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A Discovery Mission "Behind Enemy Lines"
by Wayne Steedman, Esq., Guest Columnist

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Many special education attorneys and advocates know that LRP Publications sponsored a series of workshops around the country called "Building a Blueprint for Defensible Autism Programs." 

On October 28, 1999, I attended one of these seminars. 

I am an attorney who represents children with disabilities and their families exclusively. My purpose in going "behind enemy lines" was to learn about new strategies that school systems might use to avoid providing these children with the services they need. 

The instructors for "Building a Blueprint for Defensible Autism Programs" were Melissa Genaux, educational consultant, and Melinda Maloney Baird, Esq., attorney. Both Genaux and Baird work exclusively for school systems. Because the workshop focused on "defensible" (not "effective") autism programs, I assumed that the workshop would teach public school employees how to defeat parents at due process hearings, while providing minimal services to children with autism. 

"Pleasantly Surprised"

Although the LRP presentation was clearly aimed at school personnel, I was pleasantly surprised by some of their recommendations. 

For example, while both presenters emphasized the general rule that the school system chooses methodology, and both recommended an "eclectic" instructional approach, they presented a more balanced program than I expected.

Melissa Genaux stressed the need to offer a variety of programs because all children with autism do not respond to the same teaching methods. She expressed the belief that an eclectic approach is best "both educationally and legally." 

Put Educators on a More "Equal Footing" with Parents 

Ms. Genaux encouraged educators to read The Me Book and Let Me Hear Your Voice. These classics recommend the applied behavior analysis (ABA) approach and many parents have found them invaluable. Her rationale for recommending these books was not so much to educate school personnel, but to put them on a more equal footing with the parents who have read these books.

She did not seem to be "anti-ABA." She did not impress me as "pro child" either. Rather, she seemed most concerned with ensuring that school system personnel had the knowledge they needed defend their program, whatever it was. 

How to Avoid the "One Size Fits All" Mistake

Ms. Genaux emphasized the need for school systems to avoid the "one size fits all" mistake. The school should not say "we only offer Lovaas," or "we only offer TEAACH." 

She said the emphasis should be on what works for the child. In the same breath, she said that just because Lovaas has already been proven effective (for example in a home based program), this does not mean the school must provide Lovaas if the school can offer another "appropriate" approach. 

Data Collection is Vital

Ms. Genaux stressed the need for data collection. She seemed to believe that schools will be able to justify their programs with data. I see this working both ways. I agree that data collection is vital.

Melinda Maloney Baird, Esq. represents public school systems. She reported that prior to 1995, parents of autistic children won 75% of due process hearings. Since 1995, the reverse has been true. 

High Cost of a Due Process Hearing

Although this information might seem to encourage school systems to go to a hearing, the presenters emphasized the expense and extensive preparation involved in due process. She estimated defense costs of approximately $100,000. 

She noted that a Due Process Hearing can result in bad publicity for the school system and a breakdown in relationships with parents. 

Ms. Baird encouraged school systems to cooperate with parents in developing and implementing IEPs that will satisfy all parties. 

"Tips" for School Districts - Get Autism Experts Involved

However, she did offer "tips" to avoid having to provide full-time Lovaas type programs. Ms. Baird suggested that Lovaas is a "packaged program" so is not individualized for each child. She advised that to prepare for a Due Process Hearing, school districts should hire autism experts who will observe the child, review school records, and meet with school personnel. She explained that school districts must do this because parents are doing it, and this is the only way to defeat the parentsí experts at a Due Process Hearing. 

Basic Components of an Appropriate Program: Discrete Trial Training, Extended School Year, Parent Training

Although the program focused on school system personnel, it offered some positives for parents of children with autism. 

Ms. Baird said she could not imagine an appropriate program that did not include at least 10-15 hours of discreet trial training per week. She advised that it was hard to imagine any autistic child who would not qualify for extended school year services. They advised that an appropriate program must include parent training.

Unfortunately, many parents have had to fight for far less than these services. Some school districts still refuse to provide any ABA therapy. Some continue to fight extended school year services.

As an attorney, I heard nothing that alarmed me. 

I learned no new strategies about how school districts should prepare for Due Process Hearings against children with autism. 

Meet Wayne Steedman

Wayne Steedman is an attorney and founding partner in the law firm of Callegary & Steedman.

Mr. Steedman's practice is devoted primarily to the representation of children with disabilities. He has represented his clients in administrative due process hearings and state and federal courts.

In addition to a law degree from the University of Maryland, Mr. Steedman has a Masters Degree in Social Work. For several years, he served as a Due Process Hearing Officer in special education cases. He is an active member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA).


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