Is There a School Psychology Diaspora?

By Lange, Stephen M. | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview
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Is There a School Psychology Diaspora?


Lange, Stephen M., National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


Igraduatedfrom a nondoctoral school psychology trainingprogram in 1983, and within a day of receiving my diploma began working in public schools. Then I stopped. I received my school psychology PhD in 1996, and I started again. And then I stopped. Right now, I consider myself part of a permanent diaspora of school psychologists who have left the active practice of psychology in public school settings. I am sure that school psychologists leave public education for myriad reasons, but the increasing emphasis in special education on litigation and procedural compliance provided the impetus for my exodus. I suspect that there must be others who have left for similar reasons. The threat of litigation and work expended to avoid court was a drain on time and resources, and an obstacle to collaboration in service of children's educations. It can be mind numbing to produce endless letters of notification, often in legal boilerplate. It can be supremely stressful to cope with a practice model that seems to encourage conflict. An example of this type of conflict was a marathon meeting held one Friday afternoon and evening to plan a child's special education evaluation. Our meeting resulted first in agreement with the child's parents, second in the parents' signatures on the evaluation plan, and third a faxed multipage rebuttal of the plan by the parents' attorney. How can parents and an attorney rebut a consensus that they were party to? Well, it beats me. In fact, a few more beatings like that chased me out of schools and into the practice of psychology in a much more reasonable, rational type of setting - state prisons.

The intensity of litigation and the threat of litigation were anticipated when school psychology expanded in the 1970s, corresponding with the adoption of the original legislative mandate for free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities. The tension between the interests of schools and parents was described in the literature of the time as the "Who is the Client" problem. In 2010, this problem persists. For example, imagine two psychologists faced with these two dilemmas: In the first case, a school district's motive to minimize costs conflicts with a parent's motive to maximize services. In the second case, a school's interest in maintaining a safe school environment conflicts with a parent's desire to avoid their child's exclusion from the same, least restrictive, environment. How should these two school psychologists simultaneously honor the needs of the child, parent, teachers, and classmates? Despite the considerable interpersonal skills, understanding, and compassion these two individuals may possess, two basic ethical imperatives are in conflict for the psychologist in each scenario. On the one hand, like all psychologists, each must adhere to the imperative to respect individual rights, and to act with beneficence. On the other hand, schools are organized to follow a utilitarian imperative to do as muchas possible for the greatest number of pupils, even if that means the needs or wants of one child or one parent are frustrated. Special education evaluation and placement decisions are characterized by inherent tensions between the interests of those involved, even when those involved demonstrate considerable goodwill. Consequently, special education evaluations are essentially forensic rather than clinical assessments. In fact, it is easy to argue that it may not be ethically appropriate for the same school psychologist who serves as a school's internal mental health consultant to also provide evaluations that determine entitlement to benefits that are provided at that school district's expense.

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