Future Reflections  Winter/Spring 2007

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Avoiding Stormy IEP Meetings

by Randy Chapman, Esq.

Editorís Note: The target audience of the article below is the school administrators--principals, vice principals, etc.--who schedule and chair IEP meetings. However, all members of the IEP team can benefit from the advice given by this longtime legal advocate from Utah. Chapman gives us a nonjudgmental peek inside the thinking process, priorities, and motives of administrators; then he proceeds to demonstrate why these do not have to conflict with the priorities and needs of parents in the IEP process. Hereís what Chapman has to say:

Principal Fife was the captain of the good ship HMS Middle School. He knew his mission: keep the school shipshape, hatches battened down, and sailing straight. Through twenty years serving in her Majestyís local education agency heíd successfully weathered the storms sent his way. Why then had the IEP meeting he just chaired been such a disaster? He was assigned to act as the designee for the Director of Special Education and, though he had attended many IEP meetings, this was the first time he scheduled, planned, and chaired an IEP meeting for a student with a disability.

He thought heíd run a tight meeting. He invited only the essential professionals. To keep the meeting on time as well as non-adversarial, he kept discussion to a minimum and discouraged the questioning of the professionals. After all, each professional was an expert in his or her area of service provision, and their recommendations shouldnít be second-guessed by others. Thanks to him the meeting was completed in ninety minutes (thirty minutes past the one hour he had announced at the outset as the time allotted for the meeting). So, what was the deal? Why did the parents leave angry and threatening to see a lawyer?

In the above scenario Principal Fife wanted to have a productive Individualized Educational Program (IEP) meeting. He wanted to develop a good program for the student, but his emphasis on efficiency sacrificed quality and unnecessarily angered the studentís parents. Sure, there are going to be disagreements in IEP meetings. Educational programming is not an exact science. You should expect that, at times, parents will disagree with the recommendations of the educational professionals and that educational professionals will disagree with one another. But proactively seeking parent input in the IEP process can help you avoid unnecessary disagreements and help make those disagreements that may be necessary less disagreeable.

Eight Tips for Planning and Chairing an IEP Meeting

1. Schedule the meeting at a time reasonably convenient for the parents. The IDEA requires this and it makes good sense. Let the parents know, in writing, when the meeting is scheduled and make sure they know they can reschedule for another time and who to contact if they wish to reschedule. Then, if they ask, reschedule. You do not want parents to call the wrong person and be told the date is set, etched in stone, and cannot be changed.

2. Tell the parents, in writing, who the school district is inviting to the IEP meeting and what their role is. The parents may not know what role each professional plays in their childís life. You donít need to provide a biography of each IEP team member, but include their title and be sure the parents know they can find out more information if they wish.

3. Make sure all of the right people are invited to the IEP meeting. For example, if the student will be transitioning from elementary school to middle school next year, it might be wise for you to include some of the middle school teachers in this yearís IEP. Or, if you expect a discussion regarding placing the student in a private or non-district program, make sure appropriate staff from that program attend the meeting to describe the program and answer questions. Parents and other professionals cannot make a decision about a placement in a vacuum.

4. Ask the parents if they would like other individuals invited to the meeting. The IDEA requires that ďnot less than one of the studentís regular education teachersĒ attend the meeting, but students in middle school and high school often have more than one regular education teacher. The parent may want to have more than one regular education teacher. The IDEA also allows parents or school personnel to include on the IEP team other individuals who have knowledge or expertise about the childís special needs. For example, the child may be seeing a therapist privately, and the parent may want that individual invited to the meeting. When it comes to IEP meetings more is not necessarily merrier, but too few is clearly not enough.

5. Do not set a time limit for the meeting. Try to schedule sufficient time, but if the IEP is not completed in that time, schedule another meeting to complete the IEP. Be sure that the parents and other professionals know that this IEP will not be rushed to completion.

6. Facilitate open discussion among all members of the IEP team. Encourage parents to ask questions of the professionals and the professionals to ask questions of the parents and each other.

7. Translate professional mumbo jumbo. Break down education speak so that all team members understand what is being said.

8. Remember whose child it is. Listen to the parents and treat them as you wish to be treated: as a professional. Parents are members of the team. Remember, that while school professionals want whatís best for the child, they are not the parents. The professionals know the child as their student while at school and during the childís school career. But the parents will be the childís parents for life.

Using these tips will tell parents that you and the other educators in the IEP meeting really want what is best for their child and value the parentsí input. If parents think that you are not open to their ideas, they can become frustrated and angry. Refusing to reschedule meetings or to invite individuals that the parents would like at the meeting sends a message that you donít really care. Since you do care, donít send that message. Also, listening to the parents, having the right people at the meeting, and facilitating open discussion will help ensure that a good plan is developed. There will be disagreements in IEP meetings. Thatís okay. There are times when IEP meetings may become rancorous and adversarial. Thatís okay too. But you donít want the meeting to become needlessly adversarial because you didnít seek parent input into putting the IEP team together and you didnít respectfully listen to the parentsí concerns.

 

Randy Chapman is the director of legal services at the Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People, Coloradoís Protection and Advocacy System. He is the author of three books, including The Everyday Guide to Special Education Law, (The Legal Center 2005). For twenty-nine years, he has been promoting and protecting the rights of people with disabilities. He can be reached at <www.thelegalcenter.org> or (800) 288-1376.

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