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Transcript of Episode 15 of The Mind Itself podcast: Arm Yourself with Knowledge

[05.31.2022]

John Whitbeck:

The Mind Itself is a podcast about mental health, mental health law, and how they affect all aspects of our daily lives. By taking a deeper dive into how our society deals with mental health medically, legally, and practically, listeners gain insight information about one of America’s most pressing and often overlooked issues that affect almost half of all adults in the United States.

John Whitbeck:

All right, hello and welcome to The Mindset Itself podcast. My name’s John Whitbeck, I’m your host. And I am very excited today to be talking about education, one of my favorite subjects. As a father of three girls in public schools, we are very involved in our kids’ education. And I want to talk today, not only about the intersection between mental health and education but also about education in general, because I think no issue in the last couple of years during the pandemic has been more controversial or more interesting than the education of our children. And today we are very fortunate to be joined by my good friend, Debbie Rose. Debbie is an attorney, who practices in the area of education law, and she also served for eight years, on the Loudoun County Virginia School Board as an elected official. And if you haven’t heard of Loudoun County School Board, you probably don’t watch the news. Debbie, it is so great to have you. Thank you so much for joining.

Debbie Rose:

Thank you for having me, look forward to this.

John Whitbeck:

So Debbie, let’s start out by just … I want to give our listeners an idea about your background. It’s such an interesting career you’ve had, and all the things you’ve been a part of. Give us kind of an overview of how you came up and how you came to be on the school board.

Debbie Rose:

It’s a long path to the day that I decided to run for the school board, and then ultimately was elected and reelected. But I started out with a friend who was elected to Congress. His name was Jim Rogan, one of my personal mentors.

John Whitbeck:

Really? I know Jim Rogan. I interned for Jim Rogan on the Hill during impeachment, back in the ’90s. How funny.

Debbie Rose:

Yes. So he’s the reason that I went to the Hill. He had just recently been elected. I had hoped to join his office on the Hill. He and I, we share a good friend who connected us, and then we became friends. My good friend helped him adopt his two lovely girls. And he was elected, she said, “Hey, my friend who just graduated law school and is working in Iowa would really be interested in working in government. And do you have any spots in your office?” I came out to DC. He didn’t have any spots for me, but what he did have was the ability to walk my resume down to the house judiciary committee, where they obviously were inclined to give it a look. And one of the attorneys there that was hiring, there was a change in Congress, so there was staff that were very interested in that, in his recommendation.

And the staff attorney that I interviewed with was from Iowa, had gone to Drake law school. So the stars kind of aligned. And he said, “Hey, we have five subcommittees on the house judiciary committee.” Then he listed them all. And he said, “Which ones are you interested in?” And I said, “Well, I would really love the constitution or crime.” And he said, “Well, we don’t have openings in those. We do have one opening in intellectual property.” And then I said … I’m a young attorney and I’m like, “That’s the one I really want. “So from there, I was moving out to DC and began a couple of decades of working in intellectual property policy, either as an attorney of the judiciary committee, or later at a lobbyist for the Entertainment Software Association, and then finally at a tech association doing the IP work there, and it’s been wonderful.

But at some point during that time, I decided, I was looking around and getting kind of frustrated with how our school board wasn’t responsive to parents. So I said, “I’m going to throw my name in the hat, just see what happens.” And I worked hard. The kids worked hard. We all wore, Vote for my Mom t-shirts and we walked our neighborhoods and handed out, as the kids called it, mom’s flyers. And I was elected and really enjoyed public service for the next eight years. It was an honor and a privilege, and I met so many people and had the opportunity to help so many people. It’s not easy work, comes with the downside, but a lot of criticism too, but that’s okay. You learn to develop some thick skin and you do your best to find the right public policies that serve the best interests of everyone.

John Whitbeck:

So when you were on the school board, I imagine you served on some committees and subcommittees as well, correct?

