Recently, I attended an IEP Team Meeting that was, well, dare I say it? Lovely. I mean it. About a year ago, the parents had hired me to represent their son, because they just could not convince their school district that their child was really, truly struggling. He is one of those kids that can appear to be doing fine, but when he came home he would fall apart. It’s actually pretty common. So, the parents were very upset because their son was very upset, and the school was making the parents feel like they were making it up. It wasn’t a nice situation. The first IEP Meeting I attended on the case was extremely tense.
Sometimes, the best way to try to resolve a dispute between parents and a school district is to bring in someone both sides trust.
If the parents of a child with disabilities are reporting very different things than the school district, I will often approach the situation by suggesting that an independent, outside evaluator be hired by the district. “Look,” I’ll tell the school’s lawyer, “if your client is right and mine is wrong, why not just get the evaluation and convince us?” Most of the time, with the decent school district attorneys, it works. And far more often than not, that evaluation leads to a resolution of the dispute. Which is precisely what had happened in the case of the ugly-turned-lovely IEP Team.
When parents and school districts stop arguing with one another, and start working together, it is amazing what can be accomplished.
Several years ago, I was intrigued to watch a segment about military schools on an evening news magazine. The gist of the piece was that parents on these military bases were being encouraged to (are you ready for this?) spend time in their children’s schools! Drop-ins; telling teachers what they thought might work with their kid; volunteer teaching in the classrooms; parental participation on almost every level were not just allowed, but expected. And you know what? The standardized testing of the students was significantly higher than the kids’ counterparts in the civilian sector. I remember one teacher being interviewed who said she used to teach in a public school off the base, and that the situation was so very different there, where parents were prohibited from this type of input. She compared the experiences by pointing out how much better she knew and understood her students when the parents were very involved than she ever did when she had limited contact with them.
Think of all of the opportunities that are missed when school districts exclude parents from involvement in their child’s special education program.
Now, before you start telling me that public schools don’t exclude parents from being involved, let me just say this: in my special education law practice in Connecticut I estimate that I have a battle with one school district or another on at least a monthly basis SIMPLY TO GAIN PERMISSION FOR THE PARENTS TO OBSERVE THEIR OWN CHILD IN SCHOOL. Now, thankfully most of the school district lawyers here realize that prohibiting this is of very questionable legality, so we usually succeed, but why should we even have to fight for it?
Parents almost always know their kids best.
So many of my clients have amazing insights into their child’s strengths and weaknesses, insight that would be very beneficial to the school staff if they were open to hearing it. I am also very honored to have represented many parents who are incredibly talented, accomplished, and at the top of their own fields. And instead of reaching out to them, saying “hey, you have a skill set we’d like to tap into, how can we put our heads together on this issue?” the attitude they get is “do not try to tell us how to work with students with disabilities; WE’RE the experts here!” What a shame. As one of my clients put it: “we fight autism every day, why should we have to fight our school district too?”
I can only hope that, as more school districts experience, first hand, the difference between cooperative, collaborative IEP Meetings (even if they get there through force of an attorney), this might change. Until then, I suggest trying those Independent Educational Evaluations!