Palo Alto school district's special education department gets new director

Parents hope staffing changes, new approaches will usher in new era

When Superintendent Max McGee began his new post in the Palo Alto Unified School District last fall, one of the first changes he made was within the special education department. He asked that Holly Wade, then the director of special education for the district, report directly to him rather than to Associate Superintendent Charles Young.

Seeing a need for new structure, McGee continued to reorganize the department and its employees' responsibilities throughout the school year, most recently naming Chiara Perry, one of the district's three special education coordinators, as director. She filled the vacancy created in June when Wade was promoted to chief student-services officer as part of a larger reorganization of district management.

Perry, who has had a 17-year-long career in special education, is taking the helm of an often embattled department marred in recent years by several investigations into disability bias conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

But personnel changes aren't the only change the district has seen in special education in the past year. The superintendent's handling of a new Office for Civil Rights investigation opened last fall has exemplified a new approach in the district. When a frustrated Palo Alto family turned to the federal agency for help, believing district staff had not handled their child's disability accommodations properly, McGee met with the family personally, outlined what the district had already done both to fix the problem for this particular student and to change procedures so it wouldn't happen again, and provided the documentation to the federal agency, all without involving district lawyers. The case was soon closed.

With a new superintendent, a new director who emphasizes collaboration and communication, two new coordinators serving beneath Perry, and a new hire dedicated solely to handling anything related to students' 504 plans (which refer to Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees certain rights in public schools to students with disabilities and their parents), parents are hopeful that the special education department could be entering a new era this year.

Just eight days before Perry's appointment, the department was found to be in full compliance, following a more than one-year-long verification review conducted by the California Department of Education (CDE). Palo Alto Unified was one of 33 school districts the state agency selected to review in 2014, based on its compliance history, State Performance Plan indicators for special education students and program improvement status.

During the review, which began in January 2014, CDE staff analyzed past compliance records; interviewed staff; visited school sites; reviewed data, including student records such as Individualized Education Programs (IEPs); and gathered parent input through in-person meetings, surveys and individual phone calls. Parents reported issues with progress reporting, lack of variety of program options, services not being provided in accordance with the IEP, and a failure of the IEP team to discuss transition services, which are required for students 15 years and older, according to a CDE report.

In September, the Department of Education notified the district that each of the 52 student records reviewed had at least one finding of noncompliance, such as overdue IEPs, missing notices for meetings on transition plans and students not invited to their own IEP meetings. Out of 3,388 items reviewed, 58.8 percent had compliant findings and 10.6 percent had non-compliant findings, according to the CDE.

The state agency offered a series of corrective actions for the district to work on over the next several months, including training at both the district and school levels and improved paperwork/recording methods. Wade and Perry stressed that many findings of noncompliance related to paperwork -- a box left unchecked, an incomplete file, an IEP assessment that was completed by the correct due date but not signed by the assessor.

"We meet a lot with parents," Wade said, "and (the CDE) said that it was clear that meaningful conversations were happening in the IEPs, but that wasn't finding its way into the right box."

Another finding was IEP notification forms that didn't inform parents that they are allowed to bring a support person to their child's IEP meetings. (Wade said that these forms come from the County Office of Education, so they had to contact the county to implement this change, invite parents to meetings with the new offer for support and hold those meetings before the district could be found compliant.)

CDE staff returned three times this year -- in April, May and June -- for follow-up reviews, finally finding the district in full compliance on July 8.

Christina Schmidt, chair of the parent-led Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for special education, said she's hopeful that the overhaul of the department will bring positive change to the district's special education families.

"The reorganization of the special education department is a positive move," she said. "Change is good. It's a demonstration of action taken to improve the existing quality of special education services for our students."

Yet, she noted, for the new director, "The opportunity presented by this reorganization unquestionably has its challenges."

Better communication, stronger policies and more stable staffing are among the CAC's top priorities for the department. The CAC wrote to the school board and superintendent, and members attended a board meeting, to request that the board appoint a liaison to the CAC, much like each board member serves as a liaison to certain schools and other community groups like Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE) and the Parent Teacher Association (PTA).