Debbie Rose:

Yeah. They don’t have subcommittees, but yes, there are committees, there are several. And the chair could ultimately decide. And we as a board, the nine board members select our own chair. It wasn’t as if the chair was selected by the community. The chair was appointed by the board, voted on by the board itself. And the chair then would assign people to the committees. I was very interested in discipline committees immediately, because I had heard so many complaints about discipline procedures while I was campaigning during that first election. And I was put on that discipline committee and I stayed on that committee for eight years, and ultimately as a chair for many years. So it became a passion of mine to improve the discipline procedures and practices in LCPS.

John Whitbeck:

So you served on the discipline committee, and then obviously you were involved in any of the litigation that would’ve been brought against the school, say for special education, or the boundary adjustments, all the things that were going on during your eight years, right?

Debbie Rose:

There were … Certain litigation is within the authority of the superintendent, specifically with as respect to special education litigation. They did not have to seek school board approval to defend or initiate legal proceedings in those. But in almost all proceedings that would deal with a student, there are almost always avenues to appeal final administrative decisions to the school board. Not in every instance, but there is a lot of times. And so when those things would come to us, I did see their employees or students who were represented by counsel in discipline or other human resources employee matters related to their job status. So we sometimes did have the opportunity to have a final say, whatever the status was going to be regarding a student in discipline or an employee in a discipline situation.

John Whitbeck:

Right. And did you ever come across Title IX issues as part of your school board tenure?

Debbie Rose:

I was speaking with someone about this yesterday, and oddly we did not. And that is something that I think doesn’t reflect positively on LCPS, is that there was something on the website that ticked off the box that’s required under Title IX to have a Title IX coordinator, and there’s policies that hit those marks because there’s anti-discrimination policies that comply with Title IX and the federal requirements there. But when we did have discipline situations involving sexual harassment, or had other discriminatory types of allegations to them, it was not something that we saw through the lens of a Title IX proceeding. It was through a regular discipline proceeding. Now I do think that everyone had the opportunities that are required under Title IX, which is to give the accuser and the accused opportunities to be heard. And in most of these investigations, that is the procedure. But they were never characterized as a Title IX proceeding. It was a discipline proceeding.

John Whitbeck:

So this is really interesting because the three topics I wanted to talk to you about today, and it seems right up your alley. Are number one, special education. Number two, Title IX. And number three, school discipline and other disputes with the school. So let’s dig into special education. Obviously, The Mind Itself podcast, we are talking about the intersection between mental health and law, and many, many years ago when I started doing mental health law, one of the things that I didn’t do was special ed up until maybe a little over five years ago, really got into it. And it was the natural progression for me in my career. And now you’re doing special education cases in your practice as well, now that you’re off the school board. Can you give us an overview of what does a typical special ed case look like, and what are some of the things you do in practice to help clients with the issues that come up in special education cases?

Debbie Rose:

Well, first of all, the special education community has always been, while I was on the school board, and even since, it’s a very engaged community. And there’s no group of people that are more engaged, I think, than parents and guardians who are trying their best, where their students have a disability, being an intellectual disability, physical disability, and they are trying so hard to make sure that the schools are providing the education that they are legally obligated to provide to those students. This community is engaged, and knowledgeable, and just a very effective lobby for their needs.

John Whitbeck:

Absolutely. Totally agree.

Debbie Rose:

I was a liaison to that committee for most … To the Special Education Advisory Committee in Loudoun County Public Schools for pretty much the duration of my time on the board. And I got to be just a part of this group and spent time when there were issues around how to handle students who are physically acting out, and how to be able to contain those issues and be able to do it in a way that’s appropriate. And there was an instance in Loudoun County that created a need for a special education task force. But going through that process, you just learned so much about how these parents are so knowledgeable about the law and about the policies and exactly what the needs that they face.

So I think this typical special education case is the IEP. It’s how to get it, how to draft it, and what the terms mean, learning that whole process, and then how to enforce it. So I think that’s probably the most typical place you’re going to find people finding conflict with either their individual school or the administration, as they’re trying to just protect the rights that their students have under an IEP, which is an individualized education plan. Yep.

