Tactics & Strategy: The "Letter to the Stranger"
NOTE: This is the original "Letter to the Stranger," written by Janie Bowman and Peter Wright that was posted on the CompuServe ADD Forum. Later, this article and other memorabilia from the ADD Forum, including the book, Think Fast! The ADD Experience, was permanently archived at the Smithsonian Institute.
What is a "Letter to the Stranger"?
When you write letters to a school, these letters will be read by strangers. Many important decisions about your child's education are made by strangers. What impression will your letter make on a stranger? Will the stranger see you as an angry, negative complainer? Or will the Stranger see you as a rational, thoughtful parent who is expressing valid concerns?
When you write letters, keep this "stranger" in your mind’s eye. Who is the stranger? What does he look like? How does he think?
The stranger is an older person who worked hard all his life. He’s conservative, fair, and open minded. He knows that life is often difficult and unfair. He doesn’t have any patience with complainers. He’s more likely to be sympathetic to people who have a plan to solve their problems. He dresses casually. When he sits down to read your letter, he sips a cup of tea and lights his pipe.
The stranger doesn’t know you, your child, or your situation. Your letter is your chance to sell the stranger on the justice of your cause. You should describe the problem and tell the stranger what needs to be done to make things right.
Judges are strangers. Most judges aren’t knowledgeable about special education or children with disabilities. When you write letters, you are trying to educate and inform the "stranger."
The following letters are from a real case from the files of Peter W. D. Wright. The names, dates, and other identifying criteria have been changed to preserve privacy. The letters have been lightly edited to correct grammar. The teacher involved in this case was very supportive of the student and his family, and was not involved in the school’s decision to refer Marc out of his current placement and back to the school district.
#1. The letter sent from the school to the parents.
Letter #3. Using tactics and strategy, this letter builds compassion and sympathy toward the family's situation.
You are the parent of a child with a disability and are sitting in a busy restaurant. You just received a letter from your son's school (Certified Mail, Return Receipt requested). The letter is printed on official school district letterhead. All signatures are in bold. You didn't expect to receive a letter from the school. Your first reaction is surpise, which quickly turns to shock, then anger.
You have written two letters in response, but aren't sure which one to send. What a dilemma!
Suddenly, you spot your bus. In a rush, you stuff the papers back into the envelope and slip it into your organizer. You grab your packages and fight the crowd as you make your way out of the restaurant. You don't notice that the envelope containing your letters falling from your organizer onto the sidewalk where it is trampled by busy feet.
Later, a curious stranger spots the tattered envelope and scoops it up. That evening, the stranger stares at the envelope. He slides a forefinger under the flap and lifts the papers out. Grabbing a mug of hot tea, he sits down in front of the TV, adjusts the lamp, and begins to scan the first letter.
(Note: The stranger's reactions are in bold.)
"What's this?" The stranger looks at the letterhead proudly proclaiming"Quality Public School Education" and peruses the impressive list of names and titles.
Dear Mrs. Parent:
The purpose of this letter is to inform you that Marc has violated the agreement he made in using the Computer Systems in the Computer Programming Class at Generic School.
"Ah," the stranger mumbles, then smiles slightly. Although he is over fifty, he remembers what it was like to be in high school.
On Friday morning February 11, I was made aware that Marc had on his computer components of a program called “Doom,” which had been banned from the class. In addition, Marc modified his computer in such a way that it could not easily be used by others, which is a major violation of the class standards. This was discussed with Marc and his father in a meeting they had with Mr. Instructor on February 3rd. He had also written threatening remarks indicating that no one was to mess with his machine and supported this statement with pictures that were inappropriate i.e., a rabbit with a severed head and a building burning in the background. (This was from the program “Doom”). These areas are clear violations of the agreement that Marc had made with Mr. Instructor.
"Ye GADS!" The stranger sits up in his chair and turns down the volume on the TV. "This kid's really gotten himself in trouble! How dare he modify hiscomputer! And he's threatening folks, too!"
On Friday, February 11, Marc refused to come to the office when requested to do so by Mr. Director after Marc was confronted about the material on the computer.
"HAH! How dare he!" The stranger shook his head in disbelief. This confirms his belief that they just don't make kids like they used to.
As a result of this infraction, we are referring Marc back to the Universal School District for placement. I have informed Dr. Assistant Superintendent and Mr. Assistant Director of Special Services of this situation.
"Good move! Oust the kid! Use him as an example!"
You need to be aware that we have spent a lot of time and energy in our Computer Programming Class to create an environment that is safe and non-threatening to individuals.
