Cincinnati Family Magazine

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July 21, 2024

Advocating For Your Special Needs Child

Individual Education Plans (IEPs) help ensure your child’s success in school.

Full678.jpgThere are now more than five million children in the United States with disabilities. If you are the parent of one of those children, efforts to meet your child’s educational needs can be filled with pain, frustration and confusion.

Lawrence Siegel, author of The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child (Nolo Press) and The Least Restrictive Environment: A Paradox of Full Inclusion (L. R. P. Publications), helps parents understand special education law, identify a child’s needs, prepare for meetings with school staff, develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and resolve disputes.

Siegel also is the director of the National Deaf Education Project, which is a national effort for legal reform on behalf of deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

What is an Individual Education Plan and why doesn’t every student have one?

Siegel: An IEP is a plan for children who have been identified and become eligible for special education. That is, they have a qualifying level of disability that entitles them to have an individualized program tailored to meet their unique needs, as the Supreme Court ruled, by virtue of the fact that they have a disability. Whereas children who don’t qualify theoretically don’t need specific, additional services and procedures in order to benefit from an education.

What should be the major elements of an IEP?

A: It should include an individualized look at the child, including her needs and how they can be served. The basic concept is certainly that the child is entitled to a free and appropriate public education. “Appropriate” is the key word – the program has to include a specific development of goals and objectives, a discussion and provision of what related services are necessary and be provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

How does a parent work with school staff to develop a meaningful IEP?

A: The parent should certainly be – as much as possible – the child’s best advocate. Understand what the child needs, and understand the realities of life – there will never be a “perfect” program.

Parents should become knowledgeable about the basics of the law. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is not a complicated law. It provides a basic understanding of the law, timelines and what the steps are to getting your child the education she needs.

Parents should organize themselves; a binder is a simple solution. It doesn’t have to be perfect or huge to keep good records. The most important thing a parent can do is called a blueprint: Once parents have a good idea of what the child’s needs are and have looked at the assessments or reports on their child, they should develop a program they think would be appropriate as a starting point.

Not what the school district has to offer, not what’s necessarily practical, but something to start with. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but a good, strong, solid program with all the elements including the kind of a classroom, size, methodologies, etc.

With that as a starting point, a parent can move forward and work, hopefully cooperatively and knowledgeably, with the district. I have found the better-prepared parents to be more successful.

For the IEP meeting, should parents bring someone in with them … a pediatrician or some type of advocate?

A: A parent or guardian has the right to bring anyone they want to the IEP meeting. If they’re more comfortable with someone else there, either to talk about the child specifically in terms of the needs of the child or to just be there to provide moral support – whether that would be a friend, doctor, tutor, attorney, advocate or another parent.

Unfortunately, the more professional the person may be – unless you can get the district to invite that person – you may have to pay for that person’s time. But parents are considered equal partners with the school by law, even though it can be intimidating to be with others who appear more knowledgeable on the matter. But that’s why being informed ahead of time demystifies the whole thing for the parent.

What information should be conveyed to parents before the IEP staffing meeting?

A: Parents should know what the law says about the IEP process, about assessment and about all the due process rights. The district has an affirmative duty to provide that information to the parents, although it doesn’t have to be provided before an IEP meeting. The district has the responsibility to provide parents not only with an explanation of their rights, but also a list of no-cost/low-cost special ed support services.

Who should be at the staffing of that IEP meeting?

A: By law, the parent or the guardian and the child (if the parent and the child feel it is appropriate) can attend. Law also requires there to be someone who represents the district and who has the authority to make decisions, whether the child’s teacher or a regular ed teacher – particularly if the child is mainstreamed or will be mainstreamed – and then such other people as either the parents or the school feel will be appropriate to provide further information.

How does a parent ensure that the goals for the IEP are individualized and not a fill-in-the-blanks type of school blueprint?

A: There’s nothing that prevents either the parent or the school district from developing some ideas prior to the IEP in a draft form. However, those goals and objectives have to be individually tailored to the child. It is against the law for a district to present to the parents a predetermined set of goals and say, “Take them or leave them.”

The state has a federal responsibility to be sure that the school districts comply with the law, and the federal government will come down on the states if they are not monitoring the school districts to make sure they are not breaking the law.

How often should the plan be reviewed once it is written up?