John Whitbeck:

Right, right. And it’s interesting, the difference in resources. If you have an IEP and your student is not getting the services that the school is required to give under federal law, you have several options. One, you can go to mediation with the school, which in my experience, doesn’t work all that often. Two, you can go to due process, which is like a court hearing where an attorney or a special education advocate represents you. And it’s like a real court hearing. I mean, it’s an actual … Due process hearings are just like a court hearing, except it’s in front of a hearing officer versus a judge. But you don’t get your attorney’s fees covered for that. And until you don’t like the outcome in due process and go to a court, federal law doesn’t provide for your costs being covered.

So a lot of parents are stuck with the notion that they just can’t afford to litigate these things. And the school has unlimited resources, and they have insurance defense, so their defense is paid for. So what I usually tell parents is, look, there’s a lot of good that can be done before you even get to where you have to litigate, and having an attorney, or a special ed advocate, or someone like you, Debbie, helping you get that IEP right and fighting within the system, the school system, can do a lot of good if you don’t have the resources to go to court. And that’s something that-

Debbie Rose:

Exactly.

John Whitbeck:

A lot of parents don’t know. They think that automatically it has to be contentious and it has to be in the courtroom, and it really doesn’t.

Debbie Rose:

Exactly. It’s a lot of preparation. It’s a lot of getting your documents ready. It’s not an easy process. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a lot of preparation in working with your various medical providers and mental health providers to get your documentation, making sure you’ve got the education records, demonstrating where your student has had, for the words that they want is, demonstrated the failures and being able to prove that it’s as a result of the disability.

So when you are at a point where you’re going into that very first meeting with all of the school personnel, and it’s very intimidating. You have all the different personnel sitting around a room and they’re all there to discuss this and there has to be a decision by the end of this meeting whether or not they all agree that the disability is the reason that there’s been these lack of progress educationally for this student, then being more prepared and knowing what to expect in that first meeting gives you, I think, a leg up at being able to be more successful at the beginning.

So that’s the kind of thing we’d like to help people, is to be able to find more success early on. And like you said, that’s a more cost effective way to be able to achieve what you want, which is to have your student have the best educational opportunities, without having it to be contentious, or litigious, or expensive.

John Whitbeck:

Right. And like you said earlier, I find that parents of special ed children are extremely meticulous, extremely prepared, and extremely passionate about fighting for their children’s special education rights. And it’s a really a pleasure to represent a lot of these parents, because they’re so fantastic at advocating for their children. Many of them don’t need lawyers because they’re that good, but it’s always a good idea to at least consult with an attorney or consult with someone like you who has experience, because it’s one thing to know the law. It’s one thing to know the IDE section 504 behavioral plans, all the things that go under the quote, special education umbrella.

It’s another thing to know somebody like you, who actually ran a school system for eight years and knows strategies, suggestions, things that have been tried that the average lawyer or the average person wouldn’t know. And so I imagine there’s a lot of things you know about having been on the school board, that they may be a little unorthodox, and it’s things that you’ve seen, and you can help clients get that new idea or that different idea that may not be thought of by a lawyer who didn’t have your same experience.

Debbie Rose:

Exactly. And it’s just connections within the building. Having worked with so many of the special education administrators, from the deans to the assistant principals and principals, you learn a lot about how the various schools, they all run similarly, but somewhat differently. And you learn a lot over that eight years about how to approach this issue and how to be successful. There’s some language that is associated with special education, and there’s some marks that I’ve learned over time that the school division wants to hear before they get to yes. So you go in with some consultation or advice from someone like me, you get a little bit more of a leg up as you go into those first processes meetings to get your IEP.

