“I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I think is important. They’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion. Words are all we have, really. We have thoughts but thoughts are fluid, y’know like, woo woo woo woo, POP! Then we assign a word to a thought and we’re stuck with the word for that though, so be careful with words.” – George Carlin, Class Clown, May 27, 1972
Much like George Carlin (except for him being an insanely funny and talented comedy genius) I have spent my life making a living off of words, and have grown to appreciate the great power they can wield. Lately, I spend much of my time undoing the damage that words have done. On most occasions by the time I come into a case there have been one or more “official” school meetings, and often numerous emails, phone calls, and/or letters which comprise the recorded and documented history of a student and their families’ interaction with a school district (LEA – Local education agency, for you fundamentalists). Sadly, many times within those records are words that may impede the hope a child has for a decent, and by decent I mean “appropriate” education. Often those words have been uttered by the last person that would ever want to hurt that child, the Parents.
Carlin’s routine was a commentary not on the “seven dirty words,” but on the hypocrisy and small mindedness of the institution that gave them so much power. In Carlin’s case, the power to incarcerate him in an effort to silence him. Similarly, my observations aren’t about the inherent evil of any particular word or phrase, but the power and impact given to them by a legal system and school system. In hope that you may never find yourself trying to protect your own child from the consequences of words you yourself uttered while advocating for them, and in homage to the genius of Carlin, let me tell you the seven words you should never utter during an IEP meeting (or letter, email, phone call, etc….). Those words are “best, maximize, lawyer, yes, no, insults, and obscenities” (Ok the last are categories, not words, but it’s my blog.)
Ok, I’ll admit these seven are nowhere near as gripping, charged or controversial as Carlin’s seven. Unless, you consider their impact could be denying your child’s chance for an education. And, how does “best” get on the list. Shouldn’t we all want what’s “best” for our child. Sure, but not when it comes to special education. You see students with learning disabilities aren’t entitled to what is “best,” only what is appropriate. And, schools have been trying for years to chip away at that arguing they are only required to provide a “basic floor of opportunity.” Fortunately, we have had some recent help from the Supreme Court in that regard, but nonetheless banish the word best from your Sped vocabulary. You aren’t asking for “best” all you want is “appropriate.” But, don’t be shocked when you don’t even get offered that.
But, what about maximize? Shouldn’t every child be supported in a way that maximizes their potential? Isn’t this the land of “be all that you can be.” Not according to schools, and not even according to the court. The recent Supreme Court decision in Endrew F. stated an appropriate IEP is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” There is a world of distance between maximizing potential and “appropriate progress.” Fortunately, when you make the shift from “best” and “maximize” to “appropriate”, the only thing that has really changed is you now appear reasonable. And, if when the school attempts to deny your child an “appropriate” educational placement, services, or accommodations their position becomes much harder to defend.
“Lawyer?” Sure some see it as a dirty word all by itself, it has becmuch-ridiculediculed profession. But, when push comes to shove you may well need a lawyer to encourage your school to make an “appropriate” offer so why shouldn’t you use the word? Because, it is ineffective and counterproductive. That one word will completely change the dynamic of your relationship with the school, and not in a good way. It also impedes any lawyers hope of achieving a good result. Nothing will make the administration, teachers, and staff circle the wagons and cover their tracks like the threat of legal action. Talk to a lawyer, hire a lawyer, but don’t threaten, and let your lawyer decide when to formally inform the school of representation. Telling someone you’re going to punch them in the nose is only an invitation for them to punch you first.
“Yes?” Why, “yes?” For the same reason I teach trial advocacy students to never accept anything other than “yes” as the ultimate answer during a cross examination. It’s a magic word, nothing else substitutes. It conveys unequivocal agreement, and it nearly impossible to buffer, retract, or defend. During most meetings you will be given dozens of opportunities to say “yes.” Don’t do it! Instead respond with a question in kind.
School: Do you agree with the results of these assessments?
You: I really haven’t been given time to adequately review them. Is there a reason I wasn’t given them in advance of the meeting?
School: Isn’t this a nice classroom/program?
You: I really don’t have anything to compare it to. What other placements have you considered, and when can I visit those?
“No?” By this time, you may think I’m crazy. You can’t say “yes”, you can’t say “no” why don’t I just make up my mind? Easy, “no” is bad because it conveys predetermination. Courts look at predetermination by either party as bad, but tend to give more leeway to the schools. When a court gets the feeling a parent entered a meeting with a closed mind they start feeling sorry for the school and the end result is bad. As hard as it may be, to succeed for your child you need to present with an open mind. The school says they have an ancient cold war bomb shelter that your child can use as their “quiet room” you say you’d be open to looking at it. Never respond to any offer of placement, services, supports, or accommodations with anything but “I’d be willing to look at it.” Bite your tongue, kick your husband’s leg under the table, but never just say “no.”
Obscenities and insults? I would never even consider typing some of the things I have called school administrators in private. Much like the Father in “A Christmas Story” I like to consider myself somewhat of an artist where cursing is involved. “Remember Ralphie’s colorful description of his Father’s epic battle with the broken heater? “So help me God yellow eyes! The Old Man: In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenity that, as far as we know, is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan”. But, when I am at an IEP, or in a trial I never forget the power of words. And, if you have to lock yourself into a closet and scream for a half hour to get them out of your system before a recorded IEP, you damn well better do it. Nothing will get you branded as unreasonable or even mentally ill quicker than a tirade of insults or obscenities. Feel it, but don’t say it. Write that email in Word then toss it in the trash. Because when it comes to IEPs there is only one rule, be effective. Like the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.”
So take it from one of the masters, and like Carlin warned “be careful with words.” Your child will thank you for it.