A: There should always be an IEP in place before the school year starts. As a general rule, there is an IEP meeting at least once a year to review the child’s progress. I advise that parents get on a cycle where the IEP meeting takes place in the spring, so that the elements of that IEP will be in place before the school year starts, which gives parents time if there is a dispute to go to due process and get a ruling. A parent is entitled to call for an IEP at anytime. You can have many more IEPs during the school year.

Who is accountable for the IEP?

A: An IEP is legally binding, and if a district does not follow through on what it has signed off on, it can be ordered to do so, be punished or fined money. But there’s absolutely no guarantee under the law that the child will achieve at a certain level. What you get into sometimes is a disagreement on what is meant by that one or a number of particular items on the IEP.

Some of those things can be subject to interpretation. If the district says your child needs speech therapy and you feel your child needs at least two-and-a-half hours a week in a group of no more than three other children broken down into time elements of 30 minutes, unless that is specifically outlined, exact times would be subject to interpretation.

What if the school does not have the resources to provide the program? Is the school required to point the parents to a school that does?

A: That’s a complicated question. The regulations under IDEA say that the child is entitled to be educated in the least restrictive environment, which is the environment that the child would be in if she were not disabled. It further states that the child is entitled to be educated as close to home as possible and that the child is entitled to be educated in that school that she would attend if not disabled. However, court rulings regarding placement have been varied.
There are circumstances under which if the district – because of resources – can’t provide an appropriate education, the child can be placed in a more central program or one further away from the program the parents want. It’s an individual determination, but it’s based on what the child’s needs are and what resources are available.

Is the school obligated to spend the incremental funds it receives for special education children?

A: I’m not an expert on the funding, and it’s very complex. Funding can vary from state to state quite significantly. The problem has usually been the other way around: The states are not funded enough, and they can’t send enough money to the school districts, so the school districts begin to encroach on the general budget to pay for special ed needs.

There’s a tighter hold on the special ed funds to be spent on special ed matters, although state legislatures can come up with pretty creative ways to move monies around. But as a general rule, the money that comes to states for special education has to go there. Conversely, monies that go into the general fund have been used for special education because there is not enough in the budget for the special ed.

What is the best example of an IEP you’ve seen? What’s the worst?

A: To me, the most important things in a child’s education are the classroom setting, the related services, the methodology that will be used for that child, the strategies and the peers. These get lost in an overly technical IEP. We lose the kid. A detailed, carefully crafted, individualized IEP reflects the team’s discussion and understanding of that child’s individualized needs and is written up in a way that’s clear.

The worst IEP is one in which the school is not putting down what the parents are saying, but only recording what the school wants. It’s loaded down with numbers and goals, and again the child is lost in the process.

How do you advise parents on becoming their child’s advocate?

A: Teachers are overworked and underpaid, and it’s getting worse. It’s important to remember that most teachers try the best they can. Parents can set up a process through an IEP where there’s a reasonable process for reporting whether things are working or not.

For example, if the IEP states that a child’s teacher will send home a weekly progress report regarding certain areas, parents should – without becoming overbearing either for the class, the teacher or their child – visit the class on a reasonable basis. Talk to other parents. Monitor how the goals and objectives are going.

What must a neighborhood school offer once the IEP is written? Is there sometimes a gap between the child’s needs and what a school must legally offer?

A: Generally, the IEP has to provide a safe, free, appropriate public education that is tailored to meet the unique needs of the child, including specific goals, objectives and current assessment data. It has to provide the least restrictive environment, provide for the related services and the program placement for the child.
You’ve got two issues here – the district may not agree and sign off on certain issues, and then the parent can go to due process. If the school agrees and then doesn’t provide what they’ve agreed to, the parent can file a complaint.

What is due process?

A: Due process is a set of rights all parents and children have, which includes the right to get a child’s records, the right to have the child assessed, the right to go through an IEP process, and the right – when there’s a disagreement – to go to a neutral party to make a decision that is binding about that disagreement.

What type of attorney should parents look for if it gets to that point?

A: The best would be an attorney who actually is a special education attorney. Absent that, parents want to find an attorney who has some understanding of disability law, and then if that fails, an attorney who does education law. But, you want a person who knows IDEA.

Carol Brzozowski is a freelance writer.

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