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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Just Breathe: Mindfulness May Help Freshman Stress Less and Smile More

From Penn State University
via ScienceDaily

April 20, 2017

Mindfulness training may be one way to help students successfully transition to college life, according to Penn State researchers.

The first semester of college is a time of great transition for many students -- they often are living away from home for the first time, have a much more fluid schedule than in high school and are potentially surrounded by a new peer group. For all of these reasons and more, this can be an incredibly stressful time in a student's life.

To help ease this transition, researchers offered an eight-session mindfulness training program to first-year students at Penn State, according to Kamila Dvorakova, a doctoral Compassion and Caring fellow in the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and lead author of the study.

In mindfulness meditation, practitioners learn how to develop an accepting, nonjudgmental and kind attitude toward present moment thoughts and feelings, according to the researchers, who presented their findings in a recent issue of the Journal of American College Health.

At the end of the eight sessions, the intervention was associated with significant increases in the students' life satisfaction, as well as a significant decrease in depression and anxiety, when compared to students who did not participate in the training.

There was also an overall drop in alcohol use between the students who took part in the mindfulness program and the control group.

"We offered an experiential, practice-oriented training," said Dvorakova. "Rather than telling the students what to do, we had them explore and talk about how to be mindful in their daily lives and discover the benefits for themselves. We found that underneath the stress that students are experiencing is a deep desire to appreciate life and feel meaningful connections with other people. It is our responsibility as educators to create academic environments that nurture both students' minds and hearts."

Dvorakova and Mark Agrusti, mindfulness and meditation integration specialist, Prevention Research Center, adapted the existing Learning to BREATHE program -- originally developed for adolescents by Patricia C. Broderick, research associate, Prevention Research Center -- for college students and called it Just BREATHE.

The teachings in the eight sessions were themed around the BREATHE acronym: body, reflections, emotions (or awareness), attention, tenderness (or self-compassion), healthy habits and empowerment.

"The beginning of the college career presents such a unique opportunity -- all of these students are going through this same transition at the same time," said Agrusti. "These freshmen are beginning to acquire habits and perceptions that will shape their lives as students and adults, so it's a perfect time for them to discover practices, such as mindfulness, stress management, self-care and emotional literacy skills."

Fifty-two undergraduate students participated in the intervention, with another 53 serving as a control. The program included self-awareness practices, emotion-regulation skills and simple mindfulness techniques to help students manage stressful situations, the researchers said. The participants were also given cards and stickers for home practice to serve as reminders to use mindfulness techniques when they encounter stressful situations.

The students indicated that the three most effective in-class exercises were three mindful breaths, breath awareness and mindfulness of emotions. A total of 98 percent of the participants would recommend the program to friends and classmates.

According to the researchers, future studies might include adding more participants, scheduling long-term follow-ups and integrating mindfulness with academic lessons.

Journal Reference
  • Kamila Dvořáková, Moé Kishida, Jacinda Li, Steriani Elavsky, Patricia C. Broderick, Mark R. Agrusti, Mark T. Greenberg. Promoting healthy transition to college through mindfulness training with first-year college students: Pilot randomized controlled trial. Journal of American College Health, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2017.1278605

Tax Credits, School Choice and ‘Neovouchers’: What You Need to Know

From The Conversation

By Kevin Welner
April 14, 2017

President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tour Saint
Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Florida. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

As Republican lawmakers craft a tax reform bill, there’s speculation on the import taxes, value-added taxes and tax cuts it may usher in. Meanwhile, it’s likely that the bill will also include a major education policy initiative from the Trump administration: a tax credit designed to fund private school vouchers.

A decade ago I started researching this new kind of voucher – funded through a somewhat convoluted tax credit mechanism – that appears to have particular appeal to President Trump and other Republicans.

These new vouchers (or “neo-vouchers”) are similar to conventional vouchers in many ways, but there are some important differences. It’s those differences that neo-voucher advocates most care about and that everyone should understand.

Conventional Vouchers

What exactly is a school voucher? Typically, a voucher is direct financial support that helps families pay for the cost of private K-12 schooling. Proponents see vouchers as a way to help children attend nonpublic schools. Detractors see vouchers as undermining funding and support needed by public education.

All vouchers subsidize tuition with tax dollars. This can be accomplished in many ways, and the nuances matter.

Conventional voucher policies use the relatively straightforward method of allocating state money to give vouchers directly to eligible parents. The parents, in turn, give the vouchers to a private school of their choice. These schools are sometimes secular, but are usually religious.

The private schools then redeem these vouchers to obtain money from the state. In the 16 states where conventional voucher policies exist, they produce about 175,000 vouchers annually. This amounts to 3.3 percent of the nation’s private school population.

Yet, these direct vouchering programs present four major problems for school choice advocates.

First, they’re typically available only to lower-income families; wealthier families are usually not eligible.

