Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Something Else Not to do to Your Child

Don't hide your child in a crawl space.

An Illinois judge found that it constituted neglect for a mother to hide her then 5 year old son in a crawl space in her mother's house for most of two years to keep him away from his father whom she accused of abuse.
Ill. Judge: Mom's Hiding Of Boy Amounts To Neglect
JIM SUHR, Associated Press Writer
BENTON, Ill. (AP) ― A mother's hiding of her son for nearly two years in his grandmother's home, often in a crawl space behind a wall, amounted to neglect, a judge ruled Friday. See full article here.
Neither child protective services nor the court had believed mother's allegation of abuse. She and the child disappeared two years ago after the court granted the father temporary custody. The article does not say how they were found. There are criminal child abduction charges pending against the mother, the maternal grandmother and the MGM's boyfriend.

The boy is currently having supervised visitation with his parents (which are reportedly going well) and a custody and visitation hearing is scheduled for January 8th.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Top 10 Discipline Methods Not to use on Your Child

On the same day that I received a request to answer a survey for child abuse professionals about what I think my community's beliefs are concerning discipline methods, I saw an article about one type that wasn't on the list.

A pediatrician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is circulating a survey about opinions about child abuse. Professionals in various disciplines of the child protection field were asked to say whether we think it is the norm in our communities to use certain methods on various age children usually, occasionally, rarely or never. It didn't include the one that turned out to me to be the Number 1 Truly Shocking Thing NOT to do to Your Child.

But first the list:

Top 10 Discipline Methods Not to Use on your Child

Number 10 - Pinching

Number 9 - Kicking

Number 8 - Hot peppers in mouth as punishment

Number 7 - Calling child names such as stupid, ugly or useless

Number 6 - Hitting on the buttocks with an object such as a belt or switch

Number 5 - Slapping child on the face or the back of the head

Number 4 - Hitting child elsewhere than on the buttocks with an object such as a belt, hairbrush or stick

Number 3 - Shaking

Number 2 - Beating (that is hitting over and over again with an object or fist)

and the number 1 Truly Shocking Thing NOT to do to Your Child ...


That's right, I saw an article about a woman who called the police on her 10 year old daughter who curled up on the floor rather than take a shower at bed time. AND THEN the mother gave the officer permission to use his taser on the child if he thought it was necessary. See the November 19, 2009, Associated Press article from Ozark, Arkansas, here.

The girl's father, who reportedly "does not have custody", described the child as having "emotional problems."

The Mayor wants the State Police or FBI to investigate and said:

People here feel like that he made a mistake in using a Taser, and maybe he did, but we will not know until we get an impartial investigation.

Really? Really? The town has to have an independent investigation to determine whether a child having a tantrum at home needs to be shocked into submission?

See also my Guest Commentary on the bill that was then pending in the Massachusetts state legislature to ban corporal punishment in the December 13, 2007, Arlington Advocate.

Friday, September 25, 2009

SJC strikes down Lowell youth curfew

SJC strikes down Lowell youth curfew - Local News Updates - The Boston Globe

Posted using ShareThis

The case is COMMONWEALTH vs. WESTON W., a juvenile (and a companion case), SJC-10299, decided September 25, 2009.

Justice Cordy's decision noted:

We reject the rationale used by some courts to justify a lower standard of review, that the rights of minors are not coextensive with or are weaker than those afforded adults. Minors possess fully formed constitutional rights. See Planned Parenthood of Cent. Mo. v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52, 74 (1976) ( "Constitutional rights do not mature and come into being magically only when one attains the state-defined age of majority"). However, in applying the strict scrutiny test to their infringement, we recognize that the government has a countervailing compelling interest in "protect[ing] children from actual or potential harm," Blixt v. Blixt, 437 Mass. 649, 656 (2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1189 (2003), an interest that often justifies restrictions that could not be sustained when applied to the fundamental rights of adults. See Bellotti v. Baird, supra at 634 (constitutional principles should be applied with "flexibility" to minors because minors are vulnerable and unable to make decisions in "informed, mature manner"); Matter of Gail, 417 Mass. 321, 326-327 (1994), quoting Custody of a Minor, 375 Mass. 733, 754 (1978) (Commonwealth has "long-standing interest in protecting the welfare of children living within its borders"). In other words, the analysis "should consider whether the state's interests may be more compelling but not whether the rights involved are less fundamental." Nunez, supra at 945, citing H.L. v. Matheson, 450 U.S. 398, 441 n. 32 (1981) (Marshall, J., dissenting). See also Qutb, supra at 492 n. 6.

