An Interview with Betsy Combier: Parent Advocate

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Senior Columnist EducationNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University

1) Tell us about your education and some past experiences to set the stage for this interview.

I and my twin sister were born in New York City. My mom was a volunteer her whole life and was a person whose life revolved around music and theater. My dad was the Assistant Attorney General of the State of New York, and my twin and I were very lucky, and attended a private girl's school for thirteen years. I went to Northwestern University for college 1967-71. I majored in Child Psychology and English.

I discovered in 5th grade that I loved to write. I had always had an eye for what "the facts" were, in every story I read and during every television show. So, from a very young age, I wanted facts, but I wanted to prove that the facts made sense and were really true…at least to me. In my own mind, I became an investigative reporter by 7th grade.

After graduating from Northwestern in 1971, I returned to New York City and worked for Memorex Corporation, selling peripheral computer equipment. Starting around 1973, I worked as a freelance journalist for magazines such as American Health, Working Woman, Environmental Nutrition, VITA News, etc. But I was bored, and felt compelled to seek making a difference to the world, so I applied to various Masters Programs in International Relations.

In 1974, moved to Bologna, Italy to study with Johns Hopkins' School For Advanced International Studies. My major was the growth and development of the Soviet military industrial complex. After SAIS, I returned to New York City, and in August 1976 I was sitting in a coffee shop near Lincoln Center when a man told me to call him the next day at ABC News.

I did, and he told me he wanted me to produce the first cable TV show in NYC on NYC. I was supposed to go to Columbia University for a Ph.D. in Russian Studies, but I decided to become a TV Producer instead. I became the producer of the CUE" TV Magazine, and made the show very successful. Around about the same time, I heard about computers, and knew that this technology would alter information flow around the world. I wanted to be part of that.

I entered New York University in 1978 to get an MPS degree in Interactive Telecommunications (received in 1984, after my return from Egypt). After the first year I read about a solar village in Egypt's Nile Delta, and decided to move there to see if I could assist villagers become their own advocates in making their lives the best they could be. I designed a process of using solar-powered video as a tool in re-directing the flow of funds from international agencies to the small villages that line up along the Nile River in Egypt. I was able to get support for the project from the Jordanian royal family and Israeli solar energy scientists. I traveled back and forth from Egypt-Israel-Jordan for 5 years, and met people at all levels of the government in all three countries.

I worked for free on my project – getting side jobs as an associate producer for American and Egyptian TV crews - until 1983, when I received a grant from the African Development Foundation. As I had designed the project to be sustainable locally without outside intervention, I left Egypt and returned to NYC in 1984, just in time to hand in my Master's thesis on "The Application of Solar-powered Video to the Needs of Rural Egyptian Agriculture in the Nile Delta area." NYU accepted this and I received my MPS in June, 1984.

I then married and had four daughters, Sari, Healani, Elise and Marielle. And, I started a company called Theater Kids, established to provide art and drama therapy and playwriting classes to children with special needs, in honor of Sari, my oldest daughter who has some auditory processing issues, and who received her first IEP when she was in third grade.

My successful work in Egypt gave me my vision and made me the advocate that I am now. One of my favorite quotes fits me to a 'T' is this:

"FAITH: When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take the step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly." Patrick Overton

Oh, and this one, too:

"Be the change you wish to see in the world…if not you, who?"

2) How did you first get involved in parental advocacy?

I first became involved in parental advocacy in 1993 when Sari's private school called me and told me they believed she had a speech/language/auditory problem, and I should get her evaluated. I did not know where to go, who to talk with, or what to do. But information is my middle name, so I went to the bookstore, called universities and "experts" in the field of testing, and got Sari evaluated. Other parents started asking me how I got all of the services Sari needed in such little time, and I realized that there was a great need to gather information for parents who could not do the search for appropriate resources as well as I could (my MPS is in computers, remember), so I started telling other parents what I knew.

I put all my children in public schools, and became PTA President of a school with a Gifted Program, in 1999. Then I discovered in 2000-2001 that education in New York City was not what I thought it was. On June 5, 2001, I wrote a report about missing money from my daughters' school, and I included how the special needs children were not getting their services. Little did I know that I was not supposed to "tell".

I was attacked verbally by the Principal, who of course refused to be held accountable, and I was removed as PTA President. Sari's school ripped up her IEP, de-certified her, and expelled her without telling me, to "pay me back" for exposing the systematic looting of the special education coffers of the NYC Board of Education. I did not see Sari again for 1 ½ years, she decided she could not come home. Evidently, she lived in a box on the street. She came home in December 2006, and is now a freshman at Hunter College, with a 4.0 grade average. She is going to be fine.