Second, when governments directly provide voucher money, participating schools are generally required to comply with a variety of guidelines, such as accreditation requirements, anti-discrimination regulation, minimum teacher qualifications, financial reporting and/or the administration of a standardized test to students receiving the voucher.

Third, vouchers are simply not politically popular – which is why the more palatable term “opportunity scholarships” (courtesy of messaging guru Frank Luntz) has become increasingly popular.

Finally – and importantly – state constitutions often prohibit the channeling of state money to religious institutions. In many states, this means that conventional voucher programs cannot exist if the program includes religious schools.

Although the Supreme Court has ruled that vouchers don’t violate federal law, state constitutions can create legal obstacles that are more formidable than those under the U.S. Constitution.

St. Joseph Academy, a Catholic school in Cleveland, is one of the top three
schools to benefit from Ohio voucher dollars. Ohio’s conventional vouchers
can be applied to secular and nonsecular schools alike, but 97 percent go
to religious schools. 
Oarbogast / Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA

Vouchers on Steroids

To sidestep these issues, many state lawmakers have embraced a new kind of voucher policy that gets essentially the same result but changes the state’s role from paying for vouchers to issuing tax credits.

This approach was first adopted in Arizona, in 1997, where the legislature passed a law setting up a system in which any taxpayer could “donate” money to a special, private nonprofit corporation. That corporation then issues vouchers to parents, who use them to pay for private school tuition. The taxpayers then get the money back from the state in the form of a tax credit.

Arizona’s constitution – typical of language in state constitutions – requires that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.” But Arizona’s elaborate mechanism keeps the specific dollars out of state coffers. Consequently, state funding only indirectly supports religious institutions.

The Arizona Supreme Court found this distinction sufficient, ruling that the tax credits did not violate the state’s constitutional prohibition against spending public money for religious support.

Beyond this legal advantage, advocates favor this sort of tax-credit-voucher method because it appears less likely to be regulated. It’s also likely to be open to a wider range of parents – not just lower-income or special needs families. And the complexity of the neo-voucher approach obscures the fact that it’s really a voucher program, making it less of a political lightning rod.

Some wealthy taxpayers can even receive tax benefits exceeding the value of their donations.

This baffling outcome is because of a loophole tied to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), an extra tax imposed on some wealthier taxpayers to ensure that they pay their fair share. The AMT limits certain tax breaks, such as the ability to deduct state tax payments from federal taxes.

However – and here’s the twist – these AMT taxpayers can deduct charitable contributions. And so, these wealthier taxpayers can shift their state tax payment into a “charitable” contribution and instantly transform the payment into a federal deduction.

In the six states that give a full tax credit for voucher donations, those taxpayers can get back the full value of their voucher plus a deduction for the donation.

A decade ago when I wrote a book explaining these tax credit policies and labeling them “neovouchers,” they existed in only six states and generated about 100,000 vouchers. Today, 17 states have tax-credit policies similar to Arizona’s on their books, generating a quarter-million vouchers and growing every year.

Students at The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Florida is one of the states that issues tax-credit-style vouchers.
Randal Martin / WikipediaCC BY

These new vouchers aren’t likely to help kids.

Do these vouchers improve student achievement? The research suggests that we shouldn’t expect children’s learning to be affected.

An evaluation of Florida’s neovoucher law – which the Trump administration appears to be using as its model – found that students receiving these neo-vouchers had a non-significant (-0.7 percentile points) loss in math and non-significant (+0.1 percentile points) gain in standardized test scores.

Similarly, research focused on conventional vouchers has tended to reach this same conclusion, finding no significant change in student test scores. More recent studies, looking at conventional vouchers in Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana actually find that test scores have declined – in some cases, by surprisingly large margins.

What to Expect

While, thus far, neo-voucher policies have existed only on the state level, proposals are now appearing at a federal level.

In February of 2017, Rep. Todd Rokita of Illinois and three Republican colleagues introduced a bill (H.B. 895) that sets forth the basic structure for a federal neo-voucher policy.

But the particulars of the neo-voucher policy that ultimately emerges in the Republicans’ tax reform bill are up for grabs. Based on the wide variety of existing state neo-voucher policies, it is possible that the federal proposal will provide a full 100 percent credit (as does H.B. 895) or a credit of only 50 or 65 percent. It might limit eligibility to children in families at the poverty level, or it might have expanded or even universal eligibility.

It also remains to be seen whether federal neo-vouchers would be allocated only in states with existing programs or might be distributed in all states, including those with no such laws.

Interestingly, some of the staunchest advocates of state-level neo-vouchers have expressed concern and even opposition to a federal initiative. Beyond general conservative resistance to federal overreach in education policy, they voice familiar concerns about the likelihood of regulations following money, particularly from future Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C.

And, of course, a federal neo-voucher program would face significant fiscal obstacles as well. Absent large cuts elsewhere, these policies would strain the federal budget, requiring some creative work on the part of lawmakers – particularly since the tax reform bill will have to be revenue neutral. The cost of vouchers for even a fraction of the nation’s 57 million K-12 students could easily cost tens of billions.