And then concluded:

Applying the strict scrutiny standard, the ordinance's criminal provision unconstitutionally infringes on the minors' rights to freedom of movement. Status offenses such as being abroad at night may not be "bootstrapped" into criminal delinquency and commitment to DYS custody. See Commonwealth v. Florence F., supra at 528-529 n. 8. In response to the first reported question [Does the Lowell Youth Protection Curfew for Minors violate the equal protection rights of the Juveniles under either the United States Constitution or the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights by subjecting the Juveniles to a restriction upon their rights to movement and travel that persons seventeen and older do not have to endure?], the answer is, "Yes," with regard to criminal penalties resulting from violations of the ordinance. The curfew itself and its civil enforcement mechanism, however, represent, as of the date of the proceedings below, a permissible, narrowly tailored response to Lowell's compelling interest in preventing crime by, and against, minors. Because the ordinance contains a severability clause, those provisions remain in force.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Prof. Gates' Unconstitutional Arrest - Forbes.com

It may have been a Town v. Gown controversy rather than a racial incident. Or even, as Steven Colbert proposed on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," a jock v. nerd matter with Sgt. Crowley as the jock and Prof. Gates, pictured riding his tricycle on Martha's Vineyard, as the nerd. But I prefer to agree with Massachusetts criminal defense and civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate, who, in this Forbes commentary, "Prof. Gate's Unconstitutional Arrest: There's a First Amendment right to be rude to a cop," argued persuasively that "fundamentally the situation can, and should, be analyzed as a free speech case."

In my two plus decade criminal defense career, I too saw many police reports that parroted the words "loud and tumultuous behavior which caused a crowd to gather and created public inconvenience, annoyance and alarm." Disorderly conduct is what the Boston police used when the City's equally unconstitutional "Sauntering and Loitering" Ordinance somehow didn't fit or wasn't enough. As a new, young, white law student in 1976, I was threatened with arrest by a Cambridge police officer for insisting that he shouldn't be smoking inside the front of the Porter Square Star Market right under the "No Smoking" sign. Unlike Prof. Gates, I swallowed my First Amendment rights and stopped my confrontation upon the police officer's threat even though I knew it would have been an unconstitutional arrest.

As Atty. Silverglate points out:
There is a serious problem in this country: Police are overly sensitive to insults from those they confront. And one can hardly blame the confronted citizen, especially if the citizen is doing nothing wrong when confronted by official power. This is, after all, a free country, and if "free" means anything meaningful, it means being left alone--especially in one's own home--when one is not breaking the law.

See the article also for Atty. Silverglate's brief but thorough history of First Amendment jurisprudence and the evolution of the "four exceptions to the First Amendment's protection for free speech."

Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy Birthday, United States of America!

Happy Birthday, United States of America, may you continue to mature into the beacon of hope and liberty that your birth certificate envisioned.

See photo of original here: Rare copy of US Declaration found in England and the text here: Declaration of Independence from Boston Globe editorial page of July 4, 2009.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Teen Strip-Search Ruled Unconstitutional, But School Officials Are Off the Hook

At least the U.S. Supreme Court got the main part of the case right -- they found it was outrageous and unreasonable for school officials to search 13 year old Savanna Redding for Ibuprofen. The court though gave qualified immunity to the school officials saying it wasn't constitutionally settled before now such that they should have known it was a violation.