I became a parent advocate, determined to give parents accurate and helpful information so that no one would have a child harmed after whistle-blowing the education system. I joined the NYU Law Library and can do in-depth research on any topic. I provide advocacy services for free or for very reasonable fees, so that not one child is left behind.

3) In your opinion, in general, how is the education system doing in America?

The education system in America is a sham. Most school administrators say whatever they want, just to satisfy a select few who actually have nothing to do with the teaching of children and their search for knowledge. We must transform the entire system and start from a foundation of transparency, accountability, and scientifically proven policies that encourage learning.

4) Now, in your opinion, how is the special education system doing in America?

In my opinion, there is little, if any, "special education" in America's public schools. Providers are servicing children less and less, and getting paid more and more. Where does the money go? Individualized Education Programs are written behind closed doors and tests are given by testers who have no clue about what they are doing. When my daughter's speech evaluation came back after she disappeared, the speech evaluator wrote, "Sari talked fine". Not only are children being certified/de-certified according to the amount of money that can be made by the nearest educrat, but, as Karen Horwitz' interview shows, special education teachers seem to be the first targeted to be removed from their classrooms without probable cause.

I assist parents in IEP reviews and at Impartial Hearings, and usually win every case, because I simply remain firm on what the child needs and what the school is not doing, after I do my research. As you may recall, I base my statements and actions on facts from the time I was about 5, and do a lot of investigation in all my cases, to find out exactly what is missing, being omitted, must be provided and isn't, etc. This is what I mean by being an advocate: get to your appropriate and just goal.

5) What have you found to be the most problematic issues in special education in terms of parent advocacy?

The most problematic issue in special education advocacy is misinformation. Examples are many:

Principal:"This school does not have the money to provide these services for your child, and no, we don't foresee this changing anytime in the future, and no, there is nothing that you can do about it."

"We decided that your child does not need any [ ] services, and promotion is in doubt."

I have gone to meetings where the Principal, AP, school psychologist, ed evaluator, guidance counselor, teachers, and everyone else all say that YOUR child, the child you thought you knew, is someone you don't know at all. Bulloney!

6) Do you think most parents know enough about the special ed process and special education law to adequately represent their children at an IEP?

No, I don't believe that parents know enough to represent their children at an IEP meeting at which everyone (with multiple degrees) tells the parent that he/she doesn't know enough.

Parents "know" their children, and must stop being persuaded to stop/give up services for their children simply because a team from the board says so. Simply say "I disagree with your assessment, but thank you for your time."

7) It seems that juggling a "free appropriate public education" on one hand, with the concept of the "least restrictive environment " on the other is a major hurdle- am I wrong on this?

A "free and appropriate public education" can take place in a "least restrictive environment". An example: a bright child with epilepsy needs to be in a general education setting with a health para paid by the BOE, and may need extended time on tests, assistive technology, etc. I have a current case just like this, and the child does not need to be in a restricted class because he is very social, outgoing and popular.

8) I think when a school is confronted with a student who is, for example, both deaf and blind, they realize what they are going to have to do and provide- but when the school is dealing with a student who has a learning disability in spelling, or reading, they are less likely to have the range of concern with that student. Am I off on this?

Yes, you are right about learning disabilities being ignored or pushed aside in our public schools. LD is not a "visible" disability in many cases, therefore there is no need, the school administrator may say, to provide any accommodations. The short term result is the Principal does not have to schedule meetings with the parents and school support team, but the consequences in the long term can be serious, such as total academic failure and other actions that may not benefit the school community at all. Most ed administrators are, or are forced to be, short-term thinkers.

9) Do you have official training as a mediator? Or do mediators not advocate for children?

I am not a trained mediator, but I believe my mediating skills are equal to the best in the business. I have read everything I could find on mediation, and researched the rules, regulations and laws under the word "mediation" and find that the definition is specific to the circumstance that it is used. Mediators are part of the process. I don't call myself a "mediator", but I am an advocate.

10) Over the next few years, what do you see happening in special education, particularly in light of NCLB?

I see special education remaining random and arbitrary as long as there is no transparency or accountability in our nation's schools. It doesn't matter what the current legislation/law/policy is…if the public don't know and cannot find out what is going on, people will take advantage of this.

11) Do you have a web site or 800 number where people can contact you?

Yes, I have a website: http://www.parentadvocates.org.

I started writing for the site in 2003, and I hope that visitors find the information useful and interesting.

No, I do not have an 800 number yet. Anyone that calls for help still gets the person behind parentadvocates: me.

Published March 5, 2008

Wednesday

March 5th, 2008

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist EducationNews.org

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