They also requested that the board look into its policies and procedures regarding extracurricular activities to ensure they are both inclusive and in compliance with the law.

Schmidt said the CAC is also concerned about high staff turnover in the district. Two of the district's three special education coordinators left before the end of the school year, and several extended absences in positions like speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists proved difficult to fill, Wade said.

Schmidt stressed that turnover has a particularly high impact on special education students.

"For our kids, when you have a staff member that leaves and you don't have someone replacing them that is trained ... it's traumatic," she said. "This can set a child back a year depending on what their particular conditions are and challenges are. That is a huge, huge concern."

Wade and Perry said some turnover is due to typical things like retirement, maternity leaves, illness, relocation, teachers opting to go back to school for another degree or program. But special education is demanding work, they said, and it's not for everyone. Some staff took leaves of absences this year, Wade said.

McGee said he, too, is concerned about high turnover in the department. Three exiting special education teachers he met with in June expressed a "sense of not enough support" across the board, both at the schools and at the district office, he said.

Perry noted that Palo Alto is not alone in high special education turnover.

"It takes a lot. There is a lot of work. People say you have fewer kids you work with in special ed, but I've been in special ed for 17 years now and ... there's always turnover no matter where you are," she said.

However, "there's no place like Palo Alto," she added. "You have to have very thick skin and you have to work hard."

California is also suffering from a teacher shortage in this field. The number of new education specialist credentials has steadily declined since 2010, with 18.7 percent less credentials issued in 2013-14 than in the year before, according to an annual report from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing released in April.

Schmidt said she would like to see the district track and analyze special education turnover and compare it to trends within the general education staff.

Besides the two new special education coordinators, the district also hired six education specialists at the elementary level and 11 at the secondary level, as well as three new school psychologists and two mental health therapists, Wade said, to be fully staffed for the 2015-16 school year.

Perry, who began her career in 1998 in Georgia, has taught preschool, middle school and high school. Before moving to California several years ago, she served as the special education coordinator in the Gwinett County Public Schools, the largest school system in Georgia. In 2010, she moved to the Campbell Unified School district in California, where she worked as an education specialist for three years before coming to Palo Alto.

In Palo Alto, Perry was assigned to the secondary schools, working with the three middle schools and two high schools on professional development, compliance and the hiring and training of instructional aides.

In her new role, she will be overseeing the department's K-12 programs and staff and will be in charge of recruiting, hiring and training teachers.

Perry said she recognizes that "it's hard to repair relationships if a parent feels that someone is not doing what's best for their kid." She emphasized the importance of communication and being open to making changes, like finding a new case manager or trying something new in middle school after a negative experience in elementary school.

Most important to the special education community in Palo Alto, Schmidt said, will be putting rubber to the road when it comes to an expressed commitment to building relationships and a "framework of transparency" that creates opportunities for parents, staff and administrators to work together.

"All these stakeholders I just mentioned can really collaborate on building an education program for the district," Schmidt said, "but they have to be able to appreciate each other's values. I think that that has not been something that has been reinforced very often in the past. ... It's a big order."

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21 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 31, 2015 at 10:57 am

I'm not sure how to even take this. I'm hopeful but wonder if I am grasping at straws. "Not doing best for" a child is a real glossing over of a system in which different families are treated very differently depending on whether staff like them or not or are nursing grudges against them or not. Our biggest problems has just been communications that are breathtakingly false (that required a lot of work to make that false), or intended to ensure we missed meetings and didn't know about it, and practices that turn teaching staff against families or thwart their plans because of things staff tell them (associated with those grudges). We had significant problems with compliance and didn't even know about the CDE's review, were never contacted, though it might partially explain why our child's file was sanitized right about that time.

I don't think the underlying problems have been fixed, and the most problematic employees remain in the department. I do not know Ms. Perry, though, and wish her well in really changing the culture in the office.

10 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 31, 2015 at 11:08 am

This is great news! Chiara Perry is a perfect person for the job.
I met her in one of my child's IEP meetings at Gunn.