Here's a summary of the case from the Willamette Law School Supreme Court news:

Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding
Decided: 06/25/09
No. 08-479
Full Text: http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/08pdf/08-479.pdf

FOURTH AMENDMENT (The Fourth Amendment prohibits a search of a student by school officials that extends beyond the outer clothing and belongings when the degree of suspicion of further contraband is low, and when the contraband is of limited danger)

The United States Supreme Court held 8-1 (opinion by Souter) that a search of a student’s underwear is a violation of the Fourth Amendment when suspicion of further contraband is low and the contraband is of limited danger because the measures adopted must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.”

The Court also held 7-2 that the school officials were still protected from liability by qualified immunity, because the search was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment by clearly established prior case law.

The student was suspected of distributing common pain relievers some of which were prescription strength. The school officials found pain relievers in the student’s belongings. The school officials had the student strip down to her underwear and then extend out the elastic of her bra and waistband of her underwear and attempt to shake out any other drugs she might have been hiding. The student’s mother filed suit, alleging the strip search violated the student’s Fourth Amendment rights. Claiming qualified immunity, the school officials moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, finding that there was no Fourth Amendment violation, and the federal appellate court reversed.

The United States Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the search of the student’s underwear violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court reasoned that individual and societal expectations of personal privacy support the notion that a search extending beyond the outer clothing is a distinct search from the previous search. The court held that this level of search requires a further element of justification on the part of a school official. The suspicion must match the degree of the intrusion. In this case the threat was possession of common pain relievers which are a limited threat in their nature and which were not suspected of being passed around in large quantities. Further, the school official had no specific reason to suspect that there were more drugs hidden in the student’s underwear. [Summarized by Jim LeBlanc]

And here's a link to the AlterNet story about the decision:

SCOTUS: Teen Strip-Search Ruled Unconstitutional, But School Officials Are Off the Hook | Rights and Liberties | AlterNet

Thursday, May 21, 2009

School curbs girl's report on gay rights activist Milk

The project was to create a powerpoint about a famous person to present to the class. The sixth grade girl chose Harvey Milk, the first openly gay public official in the U.S., about whom a feature film had recently been released. When it was her turn to present to the class the school principal said the teacher had to get permission from parents under the school's sex education policy for other class members to attend.

School curbs girl's report on gay rights activist Milk

The powerpoint is included in a link with the above article. Give me a break - she mentions that Milk was gay (no-duh) and the name of his partner but there was nothing else in it that should have required a parental permission slip. The ACLU is asking that she be allowed to give her presentation to the whole class and that the school give her an apology that they send to all the parents who received the original sex ed notification.

I'm all for parents having a say in the education of their children but, as the U.S. Supreme Court said in Tinker v. Illinois ..., students "do not leave all their rights at the schoolhouse door." The government should not be engaged in content-based censorship.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Shaken baby or not?

A report in the Brockton Enterprise Increases in shaken baby cases concerns officials tells of various officials' speculation about the rise in reported cases of suspected shaken babies.

There are experts in the field of evidence-based medicine who suggest that there are other explanations for many of the injuries that the shaken baby prevention advocates attribute solely to vigorous shaking. The pediatric neurologist and pediatric radiographer who spoke at a seminar I attended sponsored by the (Massachusetts) Juvenile Bar Association two years ago delineated the genesis of Shaken Baby Syndrome. They pointed out the flaws in the "research" of the founder of the Shaken Baby movement and how the advocates ignored contrary evidence in a series of cases.

The Shaken Baby Advocates insisted that the injuries and signs apparent in various infants and toddlers could not have been caused by anything other than being vigorously in the manner they propose. Then the evidence-based medicine teams would scientifically prove that the injuries could have been caused by a car accident as described by the accused parents in one case, by falling down the stairs with the baby as described by the accused parents in another case and even by falling out of a high chair as described by the accused parents in yet another.

The cases often rely on the assertion that certain retinal damage patterns can only be caused by a baby being vigorously shaken but the evidence-based presenters showed that the claim was based on believing an assumption that did not look at a wide enough collection of retinal damage patients. When retinal images across other medical specialties besides just child abuse pediatrics are viewed, there are many other causes including some as benign as sneezing that cause the retinal images that shaken baby prosecutors so often rely upon.