"Yeah, can't blame the school! This kid's major trouble!"
For example, each student has signed an agreement to operate the computer within certain standards. In Marc's case he signed this and was also given permission to help devise the standards and to help support the enforcement of these standards.
The stranger sips his tea and clears his throat. "And they tried . . . the school tried to teach him responsibility."
Mr. Instructor has met with Marc and with you on numerous occasions and discussed appropriate use of the computer. Mr. Instructor did this as recently as the week of February 1st.
"Yep!" Look how many times they told this kid to shape up!"
I would suggest that you contact Dr. Superintendent at the Universal School District office [address deleted] to discuss placement options for Marc within the Universal School District. In the meantime, Marc will not be allowed on the campus.
"Yep, again!" The stranger shook his head affirmatively. "Kick the troublemakers out! If they can't follow the rules, show them the door!"
If you have questions about this incident please contact me at [phone number deleted].
Dr. Assistant Superintendent
Scenario: The parent's first response in a crisis is usually a mistake. Understandably, you are shocked and angry when you receive such a letter. You met with the school staff only one day earlier and no one mentioned any concerns about your son's conduct at this meeting. Here is the (VERY ANGRY!) "First Response" letter you wrote after receiving the letter from the school.
To: Mr. Assistant Director of Student Services
Dear Mr. Assistant Director:
The purpose of this letter is to avoid a nasty and costly lawsuit, which will result in needless pain and suffering for the school district. Obviously any financial settlement will have an adverse impact on all programs within the school district.
"AHA! I knew the parents would threaten to sue!" The stranger's face flushed. He took another sip of tea.
I am responding to your Certified Return Receipt letter dated February 11th, which was not postmarked until February 15th. How dare you treat my son, Marc, this way!
The stranger quickly reads this sentence and doesn't pause to consider why the school delayed in mailing the letter.
Since your letter is now a matter of public knowledge, as shown in your CCs and its apparent discussion among students in school, it will be difficult for you to repair the damage done by your slanderous letter.
"Damage? Yeah! Sure!" This only affirmed his conviction that kids like this only damage themselves. "If they'd only listen . . ."
My values cannot support an administration that pretends to work with students while simultaneously sabotaging their future and psychological well being and not being open and honest, face to face.
"Huh?" Confused, the stranger moved on to the next paragraph.
Your letter was dated February 11 and its posting seems to have been purposely delayed until the morning of February 15, so that we would not receive it until after the meeting. Although there is no law against such deceit, your actions have brought your credibility into question.
"Geez!" The stranger shifted and adjusted the lamp again. "Who'd want to discuss anything with parents like this! The kid gets in trouble and the first thing they want to do is SUE the school!"
I feel it was deceptive of you not to bring a copy of your letter to the meeting. Your deceitful and underhanded, unlawful behavior will not be tolerated. I am immediately authorizing my attorney to initiate legal proceedings against you personally and against the school district.
"Yeah, yeah," the stranger grumbled. No wonder the kid's messed up! Look at his parents!"
Scenario: After your long bus commute, you arrive home and are shocked to discover that the envelope you carefully tucked in your organizer is not there! A sense of panic and disbelief engulfs you and you feel slightly faint! "What if someone reads it!" Meanwhile, across town . . .
Mr. Assistant Director of Student Services
Dear Mr. Assistant Director:
Pursuant to Public Law 94-142 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, this letter is a request for a Special Education Due Process hearing.
I received a letter from you dated February 11 and postmarked Certified Return Receipt on February 15. I am perplexed by the letter and wish to put it in its proper context. Let me go back to the beginning.
"Huh? What gives?" Sitting back in his chair, the stranger shuffles the papers. He leans forward, tapping the pile on the table to make the edges even. He's curious.
You are aware that Marc's school history has been uneven. We have moved him from school to school trying to accommodate his learning differences and educational needs. When successful, it's been because of challenging and non-threatening environments and understanding teachers.
Briefly, while in 2nd grade, Marc was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder by a psychiatrist in [deleted], Utah. He was prescribed Ritalin to help with attention difficulties, especially in schoolwork that required writing or other seatwork.
"So, this kid's got some sort of medical condition that's related to school somehow?"
There were years where his ADD was not an issue, such as in Kindergarten at (a private school), [name deleted] (a private school), 5th grade at [name deleted] Elementary and now at Generic School.
"That's interesting. I wonder why?"
The problems intensified, however, while a student at [name deleted] Middle School. Because of his ADD and his difficulty in keeping up with his peers in some academics, he was a target of physical and emotional abuse by his peers. To defuse a threatening situation at school, Marc would walk away.