John Whitbeck:

So, Debbie, if somebody were to have watched the news for the last several months, especially in Laden County, they no doubt will have heard about Title IX. In fact, your old school board, you’re no longer on the school board so you’re not involved in this. Your old school board is actually the subject of a grand jury investigation in a lot of ways related to Title IX by the Virginia Attorney General. Is that right?

Debbie Rose:

That is.

John Whitbeck:

Right. So Title IX is something that we’re hearing a lot about in Virginia and all over the country. Can you give us an overview of exactly what Title IX is and what it’s designed to protect?

Debbie Rose:

Title IX is a short law, but it basically is trying to protect people from discrimination based on their sex in education programs or in school divisions that accept federal funds that support their educational programs and activities. And it covers a wide range of activities that a school division would do. So from hiring, to admissions, to certain programs, to providing an environment free from sexual harassment and assault within a school building for employees, students, or anyone, and also equal access to athletic activities, things of that nature. It’s trying to make sure that a person’s sex or sexual identity is not the reason that they do not have access to a particular educational program or activity.

John Whitbeck:

So most of the Title IX cases that I’m seeing and that we’re doing in our practice, and maybe you have a similar experience, is a child is sexually assaulted or sexually harassed. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything more horrible that your student in school or teachers who are sexually assaulted, sexually harassed. The protections that Title IX gives for women and girls, for equal opportunities, different things like that. Title IX cases are of the most serious nature. Would you agree with that?

Debbie Rose:

Agreed. I should have added in describing it, the Title IX requires the school divisions to have a grievance process, which I think is what you’re going to. So every school, not only is it not supposed to allow discrimination, it’s also supposed to have a detailed process for people who feel that they have been subjected to discrimination under the Title, to be able to make a complaint and have a procedure where that is investigated appropriately and give all parties to the process, the accused and the accuser, opportunities to have their side of the story heard.

John Whitbeck:

Right. And because we are a mental health related podcast, let me just get a shout out. Some of the most serious mental health consequences that I have seen in my practice recently, especially with the children that we’ve been involved with, have come from these Title IX cases. In other words, can you imagine being a child, it is your safe place. When you go to school, it’s supposed to be your safe place. And when you put your kid on the bus or drop them off in the kiss and ride line to get to school, a parent is sending their most precious possession, their child, into a place where they have no control over, or at least they should, but they’re giving control over to the school.

Imagine your child, or your wife, or your sister, or your mother or somebody being subjected to the horrible things that Title IX is supposed to prevent. The mental health fallout from that has just been incredible as I’ve seen. And there’s no amount of money that you can sue for that gets you back your wellness. And I’m sure you probably had similar experiences in your practice when you’re doing Title IX stuff.

Debbie Rose:

Well, yes. And certainly on the school board too, you could see that. It’s heartbreaking when you’ve seen … And some of the stuff that, because I can’t speak about those cases once they’ve become raised up to the school board’s level knowledge, and they we’re aware of it, or we’re in an appeal, or we’re handling out discipline in a certain situation, and it’s heartbreaking to know … And you see the parents that are sitting on the side of the victims and also on the side of the student who is accused of doing something horrible. It’s so much devastation all around. Yeah.

John Whitbeck:

Oh yeah. Look, I mean, there are people that are wrongfully accused and there are people that are accused that made horrible mistakes. And our system is designed to give people, everybody an adequate defense. So certainly it goes on both sides. I mean, our practice and your practice, I know we represent both sides of Title IX cases and it is a very heartbreaking part of the law.

So Debbie, the last thing I want to talk to you about today, I can’t think of anybody better to speak on this, is there’s all kinds of disputes. We mentioned a little bit about disciplinary proceedings, students who are suspended, expelled. I do that in my practice. I know you do student disciplinary matters, things like that. So we talked a little bit about that. What are some of the things that if a parent is watching out and has a dispute with the school, give us some examples of things where an attorney would be helpful to a parent in dealing with a dispute involving the school.

