.” Someone, most likely Frank Gray, transferred the student to Big Trees High School without holding a placement IEP. Mr. Gray’s been a district administrator for the last 6 years, so I honestly can’t believe he wouldn’t know better.  Someone, most likely Joe, then set up a new IEP meeting and didn’t invite me (again).

When I pointed out the lack of compliance in an email to Claudia Jenks, the special education director, she agreed that my student probably shouldn’t have been transferred and told me that the student would be returned to my roll (which he was). She thanked me for informing her.

In the same email, she also told me that the parents refused to attend an IEP if I was there, so they would be signing an excusal form. Therefore, I would not be invited. Once again, as I often feel I should just in case she really doesn’t know, I sent her an email that cited federal law and explained the regular education teacher’s required contributions to the IEP process. They can’t be signed away.

I honestly don’t know if Ms. Jenks still doesn’t understand the IDEA requirements – she’s been our sped director for the last three years – or if she just doesn’t care that they exist.

It seems obvious that our sped department has no intention of giving my student his FAPE.  According to Joe, his problems are severe and expensive. I guess that disqualifies him. I’ve certainly seen it before, but no matter how many times it happens, it doesn’t make it acceptable. This one I just couldn’t let go by.

Today, 9-18-16, my administrator informed me that he’d received an email which I presume came from Ms. Jenks. It said that my student had now been legally transferred to Big Trees High School. I only have his word for it because no one sent me anything in writing.

Perhaps the parents pulled him out of Special Education. It would be the only legal way to make the transfer. If so, I feel that our special education staff purposely made their program so frustrating by never explaining their behavior, nor offering the student what he really needed, that they finally gave up.

Within the first six weeks of school, I’ve seen several sped laws, ED Code, and personal rights trampled, by various people who are supposed to care, with no indication that anyone else considers it to be a problem.

It’s just too flagrant to ignore. It has to stop. Something has to change. My community deserves better.


Maribee Appletree

As it turns out, the parents did withdraw him from special education services. It’s heartbreaking. The director used my refusal to step aside as a tool to convince them to leave. She used me to get exactly what she wanted all along. I’ll never know what she or Joe told them I might do or say at an IEP meeting. They have no idea that I really care about their son. I’m not allowed to contact them to even say I’m sorry.

Maybe my complaint will help. Maybe the State will straighten it all out, and the young man will get a good private placement that our district will pay for.

But who am I kidding?! The State will toss my complaint as soon as they learn his parents pulled him out. They want to cut their disabled services budget too. We have the fox guarding the hen house. I’ve filed complaints before. They are a lot of work, cause me a lot of professional grief, and make very little difference.

However, they won’t be tossing this complaint, because I didn’t mail it. If I do, Joe will take the blame. He would deserve most of it. He agreed with me, but illegally cut me out of the process when it became clear that my advocacy would add additional costs to the district. Without the easy curriculum, the student’s SAI time would certainly need to be increased. I clearly expected his behaviors to be properly addressed. A Functional Behavior Analysis seemed appropriate. He knew I’d bring these issues up at the IEP. Far worse, I’d probably say something like, “Joe and I agree that …” He would be in hot water up to his eyebrows for agreeing with anyone that the student needed additional expensive services.

How can it possibly be okay for a sped professional to shirk his fiduciary duty? Why didn’t he draw a line in the sand and stand up for this student?

Because he did that three years ago, and his life was completely derailed. He was the first to try to protect his students’ rights from the new sped director’s cuts. She made an example out of him that no one will ever forget. He was assigned to work under the direct supervision of a person he mentored a few years before. She checked and questioned everything he did – just as she was directed to do by the sped director. He suffered a heart attack and had major surgery. His wife left him and he lost his home. He’s a shadow; not the real Joe.

Do I further sink Joe, a person who gave faithful service to sped students for 17 years – with only a slim chance of helping a student I’ve never met?

Or do I rage against the machine in the hope of saving a student who has no voice? It isn’t Sophie’s Choice, but lives could be changed.

The Wells Fargo scandal has put bank oversight back in the spotlight. The bank had to pay back customers, pay large fines, and sweat under senate scrutiny. But so far, none of the executives have lost their jobs or had to pay back a dime of their booty. Where’s the incentive to be more responsible?  Wells Fargo will ride again.

There’s even less oversight and sanctions for school districts – the entities responsible for shaping our future. There will be the occasional investigation of a complaint. Changes are required; district promises are made. Then the investigators drive away and never look back.

Do you know why? Because everyone involved knows that we can’t afford to provide our disabled students the services they are legally entitled to receive with the crumbs we get from the federal government, the entity which requires them. No one is willing to give up a thing to help bear the cost. Disabled students are a minority with parents too stressed-out to put up a good fight. What we do is worse than stealing the money that is sent to provide services. We use that money to pay special education professionals to prevent special needs students from getting the very services they are supposed to provide. It’s too little money to do much else.

Let’s admit we are licked and figure out what to do with what we have. Regular education teachers need to be trained to accommodate all disabled students except the 1% who are severe. Every classroom must have a trained teacher’s aide whose only job will be to assist with needed accommodations and provide push-in SAI, or pull-out if necessary. Special education teachers will teach the one percent severely disabled – which will only be those teachers with a severely handicapped credential. Those with a mild to moderate credential will become Special Education Coordinators. They will provide continuous training to regular education teachers, evaluate students for special education placements, schedule IEP meetings, and all other coordination tasks.

If we repurpose our mild to moderate special education teachers, which make up the majority of the sped profession, we would need less of them, which would clear up our severe shortage of these professionals. Suddenly, there’d be enough to go around. With the savings from reducing expensive salaries, and alternative education placements, I think we could finally cover the current costs and also provide services to the growing percent that should, but are prevented from, receiving services.

Or, we could be like John Stumpf, and just fire them all and start over.