This daunting price tag, however, probably won’t deter President Trump or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who have stated their opposition to the “public” part of public schools, with Trump even denigrating them as socialistic “government schools” that are part of the “American carnage” that “leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

It seems unlikely that they will forego their chance to give tax dollars to private education.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Forget Grit. Focus on Inequality.

From Education Week

By Christine Yeh
April 14, 2017

Why is grit at the center of the national education debate?

As we approach the final months of the school year, grit continues to be a national obsession. This so-called quality of grit refers to persistence toward a long-term future goal and has been received by many as a possible panacea for the racial and economic disparities in public schools.

Grit is an easy concept to fall in love with because it represents hope and perseverance, and conjures up images of working-class individuals living the “American dream.”

However, treating grit as an appealing and simple fix detracts attention from the larger structural inequities in schools, while simultaneously romanticizing notions of poverty.

This past year has been an eventful one for the notion of grit. Along with the high-profile release of two grit-centric books (Angela Ducksworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and Paul Tough’s Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why), one study cast doubt on the importance of grit.

“Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature” by Marcus Crede and colleagues analyzed 88 separate studies on grit and raised three main concerns: The effect sizes in Duckworth’s research were inaccurately presented to appear larger, the influence of grit has been overstated, and the characteristic grit is not much different from the concept of conscientiousness—a concept already well-known and well-researched by psychologists.

In a email exchange with NPR in which she responded to these criticisms, Angela Duckworth agreed that, although the statistics in her paper were factually accurate, the language was such that the effect of grit could be misconstrued as greater than it actually was.

Secondly, she also agreed that the impact of grit is actually in the “small to medium” range. And finally, when asked to comment on whether or not grit was unique from the notion of conscientiousness she acknowledged that grit was indeed in the same “family” as conscientiousness.

As I consider the future of grit in schools, I keep coming back to a visit I had at a local public school where a teacher lectured his students about the importance of following through on a goal, even if it wasn’t interesting. He bragged about students who memorized thousands of words and as a result won a local spelling bee. “These students showed grit, that’s why they won,” he told his students.

What that teacher failed to say is that not all things are worth sticking with. Do we really want to teach our children to focus on memorization and tedious tasks for the sake of developing grit? Or do we want to teach students to explore, question, and engage in meaningful experiences that pertain to their lives?

So why is grit at the center of the national education debate?

Perhaps this idea of grit resonates with so many people who believe in the popular American adage that if you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you can achieve anything. This belief unfortunately, assumes that individuals have the power, privilege, and access to craft their own futures, regardless of circumstance and systemic barriers.

"Schools need to build their own type of grit—that is, a long-term investment and goal, a stick-with-it-ness—to serve all students."

Statistics on educational access consistently reveal vast differences in resources in affluent versus poor neighborhoods. Predominantly white, middle- and upper-income school districts tend to spend significantly more money per student than the districts with the highest percentages of marginalized students. Our poorest schools also tend to have large class sizes, unsafe school transportation, damaged and outdated facilities, and high staff turnover.

All of these conditions directly contribute to low educational outcomes and underscore the link between access to school resources and improvements in students’ success. Schools that focus on grit shouldn’t ignore structural inequities because they assume that regardless of your race, class, or social context you can still triumph.

To be sure, there have been many examples of poor students possibly using their grit to overcome the greatest of odds—such as unstable housing, our troubled foster care system, and community violence. And there are probably advantages for teaching students to persevere and stick with a goal while facing challenges and obstacles.

However, the responsibility of a great education should not be placed on the individual student to achieve through grit. Rather, schools need to build their own type of grit—that is, a long-term investment and goal, a stick-to-itiveness—to serve all students, but especially those in the margins.

Educators need to resist the temptation to hyper focus on singular qualities—such as grit, self-esteem, or IQ—as quick cure-alls for our nations’ education problems and identify meaningful changes that tackle discrepancies in student resources.

We don’t want to teach grit as a skill without making larger systemic and contextual changes in schools that promote equitable conditions for success.

Where should schools focus their attention for historically marginalized students?

Numerous educational research studies demonstrate that schools that provide culturally relevant curriculum—including books by authors of color, critical explorations of histories and social movements, and school-based programs that creatively foster positive identities and cultural empowerment—dramatically increase students’ engagement in school, bonding with teachers, and academic achievement.

These practices work because students feel connected and represented as a meaningful part of school, and subsequently they develop a focus on future goals.

These ideas may not conform to the recent movements on character education and, more specifically, on teaching grit, but they do embody the lives and stories of many targeted and vulnerable communities.

The notion of grit has certainly spurred important discussions about the nonacademic experiences and skills we want our students to have, but it has often obscured the very conditions that created educational inequities in the first place.

Christine Yeh is currently a professor of psychology and education and a co-director of the Center for Research, Artistic, and Scholarly Excellence at the University of San Francisco.