The bad economy may be causing a lot of hardship but it is not necessarily the cause of an increase in reported shaken baby cases. An increase in reported shaken baby cases may not even be caused by an increase in shaken babies. When DCF investigators or police are investigating an injured baby case they may well have a predilection to think shaken baby and be dealing with a system of "experts" too quick to disbelieve the parents and assume inflicted injury.

If you are the subject of a 51A (report of child abuse or neglect), are accused of having shaken your baby or are subjected to any other investigation by police or the Department of Children and Families (DCF, formerly the Department of Social Services, DSS) be sure to contact an attorney with experience in this field BEFORE your interviews, BEFORE letting them into your home.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Families are too important to fail.

In an op/ed piece in today's Boston Globe, Vulnerable children are suffering twice, the chief of Ambulatory Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and the executive director of The Children's League of Massachusetts tell the story of a mother helped by the Department of Children and Families despite budget cuts.
Despite their increasing caseloads, the late-night DCF worker and a supervisor came to assess the situation. They knew something we didn't - that this wasn't the first time this mother, a depressed refugee who had been through God knows what before arriving in the United States, had told a caregiver that she was in trouble. By the end of the evening, the mother was in the hospital being treated for her depression, and the children were safe in an emergency placement. The next day, with the mother's agreement, they were placed with a family friend. Now, the mother is out of the hospital with daily supports and the children are back home.
From my perspective as an attorney who has seen way too many cases in which the only help a troubled family received from DSS was to have their children placed in foster care and to face an unnecessarily long and arduous process of getting them back, this case may represent an unintended benefit of DCF's budget and caseload problems. All too often, in my and my colleagues' caseloads, a mother with a history with the Department mentions to a "caregiver" that she is feeling overwhelmed only to have had DSS place her kids in foster care and put them on an adoption track because the mother couldn't "correct" her condition quickly enough.

The "vulnerable children" piece starts by saying the mother brought her children into the clinic "recently." By a couple paragraphs later they are "back home". More often, in my experience, the other parent or a caring family member, let alone "a family friend" is denied the opportunity to help with their troubled relative's children when troubles are brought to the attention of DSS/DCF. It seems to me that not having this repeat customer's kids be subjected to a longer stay in foster care with strangers might be an unintended benefit of DCF's increasing caseload and decreasing budget. Maybe DCF's budget crisis helped these children get home more quickly.

If increasing caseloads and a tightening budget cause DCF workers and supervisors to give additional thought to whether children need to be in foster care and whether their families can be helped instead of being discarded while the children get a brand new "forever family," it might go a long way toward making DCF into a valuable safety net to which troubled parents feel safe turning for help instead of a feared monster set only on gobbling up their children and spitting out the parents who love them.

The authors end by saying:
Citibank, AIG, and the automakers have received unprecedented amounts of money from the federal government because they are deemed "too big to fail." We need to remember to look out for those who are "too little to fail."
To that I would add that families need to be thought of as "too important to fail" and that therefore more of them may need to be treated with the respect and true assistance that this refugee mother apparently received instead of keeping them from their families and rushing them to "permanency" in non-family placements.

Read the rest of the Globe op/ed here.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

In re: Adoption of Sebastian

Fascinating case of first impression from Manhattan Surrogates Court -- In re: Adoption of Sebastian. Mom whose ovum was implanted in her spouse's uteris after in vitro fertilization is permitted to adopt her child to ensure full, safe recognition of her legal relationship with the child.

The court noted that because of the international nature of the couple, because of the state's out-dated paternity laws and because of the federal "Defense of Marriage Act" (so-called), though there were less expensive, quicker ways to protect the relationship to which genetic mom was entitled with her child, adoption was the only way to assure full and complete recognition.

Read full opinion here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Student Arrested For Classroom Texting

When you put cops in schools, school discipline issues become police issues.