The stranger smiled. "Smart move!"
During the 19xx/19xx school year while in 7th grade, Marc found it necessary to periodically leave school during the day and return home. We found ourselves in the precarious position of shuffling our family from one medical professional appointment to another. Even though Marc was on two medications, Amitriptyline and Ritalin, things began to slide further for him academically and emotionally. Marc's grades slipped to a 1.2 GPA. In the spring, he walked out of school and refused to return.
"Good Grief!" He read the paragraph again. "Look at all the things the parents were doing? Where the heck was the school!"
As a parent, I was concerned about this turn of events. My son was not a behavior problem. He's very talented in computers and he very much wants to go to school. I realize his inability to succeed in middle school was because of his learning differences and the school environment.
We met with Mr. Psychologist #1 and signed a Focus of Concern to get Marc on an Individual Education Program.
"Sounds like the parents followed the appropriate protocol."
Summer arrived and Marc spent three months not knowing where he would be going to school. We looked into other schools, not finding any that we felt would fit his needs or let him enroll. Some told us he was too young. Some said they couldn't accommodate him. Some gave us the impression they were for "at risk" kids. I asked myself over and over again. "Where can a highly talented, learning disabled young person who was not a behavior problem go to get an education in our city?"
"GEEZ!" Disgusted, the stranger put the papers on the table and stood up, heading for the kitchen. He refilled his cup and played back the tape in his head. When he went to school, there weren't special needs kids in his class; at least, not any that he knew. The stranger was growing more uncomfortable but he didn't know why.
In September of 19XX [when school started] we again met with [name deleted] Middle School. With a new school counselor and a new psychologist involved, nothing further had been done about Marc's IEP. It was turned back over to Mr. Psychologist #1 since he was most familiar with Marc's situation.
"Why wasn't anything done over the summer?" The question flew at him, and begged for an answer.
In the meantime, Marc was without a placement. He made a phone call to your school and made arrangements for a tour.
"You got guts, Kid!" He shifted in his chair and ironed out the wrinkles on the page with his fingertips.
Mr. Instructor was impressed with Marc's computer expertise. We wondered how we could get him into 9th grade and into Generic School when he hadn't even started 8th grade. My husband called Mr. Assistant Superintendent and discussed the situation with him. Mr. Assistant Superintendent OK'd Marc's placement in Generic School and we began homeschooling. Marc, at age 12, became the youngest student to be admitted to Generic School.
"So, he skipped eighth grade! Amazing!"
We then met with Mr. Psychologist #1 about Marc's IEP, and we understand that our son was found eligible for Special Education services under 94-142, but that the school district felt that it was not appropriate or necessary to develop an IEP with his enrollment at Generic School and home education.
The stranger shifted position and sipped his tea. "Why would the school find him eligible yet not help him?" Confusion clouded his senses. Aren't schools supposed to help kids? Surely there was some misunderstanding.
We were still recovering financially from our medical expenses resulting from middle school, but we felt it was important for Marc's progress to count toward a high school diploma. We enrolled him in approved, private school extension program. Thus, at the beginning of October 19xx, Marc was enrolled at Generic School’s Computer Programming class and being home-educated through [an approved private school extension].
"Looks like his parents sacrificed a lot."
Marc quickly consumed what was available at Generic School. As the system was not up and running in order to accommodate what your program catalog says the class offers, Marc willingly offered to help.
During the 19XX/19XX school year, inappropriate software was found in multiple classes and your administration responded by curtailing the software that students could bring to school.
At the end this [first] school year, we met with you, in addition to Mr. Instructor, Psychologist #2 and Mr. counselor to discuss Marc's return to Generic School [in the fall]. Marc's main concerns were if the system was going to be up and running and the ability of Generic School to offer him what he needed. It was mentioned at this time that C++ programming was available to him. C++ is a programming language for computers.
In addition, we discussed the process of enrolling in college classes at the community college. Marc was thirteen at the time and it was my understanding, from Mr. Counselor, that he was not eligible for this program through Our Local Community College. At no time during this meeting were infractions discussed.
"Ah, so there weren't any serious discipline problems or the school would certainly have discussed this with the parents."
Marc decided to return to Generic School for the 19xx/19xx school year to continue his studies in Computer Programming. The system, however, was still not up and running as it should have been and again Marc offered his assistance.
"Why wouldn't they let Marc help?" The stranger searched for an answer. Maybe an adult wanted to run the show? Maybe the kid wasn't experienced?"
