Mental Health Advocates Must Take a Stand Regarding the Devos Nomination for Education Secretary

President Trump's pick for Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, is likely to be confirmed by the Senate very soon. Democrats have asked for a second confirmation hearing amid widespread concerns about potential conflicts of interest stemming from her family’s many investments, including in private charter schools and a student loan company. No Republicans have announced opposition to DeVos.

In a letter sent this week to leaders of the U.S. Senate education committee, more than three dozen advocacy groups urged senators to hold off on a vote on Betsy DeVos’ nomination for secretary of education due to concerns about her comments at her confirmation hearing.

“Unfortunately, at the hearing, Mrs. DeVos’ answers to many questions did not provide the needed clarity, and in fact, raised serious concerns from the undersigned organizations regarding her vision and commitment to upholding and implementing, with fidelity, the laws under which students with disabilities are educated including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act,” ~ Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities ~

For mental health advocates, regardless of political allegiance, the confirmation of Betsy Devos as Education Secretary should be quite concerning. Of the many troubling aspects of her testimony in her recent confirmation hearing, particularly disturbing was the interchange between Devos and Senator Kaine (D-VA) on the topic of enforcing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Ms. Devos was, at best, vague, in stating whether or not disabled children were entitled to federal protections in education, leaving many advocates to wonder if she is against children with disabilities receiving federal protection or if she just does not understand the IDEA law. She was very clear, however, that states should be able to decide what services to provide children with disabilities. In the interchange with Senator Kaine, Devos used the example of a Florida program that, according to a report in Politico, encourages parents of children with disabilities to sign away their IDEA rights in exchange for a voucher for a private school.

Let that sink in for a moment.

A Bit of History for Why the Devos Hearing Left Me Feeling Nauseated Many of you know that I organized the annual National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health Conference for close to 20 years, beginning in the early 1990's. The conference, especially in the early days, was a mecca for families who had children in desperate need for IDEA protection.

The leadership of the Federation during the time of my involvement with the organization knew full well the power of the law the federal government had passed and how that law could be used as a tool to help ensure that families got appropriate services for their children with identified mental health needs. Every year at the conference we would hear a few examples from parents about how education districts would take extraordinary and exemplary steps to ensure that federal IDEA regulations were followed to the letter. Unfortunately, the few examples of success were dwarfed by tales of school system neglect and sometimes abuse of children and families in states all across the country.

Each year, as I would meet with the then Executive Director of the Federation, Barbara Huff, to begin crafting a theme for the conference and identifying key "must have" workshops, she was strident in her commitment to holding training sessions on the IDEA law. Why? Mainly because at that time, there was little opportunity for parents to get clear and practical information about how to use the law to better the chances of getting the federal protections in education guaranteed to them by the law. For most, getting educated at the local level was a non-existent pipe dream, so the annual conference was the place where this could happen. Barbara Huff deserves much credit for ensuring that we secured the services of Dixie Jordan, one of the foremost experts on IDEA, to provide an intensive training session before the conference and onsite consultation to any parent who wanted it, throughout the conference.

Year after year I would see the same families attending Dixie's training sessions and drop-in consultation hours. I have lost count of the number of parents who stopped me in the halls to say "thank you" for the opportunity to learn about the law and to have someone with excellent knowledge listen to their personal stories. For my part, I was just a vehicle. The thanks needed to go to Barbara for insisting that IDEA training was always on the menu of options for families. I don't know the exact number of years we had Dixie attend the conference to provide training and consultation, but I would say the number exceeds 18, and most likely more. I should also say (and I know Dixie won't be happy with me saying this, but I'm gonna do it anyway), Dixie always volunteered her services. Dixie's passion and commitment to educating parents is unwavering.

Barbara didn't stop there. She had the foresight to hire Trina Osher as her policy director. Trina is just as knowledgeable as Dixie about the IDEA law and the importance it has for families who have children with mental health challenges. So while Dixie would hold down the training end at the conference, Trina would tirelessly work the policy aspect of ensuring equal protection for children with mental health challenges and their families.

Bottom line from what I have learned over the past 30+ years of meeting with parents who have children with mental health challenges? The feel-good notion of "leaving it up to the states to decide," as Devos said time and time again in her confirmation hearing, is farcical at best, and dangerous at worst.

While watching the Devos confirmation hearing and listening to her words, in my mind's eye, parents from decades of interaction appeared, their stories of the neglect and abuse of their children, and the sheer heartache experienced by their families, permanently etched in my psyche. These are images and stories that will never go away. It is part of why I fight and why you should fight.

For those of you who are feeling particularly zealous about the notion of "States rights," I hope you will heed my words. Your role as mental health advocate must eclipse your role as political party supporter.

I know that many of you reading this post affiliate with a variety of advocacy organizations. I would ask that you share this post with your organization leaders, be they the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Mental Health America, National Council for Behavioral Health or any other organization you share an affiliation. Ask them to take a stand on the Devos nomination. Your organization may take a position that is different from the one I have laid out in this post. That's okay. What is not okay is for them to sit silently on the sidelines. You may find that they have well-articulated positions on the Devos nomination. If so, excellent. Share them, discuss them, but by all means, do not sit silently.

Take a stand. And if your advocacy organization of choice has not yet done so, tell the leadership to take a stand.

Nothing could be easier, or more important.

The days of quiet servitude to the "powers that be" must end.

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