Brain Changes at Age 6 or 12 Months May Help Predict the Development of Autism Spectrum Disorder by Age 2 Years

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

February 15, 2017

NIH-funded researchers link brain changes at 6 and 12 months of age to autism.

Brain changes at age 6 or 12 months may help predict the development of autism spectrum disorder by age 2 years among infants with a high family risk, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. Currently, autism can be diagnosed as early as age 2 years, based on certain behaviors and communication difficulties.

The study, funded by the NIH Autism Centers of Excellence Program, is published in the February 16, 2017, issue of Nature.

Approximately 1 out of every 68 children in the United States has autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Siblings of children diagnosed with autism have a higher risk of developing the disorder, compared to those in the general population. While there is no cure for autism, early diagnosis and intervention can ease symptoms and improve social, emotional and cognitive skills.

Previous studies have shown that people with autism have larger brains, which can be detected during early childhood. In the new study, a team led by researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for differences in brain development among three groups: infants with a high family risk (i.e., older sibling with autism) who were later diagnosed with autism at age 2 years (15), infants with a high family risk who did not have autism at age 2 years (91), and infants with a low family risk who did not have autism at age 2 years (42).

The researchers evaluated the infants at 6, 12 and 24 months. Children with autism had a faster brain surface growth rate between 6 and 12 months, as well as a faster growth rate of overall brain size between 12 and 24 months, compared to children without autism. Next, the team analyzed the MRI data using a computer-based technology called machine learning to see if early brain differences at 6 and 12 months can predict autism at age 2 years.

Among children with a high family risk, the computer program identified approximately 8 out of 10 infants who later developed autism.

While the findings are promising, the researchers caution that more studies are needed before this tool can be used for predicting autism development.

NIH funding was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Additional funding was provided by Autism Speaks and the Simons Foundation.

  • Hazlett HC, Gu H, Munsell BC, Kim SH, Styner M, Wolff JJ, Elison JT, Swanson MR, Zhu H, Botteron KN, Collins DL, Constantino JN, Dager SR, Estes AM, Evans AC, Fonov VS, Gerig G, Kostopoulos P, McKinstry RC, Pandey J, Paterson S, Pruett Jr. JR, Schultz RT, Shaw DW, Zwaigenbaum L, Piven J and the IBIS Network. Early brain development in infants at high risk for autism spectrum disorder. Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature21369 (2017)

About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): NICHD conducts and supports research in the United States and throughout the world on fetal, infant and child development; maternal, child and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit NICHD’s website.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Choice Advocates Not Only Want More Money for Vouchers, They Want It with No Strings Attached

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
April 6, 2017

Ever since the Betsy DeVos was nominated as Secretary of Education, school choice advocates have been salivating over the possibility that the privatization of education would enter a new expansive era. Last week, the USA Today interviewed some of the nation's leading advocates of school choice and vouchers, who raised new concerns.

Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Richard Hess of the American Enterprise Institute warn there is a downside to this expansion: the federal government will begin to regulate private schools more. Hess remarked:

"... when you get a Democratic administration, an Elizabeth Warren administration, and they decide that eligible schools ... need to have anti-bullying programs and other accommodations? We will very quickly wind up and wonder, ‘What were we thinking?’” Petrilli said many private schools would forgo the funding if they have to abide by these types of regulations. “They just won’t participate,” he said. “And then what’s the point? You don’t have a program.”

Is this a sign of an evolving school voucher position that not only should the public fund private education, it should fund it with no strings attached?

That choice advocates could take such a position shows just how far the ground has shifted in a few short months. This position is incredible on any number of levels.

First, it assumes an entitlement to public funding for private choice. The problem is that there is no such entitlement. If the federal or state government is giving money to private schools or facilitating private choice, it goes without saying that it has the right to regulate that money.

In fact, conditioning federal money is the real reason for giving out federal money to begin with. The federal government knows that its ability to regulate state and private actors is relatively small. Thus, it achieves its policy objectives by exchanging money for conditions. We do this in everything from health care to education.

Second, state and federal government has funded public education for the past century and a half because it is public education. The state and federal interest in funding private education is extremely small at best.

The only interest in funding private education is to offset certain costs that might otherwise fall on public education. In other words, there is no independent reason to fund private education.

Third, federal funds for public schools come with a long list of conditions. Why we would condition funds in public schools but allow private schools to take them free of conditions?

The only obvious rationale I see is a normative preference for private schools over public schools. Few, however, are willing to publicly fess up to that rationale. If they did, it would be contrary to the second point. In effect, the justification for funding education at all would begin to collapse if we preferenced private education over public education.

Finally, public education is premised on a set of cultural and constitutional norms--non-discrimination, fair process, equal opportunity, social cohesion and freedom from religious coercion. As a general principle, private education is neither premised on nor committed to any of these norms.

Without regulation, they would not accept them. And if they did not accept them, the federal government could not in fairness give them public money. One might even seriously question whether a new set of constitutional concerns would arise if the federal government did so.