In addition to being enrolled in Generic School, Marc is also enrolled in [name deleted]’s Alternative Learning Program, as he would prefer an appropriate school environment that is suited to his particular learning style, than to homeschool. He enrolled there with plans to hook up their Internet. He is also providing them with technical support for their computers.
"Hmm, sounds like the kid has lots of experience . . ."
In the fall of 19XX we were made aware of yet another situation at Generic School in which inappropriate software surfaced on the computer system. This time the administration clamped down severely, limiting the use of all appropriate freeware and shareware as well.
"Shareware? Freeware?" The stranger wondered.
You will recall that my husband then suggested that Generic School implement some of the successful student, self-governing methods used in other schools. You began a student support team for the computer programming class and gave Marc permission to be a part of this team.
The student support team was able to devise the standards of the class and help support the enforcement of these standards. Eventually, a third class was added to the already over-burdened resources of the computer programming class. This caused too many kids to share too few computers and resources.
On January 20, at your request, we met with you and Mr. Instructor to discuss your concerns that "Marc has gone beyond what we can offer him here at Generic School."
Mr. Instructor agreed with this and we proceeded to discuss options such as college-level courses and mentorships, and home education. I briefly mentioned that we were not home-educating through [the approved private school extension] because we did not have the money.
The stranger sighed with compassion.
One of your concerns, mentioned in passing, was that other people were concerned about Marc occupying a space that is typically allotted for 11th & 12th grade students. This is confusing to me, as his Student Progress Report has him listed as being in the 11th grade.
The stranger snapped to attention. "What? Now this is interesting!"
Because Marc said he wanted to continue working on C++ Programming and because transitions are difficult for special needs students, it was agreed that Marc would finish the year at Generic School allowing Marc to continue working on C++. At this January 20th meeting, nothing was said about any violations of class standards or Generic School agreements.
"So, the kid isn't a troublemaker . . . "
We left the January 20th meeting with the expectations that we would have 4 1/2 months to discuss and implement transition, explore options and contact the Universal School District, in order to implement a plan based on Marc's needs and career goals.
"It's great when parents are so cooperative."
Approximately three weeks later on Friday, February 11th, at 7:40 A.M. Mr. Director called to inform me that "We've found more garbage on Marc's machine." In that conversation, he also told me that he wanted me to know that Marc had left school and was on his way home. I called Mr. Director that afternoon and set up a meeting for the following Tuesday, February 15 at 2 P.M. I requested that you and Mr. Instructor also attend, as I wanted to discuss this out in the open.
"WOW! The parents want to sit down and discuss these problems with the school. What honesty!" The stranger was glad that Marc had such wonderful parents.
The day of our February 15th meeting rolled around and we sat in the conference room making small talk with Mr. Director while we waited for you. I asked him if Mr. Instructor would be joining us and he said no, he hadn't asked him.
"Why didn't he ask the teacher?"
When you joined the discussion, I brought up the “Doom” infraction referred to by Mr. Director in his Friday morning call. Mr. Director made brief mention to “Doom” and continued with "He's outgrown what we have to offer here. We've referred Marc back to the Universal School District." The topic of that meeting focused primarily on transitioning and finding other resources/classes where he could learn to program computers. You will recall that Marc requested to go on a home-study program to continue his studies of C++ programming and both you and Mr. Director said you've referred him back to the Universal School District.
The stranger was confused, but continued to read.
Other than my initial reference to “Doom,” classroom or Generic School infractions were not discussed. I felt slightly uncomfortable about not having any paperwork from Generic School to carry with me to my meeting with the Universal School District, but I was in awe by the fact that my 14-year-old son had outgrown a high school computer programming class so quickly. My plans were to contact the Universal School District later in the week to discuss placement options.
"They didn't give her any paperwork?" Oh, well, maybe the parents didn't need any since he outgrew the class." This explanation placated the stranger's confusion.
You can imagine how hurt I was to receive a Certified letter from you dated February 11 and mailed on the morning of February 15, 19XX, the day of our meeting. Either your letter was misdated or you decided not to discuss this with us in our face-to-face meeting. I don't understand why your letter only contains references to serious violations and threatening actions and doesn't discuss what your message to us was in the January 20th and February 15th meetings -- that Marc has outgrown the program at Generic School and you no longer have anything to offer him.
"What jerks! How dare they!" The stranger read the paragraph again. His eyes blurred with anger! "What CHICKENS! How DARE they sit on the letter until the day of the meeting! And then they mail it instead of bringing it out in the open! Those poor parents!"