According to the The Smoking Gun "A 14-year-old Wisconsin girl who refused to stop texting during a high school math class was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct ..." Read the rest of the story, including the 5 page police report here.

See also SchooltoPrison.org "Challenging the School to Prison Pipeline".

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gender discrimination in sexual abuse cases?

On February 6, 2009, in the case of Commonwealth v. Bernardo B., a juvenile, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Plymouth County District Attorney to provide discovery to defense counsel so that the defendant might be able to make out a case of discriminatory selective enforcement of statutory rape laws against male juveniles.

Bernardo was the eldest (having "just entered his teens") and only male amongst a group of four playmates (the other three were females "on the cusp of their teenage years") who engaged in various kinds of sexual touching at Bernardo's request. Bernardo's father found a text on Bernardo's cell phone from one of the girls talking about a sex act she would have performed on him if one of the other girls had not been present. Mr. B. called the girl's mother with his concern. The girl's parents called the police. After investigation and sexual abuse interviews in which the girls described Bernardo "pressuring" them to touch him in various ways Bernardo was charged with delinquency for three counts of statutory rape, amongst other charges.

Bernardo's defense attorney tried to get the District Attorney to prosecute the girls for their sex acts on, the also under aged, Bernardo but the DA declined. Bernardo filed applications for criminal complaints against the girls but the Clerk-Magistrate declined to issue complaints.

Chief Justice Marshall, in a 3-2 decision, ruled that "[T]he single justice [who refused to vacate the juvenile court judge's order granting the defendant's discovery requests] did not abuse her discretion in declining to vacate the ruling of the motion judge that the boy has made a threshold showing based on credible evidence that he is entitled to discovery for the purpose of investigating and, if warranted, raising a claim of selective prosecution."

Press reports of the case imply that the SJC ruled that there was selective prosecution. The case really only says that the defendant has raised enough of a question about selective prosecution that he is entitled to force the DA to produce statistics that may help him show that he was discriminatorily prosecuted on the basis of being male. Once the information is provided, the defendant will still have a heavy burden to meet in attempting to overcome the presumption of validity granted to prosecutorial discretion.

Also of interest in the case was a brief history of statutory rape. Chief Justice Marshall wrote:

Statutory rape is an offense of ancient origins. "First codified into English law in 1275, statutory rape criminalized sexual relations with females under the age of twelve." Oberman, Regulating Consensual Sex with Minors: Defining a Role for Statutory Rape, 48 Buff. L.Rev. 703, 754 (2000). The aim of this gender-specific statute was not the protection of young females but the protection of fathers' property interests in their young daughters, whose loss of virginity would severely depress the value of the dowry the father would receive on his daughter's marriage. Id. at 754-755. By the late Sixteenth Century, the aim of the law evolved to a statute designed to protect men from charges of illegal sex with young girls. The age of consent was lowered to ten years and so it stood when the American colonies, including Massachusetts, absorbed English common law and adopted the English law of statutory rape. General Laws of Massachusetts Colony at 15 (1672), reprinted in Colonial Laws of Massachusetts 1672-1686 (1887) ("whosoever he be shall commit or have Carnal Copulation with any such [woman] Childe under ten years old ... he shall be put to death"); Province Laws 1692-1693, c. 19, § 11 (capital offense for any man to "unlawfully and carnally know and abuse any woman child under the age of ten years"). See generally Note, No Child Left Behind Bars: The Need to Combat Cruel and Unusual Punishment of State Statutory Rape Laws, 16 J.L. & Pol'y 717, 725-726 (2008). In the late Nineteenth Century, in response to the widespread sexual exploitation of young girls in factories and urban centers, temperance organizations and other reform groups launched a nationwide effort to raise the age of consent. In Massachusetts, between 1886 and 1898, the age of consent rose from ten to thirteen, then fourteen, then sixteen years of age. See Commonwealth v. Hackett, 170 Mass. 194, 195-196 (1898) (summarizing statutory amendments to age of consent). As in Elizabethan times, however, only females could be the victims of statutory rape.

