Fix It Or Move?

Published on August 19, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

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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.

The Weakest Link

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.

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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.

7 Responses to Fix It Or Move?

  1. Joy
    August 19th, 2009 | 11:05 pm

    Another great article. I always ask myself – do they just not know? Is it ignorance or refusal or some other combination of retaliation and having not s shred of morals. As if having a child who is in need of extra help isn’t enough work, the districts seem to make that work even more difficult. It’s such a shame.

  2. Laura L. Thatcher
    August 19th, 2009 | 11:55 pm

    Thank you for your well reasoned posts. I really appreciate your insight on these issues. Special education is so fraught with emotion (understandably and rightly so) that it is sometime hard to remember that the school districts are not strictly evil (even though they are often wrong).

  3. Jennifer Moss
    October 5th, 2009 | 7:43 am

    Just found your site. “Special Ed Justice” seems like an oxymoron (sp?). If you can’t afford an attorney, as I assume most parents with special needs can’t, then the school wins. They can change whatever they want, whenever they want, including placement, and a parent without a lawyer is defenseless.

  4. Dayle Coutu
    January 14th, 2010 | 11:02 am

    I loved this entry! It is true that there comes a time when you must trust the administration or leave. Even with a lawyer, it is you that has to deal with these people on a daily basis.
    I have found after 6 years of ‘give us a chance’, ‘one more try with this or that’, and not folloing through with mediation, I no longer can trust them. Sadly I can not afford an attorney and the school has won.
    I hope that parents reading this will act quickly on behalf of their child and get legal counsel ASAP, if possible.

  5. Melissa VV
    January 22nd, 2010 | 11:28 pm

    I can’t believe what I just read with everyone’s comments. We just seen an attorney today, and had to scrape to get a down payment before she would meet with us. In this state they won’t see you til that is made. We so have a major case of IDEA/FAPE but was told that if they don’t agree to go to mediation, that this will cost $40,000 or double! Our question is then why should State/Federal have laws in this. Who in this day and age or ever can afford this much? So we have to move which means giving our home back to the bank and starting over. This is not right we didn’t make all these mistakes, they did and guess what they don’t have to change and once again NO ACCOUNTABILITY! Parents can’t afford legal counsel. This so much needs to be addressed, and revised! Where can you work and get away with not doing your job? Just get a job in the school system. Would like to know where to start our story, but I’m sure no one will listen.

  6. Jennifer Laviano
    January 23rd, 2010 | 9:52 am

    I am listening, and what I can tell you is that I urge you, and all parents, simply to work as hard as they can to maintain a good relationship with their districts, because the alternatives are obviously not desirable. That being said, there are thousands of people out there every day all over the country forcing school systems to be accountable, and while we are usually pushing that ball uphill, we do get there most of the time. It’s a shame that any parent should ever need a lawyer to get services to which they are legally entitled, but that is why if you end up being the “prevailing party,” you are entitled to reimbursement of your reasonable attorney’s fees. Believe me, I am very aware of the sacrifices many parents make to get there, but do know that the special education laws are not irrelevant; can you imagine where we would be without the IDEA??? Like most civil liberties, though, it requires constant vigilance. Best, Jen

  7. Donna Bourne
    March 9th, 2011 | 11:38 pm

    I would like to say that after working as a paraprofessional for five years and seeing the waste of taxpayer’s money, the way IEP’s are rarely followed, I agree the system is fundamentally broken. Paraprofessionals do more teaching than the special ed. teachers. Many students are enabled and do not receive the kind of help they need. Something needs to be done! Inclusion is not always the best setting for some special ed. students. They endure being laughed at, bullied, and often the course work is too difficult, so they become frustrated and quit trying.