Juvenile Justice Reform Bill

In the second week of July, the Massachusetts’ Senate passed a bill that could have a dramatic impact on the lives of juveniles entangled in the criminal juvenile justice system.

  • First of all, the bill would create a parent/child privilege. At present, anything a child divulges to his/her parent about a criminal matter is admissible in court. Under the new bill, a parent would be permitted to speak freely with and counsel a child charged with a crime without risking being forced to testify later in court about what had been discussed.
  • Second, the bill would allow juvenile delinquency records to be easily expunged, meaning a juvenile’s criminal history could be deleted completely. Under present law, juvenile delinquency records may be “sealed” from the public and employers after a waiting period of several years, but law enforcement, schools and courts can still view those records so the child’s past never really becomes part of his/her past. Under the new bill, misdemeanors would be undetectable by EVERYONE provided the juvenile completed the requisite form and met all of the terms of his/her probation (or sentence). For more serious crimes, i.e., felonies, the juvenile would need to request permission from a judge.
  • Juveniles under the age of 11 would be excluded from the juvenile criminal justice system.
  • The new bill would also create a “presumption that youth status was a distinct mitigating factor” in any matter involving a matter, reflecting an acknowledgment by the legislature that the “science” behind the undeveloped adolescent brain is legitimate and must be considered by judges.

You decide you want your child tested independently…by a doctor you’ve selected. What are your next steps in obtaining an “independent education evaluation?”

Independent Education Evaluations (“IEE”)

So, you’ve learned that your child has a learning disability, for example, dyslexia. You go out and read Sally Shaywitz’s book, Overcoming Dyslexia, and you see the following reading tests should be utilized to assess children suspected of having dyslexia:

  • The Woodcock-Johnson III
  • The Woodcock Reading Mastery Test, Revised/Normative Update

You also see Dr. Shaywitz recommends the following tests to evaluate phonologic skills and reading readiness (with applicable ages/grades):

Then, having learned that you have a right to review the evaluation results for your child at least two days before the next scheduled meeting, you email your school district to obtain the results. Unfortunately, when you receive them, you find that none of the above tests were administered.  You decide to contact someone such as Robert L. Kemper, Ph.D. of Psycholinguistics Associates, Inc. or the Nancy Duggan and the folks at Decoding Dyslexia Massachusetts and discover the evaluations done by your school district were inadequate.  So what do you do?

First, be sure not to write on the evaluations. For that matter, as a general rule, never write on any original documents provided to you by your school.  If you have a way to scan them (I strongly recommend you buy a scanner!!!), scan them onto your home computer, save them in a folder for that academic year (e.g., the “2015-2016 IEP” folder) and be sure to name the file something you will easily recognize (e.g., “05202015 School Evaluations”).  If you do not have a scanner, always photocopy the originals and place them and the photocopies in a plastic “sleeve” or “sheet protector” and then insert them in your three-ring-binder for that academic year.  Organization is extremely important!!!

Second, determine who you want to do the evaluation. In that regard, begin by reading this article by Dr. Jadis Blurton, Founder and Clinical Director of Therapy Associates, Hong Kong.  Next, contact your child’s primary care physician and seek a referral.  There are many fine hospitals such as Boston’s Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital and doctors in private practice to choose from in Massachusetts.  However, please note that many doctors do not like to testify in court or at hearings before the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (the “BSEA” is an administrative body in Massachusetts that, among other functions, hears disputes between families and school districts over special education services).  So, I encourage you to ask in advance before­ you arrange a consultation.  Additionally, once you have the doctor’s name, review the BSEA’s decisions and rulings and query the doctor’s name.  Doing so will not only show you whether a doctor has testified, it will also show you how his/her testimony has been received in the past by hearing officers.

Finally, read 34 CFR 300.502, 603 CMR 28.04(5) and Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 71B, Section 3 (or at least the section that relates to independent evaluations).

Key Highlights about the Law

  • Federal and state law provide parents with a procedure for obtaining public funding of an independent evaluation if they disagree with the school district’s evaluation.
  • If a parent requests an independent evaluation at public expense, the school district must either pay for it or, within five days, request a determination from the BSEA that the school district’s evaluation was comprehensive and appropriate.
  • Under MA law, if a student is eligible for free or reduced cost lunch, or is a state ward, or the family’s income is equal to or less than 400% of the federal poverty guidelines, the school district must pay the entire cost of the independent evaluation. The right to this publicly funded independent evaluation applies for up to 16 months from the date of the evaluation with which the parent disagrees.
  • If a parent requests an independent evaluation, the school district may ask for the parent’s reason why he or she objects to the public evaluation. However, the school district agency may not require a parent to provide an explanation and may not unreasonably delay either providing the independent evaluation at public expense or filing a due process complaint to request a due process hearing to defend the public evaluation.
  • A parent may always obtain an independent evaluation at their own expense.
  • Within ten school days from the time the school district receives the report of the independent evaluation, the Team must reconvene and consider the independent evaluation and whether a new or amended IEP is appropriate.

