November 09, 2021
Every November, I and other members of the Special education Leadership Team attend the Tri-State Special education Law conference either virtually or in person. This annual conference takes place in Omaha and is a joint effort by the Departments of Education in Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas. It is attended by Special Education directors, school attorneys, parents, advocates and many others. Sadly, special education is the most litigated area of education. There are times that schools and parents disagree with how a child’s education should be provided and sometimes these disagreements wind up in the court system. We attend this conference to stay abreast of current areas of dispute, to receive training that we can pass on to school districts to help them from making mistakes that may get them in disputes with parents, and also to help them be in legally defensible positions if disputes can’t be resolved and parents do file a formal complaint. We also learn the top priorities that our respective Departments of Education are focusing on just by the nature of the topics that they schedule.
One of these hot topics for the last few years has been transition, which is specific educational programming for students with disabilities in their last years of public school. The federal law requires that transition is planned for and activities are carried out from the time a child turns 16 through the end of their high school career. In Nebraska, our legislature took action last year to move that beginning age to 14. There were sessions on transition at the law conference which clues us in that the state is focusing on it. More importantly, the state department has put considerable time, money, and resources towards improving our transition programming for students across the state. We partner with NDE and receive grant money to impact this area and our transition coordinator, Blair Hartman has done some excellent work in this area since joining our team on July 1, 2021. We have big goals for students with disabilities who graduate or age out of Nebraska public schools and with all of us working together and case law also calling attention to this important area of work, we are really starting to see results.
Another very hot topic in current cases running through the court systems is in the area of students with disabilities that have social, emotional, behavioral learning needs (SEBL). SEBL needs have been greatly exacerbated in the last few years. My personal opinion is that the pandemic and the great chasms of division in our society have greatly contributed to the increase in needs. Not to mention the fact that many people are food and housing insecure and an increase in adult stress often translates to an increase in the stress on children. The fact that we all experienced a jarring change in our lives and in some ways innocence was lost as children realized that not all things can be controlled, have impacted their abilities to self- regulate and learn socially appropriate behaviors. This is all complicated by teachers being under increased stress so their baskets of coping strategies are not as deep. Again, the Nebraska Department of Education and ESUs are partnering together to try to address these issues with grants, trainings, NeMTSS, Licensed Mental Health Providers and more. We know it is one of our most important issues and are trying to find ways to make it better.
Lastly, I will tell you that ‘child-find’ is a hot topic today. What it means is that we have a responsibility to find children who have disabilities and provide special education services to them. We were very fortunate in Nebraska to have in person learning last year which meant the majority of our children were in school and we were able to run our normal process to find out if the children have disabilities and provide services. In most states that continued with remote learning for the 20-21 school year, they had a much harder time collecting data and making determinations on if children had disabilities and were in need of Special education which is likely what made it a hot topic at the law conference. It is important for us to know what is being litigated and be able to make decisions on if it is a topic that needs to be brought to the attention of our schools. We have to be knowledgeable, thoughtful consumers of the information. It would be easy to have a sky is falling approach and think we have to change practice at every turn because of what one lawyer said in a training. A better approach is to take a deep breath and turn to our network of colleagues and our Department of Education, decide if any changes need to be made as a result of what we heard and then make intentional decisions moving forward.
— submitted by Jean Anderson, Special Education Director