While the Supreme Court has upheld vouchers for private religious schools, the Court has also held that the federal government cannot achieve unconstitutional ends indirectly.

For instance, the federal government clearly cannot segregate schools itself. Could it indirectly achieve segregation through its spending power and have private or state entities do it for the federal government? The Court has said no.

Of course, just because private individuals might use public money to segregate or pursue religious ends does not meant that is the federal government's design--hence the prior decision upholding vouchers.

But if we converted into a system dominated by private choice and entirely free of constitutional and cultural norms, the question of whether the government was pursuing a new impermissible design could rise to the fore.

More here.

Falling Through the Cracks: Military Families Say Special-Needs Children Are Especially Vulnerable

From Stars & Stripes

By Dianna Cahn
April 13, 2017

Marisa Norman, center, flanked by her mother, Michelle Norman, and father,
Navy Capt. Cassidy Norman, at home in Virginia Beach, Va., on Feb. 25, 2017.
Marisa's parents fought the Virginia Beach school district to get their disabled
daughter into a private school. DIANNA CAHN/STARS AND STRIPES

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — When Navy Captain Cassidy Norman was assigned executive officer of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, he and his wife, Michelle, were relieved. His career path was taking them back to Virginia Beach — where they’d lived before and knew to be a good fit for their severely disabled daughter.

The Normans were the quintessential military officer family. Cass served in combat and climbed the ranks paying his dues. He and Michelle had learned to balance the demands of family and a military that would take him away from home for months. Even their daughter Marisa’s needs were being managed.

But the leadership had changed at Marisa’s school since they’d last been there, and with Cass away training, Michelle struggled alone against school officials to create an education plan that the Normans believed would give Marisa the tools she needed to learn. They believed the school minimized Marisa’s significant disabilities and declared her fine when she was flailing — assertions a hearing officer substantiated.

Marisa Norman, center, a special education student who lives in Virginia Beach, Va.,
poses with her hand up after a regional cheerleading competition on Feb. 26, 2017,
in Norfolk, Va. Marisa's parents fought the school district to place her in a private
school where they say she is flourishing. 

When he was home, Cass would call in or ditch his uniform to attend meetings as often as he could, not wanting to use his office inappropriately. But they soon concluded that they were in a battle — with their daughter’s future hanging in the balance.

The situation surprised them. They believed that public educators would want to work with them, but instead it seemed they were digging in their heels. Virginia Beach is a city whose economy is inextricably tied to the largest Navy hub in the world and, with exceptional medical and military services, it is considered one of the premier locations for families with special-needs children.

The school district serves 10,000 children with disabilities, boasting of “the best transition programs in the country” for military kids and enjoying hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to educate its military-connected students.

The Normans believed that system was failing their child, but when it came to fighting it, the Navy could only offer them educational materials and quietly advise them on Marisa’s rights to a “free and appropriate public education.”

“It was stressful — more stressful than me being in combat, going to nuclear propulsion school or being away from the family,” Cass said.

“And that was just on his side,” Michelle said.

The strain of having a special needs child is hard on families, but it’s particularly tough when families move a lot and must navigate a new school and the complexities of special education law in a new state every few years — the norm for military families.

Add to that the difficulties of one spouse being away frequently for their job — and often trying not to make waves because it could detract from his or her career — and military families can get pulled to breaking point.

“The strain on marriages is particularly intense,” said Suzanne Vogel, who, after raising a special-needs child in the SEAL community, co-founded the charity SEALkids Inc. that offers free tutoring, advocacy and therapies to children of Navy SEALS who are struggling in school.

“It’s extraordinary circumstances for sustained periods,” she said. “There has got to be a better solution when someone fails a child.”

The Exceptional Family Member Program — the main program for special needs families — offers tools for military families caring for a disabled relative to help navigate new locales and the medical and educational services available, and to better understand special-education law. Each branch runs its EFMP differently and offers varied levels of support.

The Marine Corps, for example, has two special-education lawyers for its force.

But most parents who must fight the school system are often on their own, something families say needs to change.

The Normans had to hire an advocate to come to meetings and serve as their guide to the intricacies of the laws governing special education.

They had the means to pay or borrow money to put their daughter in a private school where she had to repeat fifth grade but is now flourishing, and to hire a special-education lawyer when they concluded it was the only way to force the district to do what they believed was the right thing.

It wasn’t lost on them that they were the lucky ones. If the executive officer of an aircraft carrier can fall through the cracks — anyone could.

“A lot of families can’t fight this fight at all because they don’t have the resources,” Cass said. “I have a leadership role in the Navy as an officer. I certainly feel obliged to help out others who may not have had the opportunity I’ve had — who might not get what they need.”


Special education falls under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but compliance falls to schools in local districts, overseen by the state. Each state, meanwhile, applies IDEA differently, placing not only special-education students but their parents on a steep learning trajectory.

Parents of more severe special-needs children arrive in a school district with an individualized education program, or IEP, for their child negotiated at their old school.