Don’t think you have dyslexia? Poor reader? Atrocious Speller? Difficulty retrieving words? Ever struggle with word pronunciation?

Is your son or daughter an atrocious speller? Did the birthday card you received from your young niece contain a handwritten note that was barely legible because of the erratic letter formation, letter reversals, and letter and/or word spacing problems?  Have you ever said to someone, “Hand me the …uh…uh..uh”_____ (insert word you clearly know),” but you simply could not remember the word without hesitating?  Does your grandchild regularly mispronounce words (confusing the word specifically with pacifically)?  Does your kindergarten age child seem to “guess” at words while reading, guessing who even though the correct word is what?  If so, you may know a dyslexic reader.

Because dyslexia can range from mild to severe, many dyslexic readers go undiagnosed. However, the emotional pain suffered by even mildly dyslexic readers is very real.  They see how effortlessly their peers seem to be able to spell, read, pronounce words, retrieve words, take notes, compose letters and memos and think, “I just must not be working hard enough” or “They must just be smarter than me.”  Undaunted, these very same people, driven and desirous of success, oftentimes develop their own “compensatory strategies” to overcome their “issues,” enjoying considerable educational and professional success.  However, their road to success is rarely an enjoyable one.

If you have always believed your grades never reflected your level of intelligence, believing “school was just not your thing” or you have enjoyed considerable educational or professional success despite the fact you have always known that you had done so despite not being a strong reader, I strongly encourage you to read the audio version of Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.  Indeed, as my first audio book, it was amazing to me how easily I absorbed the very dense chapters related to the science behind dyslexia that I typically would have only “thumbed through” or skipped altogether because of my own reading challenges.  Below I have included but a few excerpts from this very informative book.



Early clues to Dyslexia

“You will discover the earliest and perhaps the most important clues to a potential reading problem by listening to your child speak.”

“The first clue to dyslexia may be a delay in speaking. As a general rule, children say their first words at about one year and phrases by eighteen months to two years.  Children vulnerable to dyslexia may not begin saying their first words until fifteen months or so and may not speak in phrases until after their second birthday.  The delay is a modest one, and parents often ascribe it to a family history of late talking…..While a delay in speaking may be familial, so is dyslexia.”

“Once a child begins to speak, difficulties in pronunciation-sometimes referred to as “baby talk”—that continues past the usual time may be another early warning. By five or six years of age, a child should have little problem saying most words correctly.  Attempts to pronounce a new word for the first time or to say a long or complicated word can reveal problems with articulation.”

“Typical mispronunciations involve either leaving off beginning sounds (such as pisgetti for spaghetti or lephant for elephant) or inverting the sounds within a word (aminal for animal).”

“Children who demonstrate reading difficulties may show early signs of insensitivity to rhyme. Parents may notice that at the age of four their son is still not able to recite popular nursery rhymes and he may confuse words that sound alike.  By the beginning of kindergarten, when most boys and girls are able to judge if two words rhyme, dyslexic children may still not be able to demonstrate that they hear rhyme.”

“A child may look at a picture of a volcano that she has seen many times, and the word she pulls up is tornado-close in sound but not in meaning.”

“Dyslexic children “may talk around a word” (by mumbling “um, um, um, I forgot”) or “point instead of speaking or become tearful or angry as they become frustrated at being unable to utter the word they have in mind.”

“As a child gets older, she may resort to using words that lack precision or specificity to cover up her retrieval difficulties, such as using vague words like stuff or things instead of the actual name of the object. Sometimes it is hard to follow the conversation of a dyslexic because the sentences are filled with pronouns or words lacking in specificity: “You know, I went and picked up the stuff and took it there.  The things were all mixed up, but I got the stuff anyway.”….  This is a frequent pattern, but it not invariable; some dyslexic children may be quite articulate when they speak.”

“As a dyslexic child matures into adulthood, his speech continues to show evidence of the difficulties he has getting to the sound structure of words. His speech is littered with hesitations; sometimes there are many long pauses, or he may talk around a word, using many indirect words in place of the single word he can’t seem to come up with (technically referred to as circumlocution).  He is neither glib nor fluent in spoken language.”

“Given a choice, a dyslexic can almost always recognize the correct word.  For example, if asked whether a sudden ghostly appearance is an apparition or a partition, a dyslexic will invariably choose the correct response, apparition.  However, when confronted on the spot to recall or come up with the word for a sudden ghostly appearance, the dyslexic may reach into his lexicon and pull out a word that sounds similar to the word he intended-in this instance, partition, instead of apparition.”


