School Bureaucracy: It’s the Little Things That Get Ya

Here be another rant. Though regarding a detail seemingly limited in its significance, the frequency of such events as that below over time deadens the initiative of school building based personnel.

As I have a dysfunctional habit of doing, I arrive late to the reevaluation meeting for one of our special education students. Only shortly after I walk in the door, and before I have fully caught up with the rhythm of the proceedings, I start to gather that the decision has been made to transition the student, call her Mary, from an IEP to a 504, because she has made great strides, and no longer requires the specialized instruction that is the raison d’etre of special education. A 504, however, will still give her “accommodations” in the classroom, specifically in her case around testing arrangements. All legit.

But I feel blindsided. I had not been told that a 504 was a possibility and, as a 504 case manager by our school district’s designation, I would be responsible for the transition to a 504. In fact, to move things as seamlessly as possible, and save everyone involved another meeting and more time, I would have immediately shifted the meeting to one for a 504, and made it happen. But not to be. I am told we have to have a separate meeting, which means gathering for a second time on a different date the identical set of people, and make a decision officially based upon exactly the same set of information and leading to the identical conclusion. Welcome to school bureaucracy.

I fume, then talk with the good psychologist responsible for the meeting. Herself time crunched in her own responsibilities, she had only the night before come to the conclusion that shifting to a 504 made sense for Mary, our student, and so had not had a chance to fill me in (particularly since I was late to the meeting).

Still fuming, but now mollified somewhat, I talk with my administrator about the situation. All of us, and certainly those who do my type of work, have over recent years considerably more responsibilities placed on my shoulders, with little if anything taken off our plate. We have to be efficient in our use of time in order to squeeze the most benefit from that time, and it makes only an idiot’s sense not to meld the two meetings. Why? (Well, my hot headed youth, here’s why) Turns out we in our building have had our hands slapped for doing so in the previous school year (perhaps I am one of the culprits?), because a parent in a transition from special education to a 504 in a situation similar to the present one, has complained that we did so. But the rationale behind the complaint turns out to be understandable. The mother felt she had been blindsided by the decision, had not been given time to let it settle, and then felt rushed into a 504 she might have resisted had she had more time to contemplate.

So what does the district administrator do? In perfect bureaucratic fashion she requires a meeting separated in time, whether or not the commandment met the needs of the situation. There are other ways to play the problem. How about an informal conversation with parent and student ahead of time about the possibility of a shift such as the one described with Mary, so both come to the decision table having had ample time to think and ask questions? The spirit of the law is to include both in the decision making; it is a team decision in which the parent and the student participate. Then to dovetail a 504 meeting as a bookend to the reevaluation meeting, if the decision has been a faithful one, makes more sense, and saves all parties time, without sacrificing the spirit of the process.

But bureaucracies in the hands of bureaucrats, some of whom are more enamored of their power than others, has an infuriating inclination to dictate in unimaginative ways that may even be well intended, but poorly fit the circumstances on the ground.

So our bureaucrat in question might have looked to train in maintaining the spirit of the process, rather than promulgating a rigid rule, thereby improving the ground level interactions with parents, at the same time as empowering the professional decision making of school level personnel. Win/win.

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