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Is There a School Psychology Diaspora?

By Stephen M. Lange

I graduated from a nondoctoral school psychology training program 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 much as 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 good will. 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. Beyond the educational and mental health implications for students, parents, and schools, the quality of work life for school psychologists rests largely on how these ethical dilemmas expose psychologists to interpersonal, professional, and legal conflicts. How many school psychologists exit public education for other professional arenas after contending with the “Who is the Client” issue? Are there only a few wanderers, or is there a diaspora? If so, how big is it?

If there is a school psychology diaspora, its members are certainly not refugees. Our skills are in high demand in a number of clinical settings that value our data orientation; our ability and enthusiasm for working with children, adolescents, and young adults; our ability to provide indirect services through system-level approaches; and our expertise in psychological assessment. We are a valuable group of clinicians who can successfully perform a number of roles that are valuable to others and professionally rewarding. In my case, it was very easy to transition to providing home-based ABA therapies for a private, multistate mental health agency. In addition to a firm grounding in ABA skills, as a school psychologist I was very well prepared to work with patients with developmental disabilities, including autistic spectrum disorders. Soon after I started to actively work with families, I was asked to provide inservice training for other staff in goal setting, treatment planning, evaluating patient progress, interviewing skills, understanding diagnoses, and a variety of other topics that are essential to school psychology practice. Eventually, following my doctoral training, the same agency hired me to become one of its two chief psychologists. Similarly, I found it easy to transition to adjunct teaching in an APA-accredited clinical psychology graduate program by incanting the magic school psychology words “statistics” and “tests and measurements.” It is amazing how unpopular these courses can be in clinical programs, and how welcoming programs can be to anyone willing to teach them.

A transition from school psychology to other psychology specialties is enabled in large part by the gap between organized psychology and the marketplace for mental health professionals. Whenever I sought work outside my doctoral specialty, potential employers asked about my skill-set in some detail. They typically asked about my licensure status. My certification in school psychology was often appreciated as an asset in settings where patients sometimes required admission to residential treatment or help with school reentry. My school psychology training seldom presented an obstacle to employment in clinical settings.

Since we are behavioral scientists, I wonder whether our profession has counted the number of school psychologists who have left public education, whether our profession has sought to develop a profile of who leaves the active practice of school psychology, and whether we understand the morale of the school psychology workforce actively working in schools. I wonder whether the psychology workforce generally is influenced more by how organized psychology conceives of specialty or by the realities of personal professional journeys? If we don’t know, we should find out.

Stephen M. Lange, PhD, serves as a clinical psychologist at Pine Ridge Hospital in South Dakota.