It’s detailed and lays out the tools the student needs to learn. But under the law, a new school in a new state can re-evaluate the student, leaving the parents to renegotiate their child’s education.

For military families with children with special needs, that challenge gets repeated every few years.

“That’s our lives, moving from school district to school district, and you never know,” said Jeremy Hilton, a former Navy officer who has moved five times with his family for his wife’s Air Force career despite their daughter Kate’s disabilities.

Hilton took on an Alabama school district that was denying the services his daughter received in her prior school. He spoke with two special-education lawyers. One wanted a huge retainer. The other told him not to waste his time and money. Spend it instead on extra therapies for your child, he told Hilton.

In some states, delays in starting the process of evaluation and meetings can mean the child falls behind.

If a family wants to file due process, it must reckon with the time that would take, said Kassandra Levay, a professional advocate for special-needs families in San Antonio.

“Most families are not in place long enough to file due process and be there for a resolution,” she said.

When her Air Force husband deployed shortly after their family moved to a new station — one of four moves in six years — Sarah Davis was left to navigate with their five kids, four of whom have special needs. Davis has lupus and kidney disease, but when she said she asked the EFMP for respite help on days when she was ill, they suggested she reach out to the community or neighbors she didn’t yet know.

Instead, she let the kids play in the basement to make sure they wouldn’t wander off and laid on the stairs throwing up in a bucket.

“I really think the military could play a larger role in creating an EFMP system where you have services in place when you arrive at a new location,” she said. “We’ve had the opportunity to see what it means to be a special-needs family at all ranks, the very basic challenges of struggling with the system, having to relearn and renavigate with every move. And when we run into a roadblock, having nothing we can do about it.”

Hitting a Wall

Quantifying the number of disabled military-connected children in public education is tricky. The Defense Department says it has 120,000 families enrolled in its EFMPs, but it does not break down how many children are involved or how many eligible families are not enrolled. In 2009, the Pentagon said 90,000 families were enrolled in the program, but estimated that there were 130,000 eligible families that were not enrolled, according to The Washington Post.

One role of the EFMP is to offer medical screening to ensure that the servicemember is assigned to a location that offers adequate services. The military focuses less on education because all schools are required to comply with special-education law.

The program also offers family support. There is a directory of special-education services broken down by school district and training and webinars for parents on the intricacies of special education. But each branch runs its EFMP differently, and all have limitations.

Marisa Norman, a severely disabled special education student, at home in
Virginia Beach on Feb. 25, 2017. Marisa's parents fought the Virginia Beach
school district to get her into a private school where she is flourishing.

In 2010, Congress approved an Office of Special Needs to oversee the EFMPs and streamline the branches. The goal was to improve support and identify gaps in services. The job has proven complex.

At a briefing last month, director Ed Tyner said efforts are under way to create a centralized database for EFMPs. Local EFMPs sometimes work with school liaison officers if they hear about problems. But the program’s role is limited when things go wrong in the school.

“DOD really doesn’t have a jurisdiction over a public school,” Tyner said. “We don’t have a way to really look at or monitor state-run public schools with special-ed programs.”

That’s where military families can fall through the cracks, particularly because they are hesitant to rock the boat, said Amy Courtney, an advocate in Virginia Beach who helped the Normans.

“Military families don’t want to make enemies of the school system,” Courtney said.

Parents come in trusting that educators are on the same page and everyone is looking out for their child. When they realize that’s not happening, it often comes as a shock.

Staff Sgt. Miguel Mercado, who was medically discharged after 11 years in the Marine Corps, said that after moving from California to Maryland, he had meeting after meeting with the school district over its decision to remove IEP eligibility for his stepson, who had been diagnosed with ADHD.

“It took me a few minutes to realize these people are not here to help me,” he said. “They are here to defend the decisions that were made.”


In a recent survey by the Collaborative for Student Success, 35 percent of participating servicemembers said their child’s educational opportunities were significant in deciding whether to stay in the military, and 40 percent said they would decline a career-advancing job to keep their child in high-performing schools.

In 2013, then-Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno warned elected officials that if they want to keep military bases in their communities, they needed to start paying attention to their schools.

In short, for military parents, their child’s education matters. For parents of a special-needs child, that concern is overarching, said Vickie O’Brien, the Marine Corps’ East Coast special-education lawyer. When a family has to fight the system, the stress can be overwhelming.

“You watch a Marine who has been to war cry because their child can’t go to school because the teacher is not a good fit and is yelling at their kid in class,” O’Brien said. “How does a person stay in the military and do all those things it requires if their family is in crisis?”

Mercado, who deployed twice to Iraq, including to Fallujah during the heat of battle in 2007, said he was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and related alcohol abuse when he and his wife took on their daughter’s school district in Maryland.

Mercado channeled his stress into becoming almost obsessed with special-education law so he could fight for his child.

“In the IEP meetings, I never felt more vulnerable,” he said. “This is not what I trained for. I can’t help my child.”

