I have represented hundreds of children with special education needs over the years. You can imagine that, if the parents have decided to hire an attorney, there isn’t a lot of “warm and fuzzy” going on between them and the school. There is frustration. There is disappointment. There is confusion. There is anger, and sometimes even outrage. But if I had to identify the most common emotion which I see in parents of children with disabilities who are engaged in disputes with their school districts, it is this: distrust.
Most of us have been raised to trust authority.
And for most, teachers and school administrators were among the very first adults we were taught to respect and rely upon. That impression doesn’t go away when we become parents ourselves. This mind-set is part of what allows some pretty sophisticated and successful people to become intimidated by their child’s IEP Team. We all really and truly want to believe that the people we entrust our children to every day in the public schools are putting them and their needs first.
When a parent’s belief that their child’s school is being honest with them is lost, it is extremely difficult to regain.
I know you might find this hard to believe, but I actually spend a tremendous amount of my time trying to convince my clients to try to trust their school districts again. While it is unfair that it should be necessary, very often my involvement in a case forces the school to dramatically alter a position that only days before they had insisted was final. Perhaps the special education administrator did not know, until counseled by the school board’s lawyer, that how they were handling the matter was legally impermissible. Or, maybe they just got caught and are now afraid of being sued. Whatever the reason, before they weren’t willing to do it, and now they are.
So why do so many parents become even more suspicious of their school districts when they “cave” under the threat of litigation?
Again, I think it comes down to trust. For many families, seeing their administration do a complete 180 degree turn around on an issue simply because they “lawyer-ed up” just confirms their suspicion that the original decision was being made for purely financial reasons. They’re insulted, and they’re right to be. But I feel the need to remind parents of this painful truth:
Unless you intend to move, you will be dealing with these people for a long, long time.
Many parents hire me straight out of early intervention or Birth to Three services. If you have brought in counsel for your preschooler with special education needs, you need to consider as you go forward that there is a reasonable likelihood that you will be having to work with your special education department for well over another decade. That’s a long time to be working with people you don’t trust.
If your school district agrees to change their mind and provide the services or evaluation you’ve requested, try to give them another chance.
Let’s just put it out there…I really, really, intensely dislike a number of special education administrators (and I assure you, the feeling is quite mutual). But I happen to also like and respect many, and more importantly, even the ones who I don’t like, I still assume believe they are doing the right thing. Which doesn’t mean they ARE doing the right thing, but more often than not they’re mistaken, as opposed to malevolent. I would estimate that only a very small fraction of the special educators with whom I disagree are really, truly evil.
Ultimately, most people who decided to work in special education did so because they want to make a difference in the lives of children with disabilities.
Your school district may have to earn back your trust after you’ve exercised your rights and pushed for an appropriate program, but give them a chance to do it. And if you can’t, if you know in your heart of hearts that you will never, ever again trust anyone in your school district, then you really need to consider other options.