“Finally, and perhaps most critically, fuzzy phonemes interfere with the beginning reader’s ability to learn the names and the sounds of the letters of the alphabet. This series of accomplishments-learning the alphabet, learning the names of individual letters, and then learning the sounds that letters make–marks an important transition for the would-be reader.  For the first time the child is expected to link the abstract squiggles that we call letters with their names and with their sounds.  This is the beginning of reading.  It is a necessary if not entirely sufficient accomplishment that must be in place in order to read.  Conversely, difficulty in acquiring these skills is an early signal that the child may have a reading problem.”

“Certainly, by the time a child has had a full year of instruction in kindergarten, she should be able to recognize and name all of the letters of the alphabet, both uppercase and lowercase…and children generally leave kindergarten knowing the sounds of most of the letters of the alphabet.”

“Dyslexia runs in families; having a parent or a sibling who is dyslexic increases the probability that you are, too. Between one-quarter and one-half of children born to a dyslexic parent will also be dyslexic.  If one child in a family is dyslexic, almost half of this sisters and brothers are also likely to be dyslexic.  Not surprisingly, in cases where a child is dyslexic and his parents are then evaluated, in one-third to one-half of the cases a parent turns out to be dyslexic, too.”

“One of the most enduring misconceptions is that dyslexic children see letters and words backwards and that reversals (writing letters and words backward) are an invariable sign.  While it is true that dyslexic children have difficulties attaching the appropriate labels or names to letters and words, there is no evidence that they actually see letters and words backwards….A related misconception is that mirror writing invariably accompanies dyslexia.  In fact, backward writing and reversal of letters and words are common in the early stages of writing and development among dyslexic and nondyslexic children.”


Later Clues to Dyslexia

“To read effectively a child needs to pay attention to all the letters in a written word so they can link them to the sound she hears in the spoken word and then decode the word. Otherwise, she will confuse words that have the same initial and final consonants but different interior vowels (such as book and beak).”

“Children whose errors [matching letters to sound] indicated a lack of awareness of the relation of letters to sounds typically ended the year as poor readers (Such children might read like for milk, words that have some letters in common but do not sound the same.)  These children were not flexing their phonologic muscles.  Parents should be concerned when their children act in a similar way.”

“If our young readers were to stop here [merely associating letters with sounds], his reading would be very slow and laborious since he would have to read letter by letter. But as a [nondyslexic] child reads, he builds up his vocabulary and with it his storehouse of saved words, and now things begin to really accelerate.  The child goes from storing images of individual letters associated with specific sounds to storing larger and larger chunks of printed material-common letters that frequently go together (-at, -gh, -th), the larger groups of letters that recur (-ight, -eight, -ought), and, finally after the child has read many books and successfully decoded thousands of words again and again, he has accumulated a storehouse of entire words.  All the child needs to do now is look at the printed word on the page and a match is made with a word that is stored in his brain.”

“For dyslexic readers the process of learning to read and of becoming a skilled reader is tortuously slow. Benchmarks are significantly delayed.  At the beginning, difficulties linking letters to sounds interfere with learning to read.  Over time, as the dyslexic learns to read, he, too, begins to build up his own storehouse of letters and word representations.  Unfortunately, the dyslexic reader may match only a few of the letters in a word to their sounds.  As a result, the stored model of that word is a bit off and incomplete.  Later on, when the dyslexic reader comes across that word again, he may find it hard to locate an exact stored match or to recognize the printed word at all.”

“Dyslexic readers require many more exposures to a printed word over a much longer period of time before the stored representation are clear and true to the printed word. In some instances, stored representations continue to be imperfect, impeding the read retrieval of words.  As a result, even when dyslexic readers are able to decode words accurately, they are still not quick in their reading of these words.  …As a [further] result, dyslexic readers are forced to continue to rely on context to get a word’s meaning; consequently, the benefit is limited to that particular situation.”

“Many dyslexic readers complain of difficulties in reading little words, such as in, on, the, that and an….Since dyslexic readers rely so much on context, it is often difficult to figure out a small, so-call function word whose meaning cannot be gleaned from the context.  For example, a ball could be on, over, or under the table, which makes it difficult to decide which of these choices is the one the author intended.”

