As the 2nd day of testimony in Joseph’s Due Process Hearing began, we really had no idea what was to come. The vice principal from Grant was first on our list. He is the one that I told we were going to sue the district, and here he was, being sworn in. There were quite a few observers in attendance, as word got out quickly among the special education community that we had kicked some district butt the day before. I think that many of these folks were frustrated with what was going on in their own disabled children/students educations, and were getting some vicarious pleasure from the proceedings. Day 2 certainly didn’t disappoint.
He started out by saying he was administrative vice-principal at Grant, and was in charge of supervising special education there. He went on to say in that capacity he didn’t know if an Expulsion Hearing ever took place. Next he told me he announced BEFORE the Manifestation Determination Hearing that Joseph wouldn’t be allowed back in that school, which is a direct violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), thus a violation of Joseph’s civil rights. Actually, he wasn’t invited to that hearing in the first place. Next he said the first time he met Joseph was at that hearing, so there couldn’t have been the required disciplinary conference when he suspended Joseph. Another civil rights violation. Next we found out that what we’d gotten from Joseph’s file was his transfer slip and withdrawal form put together to look like 1 form. The ALJ wasn’t pleased with this new piece of information, and made him have Grant fax over the 2 separate documents. Turns out, what was covered up on the withdrawal form was the line where the parent or guardian (us) signature goes. Then he goes on to tell me that the lawyers recently explained to him a rudimentary term related to special ed. Well informed “supervisor of special ed.”, huh? He admitted to determining the suspension and possible expulsion based on 2nd and 3rd hand information. Then he suddenly remembered there was no expulsion hearing. Then he told me he’d said Joseph couldn’t return to Grant DURING the manifestation determination. The lawyer then interrupted, saying; “I think that’s been asked and answered, Your Honor; several times”. I’d like to ad; in several ways. Next, I went about proving that he was unqualified to “supervise special ed.”, but the ALJ stopped me. His testimony ended with the ALJ asking him if he spoke with Joseph when he suspended him. His answer was; “ No. My understanding is that Joe doesn’t talk.” The ALJ didn’t like his answer and replied; “ Well, “speak” is a broad term, communicate with.” She then sort of rolled her eyes and excused him.
Next up was the big, burly dude that Joseph had battered. I did the questioning. He talked about how Joseph used to “get all up in people’s faces”, and how that bothered his peers. No one ever mentioned that to us. They were supposed to, they just didn’t. He talked about a witness to Joseph’s behavior; or more accurately, the sound of his behavior, but he couldn’t remember her name. This was someone he worked with. Strange...
Suzanne interviewed Joseph’s Multnomah County case manager next. He refuted their claim that I yelled at the vice principal at the Manifestation Determination. He also said that the “supervisor of special ed.” at Grant did in fact kick Joseph out of school prior to that hearing. Suzanne then began asking questions about district staff keeping agreements made in meetings. He was answering that they hadn’t, but the ALJ ended this line of questioning, saying that wasn’t in our issues. I think by this point she was doing a bit of protecting the district.
I questioned his current Life Skills teacher at Marshall next. She’d been an ally when Joseph started there, but once we filed for due process that quickly changed. She was able to help out with some of the dates around him beginning there. It became more obvious that someone had indeed falsified that information. Once she realized she was being helpful her memory went on her. She didn’t know if school was in session on Veteran’s day or if that is a day their closed. As she began contradicting the other folk’s testimony by accident she became increasingly nervous. I pointed out how the communication book had been altered after the fact while Joseph was in her class. She had no idea how that could have possibly happened.
We only had one more witness to call, and he hadn’t made it there yet. The ALJ decided this would be a good time for Suzanne to question me. We used this time to make perfectly clear how the district had dropped the ball. We pointed to the lies that were told, the documents altered, and the misdeeds that they attempted to cover up. The ALJ jumped in asking questions. She’d already made up her mind that the district had failed to provide FAPE, and was getting clarification of facts. When she was done with that she asked what we sought for remedy. At that point I knew we’d won! I laid it out there for her. We wanted compensation for all the wasted time in PPS. We wanted them to pay for real academic training outside the district. And we wanted the falsified documentation in his file to be fixed. It was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.
Our friend and advocate finally made it and Suzanne asked him several questions to further demonstrate their sliminess. He also refuted the “angry” label they attempted to lay on me. He was at the meeting of November 6th, and shed a lot of light on what REALLY was said. The ALJ also asked him some questions regarding his understanding of rules and terminology that had been discussed throughout the hearing.
At that point we broke for lunch. Suzanne and I were giddy when we walked out of the building. All the time and energy we put into this process was about to pay off.
After lunch the district’s lawyer was allowed to make a closing statement. She essentially said that we were not lawyers, and did not fully understand the law. True. But we had a damned good understanding of right and wrong.
Suzanne read a closing statement she’d written. It was truly beautiful. I’m typing it here:
“In closing, I would like to make a statement on behalf of Joe. Because I remember when we had a hearing after the suspension that Joe didn’t get a chance to speak. But then we all know that Joe never says much. He pretty much faces his challenges in silence. Though some may have their doubts, we know that someday Joe will find his own voice. In the meantime, we’re having another hearing. And he is counting on us to speak for him. I think he’s figuring that we know what’s best for him, and he’s sure we’ll work it out.
It must be interesting to be Joe. He doesn’t see the world the same way we do, and it’s confusing for him. In Joe’s world, the sounds are too bright, and the lights are too loud. Language and social conventions are a complete mystery. And people are walking around acting like they understand it, only to change the rules midstream and in every minute. It must be stressful. I guess I’d learn to focus on the numbers, the clock, and the calendar too. They’re consistent. If you list things inside the boxes, they take a much clearer form. Two plus two is always four. The formula works up to multi-digits. If you check the clock frequently, you can’t miss the natural rhythm and order of it. Time ticks away at a steady pace; yet both the clock and the calendar hold the potential for highlighting the fact that at any moment something could happen that you hadn’t planned for.
This isn’t to say that anyone should feel sorry for Joe. That would be a mistake. And I think it’s a mistake that folks make all too often. He has his strengths too. For one, he really loves to learn. And, he’s a quick learner. He really likes people. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that isn’t always true for most of us. I think he studies our faces closely, because he really finds us fascinating. That’s been a gift to me.
Joe’s always been kind to me. Certainly, I’ve never been afraid of him. That is except for before he came to live with us. Before I knew him I was sometimes afraid. Mostly because I wasn’t sure I really knew how to be good for him, and because I was ignorant of things like autism. Joe has taught me a lot about autism. And David has taught me. And all the people I’ve met since he came into my life have taught me.
So I face most days unafraid, especially of Joe. I have to wonder if anyone else thinks the school made a mistake when they placed a judgment on Joe’s potential, before they got to know him. I wonder if anyone else thinks he deserved a second look; whether shuffling him around from school to school was just lazy or mean?
We were surprised to hear that they were afraid to teach him. I wonder if anyone else thins that zero tolerance discipline policies just might be wrong? Or that when we find we’re approaching the jobs we have to do from a place of fear, if it doesn’t lead us to seek out more information, we soon may be guilty of prejudice. I don’t know. And I don’t know if you, or Joe, or anyone else knows. But maybe if we check the time again, someone will change the rules.”
The ALJ had been gently crying halfway throughout, as had most of the people in the room.
To Be Continued...