7 people like this
Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Jul 31, 2015 at 11:41 am

I commend Supt. Max McGee for selecting Holly Wade to report to him as his choice to tighten up the Special Ed. Dept. She was well qualified to handle a difficult job and from reading the long report in the PA Weekly Express,
I commend Wade for working diligently to help "fix" the problem. We need more Holly Wades throughout our schools system. Thank you Holly for all you have done.

I'm also pleased to see that Chiara Perry is the next one to take over now that Wade has moved on. All best wishes to you, Chiara.

All this is to say that Supt. McGee focused on one of the most important challenges that he had to deal with when he accepted the job description as our new superintendent. Thank you from one who is particularly interested in seeing that our Special Education students are treated fairly. It's very important that well-trained staff are hired to manage the challenges. It appears that we will from now on - with more well-trained staff coming along to help Chiara and the whole department.

6 people like this
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 31, 2015 at 1:35 pm

the recreation department needs a new director. we have a daughter that went through the middle school rec after school program. it is in shambles with young people making decisions of which they are not capable. it also appears that they hire their friends for any openings that come up. also, not capable of making good decisions. We are glad that we have now moved on to the high school level where hopefully, adults are in charge of the athletic department.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Charleston Meadows

on Jul 31, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

6 people like this
Posted by sped parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 1, 2015 at 12:49 am

@ Elizabeth,
McGee's drawing people in the district office closer to him has only created a dangerous insularity that will come back to bite him when the usual suspects do their thing. It certainly won't help our kids or solve problems.

My spouse says that's how you get rid of bad people in industry, promote them and unload them on someone else. McGee has handled things in such a way that he's unable to be impartial, I doubt that's what he's doing.

7 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 1, 2015 at 7:00 am

Can anybody tell me why so many kids in Palo Alto have 504's & IEP's?

Posted by Verification Reports?
a resident of Downtown North

on Aug 1, 2015 at 12:01 pm

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21 people like this
Posted by Perhaps
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 1, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Palo Alto: Perhaps it is because: people give birth to more preemies, and more preemies are saved by neonatologists, but that comes at a price for the baby's brain development.

Also, there are far more couples over 40 having babies, which causes both genetic risks and long difficult labors. Long labors cause oxygen deprivation for the baby and all his or her organs, especially the brain.

There are also, as reported a couple of years ago by the WSJ, more people with some autistic or asperger's criteria marrying others with some of these criteria, which means the babies will have a double dose of these problems, perhaps being fully autistic. ( The WSJ article referred to this phenomenon as "The MIT Syndrome, named for several cases of MIT grads marrying each other and having autistic children).

We never anticipated having a learning disabled child, especially since we were both under thirty when our first child was born. However, I had a long, difficult labor, which Kaiser doctors tried to stop unsuccessfully because it was too early. I labored for three days without surgical intervention, and my son did not breathe for five minutes after delivery, already oxygen deprived by the long labor ( placenta detached a little with each hard contraction). We found out he was severely learning disabled and partly deaf when he was three; though we suspected it age two, pediatricians tried to tell us we were paranoid. He had speech therapy and IEP all through school and college.

27 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 1, 2015 at 12:59 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

@Palo Alto - people move to palo alto to get their kids taken care of by a wealthy district. Also, lots of Type-A parents who push borderline kids into special needs where the same kid in many other places would just be stuck in the general classroom.

12 people like this
Posted by Kate at BrainParenting
a resident of another community
on Aug 1, 2015 at 4:27 pm

In answer to the question as to why there are so many IEP's and 504's in Palo Alto, I'm going to give you an excerpt from my in Beta draft book "Fine Until Kindergarten: A Parents' First Guide to Learning Differences."

From 10 to 15% of school-age children have dyslexia. Only around ¼ of dyslexics are ever diagnosed. Dyslexia is a language disorder, not a reading disorder, so it affects not just reading, but writing, spelling, processing, perceiving, and attention.
18% have untreated visual problems,
13% have partial hearing loss,
5 to 10% have auditory processing disorders
5 to 10% have language disorders, and
6 to 10% have motor coordination disorders that make it hard to do things like handwriting.