There have been more recent efforts to reform our American statutory rape law. Statute 1974, c. 474, § 3, struck the word "female" from G.L. c. 265, § 23. Compare St.1974, c. 474, § 3, with St.1966, c. 291. See also note 3, supra. As we noted in Commonwealth v. Hackett, 383 Mass. 888, 888 (1981): "In general, the 1974 amendment eliminated prior language which defined the victims of rape as female or female children. Instead, the victims are now defined as persons or children and the generic masculine pronoun is substituted throughout. Both males and females are protected from sexual assault by this same statute, which is neutral as to the gender of the victim. Nor does the statute define the various crimes with reference to the gender of the offender. The result is that the penalties for sexual intercourse and unnatural sexual intercourse are the same without regard to the gender of the victim."

Modern amendments leave no doubt about the Legislature's intent to protect all children under sixteen years old from sexual abuse. The statutory rape law, as well, makes clear that perpetrators of statutory rape may be either male or female. Statutory rape in Massachusetts is a strict liability felony. Only two elements are needed to support a conviction under G.L. c. 265, § 23: "(1) sexual intercourse or unnatural sexual intercourse with (2) a child under sixteen years of age." Commonwealth v. Miller, 385 Mass. 521, 522 (1982). See id. at 525 (noting that mistake as to age is not defense to statutory rape in Massachusetts). Force is not a necessary element of the crime. Moreover, conviction of statutory rape has weighty consequence beyond incarceration. Those convicted enter the Commonwealth's sex offender registry and are required to abide by all of the obligations and restrictions contained therein. See G.L. c. 6, §§ 178C-178Q.

It remains to be seen whether Bernardo will be able to make out his selective prosecution case and thereby get the complaint against him dismissed. His motion "to dismiss the statutory rape claim on the ground that the law was unconstitutional as applied to him ... remains undecided, [and was] not before [the SJC]. The decision noted also that "As a result of the arrest and charges, the boy has been suspended from school and removed from its football team. He is being tutored at home."

Alternatives for promoting school safety

Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine (November / December 2008 edition) reported on restorative practices as a means of promoting school safety and an alternative to zero tolerance policies.
The Talk It Out Solution
How can you promote safety? Try getting rid of the metal detectors.
By Caralee Adams | November/December 2008

What makes for a safe school? Security guards patrolling the hallways? Metal detectors? Zero-tolerance policies? The answer may be none of the above: Educators are searching for new solutions to achieving harmony in the classroom and, surprisingly, they’re increasingly holistic. “There aren’t enough bars, metal detectors, or police to make a school safe if there is a culture of violence in a school,” says Ted Wachtel, founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “You need to strike at the heart of the culture.”

Trying restorative practices
One safer schools initiative making its way across the nation is the implementation of “restorative practices.” Rather than meting out punishments, restorative practices employs a talk-it-out approach to foster dialogue between aggrieved students. Students are taught basic social skills to problem-solve and lower the tension in schools. One premise of the strategy is that kids feel safe when there is cooperation instead of hostility; another is that kids who feel valued and connected at school are less likely to act out. Many administrators around the country are investing in restorative practices programs to build a healthy school climate in hopes of fending off violence and improving academic performance.

Restorative practices places responsibility on the students themselves rather than relying on zero tolerance and authoritarian control from above. It uses a collaborative response to wrongdoing, which is intended to be supportive, not demeaning.

Read the rest of the article here.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Challenge to Mass. Special Ed Due Process system

Attorney Robert Crabtree wrote:

Over the last couple of days we learned that Mitchell Chester, Ed.D., our new Commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ("DESE"), chose as one of his first acts in Massachusetts to invite the federal office that oversees implementation of IDEA in the states (the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the U.S. Department of Education) to rule that our due process system - the Bureau of Special Education Appeals - violates IDEA because the hearing officers are employees of the DESE. OSEP gave him the opinion he asked for and requested that the Department submit a plan within 90 days to set out steps to remove the BSEA from its auspices. See the attached for a copy of the memo Commissioner Chester posted yesterday.

