The use of gag orders by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has sparked a controversy as to whether the City should increase its annual contribution to the District.
Members of the community brought the issue to the attention of the City Council on May 24, during the Council’s budget study session for the next fiscal year. People explained that “gag orders” are routinely signed by Special Education parents in order to secure services for their children. They also stressed that the process frequently evokes a lot of fear and intimidation for the families. Such agreements preclude the community from access to the financial records, and there is also no accounting as to the actual cost of these services. These agreements, therefore, in the view of many in the community, can impact the District from operating in a transparent and accountable manner.
Winston Braham, the former Chief Financial Officer, signed a gag order regarding a personnel matter. Councilmember Bobby Shriver told the Mirror, “You don’t gag your financial officer, in any real world setting. You can’t do that.”
The City Council reacted to the gag order situation by requiring $530,000 of the City’s proposed $750,000 annual increase to the District be held in reserve until these issues are resolved. Shriver added that people have said that by holding back the money, the Council will “hurt the kids. Nothing can be further from the truth.”
Tim Walker, the School District’s Deputy Superintendent and the former District Director of Special Education, explained to the Mirror that the writing of these agreements is a participatory process and that “all parties are in agreement at the time” such an agreement is signed. He also objected to using the term “gag orders,” stating, “Gag orders can only be given by a judge” to a jury. These agreements contain confidentiality clauses and cannot be characterized as “gag orders.”
Walker then noted that the agreements are confidential because either the parents or the District chose to keep it that way as part of the compromise. The entire mediation process that results in these agreements is specified in the federal laws that were enacted to ensure that Special Education students receive “a free appropriate education. It is never the intent of the District to coerce, strong-arm or use intimidating tactics.”
One Special Education parent who asked for anonymity told the Mirror that “the increased use of gag orders began when Walker came to the District” to help the District save “time, money and resources and attorneys’ fees” when a parent objects to the Individualized Education Plan offered to their child. According to the parent, instead of the District developing the programs that are needed to educate special needs children, they are using their resources “to fight the battle of services” with parents. The parent added that this results in inequity in the delivery of services because only those “with the resources to fight the system” can obtain the appropriate services.
The Council will discuss whether to withhold the remaining $530,000 at their June 12 meeting. Winston Braham is scheduled to appear at that meeting, though as of press time his attendance was not confirmed. For more information, go to http://santa-monica.org/cityclerk/council.