“A dyslexic often times has phonologic weaknesses surrounded by a sea of strengths:

  • A strong family history of dyslexia
  • Early language problems in articulation but not comprehension
  • Trouble learning the alphabet
  • Problems associating letters and sounds
  • Trouble sounding out words
  • Confusion of words that sound alike
  • Difficulty perceiving details in words
  • Absolute terror of reading aloud
  • Slow reading
  • Disastrous spelling
  • Immature pencil grip
  • Poor handwriting
  • Diminished self-esteem
  • Strong secondary test anxiety
  • Time as a critical factor in his performance
  • Extreme variable performance depending on the format of test
  • Results of multiple choice tests underestimate his knowledge
  • Superior learning capability along with deficient reading skills
  • Comprehension superior to rote memory
  • Grasps main idea much better than details”

“Writing (handwriting and composition) is challenging for dyslexic readers…..Dyslexic readers require and greatly benefit from being directly taught writing strategies and a structure to follow in constructing sentences and developing into paragraphs.”

For more information about dyslexia, I encourage you to visit the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.   Also, for parents and relatives of dyslexic children who want to share the success stories of famous dyslexic people, please read the “Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain” and visit the web site Famous People with the Gift of Dyslexia.  Finally, if you suspect a friend or loved one would benefit from audio books, please visit Learning Ally and Bookshare for details about gaining access.


What to do when a school asks for your consent to evaluate.

You call your son’s school, tell the nice lady in the special education department that you suspect he has a learning disability and you want him evaluated. After a brief discussion about your concerns, you are told that you must provide the school with written consent before testing can commence. Not to worry, the helpful school official offers to mail you the form. She encourages you to return the signed form promptly so testing can begin. You anxiously await the form’s arrival in the mail. Three days later you receive the consent form. Attached to it is a post-it note instructing you where to sign. However, as you review the form, you notice that the section of the form entitled “list the recommended assessment(s)” is blank and that the “yes” box is checked for an “educational assessment,” a “health assessment” and a “psychological assessment.”  You hesitate before signing.  Your mother always warned you never to sign anything unless you understood it and you do not understand any of this educational jargon. However, you do not want to delay the testing. Should you sign it?

The simple answer is your mom was right: You should not sign the consent form if you do not understand it. However, please know that you are not alone. Few parents understand that they have a right to make decisions about their child’s education based on “informed consent.” In Massachusetts, this means you have a right to be “fully informed of all information relevant to the activity for which consent is sought.” So, if the language appearing in the form leaves you asking questions, by all means, ask them! Indeed, ask questions until you and you alone are satisfied you have the information you need to make an informed decision. For example, consider asking for a list of all the assessments the school seeks to administer, a detailed description of each assessment and, to the extent the assessment has “sub-parts,” ask if any sub-part will be omitted from the testing. If so, ask them to explain the decision not to administer that sub-part. As a matter of fact, if you ever do not understand the school’s decision to administer or not administer an assessment or sub-part to an assessment, ask the school to provide you with an explanation for the decision. It’s your right! If your school responds that it is not required to explain itself, remind that school official that the legislative history for informed consent includes the following language: “A few commenters recommended adding a requirement to the definition of consent that a parent be fully informed of the reasons why a public agency selected one activity over another. Discussion: We do not believe it is necessary to include the additional requirement recommended by the commenter. The definition of consent already requires that the parent be fully informed of all the information relevant to the activity for which consent is sought.”

In other words, to be “fully informed” a parent not only has the right to know what assessment will be administered/not administered by the school, he or she also has the right to know why the assessment will be administered/not administered.  So, don’t be shy.  Ask, ask, ask……

The climate is changing for juveniles charged with a crime…

While adults have long known that children demonstrate a lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking, there is now scientific evidence that is recognized and accepted as true by the courts of this country:  “Our decisions rest[] not only on common sense – on what ‘any parent knows’ – but on science and social science as well.” Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 2464 (2012), quoting Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 569 (2005); see also Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, 466 Mass. 655, 669 n.14 (2013).

In short, before you assume your child will likely be found delinquent of a crime, you should consult with an experienced juvenile criminal defense attorney about the changing climate of juvenile criminal law.

Did You Know?

If your child has been charged with a crime, be certain that his or her criminal defense lawyer knows the following facts:

  • During adolescence, the brain begins its final stages of maturation and continues to rapidly develop well into a person’s early 20s, concluding around age 25.
  • The prefrontal cortex, which governs “executive functions” of reasoning, advanced thought and impulse control, is the final area of the brain to mature.
  • Adolescents generally seek greater risks for various social, emotional and physical reasons, including changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters, such as dopamine which influences memory, concentration, problem-solving and other mental functions.  Dopamine is not yet at its most effective level in adolescence.
  • Adolescents commonly experience “reward-deficiency syndrome,” which means they are no longer stimulated by activities that thrilled them as younger children.  Thus, they often engage in activities of greater risk and higher stimulation in efforts to achieve similar levels of excitement.
  • Adolescents must rely heavily on the parts of the brain that house the emotional centers when making decisions because the frontal regions of their brains are not fully developed.

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