As a concerned parent, I feel I have not been given the information I need to correctly interpret your letter. I don't have copies of the rules and agreements mentioned in your letter, and contrary to your comments, I've never met with Mr. Instructor to discuss the appropriate use of the computer.
The stranger's hands shook as he read the paragraph again. Schools aren't supposed to do things like this - are they?"
You state that Marc modified his computer to make it "not easily used by others." I don't understand how this would be. The students in the A.M. and P.M. class knew that in order to access Marc's computer you:
Boot up the computer.
Laughter filled the room. The stranger slapped his knee and bent over in delight. "Are those school administrators so stupid that they couldn't follow steps A through E? If they couldn't figure it out, why didn't they ask?"
You also state that "He had also written threatening remarks indicating that no one was to mess with his machine." Your letter doesn't tell me what those remarks were.
"That's true," the stranger agreed.
You continue with "...and supported this statement with pictures that were inappropriate i.e., a rabbit with a severed head and a building burning in the background.” (This is from the program ”Doom”).”
Laughing, the stranger couldn't help but wonder if this child prodigy wasn't personalizing his computer.
Again, this is confusing to me. If the “Doom” violation was so serious, I don't understand why we didn't discuss it out in the open and at length in our February 15 meeting?
Further on in your letter you state "On Friday, February 11, Marc refused to come to the office when requested to do so by Mr. Director after Marc was confronted about the material on the computer."
Marc felt that he was being threatened by an adult whose behavior was out of control and, like in middle school, walked away and came home.
"Yep! That was the adult thing to do!" The stranger felt himself drawn more and more into the drama. Could this be some sort of joke? Certainly real families don't have such experiences . . . ?
I've Another statement that confuses me is "You need to be aware that we have spent a lot of time and energy in our Computer Programming Class to create an environment that is safe and non-threatening to individuals."
I’ve always appreciated the safe and non-threatening environment you have provided for students, including Marc. I’m mystified. I don't understand your intentions here.
The stranger sighed heavily. What was the school's intention?
"In the mean time Marc will not be allowed on the campus."
Marc doesn't have a history of being abusive or threatening to anyone, but Marc does have history of walking away from threatening situations, such as those [name deleted] Middle School. Please explain why you've taken such a drastic action?
"YES! Why, indeed!"
The content of your February 11th letter is confusing because it contradicts the discussions we had on January 20th and February 15th. It fails to mention any of Marc's accomplishments.
"No kidding!" The stranger noticed that his cup was empty, but he was too focused on the current drama to leave the pages.
Our son’s current educational placement is Generic School, in the Computer Programming class. Even though this placement was implemented without benefit of an IEP, it remains “the current educational placement” for purposes of the “stay-put provisions” of the Federal and State Statutes and Regulations.
"Yes! Go for it!"
Accordingly, while the Due Process matter is pending, our son should be reinstated immediately into the Computer Programming class at Generic School.
So that the Hearing Officer is aware of the issues of this case, please forward a copy of this letter to the Hearing Officer and advise us of that person’s name and address as soon as that person has been appointed.
The stranger sat quietly for a few moments, trying to collect his thoughts. "If this really happened to this family, it's happened to other families, too." The stranger felt helpless.
Peter W. D. Wright, Attorney
The stranger folds the letters and puts them back in the original envelope. Addressing a new envelope to the parents, he stuffs the original envelope inside. Not knowing what else to do, he writes, "Take care" on a small piece of paper. Enclosing a ten dollar bill, he seals the envelope, puts it in the "to be mailed" slot on his desk, and turns off the light.
That night, his sleep is disturbed by distressing new images.
When the Stranger read the school's letter (Letter #1), he quickly agreed with the school's decision to remove Marc from the class. Indeed, he felt the school was justified in demanding that Marc not set foot on the campus again!
Letter #2 was written by the parents when they were in a state of panic. Their emotional, threatening letter lends support to the stranger's beliefs - that the school had every right to send the child home. Look at the parents reaction! Their only solution to the problem was to get a lawyer and sue the school!
Letter #3 was written by the parents after a cooling-off period. This letter uses tactics and strategy, not emotion. The letter builds understanding and sympathy, leading the reader to ask his own questions. After reading this letter, a "stranger" is likely to come to the conclusion you want, without your threating, demanding or spelling things out for him.
Copyright (c) 1999-2006 by Peter W.D. Wright, Attorney and Janie Bowman
Janie Bowman's e-mail address: janie | at | janiebowman.com
Bowman's Website: http://www.brightword.com/