I have purposely waited quite a few days to write this post because I wanted to make sure I presented an overview of our situation without so much of the emotions that would have been included had I written this the day we had our last IEP meeting. In fact, I've also spent a few days in writing it because I keep changing around how I am approaching the subject. The thing is, I do know that inclusion is a tough topic. While research in this area has been supporting the inclusion of students with disabilities for many years now, the actual implementation of it has been so varied throughout the country, in each state, and even more so from district to district. It's hardest to change the mentalities of administrators who believe in the segregated model and aren't supporting their staff members when it comes to including students with disabilities in their classrooms. However, inclusion can only be successful if the students and staff working with those students with disabilities are supported through education, resources, training, etc.
Just a little background first about how we got to this point...
After Colin's IEP annual review in the spring where we chose to place Colin in a general education class against the recommendation from the case manager there were a few things that needed to be solidified in order for that to happen. One of those issues was whether or not Colin would be given a paraprofessional to assist him. A follow up meeting was set up for June, right before school was letting out, to finalize these details and was being held at the elementary school that Colin would be attending in the fall. Instead of this meeting being a meeting to discuss the paraprofessional and to meet the new staff, it was instead what I called an "ambush" in THIS POST because our decision was scrutinized by the new case manager (in her words, "Help me to understand why you would make this decision.") The meeting felt like an approach to get us to change our minds because after Colin's current academic progress was discussed by his teacher, the Kindergarten teacher highlighted all of the things that their Kindergarteners were able to do by the end of the year (and at what levels they were reading at). We left the meeting incredibly discouraged because although his placement was staying as we had decided, Chris and I knew that the belief was he didn't belong in a general education placement.
When the challenges started this year, we were setting up regular meetings so that we could hopefully collaborate with the team on strategies that would assist Colin and the staff working with him improve upon where the difficulties were. I spent a lot of time researching behavior during this time and kept stumbling across the same answer; behavior was a sign of communication. We consented to a FBA at one of the meetings (Functional Behavior Assessment) where someone from the district (in our case it was a social worker) would come in and observe Colin and then propose a list of strategies to support Colin in the classroom. A lot of the communication we were receiving about Colin was very negative and very rarely focused on what he COULD do.
Just before Christmas, we had set up another meeting. We had tried to bring in a resource with experience in Down Syndrome and behaviors in the classroom who would collaborate with the staff on ways that would help Colin and those working with him. However, we received a certified letter from the director of special services stating the resource could only come in to observe for 3 hours (not the two day plan that was requested) and they could have no communication while there with any of the staff working with him. The goal of the meeting on our end was to discuss this further with the hopes that they would see this as a tool to help everyone but with the district's attorney present, we knew that this would not change. We left the meeting very discouraged because we were feeling less and less like we were all collaborating together. Most of the dialogue about Colin in the classroom was very negative and documents that we received stated or suggested he didn't belong in the general education classroom.
At this point, Chris and I were so discouraged because we felt like we weren't getting anywhere despite all the work we were doing on our end to support Colin and the staff working with him. We ultimately decided to enlist the help of an advocate, someone with specific experience in this very thing that could help navigate us through. A meeting was called by us to further discuss the FBA report, the suggestions that were made, as well as to request more supports for Colin and the staff working with him.
The meeting included the district's attorney, director of special services, supervisor of special services, case manager, social worker, principal, 3 therapists, and 2 teachers. As soon as the meeting began, I knew the direction it was going to take. All of the staff members came with progress reports, most of which highlighted Colin's behavior and lack of progress academically. The therapists spoke first and were dismissed from the meeting before anyone else had spoken. I was thankful to have the advocate there because she asked a lot of great questions particularly at times when I was so nervous I had trouble coming up with ones at the appropriate times. Towards the end of the meeting, the discussion turned into the fact that 1. they felt Colin's progress was too slow compared to the other kids (this alone makes my blood boil) 2. his behavior was impacting his progress 3. they felt he belonged in a self contained classroom which was written into a new IEP.
Chris and I would agree that Colin's progress is not what we believe it could be. We also know that Colin needs more support than your typical child. We know that including children with disabilities in our district is not a common practice and in fact, students are most often placed in segregated settings. We knew that when we chose to place Colin in this setting, it was going to be a new experience (and were told it was by staff members working with him) so we knew it wasn't going to be a perfect scenario. However, we believed that we would work together with the team to find ways to make it work. We didn't expect anyone to have all of the answers, but we were naïve enough to think it was something as simple as open communication and collaboration that would walk us all down this road. What upset and disappointed us the most were the comments that were made in regards to his lack of tangible progress and their lack of true collaboration and effort to support "our little boy's" right to an inclusive education. Some of the members in the meeting were constantly checking their phone, whispering, and getting up while others were speaking. Those that did the most talking were the social worker and attorney, and any suggestion we had to continue to work together was just shot down. The attorney didn't understand why we would request training and inclusive supports for staff. In their words, it's just not working and they don't feel he "belongs" in a general education classroom. We know the staff is doing the best they can with what they have but there is always more to learn. Inclusion is about accepting the differences of all students and supporting them as they learn and work towards their goals alongside their peers. It's not deciding one day that it's not working and segregating them without attempting more supports, more training, more education.
While we left the meeting heartbroken and defeated, we are not going to give up on fighting for what's right for Colin. He shouldn't have to earn his way to learn alongside his peers.