In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that
8 to 10% (up to 14% of boys) meet the criteria for ADHD

That’s a lot of kids whose brains are not set up to automatically succeed in our school system.
------- my note below ----
In addition, because of pressures from No Child Left Behind, children are being tested (and schools are judged on their results) starting in third grade. Despite many experts saying that play-based Kindergartens let children develop valuable and necessary skills for the brain and social skills, many school districts (Palo Alto included) are putting Kindergarten children into academic classes. Here are some articles about play-based Kindergartens and how they're a necessity: Web Link Note that for cultural and societal reasons, high-performance parents often push for early academics, thinking (wrongfully) that this will help their children get into Harvard. Actually, the opposite is the case.

85% of the kids with learning disabilities have dyslexia, which can be stopped in its tracks if the children are identified early and then given stringent training in phonics, using multisensory techniques (Orton Gillingham is the one suggested worldwide.) But how would the kids be identified? American teachers don't receive a single class in how to either identify or how to teach children whose brains work differently. Furthermore, school districts cavil at purchasing Orton Gillingham textbooks and programs. Read this amazing article. Web Link

The best place to take your child in the Palo Alto area if they have a reading disability is Lindamood-Bell. Do you know how much they charge to do a simple therapy program of holding up phonics cards and having your child read them over and over again? $100 an hour, and they suggest 200 hours -- with no guarantees. In excruciatingly-priced Palo Alto, how many middle-income children's parents can afford that? (Oh, no insurance coverage, of course. The school says it's a medical problem, but the medical and insurance industries say that things like dyslexia/ADHD/sensory integration are clearly an educational problem.)

If caught early and given occupational therapy and focused therapy, we could have a significantly lower number of children who are in the "disability" level of their learning differences. But the system is broken. Witness the Senate's decision just this year to *not* fund training for teachers in how to identify and help dyslexic students. The reason? They didn't want to give favoritism to the group that comprises 85%. Web Link Too bad they didn't just crunch the numbers on cost to society.

Ironically enough, with a little nudge, the teacher's training could encompass many more groups of students, since multisensory techniques are also very effective with ADHD children, as well as children with other learning differences.

It's quite normal for districts in California to have up to 15% children with learning disabilities, partially because our educational system's definition of "normal" has gotten narrower and more test-bound. I believe that Menlo Park got their percentage down several years ago, but that was just because their special-needs program was so horrible that many parents who could afford it just pulled their children out and sent them to private school.

If you are dealing with a learning disability and you would be interested in reviewing the book I'm writing, please do email at brainparenting at gmail dot com, or come and follow our BrainParenting Facebook page. And I wish you great good luck.

13 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 1, 2015 at 5:11 pm

I think every child should have an IEP (individualized education plan) because each one is a uniquely developing person with individual educational needs at all stages of school.

Some students need more advanced challenges in some academic areas, and in other areas they need to learn more slowly ...
no two students are the same.

Teaching each child as an individual also gives them a role in their education plans as well.

All children are equal, and special no matter where they live or to whom they are born!

9 people like this
Posted by Soberman
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2015 at 6:26 pm

[Post removed.]

7 people like this
Posted by Reason
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 23, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Reason is a registered user.

@PalyAlto asks:"Can anybody tell me why so many kids in Palo Alto have 504's & IEP's?"


A friend asked their headmaster in London the same question - his answer: it's not unusual and we shouldn't treat it as anything but normal. In his experience about 70% of kids need some accommodation at some point. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, vision, hearing, ADHD, just disorganized, injuries... The list goes on.

If you create a system that doesn't deal with any of this then you need to accommodate a lot of exceptions. If I made a school, every classroom would be setup to handle the top ten issues automatically. That would require a lot less 504's

7 people like this
Posted by Reorganization
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 26, 2015 at 9:55 pm

@Soberman. It is not a joke.

