Email: The New Teacher’s Lounge?

Published on August 7, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

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I remember when my father first got into special education law in the 80s, and he would hear about notices posted on the bulletin board in the Teacher’s Lounge in various districts.  He was usually told about incriminating ones by other teachers “off the record;” many times they were teachers who happened to be parents of kids with disabilities.  One time, a bulletin had been put up saying:  “REMEMBER:  Don’t refer students for IEP meetings unless you have talked to (name of the special education director) first!”  Let’s just say that the copy he obtained of that one quickly forced a settlement in a case where the regular education teacher was routinely telling the administration that she was concerned about a child, but had not referred him for an evaluation for special education eligibility.

These “just between us” kinds of communications still happen, but now they are mostly conveyed via email.

Which means it might well be documented somewhere.  In fact, many school districts maintain copies of all email communications among the staff and between the staff and parents.  One of the first things that I have parents of children with special education needs sign when they retain me is my records request form.  FERPA is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and it is the federal law that, in a nutshell, covers the confidentiality of educational records.  The easiest way for many parents to think about it is that FERPA is kind of like the educational version of HIPAA, the medical privacy law that many are familiar with since we’re all asked to sign those forms a hundred times in our doctor’s office.

My standard FERPA request asks for any and all educational records which the school district has on my client, including emails.

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I have to say, I often get the most insight into what has actually happened on a case by reading the emails between the school district staff.  Reports cards, evaluations, and progress reports can provide some of the picture, but nothing compares with reading an email from the speech pathologist to the special education teacher informing her that the parents are “at it again” with their request to observe their child in school.  Test results might show me current levels of performance, but emails tell me what is happening “behind the scenes.”  They help me understand the emotional and historical underpinnings of the relationship between the family and the school, or among the different IEP Team members.

If you are going to make a request for a copy of your child’s special education records, include specific language that makes it clear that you want emails as well.

But remember:  what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  While I often find very telling, and sometimes outrageous, documentation of what has been happening at school in these emails, I also find myself discouraged by some of the things my clients have put in writing to the school district as well.   For this reason, I suggest you treat all written communications with your school district as if they might one day become a Board Exhibit in a Due Process Hearing!  You probably don’t want her reading your 11 pm angry email asking the occupational therapist if she got her degree online from Sally Struthers.

Likewise, school district personnel should consider how the parents (and children) about whom they are writing emails would feel if they ever had the occasion to read them.

I do understand that tone can be lost in email, and that one must expect a certain level of informality and natural “venting” in email communications between colleagues.  But I have also written about the culture of disrespect that I sadly see too often when it comes to how school districts treat children with disabilities and their parents.  Nowhere is that insensitivity, and sometimes even hostility, more apparent than in reading email communications between school district staff.

When I get FERPA records that include such damaging communications, it makes me wonder:  “if they sent me this, what hit the shredder?”

Please do click on the link above in my first mention of FERPA and find out about your rights to have access to, and copies of, your child’s educational records.  You might be very surprised at what you discover.

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