I have been representing children with special needs in Connecticut since 1996. Despite more than a decade in this field, I am always astounded by how many conflicts arise in special education because there is a fundamental disagreement between the parents and the school about whether a child has been properly evaluated. It’s a pretty important dispute, because from proper evaluations we derive appropriate services, at least presumably. The mechanism which is in place under the IDEA to resolve such disputes is through an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). The details of IEEs and the legalities surrounding them have been discussed in greater detail in a previous post.
The strong resistance that some school districts have to agreeing to get the “second opinion” contemplated by the IDEA is disheartening.
If the educational records indicate that the school district has failed to properly assess a child, then I will often request an Independent Educational Evaluation on behalf of my client so that we can find out what, if any, special education services are required. I am not a special education teacher. I’m not a clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, occupational therapist, speech and language pathologist, or any number of professionals qualified to indicate whether a child needs special education services, and if so, what kind. I leave that to the professionals who are qualified to make diagnoses and educational recommendations.
I have been told by many school district personnel that one of the things they appreciate about my advocacy on behalf of special education students in Connecticut is that I don’t discount the impressions of the school staff out of hand. That’s true, I don’t. When a parent tells me that they know that their child needs a certain program or service, I usually trust their instincts, but I also want to make sure that there is somebody who is qualified to make that determination other than the parents. As a legal matter, I also understand that instincts will not necessarily be given as much weight in a Due Process Hearing as an expert’s opinion.
However, as a general rule, the more a school district fights my client on an outside evaluation, the more convinced I become that the parents’ view of the child’s needs are accurate, and the school district’s are not.
I am often asked to speak to groups of educational professionals in Connecticut and elsewhere about the issues which are generating litigation in special education cases, and what I say to those educational professionals about IEEs is this:
“If you are so sure you’re right about this kid, why not agree to get an outside evaluation?”
I get all sorts of responses to this, like “well, why should we have to pay for an evaluation when we know what the child needs and the parents just won’t agree,” or “these parents won’t listen to ANYTHING we say!” My answer is usually to let them know that this further supports the need for an outside evaluation by somebody of mutual agreement. Why?
Because parents often have every good reason to doubt the sincerity of school staff if they have been in dispute with them over whether their child requires special education support, or what that support should look like. They want to hear it from somebody THEY trust, and they are legally entitled to that.
Furthermore, if a district feels that the particular evaluator chosen by the parent is biased in some way against the school, then even though a parent is entitled to choose the evaluator by law, perhaps the school should reach out to the parents and suggest an outside evaluator of mutual agreement. Then both sides get someone they trust.
So I ask school districts all the time, why not just agree to it? If you’re right, and the parents are wrong, the outside evaluation will demonstrate your point!
This approach does work with some of the more reasonable school districts. It even works on the less reasonable ones, who recognize that the costs of fighting a parent in a Due Process Hearing over an IEE usually exceed the costs of just paying for the evaluation. However, with some of the more difficult school districts, this logic does not work. They continue to fight you on the request for an outside evaluation.
I firmly believe this is a foolish position for a school district to take. Professionals and parents are entitled to disagree over what is appropriate for a specific child, there is no shame in that. But if a school is absolutely unwilling to have anyone other than those on their payroll assess a child’s needs, it just feeds into the parents’ worst assumptions about the district.