This is an issue that was addressed early in the process in Massachusetts; a bureaucratic wall was built around the agency; and for many years we have had a very workable and very professional unit of hearing officers dealing only with special education disputes. In short, the system works, and there is no practical reason to "fix it," as advocates on both sides of these cases generally agree. What the actual motivation for the new commissioner having taken this action - and so quickly in his regime - remains to be seen, but the objective is clear - he wants the BSEA out of his agency.

What the enforcement system for students' and parents' rights under IDEA will look like after this is over is far from certain. From the perspective of most practitioners at this juncture the best result would be for the current BSEA to be reconstituted as it is but in a different location, under different auspices and with sufficient funding to continue to do its work independently and professionally. There is a long and deep base of experiential and intellectual capital in the BSEA and it would be absurd and expensive to throw that away. The prospect of having to educate fresh hearing officers in each case to the complexities of special education law and substance from the ground up looms as an economic nightmare. (And, as usual, it would be those who can least afford that incremental cost who would suffer the most.) We expect that the worst of imaginable options may be what we know some other states have lived with - namely the use of independent contractors (including some who represent school districts in their practices) to hear cases.

The Commissioner has promised a collaborative process as the DESE develops a plan for the next steps over the next three months. He has also promised a "seamless" transition plan with no disruption of the resolution of special education disputes and with the needs of all parties continuing to be met. Let's hope . . .


And here is the text of the Commissioner's Memo (also supplied by Bob Crabtree):


To: Superintendents, Charter School Leaders and Special Education Directors
From: Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
Date: January 22, 2009
Subject: U.S. Department of Education Ruling on Bureau of Special Education Appeals

In October 2008, after becoming Commissioner and reviewing the operations of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, I had questions about the structure for special education hearings and mediations in Massachusetts. My questions were based on my experience and knowledge of how these procedures are conducted in other states. I wrote to the United States Department of Education (USED) and asked them to evaluate our current structure in relation to the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services of the USED responded last week and informed me that the structure for the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) is not consistent with the IDEA and its regulations.

The letter we received from the USED, dated January 15, 2009, states that the IDEA unambiguously requires that hearing officers and mediators not be employees of the state education agency. Currently, the 18 members of the BSEA staff are all employees of the state education agency, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

To be clear, the finding challenges our current structure, but does not call into question the impartiality or integrity of any of the decisions the BSEA has made. Our system for due process hearings and mediations has been and is operating in an impartial manner. No one in this Department, outside of the BSEA staff, reviews or tries to influence decisions of individual
hearing officers or mediators in ongoing cases.

The USED has given us 90 days from the date of their letter to respond with a plan that will bring us into full compliance with the IDEA. We are determined to develop a seamless transition plan for the BSEA so that the resolution of special education matters is not disrupted and the needs of students, parents, and the special education community continue to be met.

Over the next three months we will gather information about how this work is done in other states, seek input from key constituent and stakeholder groups, consider our options, and present a plan to USED. Until a final decision is made, the BSEA will continue to operate as it has, issuing valid and impartial hearing decisions and assisting parties in resolving their disputes.

If you have any questions, please contact Associate Commissioner Jeffrey Wulfson at 781-338- 6500

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Supreme Court to hear school strip search case

As reported here, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Safford (AZ) Unified School District's appeal of the Ninth Circuit's reversal of the dismissal of Savana Redding's suit against it for strip searching her to look for ibuprofen when she was a 13-year-old honor student with no history of discipline issues at her middle school.

I hope SCOTUS isn't taking the case in order to overturn the Ninth Circuit. The July 11, 2008, Opinion of nine of the eleven appeals court judges who heard the case details the Constitutional basis for holding the school personnel responsible for their unreasonable violation of the privacy and person of the 13-year-old student.

The Ninth Circuit held that
[T]he public school officials who strip searched Savana acted contrary to all reason and common sense as they trampled over her legitimate and substantial interests in privacy and security of her person.

It would be a shame if parents had to worry more about schools abusing their children than the "evils" that Safford U.S.D.'s officials say they want to protect our children from.