When I talk to parents whose children are in middle or high school who have not yet been identified for special education services, most of the time they will tell me that they have had concerns for years. Many times, there are also teachers or other educators in the school district who have shared similar worries with the parents, or standardized testing which should have raised some “red flags.” For whatever reason, no formal action was taken. When parents have waited until later in their child’s education to become more assertive about their belief that their child needs an IEP, they will be viewed with a great deal of skepticism by the school district.
The longer you wait to express your concerns about whether your child might require special services, the more you may be doubted down the road.
One of the most basic realities of special education legal disputes is that, many times, the parents and the teachers do not see the student in the same way. Sometimes, the parents feel that their child is really struggling educationally, while the educators see the kid as doing “just fine” in school. Other times, the school district will acknowledge that the child has a particular disability, but the disagreement surrounds whether or not that disability is adversely impacting him or her in school. While most of the children I represent already have IEPs and the dispute is over the appropriateness of the services, disagreements about whether a student qualifies for special education services and accommodations under the IDEA happen all the time.
“But aren’t some parents just using the process to get their kids extra help?”
This is a question I hear all the time, and it really ticks me off, even when I like the people asking. Now, clearly, I am a special education attorney in private practice. I do not work for a government-funded advocacy group, nor am I running a non-profit or charity. When I am hired to represent a child with disabilities under the IDEA, it is almost always because the parents have paid me to do so. In my small Connecticut law firm, many of my clients are more fortunate than the average person financially. But money can’t buy you a happy or healthy child, or a cooperative special education department in your school district.
Particularly in this economy, I see a real backlash towards middle and upper class parents of children with disabilities.
Now, before you start taking away my ACLU card or something, let me say this, unequivocally: no amount of disdain or prejudice towards parents of children with special education needs who can afford counsel even comes close to the systematic IDEA violation and rampant disenfranchisement of those who can not. Not a day goes by that I don’t shudder to think about all of the kids with disabilities out there who are not receiving appropriate special education services whose families will never consult with, let alone hire, a special education advocate or attorney to enforce their rights. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I started this blog: to make information more understandable and accessible to such parents.
Even parents who have resources and access to excellent professional advice can be in denial about their child’s special needs.
My experience in talking to hundreds and hundreds of parents over the years is that, regardless of background, they generally want to see the best in their children. As I’ve said before, when a parent starts seeing weaknesses in their child, they’re usually not making it up! Many of them are regretful that they let their prejudices regarding disabilities or special education prevent them from acting sooner, even though the student’s psychologist, or pediatrician, or relatives kept raising questions.
If the first time you start asking for help from your school district is when your child is in their teens, they will think you are “shopping” for accommodations.
This is especially true for kids with disabilities who are college bound, because many students who receive IEPs also receive accommodations on standardized college tests, like the SATs. I believe this is part of why I get so much resistance from school district IEP teams when I request identification in high school. Well, that and the realization that acknowledging that a student has a disability in tenth grade when you have been educating him since kindergarten and didn’t pick up on it doesn’t look so good for your special education case.
All children with special education needs are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education, regardless of socio-economic background.
And whether the parents have means, or don’t, some school districts will find any way to deflect attention from their legal obligations under the IDEA. The easiest way of doing this is by focusing on the parents, instead of the child. If the parents have some money, the school thinks “these parents just think they can buy whatever they want if they hire a lawyer.” When they don’t, it’s “what are they going to do if we refuse, sue us? With what?”
My strong sense is that there are far more students with special needs being allowed to slip through the cracks than there are non-disabled kids getting unnecessary services.
Either way, parents of children with special needs must stick together and hold schools accountable as often as possible, and in as many communities as we can. Does that mean that some kids will get IEPs who don’t really need them just because the parents can afford to enforce their rights? Maybe. But as for the concept that affluent parents are inventing disabilities for some kind of cache, or just to get some extra help, I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it.