Your surprise may stem from the fact the District made the promotions near secrecy over the summer. Palo Alto Weekly Freedom of Information requests and Board Agendas show Board of Education discussion in closed sessions, but the public was not told until a 2 weeks before the Board of Education approved it, after the school year ended when many stakeholders were away. Very few saw what was going on or could express concerns or objections.

For hiring and promotions, although the reorganization plan made it appear a new professional staffer would be brought in as Assistant Superintendent, competition for the outside job applicants job was not permitted. The job description was written so only one current internal applicant would qualify for the job. The job posting was only open to current employees and only for one week.

While District stakeholders may have thought positions such as a new Assistant Superintendent and Director of Special Education were so important that stakeholder input would first be sought, the Superintendent did not do that. Stakeholders might have thought there would be evaluation or input from parents of how well the staff being promoted did in their jobs before they were promoted, but this was not done. The Superintendent announced his selection for the job before the Board of Education approved the reorganization creating the job, so this was planned for a long time without stakeholder notification or input. Few stakeholders knew the hiring decision in advance because the decision was only made known a few days before the Board of Education's vote via a Superintendent's Weekly, a place few stakeholders knew to look, especially during the summer. In reasons for his decision,the Superintendent cited the promoted employees responsiveness to him, but not to parents or parent satisfaction. Parent dissatisfaction with the employee was not included.

After the promotion, the job openings and new jobs created from the reorganization were open only to current employees and/or current contractors (a strange requirement that someone has to be a contractor to apply).

The promoted managers were allowed to choose the contractor to conduct an independent evaluation of Special Education, their own work. You might have thought the performance of the Special Education program would have been independently evaluated before the employees who managed it were promoted, not after. You might have thought an independent evaluater would be chosen independently or at least by the Board of Education, and not by the employees whose work and programs are being evaluated, but that was not done.

Tuesday the Board of Education will hear a presentation on the poor performance of Special Education students in State testing.

5 people like this
Posted by Reorganization
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 27, 2015 at 4:28 pm

Change in Attorney Reporting - Tuesday's Board of Education packet contains a plan by the Superintendent to change the reporting of the new General Counsel (attorney) so the position will only to the Superintendent, not to the Board of Education as the Board approved in 6/23/2015 reorganization plan. The Board will not have oversight of the attorney as promised in June.
Web Link
(Superintendent Memo Page 207, Organization Chart page 214)

That 6/23/2015 approved reorganization plan listed the General Counsel reporting directly to the Board of Education with dotted line (indirect) reporting to the Superintendent. The Superintendent seeks to change that.
This could give the Superintendent and Special Education employees freedom to use the attorney without approval from the Board.
Web Link
(Scott Bowers Human Resource Memo at page 331, Organization Chart at page 335)

In terms of legal information, it is unclear how much the Administration disclosed to the Board of Education. The Closed Session Agenda for 3/10/2015 shows the Board was informed only of cases listed as Student vs. PAUSD. This appears as if the only PAUSD was involved with were brought by the Student against the District, but the District did sue disabled students. It doesn't look like the District disclosed the cases which would be listed as PAUSD vs. Student.
Is this correct? Please feel free to correct this if wrong.
Web Link

Palo Alto Weekly Freedom of Information request shows the then Director of Special Education planned to present cases involving 2 students to the Board in a Closed Session. This isn't on a Board Agenda, even for a Closed Session.

It is hard to know what the Board knew and when they knew it. The Superintendent said he called families filing OCR complaints. Did he also call families he intended to bring litigation against, to see if he could resolve the problem before he sued his students?

The reorganization created an Assistant Superintendent with total control over all Special Education, Counseling, Nurse, Mental Health, social work and attendance. The Compliance Officer monitoring performance and taking parent complaints is the same person, the Assistant Superintendent who manages these functions. That is monitoring yourself, and your own management. The ability to file suits against disabled children is controlled by the same person who decides if they receive resources and counseling and social work, including going into children's home. This complete control over families' lives.
Web Link

This is all so opaque, if the attorney reports only to the Superintendent and has unlimited access by District employees, the Board will have no oversight or control over the attorney with unlimited power to use legal action against children.

