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Legal Topics Present Major Challenges
for Special Education Administrators

Legal Topics Present Major Challenges for Special Education Administrators

An Education Talk Radio interview with Phyllis Wolfram, Executive Director at the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE)

The Boston Globe recently ran a story about a student with autism who had been attending a specialized school funded by the district. When budget cuts removed that funding, the child was abruptly ordered to attend a mainstream public school.

The transition was excruciating. The student was overwhelmingly distressed with the new environment and refused to return to school. The mother, torn between her obligations to comply with the court order and concern for her child’s well-being, was in an impossible situation. And although the school made efforts to accommodate the child, nothing has been resolved.

Children With Special Needs Have a Right to Education

That means access to the support and resources that make it possible for those students to learn. While districts are doing what they can to meet each student’s needs, they often can’t handle it alone—this work requires productive, meaningful collaboration between schools, parents and the legal system—and as a society, we’re obligated to make it happen.

Phyllis Wolfram, Executive Director at the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE) knows a great deal about this. She joined Larry Jacobs on Education Talk Radio to discuss what she’s seen in conversations at the CASE Academy of Law and Leadership, which took place in April, 2024.

One of the most pressing problems, she said, is a national shortage of qualified special education teachers and staff, as well as instructional support personnel, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and behavioral analysts. Many of the Academy presentations focused on the impact that a general lack of appropriations and qualified people has on special education.

And Then There’s Compliance

Today’s teachers are saddled with countless regulatory requirements. Wolfram noted that another prevailing theme at the conference was the stress it causes. “Everything that we talked about over those three days really kind of boils down to, ‘Are we following the law? Are we being compliant with all the regulatory requirements?’”

Fortunately, those questions were met with answers because of the research-to-practice approach that CASE Academy presentations followed. Attorneys and local special education administrators teamed up to discuss the many compliance requirements that districts are navigating, paving the way for deep, collaborative discussions.

  • The attorneys discussed legal requirements and any court cases that would impact decision making.
  • The local directors shared their experiences and ways they have addressed compliance issues in their districts.

Special ed directors face so many challenges, and the Covid pandemic certainly hasn’t made their jobs easier, but CASE is making every effort to provide the support and guidance they need to address inequities and make tough decisions that ensure equitable access to a quality education for all students. The first step, said Wolfram, is getting the superintendent and other district-level administrators to work together on problem solving, identify the resources they can pool and determine what they can provide.

The Next Step: Look at Outside Resources

“Many times, we’re asking educators to be those mental health experts,” she said. “Not every educator has the expertise to deal with children with autism, so it’s also bringing in those experts and really thinking outside the box about what other things can we try? And we do have a list of things that we can try.”

This means engaging with mediators and experts in the fields of autism, behavioral and mental health, who may have ideas that are new to school districts and parents. “I would bring in some different perspectives to help do some problem solving,” Wolfram said. “And where the parent is feeling pressure from a judge, the school district might be able to talk with the district attorney—talk with someone from the judge’s office, to say, ‘We need some assistance here. We don’t want to penalize the parent.’”

Mandatory Attendance and Other Challenges

Wolfram mentioned one instance where a student requested to be excused from school because a doctor had prescribed 20 hours a week of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). CASE frequently receives questions about this sort of thing, as students in special education often need to go to private therapies and external programs, and this creates a dilemma at times because they need those services, but the classroom time they miss can be problematic.

Each state has its own laws around mandatory attendance and there are additional overarching laws in public education. “Some kids are half day in public school, part day in private school,” explained Wolfram. And although partial enrollment is necessary in many cases, the IEP is key. “They’re in school and we know they’re enrolled; the law knows they’re enrolled in school,” she said. But when a student is excused from school, it can be considered an absence unless it’s part of a student’s IEP program.”

Although the 2024 CASE Academy of Law and Leadership has concluded, members will soon get a deep dive on many of these issues with a free four-part educator well-being series featuring Ricky Robertson.

  1. When Stress Becomes Contagious
  2. Putting Your Oxygen Mask on First
  3. Psychological Safety Among Teams
  4. Collective Care is Essential

CASE is also conducting a full-day discipline bootcamp to help educators handle behavioral issues in line with the requirements of the U.S. Department of Education’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Special education administrators who look after their own well-being are better able to advocate for their students, said Wolfram in closing. “We’re working really hard to provide those resources for educators to stay on top of things and to follow the compliance requirements, as well as take care of themselves.”


Listen to the full conversation:


Maia Appleby is the Editorial Director of the American Consortium for Equity in Education. She’s also a communications manager and an advocate who has been writing and editing in the education space since 2010. Connect with her on LinkedIn at Linkedin.com/in/maialee.

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