Laura Livingston said dealing with their severely disabled son’s education while her SEAL husband was away on combat deployments was also intensely isolating. Their son has Angelman syndrome, a neurogenetic disorder. He has seizures, is unable to speak, has vision, hearing and other health issues and is severely mentally impaired. She thought he was safe in school.

One day, she arrived at her son’s class unannounced and saw him in the corner strapped to a special-support Rifton chair. She watched in horror as he rocked back and forth — no one able to see whether he was about to have a seizure. The teacher said he was in time-out for throwing a pencil and paper the teacher had put in his hand, even though he is unable to write.

“My husband was going over and fighting in the Middle East and he had to take more precautions in his treatment of the people he was fighting while my child was being strapped down in a chair all day,” Livingston said.

Through SEALkids, Livingston got advocacy help from Courtney, who accused the district of misusing the chair. They prevailed on the district to place her son in a more-controlled private setting. But the stress was overwhelming, Livingston said, and the couple are divorcing.

What the Military Can Do

After fighting with the school district in San Antonio to accommodate her son’s disabilities, Lorin Neslony went to the Air Force, trying to alert them that its families are struggling.

“We move so frequently,” she said. “EFMPs can’t help us; school liaison officers can’t help us.”

She urged the Air Force to consider hiring advocates and special-education lawyers, like the Marine Corps. But she said officials told her that they don’t believe the problem is big enough. To Neslony, it was a Catch-22. Families don’t think the military can help, so they don’t alert them, and then the military says they aren’t seeing a problem.

“I just feel the Air Force needs to step it up for their families,” she said.

It’s difficult to hold schools accountable without pressuring them with “the nuclear options,” namely advocacy or due process, said Michelle Linn, a former Air Force spouse who raised two disabled sons and now oversees housing at Air Force Base Command Headquarters in Colorado. Linn works closely with the special-needs community. She said she’s been pushing the idea of legal support for those families.

“That’s what we need to look at with the Air Force — to provide more presence at this juncture,” she said.

Grace Kim, the Normans’ lawyer, said the Department of Defense should have an office to oversee implementation of special-education laws for its families.

“The military asks so much from these servicemembers and their families,” she said. “Some of these servicemembers don’t come home. That’s a lot to ask to not take care of your own. It shouldn’t be this way.”

A Future

When the hearing officer in the Norman case came back with a ruling in their favor, the findings were damning.

The school’s failure to provide the IEP accommodations was “very troubling” and its failure to implement the IEP was “a serious infraction.” Parental concerns went unheard, the officer wrote, finding Marisa’s academic regression “of greatest concern.”

Marisa’s disabilities are formidable. She has cerebral palsy and is partially paralyzed on her right side. She also has neuro-developmental and neurological disorders; hearing, vision and sensory processing difficulties; and some trouble with language, reading comprehension and math calculations. She speaks in a whisper due to a tracheotomy when she was an infant, and takes medication for ADHD, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But she is intelligent, and her deficits, if addressed one by one, can be overcome. Given the right tools, Marisa is able and eager to learn.

Helpful Resources

The judge found that the school and the district had neglected Marisa’s education and failed to comply with the basics of the law requiring that every student be provided a “free and appropriate public education.”

The district was ordered to reimburse the Normans for Marisa’s first year in private school and pay for the next year. The district has yet to pay them.

The school district insists it can give Marisa a proper education in middle school and is appealing the decision, saying the judge applied “the wrong standard.” Deputy City Attorney Kamala Lannetti said that the district had devoted hundreds of staff hours “to meetings, evaluations and communications with the family to resolve the parent’s concerns” but the parents and the district “could not agree on the student’s needs.”

Heather Allen, the district spokeswoman, added via email: “I would like to underscore our commitment to collaborating with our parents and military school liaison officers to provide the best possible educational services for all military-connected children. It is an honor and responsibility which every person associated with Virginia Beach City Public Schools takes seriously.”

The Normans believe the district wants only to win — and has stopped seeing Marisa as a person.

People tend to look at children with special needs as not very functional and not worth much investment, advocate Levay said. But given the chance, most can learn quite well.

Marisa said she is happy at her current school, where she is doing well and participating in extracurricular activities like cheerleading on a special squad. She’s afraid when the other girls lift her for a cheer, she said. But when she did the move in February during a regional cheerleading competition — the only people beaming more proudly than she was were her parents.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Friend" Raiser for Massachusetts Advocates for Children Thursday, May 4th in Newton


April 19, 2017
Trump’s First 100 Days and Beyond:
Impact on Children with Disabilities