14 people like this
Posted by Wow. Ok.
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 27, 2015 at 7:55 pm

Some excellent points are being made above.

I also was surprised by the effort by McGee to cut the board off from the General Counsel after it was already voted that the GC would report to the board. This seems like part 2 of the effort by Caswell and McGee to cut off Ken Dauber's (and thus, the public's) access to information about OCR. Accusing him of a conflict failed, so now they are going for it another way.

Why would any board vote to cut itself off from its own lawyer and allow the superintendent to have communications that are confidential from the board? That's probably not even legal under the Ed Code. There clearly is a hidden agenda here.

9 people like this
Posted by Uh-Oh
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2015 at 8:11 pm

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Oop...I did it again
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 28, 2015 at 1:21 pm

Interestingly Dr. McGee’s recommendation to the board quotes from board Bylaw 9124 that states that the Governing Board not the Superintendent hires legal counsel whether it is inside or outside counsel. It also states that the legal counsel reports to the Board and the Superintendent. This is how it should be even though it did not seem to be the case with outside counsel in the past; for instance when Dr. Skelly signed the OCR resolution agreement regarding the Terman student with knowledge of outside counsel while keeping the Board in the dark. In regards to an anonymous attorney’s advice cutting out Board oversight is to avoid Brown Act violations this is easily and properly avoided by Board discussions with legal counsel occurring during properly noticed board meetings.

1 person likes this
Posted by Reorganization
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 28, 2015 at 2:53 pm

Normally I would have said one employee should report to one Administrator. It is hard to serve two master's. However, this is a government and the position is one of the most senior and highest paid in the District. Anyone applying for it has to understand that and be ready to meet that challenge.

The Web sites of the District's two attorney firms state they represent Boards of Education, not employees. After the legal fees mounted, I worried employees had too much free and easy access to attorneys. Law firms can take any work that comes and pursue it to ridiculous excess, but an employee General Counsel has to use resources wisely to maximum effectiveness, and will have to say "no" to District employees.

The Federal government has warned Districts as government entities to stop using other government entities (courts) to sue parents and students. So I wonder if the Board of Education knew and approved all the legal actions of the past few years, such as the adversarial letters families spoke about at the Board meeting in May and June. Did the Board agree to file due process against families who don't speak English when the District did not translate papers into their language as law required? (The judge sent the District away and told them to resolve it). Is that what the Board really wanted to happen to these children? Employees don't have enough perspective on ways to resolve problems at a simpler, cheaper level.

The Superintendent made an interesting pre-emptive block against the Board having their own attorney and the Administration (Superintendent) another. I sometimes thought the Board needs its own attorney. Not only after OCR, also after the Superintendent tried to require 3 Board members request information before he will respond. It was also weird the Superintendent said Special Education management needed a single attorney to get by. If the Superintendent and his leaders can't do their jobs without one attorney from an outside firm, they are not capable of doing their jobs. They are far too dependent on a single hired gun.

I also thought maybe the Board needed its own attorney after it was revealed the CDE non-compliance findings were withheld for 9 months, after the District had time to fix them. Were the reports listing the specific incidents of District's non-compliance ever made public? The CDE letter link in the above article states they were included with the letter.

The Administration has a hard time with "no" from the Board, such as being told not to a PR employee. The Reorganization is being changed before it really started. The Board allowed the Superintendent to hire employees before the reorganization was approved. He already got a free pass. Now the Board should limit the amount of fiddling with the plan and give it time to work as promised.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Professorville
on May 4, 2016 at 11:02 am

We, and many parents we've talked to, have suffered in the pausd special ed system. PAUSD works very hard to not recognize a learning disability, not provide services, and, as a last straw, provide the fewest services they can get away with. the testing they do is performed incompetently. they bully parents, especially mothers. at my child's SST meeting, the "specialist" in the room said, "some kids are born spellers and some aren't", that is, my child was clearly not, and there's nothing that can be done about it. it is breathtaking, how incompetent they are, and how they use the long and powerful arm of the law to defend their actions.

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