Debbie Rose:

I think that if the accusation is serious, and anything short of disruption in class, or being disrespect, some of those lower level offenses which may see your student in school restriction situation, those are not situations, unless it’s so repeated that your child moves into a different situation where they’re all of a sudden facing longer suspensions because of some repeated behaviors. But if your student is facing a situation of … The short term suspensions are over three days, but under ten. But once you’re over ten days, that’s the situation where you may want to consult an attorney immediately. Because at this point, the school division has not, oftentimes at least and certainly in LCPS, they buy themselves some time to say right now, we might initially get a letter that says your student is suspended for three days, but then you might … And it’ll usually say, these letters will say, but this could change.

And all of a sudden they get some more time to do an investigation and there will be more time added to that suspension later. And those are the moments right there to get an attorney. There are times when parents will say, “My child did that, and that’s an appropriate response.” But when you feel this is not appropriate response, or you feel that there’s unfair, or unjust, or something, that’s the time to get the attorney involved. Because that’s when you’ll start to be able to get the records and be involved. And if you know who to contact, I think this is really where parents at the beginning, they don’t understand what’s an option. What are options to them and who to contact? They just think, “Oh, the vice principal and the principal in my school handed down this decision, this discipline,” and they’re unsure of which policy. I mean, I think a lot of times parents, they just go, “What do I do?”

There is a policy that says you can appeal this, and this is the procedure, and this is how you do it. The effectiveness of your appeal does get better, sometimes, if you have either a great defense or you have a counsel there to help in that situation. Because I think for the most part, and certainly when I was on the school board and we saw discipline cases being appealed to the discipline committee, at some point we wanted to make sure that … We wanted to get students back in the building, as long as there wasn’t a threat. So we wanted to apply appropriate discipline, but we also recognized that we wanted to get students who presented no harm, and that’s key, no harm to their fellow students or staff of a building, apply the appropriate punishment, but get them back in the school building.

So that’s kind of one of those things where I think parents might not understand that’s the thinking of the school board members, that I can certainly help with is understanding what school board members want to hear when your student is in a discipline situation. And if you’re appealing it all the way to a discipline committee, how to be effective is that I know what they want to hear in those hearings. I know what’s going to make them react positively to your student’s desires in terms of … Or yours in particular of trying to get your student back into school, or get them provided with accommodations to either a change of school venues, so that maybe the best thing is your student can go to a different school.

But then I think it’s at that point, awareness of what your options are and being effective in the communication, because there’s a lot of emotion in those cases. And I think parents can sometimes, myself included, you get wrapped around the issue of, “Ah, this isn’t right.” And you just … You can focus on some of the motion of the case instead of stepping back and being able to see how do we get you to where you want to go and do that effectively. And that’s, I think what we can do. And that’s the experience that I bring to clients in that situation.

John Whitbeck:

I can’t even count how many disciplinary cases I’ve done. Everything from accidentally carrying a knife to school, to guns, to … I mean, all kinds of different ones. And the sad part about these cases, many parents don’t know how helpful it can be to have an attorney. They just don’t think of it. And it really can make a big difference. The other thing, Debbie, that I’ve noticed, things have changed so significantly. A lot of the things I have in the school setting are social media eruptions, as I call them. Somebody will post a social media video or post of some kind that attacks another student, or a teacher, whatnot. And you got to deal with the fallout from that. Very often, an attorney is very helpful in that kind of situation, because those things last forever. If your child posts something on social media about another student or has something posted about them, it never really goes away. Screenshots, people save videos, so having an attorney to try to scrub all that is very helpful.

Debbie Rose:

Absolutely.

John Whitbeck:

Another thing that comes up a lot is bullying. There is nothing more relevant to today, besides Title IX, than bullying kids, treating kids … And even sometimes kids treating teachers, or teachers treating kids. I mean, bullying is not just confined to kids in the school yard anymore, and it’s not just confined to person to person. It’s online, it’s social media, it’s on the phone, it’s all over the place. And many times I’ve been hired by parents to try to protect kids when schools fail to do so. And it’s unfortunate, but that sometimes happens.

