Future Reflections Spring 1999, Vol. 18 No. 1
Reprinted with permission of Exceptional Parent Magazine, a monthly magazine for parents and families of children with disabilities.
How will we educate Risa? I worried about how I would communicate my daughters special needs to our school district and how the district would respond. How could they possibly understand this beautiful child who lives without words?
Risa entered a special education nursery school class while I was a law student. My professors were understanding of my unorthodox class schedule and sudden absences. Risa experienced one educational crisis after another until I developed an approach to special education that permitted me to obtain the services she required.
I now work as an attorney representing parents in special education matters. I also conduct parent workshops. I never come away from one of these sessions without having learned something useful. The strategies presented here are based on not only my own legal knowledge and experiences, but also on the collected experiences of many parents.
1. Keep business records.
Treat your relationship with the school district as a business relationship. All communication should be in writing, and you should keep a copy of every document you submit. Keep brief notes of important telephone conversations. Keep a written record of all verbal agreements, and give a copy to the school district.
Hand deliver important documents directly, or use certified mail and keep the return receipt.
Keep a diary noting the dates you submitted documents. Some regulations require that the district comply with time requirements. For example, they may have 30 days to respond to a written request. If so, you need to know the date you made the request. Legally speaking, if it is not in writing, it never happened.
2. Document all of your childs unaddressed needs. A parents insistence that a child requires a specific service is never sufficient. Every unaddressed need should be described, in writing, by a professional who knows your child or has evaluated him or her for this purpose.
Letters from your childs pediatrician, therapist, or other professionals can be brief, but should include a description of the childs special need(s), the educational impact, and a prescription for needed services.
3. Review your childs classification. Many states have lists of conditions that permit eligibility for special education services. These are educational classifications, not medical terms. For example, in New York State a child with a medical diagnosis of attention deficit disorder (ADD) may have an educational classification of other health impaired or learning disabled.
Ideally, special education services should be provided on the basis of a childs individual needs. Unfortunately, some school districts provide children with services according to their classification.
If you are dissatisfied with the services your child receives or his class placement, begin by reviewing his or her classification. Is it the most appropriate classification? Would denied services be available if the childs classification were changed? If so, have your child evaluated by an appropriate expert. Your childs classification may also need to change as he or she develops new strengths and weaknesses.
4. Cooperate with the school districts reasonable evaluation process. The school district needs your consent to conduct an evaluation; however, if you refuse, they can request an impartial hearing. The hearing officer will deem the proposed evaluation reasonable, and the district may be permitted to proceed without your consent. All you will have accomplished is the destruction of your relationship with the school district. Save your energy for battles you can win.
5. Be sure the committee has accurate reports. If you disagree with an evaluation done by the school district, there are several steps to take. First, review the inaccurate report what is wrong with it? Was it performed when your child was not taking his usual medication? Were inappropriate tests used? Was the evaluator unfamiliar with your childs strengths and limitations?
Second, ask about the evaluators position and credentials. After receiving a devastating speech assessment on my daughter, I discovered it had been written by an inexperienced speech teacher. I obtained a more detailed report from my childs private speech therapista woman with a Ph.D. and many years of experience. The district followed the therapists suggestions and agreed to remove the teachers report from Risas file.
If you disagree with the school districts evaluation, you are entitled to an independent evaluation at the districts expense. The district may place a reasonable cap on the cost. If the district disagrees with the necessity for another evaluation, you may need to go through an impartial hearing. But if you know an evaluation is inaccurate, it is worth fighting.
You must state your disagreement with the school districts evaluation before they use it to determine your childs placement. If you disagree later, the district will assume that your objection is to the placement rather than to the accuracy of the evaluation. This becomes a more difficult battle to win.
If all evaluations from experienced professionals are contrary to your expectations, consider whether they might be right. Is it possible that you are denying the severity of your childs problem? If not, pursue other experts at your own cost. If you obtain private reports, it is your choice whether or not to share them with the team. You may decide to share only those documents that strengthen your position.
6. Build accountability into the childs IEP. The school district has a legal obligation to make the necessary arrangements to provide related services promised on the IEP. If a related service is not provided as required, parents have a right to full due process. Request an impartial hearing in writing. Most districts will solve the problem immediately rather than face the time and expense of an impartial hearing they will probably lose.
The follow-up of specific educational objectives is more difficult. For example, a child who is included in a regular class may have a classroom teacher, a resource room teacher, and a psychologist. Usually, no one is designated to have authority to make sure all of them are pursuing the IEP objectives.
There are several things you can do to prevent this situation. First, be sure the IEP clearly states who will be responsible for follow-up; this can be a brief statement on the front page of the IEP. Second, list only two or three important educational objectives to your absolute priorities. Remember, the IEP can specify the teaching method or materials to be used. Finally, make sure all professionals who will be working with the child actually read the IEP and are aware of the objectives they should be working toward.
7. Work things out before the annual review. Submit all reports to the committee three weeks before the meeting. Insist that all school district reports be given to you at that time. If there are questions or issues to be resolved, try to work them out before the meeting. The best annual review is a short meeting in which the committee gives approval to what has already been decided.
Many parents believe that they can obtain an impartial hearing to compensate for their own lack of preparation for the annual review. This is a serious error. A due process hearing will determine only whether a school district acted in compliance with federal and state mandates. It is not a second chance for the parents to get it right by bringing in late reports.
8. Negotiate. The process is not an all-or-nothing deal. Reasonable negotiation is possible. Several years ago, I wanted my child evaluated by an Alliance for Technology Access center far from my home. The school district agreed to pay for the evaluation and purchase suggested computer hardware. I agreed to pay for our transportation and lodging.
9. Consider all proposals for inclusion carefully. Federal law requires that children with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment. This means including the child in a regular classroom whenever possible. But successful inclusion usually requires support and related services. Sometimes, a school district will include a child without providing needed services. Too often, this is a cost-cutting maneuver which sabotages the childs placement. If you and your school district decide to include your child in a regular classroom, be sure that all teacher training, follow-up procedures, support, and related services are provided.
10. Treat the annual review as your most important business meeting of the year. Dress for business. Bring a sufficient number of copies of all documents in case they have not been distributed to all committee members prior to the meeting.
Request a meeting time that permits all adult members of a childs immediate family to attend the annual review. If a childs father is involved with the family, he must attendI cannot stress this point enough. Request a meeting time that permits his involvement. Meetings are often dominated by women. The presence of the childs father lends credence to the familys full participation in the meeting. Special education is not a womans issue; special education is a family issue.