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Truth and Consequences

A question, an answer, a reprimand

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Minnesota  special education teacher Jane Jackson wasn’t particularly nervous going into the meeting to discuss one of her high school student’s Individual Education Plan. It was likely to be a routine annual check-in. She wasn’t concerned when a child advocate came in with the parent—there was often someone along to help.

But when the advocate asked her pointedly how much time she gave the student daily, Jackson knew she had a problem.

“I hesitated. I turned beet red. I knew that by answering honestly, I would make the district look bad. But I couldn’t lie.”

Her simple answer revealed that the child’s plan was not being carried out.

A bigger surprise awaited her the next morning, when her angry principal told Jackson she was putting a letter of reprimand into her personnel file. The principal wrote that she had been insubordinate and incompetent at the meeting, and had tried to force administrators to hire more staff.

Ominously, the letter said, “If this conduct continues, further action will [be] taken.”

The child’s IEP specified that a teacher provide 50 minutes a day of direct, one-on-one instruction in reading, and another 30 minutes in writing. But because of staff cuts, a paraprofessional was handling the writing instruction and Jackson was providing only 20 minutes of direct reading instruction, plus 30 minutes in a small group with other children of widely varying skills. Since the student was easily distracted, says Jackson, “it was far from ideal.” But she didn’t volunteer that opinion in the meeting. She just answered the advocate’s questions.

“I got written up for telling the truth,” she says. “I think [the principal] wanted me to lie.”

The superintendent had earlier told staff to convene before any IEP meeting and forge a united front before telling parents what services would be provided. “I tried to get across to him that IEP meetings are for discussion—we can’t dictate to parents. But he kept saying, ‘We can’t provide Cadillac services.’”

Cadillac or Chevy, however, was not the issue at the arbitration hearing on Jackson ’s grievance. Truth or falsehood was. In a sharply worded decision, the arbitrator said that if the district pressured Jackson to give the parent false information, they’d be trying to circumvent federal law and she couldn’t be punished for refusing.

The letter of reprimand, with its threat of “further action,” is gone. But not the memory of what occurred. “[The principal] acts like nothing happened. We’re civil. It’s hard for me to respect her, though,” says Jackson. “I do my job and try to stay away from her as much as possible.”

And the student? The district hired another part-time teacher so now his IEP is fulfilled. “He’s making progress,” says Jackson.

Read next story: "Fail First"

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