Debbie Rose:

Exactly. Social media, and bullying, and Title IX kind of come together in a really sad situation when you have quite often, it’s a girl that has been bullied, or encouraged, manipulated to the point where they send pictures of themselves, obviously inappropriate nude photos, to other students who then pass it around. And now you start to have issues of possession of child porn, distributing child porn, and you have going back to then mental health, you have a very victimized young lady, most often a young lady. And those cases are unfortunately way more prevalent. It’s sad. And it often does need an attorney in that situation to protect both parties, the victim and the accused. And I don’t think that the schools really are very well equipped to handle those. They really don’t know what to do in those situations. There’s a lot of liabilities all over, and I think getting an attorney to protect your interest is very important in those cases.

John Whitbeck:

That’s so true. That’s so true. And Debbie, if you think about boundary adjustments, I live in your home county where you were on the school board, Loudoun County too. And, and over the years there were all kinds of boundary adjustments as the county grew, that it wasn’t really easy to sue, but I brought a couple lawsuits based on boundary adjustments that got into court and were litigated.

And so if your child gets redistricted out of the school that they’re going to that’s down the street from your house, or you have some sort of special circumstances where you can ask the schools to transfer to another school and they refuse to do so, or refuse to transfer a child who’s bullied your child or all kinds of things. There’s really a lot an attorney can do to help with those kind of things, especially in Virginia where my main office is. There is all kinds of claims that parents just don’t know are out there that attorneys can bring. And I know you and I can help with just about every situation that comes up in the school realm, you more so because of your experience on the school board.

Debbie Rose:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think again, with boundary disputes, the school board that I served on, it was very important to the majority in our board to move in a direction to allow more choice for parents in terms of the school that their student attended. And we rewrote the policy to allow special permission, which was no longer, you didn’t have to have a rationale, a hardship that you had to prove in order to attend a school outside your attendance zone. So it was really based on capacity. So if a school has capacity for your student, your student can apply and go to a different school. You just provide some transportation for yourself and it gives people more flexibility. Like you said, I don’t know that people understand that process. And now, I mean, I think more people are becoming aware of it because there are more applications for special permission, but a lot of them are denied.

And I think, again, that’s a place where I can be very effective at having sat in that room and literally deciding those applications and appeals from denials on a request for a special permission to attend a different school. Understanding what, again, those board members are looking for and what turns them off to your claim or to your request is very valuable in all of those things. It doesn’t mean that necessarily on that day, they’re all going to have that same perspective as they did when I was sitting there. But I do understand what they want to hear in terms of a rationale that gets them to yes, to grant their appeal for a special permission. But there are so many options that people can have. And again, I think that’s just the benefit of us is that you have the experience of litigation in the area, plus the experience of having been on the board that brings that unique ability to meet your needs.

John Whitbeck:

Right, right. Well, like I said, this is a mental health podcast, but there is so much mental health wrapped up in education. I really wanted to do this episode and I can’t thank you enough. Debbie, if somebody wanted to get ahold of you just to get your perspective on an educational issue, your actual contact information, if you could just give your phone number and your email out so if potential clients, parents, students want to contact you, it’d be great.

Debbie Rose:

It is DRose@WBLaws.com. That’s my email. And on the website, WBLaws.com is also my contact information and the contact information for the office.

John Whitbeck:

(703) 777-1795 is your phone number.

Debbie Rose:

There it is.

John Whitbeck:

Well, Debbie, I really can’t thank you enough for being here. Really appreciate it. Really enjoyed hearing about your experience and everything like that. And we’ll hope to have you back on the podcast again soon.

Debbie Rose:

Thank you so much, John.

John Whitbeck:

The Mind Itself podcast is unique in that we look at the intersection between mental health and the law and how it impacts you. Subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Google Player, or wherever you listen to podcasts and be sure to leave a comment, rate, review, and share with someone you know. Thanks for listening.

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