The Power of Enforcing Rules

Maximum speed limists map of US states from 60 mph to 85 mph (2000)

Maximum Speed Limits in the USA (2000)

Many advocates have noted that forcing a target system to follow the rules that it has created for itself can be a useful tool of negotiation. This is because many of the rules were set up to be used to defend the target against intrusion or critique, and were never intended to be used on a regular basis. When the target is forced to use its own rules without any choice on its part, the system begins to degrade not only in terms of its own stated purpose but also in terms of those things the target values above all. Such loss of control can make a target more creative about how it solves an advocacy disturbance. In fact, the basic advocacy technique of threatening what the target values unless accommodation to the advocacy demand occurs is a simple example of the principle.

I had a special education advocacy experience in the early 80’s that taught me a lot about what could be done by enforcing the rules. I fell into the solution accidentally and as a result of ideas from the families I was representing. I thought I would share it to illustrate how a target deals with a real threat to its inner workings.

I got a call requesting support for special education services dispute from a person who worked in a large special education system and had a daughter receiving services in a different county from where the parent worked. The family had moved to a different county because of the inadequate nature of the specific kind of services the daughter needed. But changes in the program had degraded the supports for the daughter and there was a real danger to her and the other students in the same classroom because of those changes.

The classroom had 6 students with very significant disabilities on the autism spectrum and some other disabilities that made the daily quality of care a huge concern. For example, one student had epilepsy that caused cardiac arrest and required immediate CPR when it occurred (rarely, but possible). Another student had such an inadequate appetite that, absent a well-structured eating program that was rigidly enforced, he would rapidly lose weight, effectively starving despite the availability of food.

Prior to the changes in the program, the class had a teacher deeply committed to students with autism, both by temperament and extensive experience, and two aides who had worked with all these children since they began receiving special educations supports in the local system. Because of the cyclical boom and bust of educational funding in Michigan in the 80’s, there had been a recent spate of layoffs, including the teacher and the two aides in this classroom. They were replaced by a teacher of students with emotional impairments, who had never worked with any student with these levels of disability and medical complications, and two secretaries with no experience as aides in a special education classroom. All 3 had bumped into the positions through the procedures of the local labor contract.

I tried simply asking for a restoration of the staff and got nowhere because the building program staff had no control over the implementation of the labor contract. Although the local building was well aware of the danger to the students, they couldn’t see how they could change the situation as it had evolved.

I met with all the families of students in the classroom, and we settled on a strategy of forcing the system to obey its own rules. I asked each family to create a schedule of what they thought would be an ideal program of supports for their son or daughter in 10-minute increments. They were to include breaks, meals, everything that they thought should be done during the day, and they should also list the right of the parent to drop into the classroom at any time during the school day to monitor whether the current activity was the one listed in the schedule for that time.

Each family would then ask for a new IEPC in writing. When they attended the IEPC, they were to hand the written schedule to the staff and say this was the only supports framework they would accept, and if the school wouldn’t accept it, the family would request a fair hearing. Since the schedule was entirely unacceptable to the school, the assumption was that they would refuse to implement the schedule, and they would hold a hearing for each family, a total of 6 hearings.

I went to the principal of the building, who had been sympathetic to the concerns of the families and frustrated with the lack of responsiveness by the system. I explained the strategy we were going to use and asked him to pass on that strategy to the ISD. I implied that if some solution wasn’t found, all 6 families would be going to their legislators and the press, pointing to the physical and medical danger to their sons and daughters. I also said I thought I could win one or two of the hearings and that the staff would have to put up with the visits to the classroom even if I lost 5 of the hearings. I understood that the current staff had no more control over the labor contract than the local school did. We hoped that all the uncertainty for the district that would result from our strategy would be enough to help the district put some thought into a solution that everyone could live with.

I understood that the current staff had no more control over the labor contract than the local school did. We hoped that all the uncertainty for the district that would result from our strategy would be enough to help the district put some thought into a solution that everyone could live with.

The district did come up with an equitable solution. The EI teacher got medical leave, and secretarial jobs were found for the two aides who had bumped into the class. The original teacher and aides were hired on contract for the rest of the current year and were rehired as full-time staff the following year.

I was astounded and surprised by this solution. I thought that I would be spending months in hearings, followed by continuing struggle and dispute, and the likelihood that at least some of the families would be forced to pull their children out of the classroom or forced to move to another county. The district solution was a very elegant one, that required no additional expense, no public display of the issues, no problems for either the current staff or the former staff.

Though I never asked, my suspicion was that the solution was created through internal negotiation so that the target system (the county special education program) could maintain the existing set of political, financial, social, and educational rules while nonetheless taking care of the problems that the families had raised.

I learned that it is possible to build win-win solutions even when the underlying system reproduction processes are the ones triggering the advocacy effort, and that it is possible for advocates and targets to collaborate, or in this case collude, when the advocacy engages the whole system and does not just argue a legal or a rights-based position.

Next Post: Target Engagement as the Context of Change


Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, advocate50+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, Tom and Pepper the wundermutts

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