Big changes ahead for education with the new administration!
Please join us for a discussion of the threats to special education and other federal programs that support children with disabilities and how we can take action.
Guest Speakers
Robert K. Crabtree, special education attorney and partner at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong. Mr. Crabtree was a principal draftsman of the Massachusetts Special Education Reform Act (“Chapter 766”) in 1972 , an initiative that served as a model for the later-enacted federal special education act, now called "IDEA".
Julia Landau, attorney and director of the Disability Education Justice Initiative at Mass. Advocates for Children.
Jerry Mogul, executive director of Mass. Advocates for Children.
As responsibility for education may shift from the federal to state governments, organizations like Mass Advocates for Children (MAC) who have been leading efforts in the state house for decades become even more imperative. We need MAC more than ever to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities are maintained in this state, which is likely to be increasingly challenging in light of federal cuts.
Come learn about the crucial work of MAC and lend your support to their efforts financially and by joining their mobilization efforts.
Thursday, May 4, 6:00 - 8:00pm. (Remarks from 6:30-7:15 followed by Q&A)
Location: 55 Chapel Street, Newton, MA (Free parking in the lot across the street)
To register for this event, please use the PayPal link below. Admission is $25 per person. Cash bar and  plentiful hors d'oeuvres.

Enigmatic Chemical Tag is Altered in Autism Brains

From Spectrum News

By Bahar Gholipour
April 17, 2017

An understudied chemical modification that influences gene expression is abundant in the brains of people with autism, according to a new study (1).

DNA decor: Cells dot DNA with molecules to dial down gene
expression at those spots. 
shunyufan / iStock

The results are too preliminary to be conclusive, but they point to new avenues of study, experts say.

The modification, or tag, is a methyl group that attaches to the DNA base cytosine. The most-studied form of DNA methylation, called CpG methylation, targets cytosines that are followed by another base, guanine. Some researchers have found atypical patterns of CpG methylation in autism brains.

The new study focuses on ‘nonCpG’ methylation, in which a methyl group sticks to cytosines followed by a DNA base other than guanine. This type of methylation is found almost exclusively in the brain.

“This opens up new avenues of research that perhaps we haven’t considered carefully before,” says lead researcher Dan Arking, associate professor of genetic medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

In particular, efforts to study the role of DNA modifications in autism might center on this class of chemical modification, says Hongjun Song, professor of neurology and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, who was not involved in this study. “There’s a lot more cytosines to look at in terms of methylation,” Song says, rather than just those followed by a guanine.

The study, which appeared 17 February in Molecular Autism, is the largest of its kind. Researchers presented preliminary results from the work at the 2016 International Meeting for Autism Research in Baltimore.

Uniquely Human

A body of work implicates methyl groups in autism. Many genes linked to autism reside in regions of the genome with a high density of these tags. And postmortem brain tissue from people with autism has revealed unusually high expression of a gene that helps to remove methyl tags.

Most of these studies focus on CpG sites. In the new study, the researchers used an inexpensive method that enables detection of methyl groups on cytosines next to any DNA base. The method is limited to 1 percent of the genome, however — the parts known to have a high density of CpGs.

The researchers found that brain tissue from 29 people with autism has double the number of tagged nonCpG sites as tissue from 34 controls. These sites do not fall within autism genes, but cluster in regulatory regions of the genome.

Some of the excess nonCpG groups fall in so-called ‘beacons’ — regions of the genome that are rich in CpG sites and are present only in people (not in other primates). These regions are thought to underlie traits that are uniquely human.

NonCpG methylation also clustered in repetitive regions of the genome, which are similarly thought to distinguish humans from other primates.

“One could imagine that these may be the regions that are more relevant to phenotypes of autism, such as language deficits,” Arking says.

The researchers also saw excess methylation in certain histones — proteins that package DNA. Histone methylation can make DNA harder to access, suppressing gene expression.

Dynamic Tags

It’s unclear what the findings mean for autism research. There is some evidence that nonCpG methylation lowers gene expression, but no one has directly tested this effect, says Eran Mukamel, assistant professor of cognitive science at University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the study.

“What role, if any, it plays in regulating gene expression, we just don’t know yet,” Mukamel says.

This type of DNA modification is found almost exclusively in neurons, and occurs during a period of development relevant to autism, however.

In a 2013 study, Mukamel and his colleagues found that the pattern of methyl groups in the DNA of neurons changes across the lifespan (2). Unlike CpG methylation, which occurs in the embryo, nonCpG methylation begins around birth and increases rapidly during the first two years of life, when neurons are forming their connections.

“The timing of the nonCpG accumulation is intriguing,” Mukamel says. “It’s the time window when symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders like autism start to emerge.”

The tissue examined in the study covered a wide age range: 2 to 68 years. Because the density of nonCpG methyl groups changes during development, a difference in methylation among adults would be more convincing, Mukamel says. What’s more, the methylation levels within the autism and control groups vary greatly, weakening the statistical strength of the findings.

Arking and his team are working to confirm their results in additional brain-tissue samples. They are also investigating whether the altered patterns of methyl groups at nonCpG sites contribute to autism or stem from it.

  • Ellis S.E. et al. Mol. Autism 8, 6 (2017) PubMed
  • Lister R. et al. Science 341, 1237905 (2013) PubMed