One of the things I discovered early in my career as a special education lawyer is that a good percentage of the parents who contacted me to represent their child with disabilities were referred to me by a teacher or service provider from the child’s school. It is usually “off the record,” and I have never once violated that trust by revealing such a person’s name, nor to my knowledge have any of my clients.
There are a number of people who work in public schools who can prove very useful to parents of children with special education needs if they have a disagreement with the district. Here are some to consider befriending:
The School Nurse
I don’t have any studies to prove it, but I’ve had a tremendous amount of experience with my clients who have special education needs spending an inordinate amount of time in the nurse’s office. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that kids who are feeling unsuccessful within the classroom will often find reasons to leave it, and asking to go to the nurse’s office is a natural.
Importantly, school nurses usually maintain an office visit log and notes of each visit.
That’s why, when I ask for a child’s educational records I sometimes get more information from the school nurse’s log than anywhere else in the records! Many times the special education administration will be saying that a child is doing great, but when you find out that they’ve gone to the nurse’s office on a nearly daily basis all year, complaining of one symptom or another, it makes you wonder what’s going on with this child. If school was such a positive experience for this kid, why would they constantly want to go to the nurse?
School nurses tend to be very compassionate towards kids who are clearly struggling.
The most memorable act of courage in speaking up for a child with special education needs I’ve witnessed in my career was made by a school nurse, a story that I share as often as I can.
The Departing Special Education Administrator
There are all sorts of reasons why administrators can move from one school district to another. However, sometimes, a move is due to unhappy reasons, like lack of support from the Superintendent, Board of Education or lower level staff. Or, sometimes a Director is brought into an especially troubled or non-compliant district, and when he or she is unable to change it within a school year, they are made to be the scapegoat for any number of problems. And of course, there is always retirement.
A Special Education Director on his or her way out of the district can be the best thing to happen to your case.
I’ve seen it happen more than once: a special education administrator is nearing the end of the school year in which they will be either retiring or switching districts. Suddenly, the tone of resistance you’ve been battling for years changes, and services that were refused at an IEP meeting just months ago are mysteriously approved. Sometimes, out of district private placements are made with little fight. It’s rather startling.
Just remember, striking a deal with your special education director before she leaves means virtually nothing unless it’s in writing.
There’s an old saying: “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” Many times parents will try to get in to meet with the administrator right before they leave the district, and they are assured that some special education service or program will be provided to their child, or that a particular consultant or teacher will be assigned to the student’s case. Then the administrator leaves, and nothing is in writing which commits the district to these representations. Get it in writing, preferably written into the IEP, or it may as well not have happened.
The Regular Education Teacher with Tenure
A lot of people grumble about tenure, but I happen to believe it serves a very important purpose of protecting teachers from arbitrary employment discrimination at the hands of administrators who don’t like teachers who have the courage to speak up when they see injustice in our schools. One area in which this can really come to life is in the area of special education.
Unlike special educators, regular educators are not usually emotionally invested in the outcome of IDEA disputes between parents and school districts.
When parents of students with disabilities challenge the special education programming in the district, the special education teachers and service providers involved in the case often take it personally. They see the dispute as being a challenge to their competence (which it sometimes is, but not usually) or abilities, and they therefore become interested in the outcome of the dispute. Regular educators, on the other hand, are not.
In fact, many times the child’s regular education teacher is angry and frustrated at the special education administration for placing him in their class with little or no support or training.
I have won more than a few cases based on regular education teachers stating honestly that a child was overwhelmed, struggling, or flat out failing in the mainstream program. In fact, take note of the regular education teacher who is invited to the IEP meeting if your child has more than one. In my experience, it is usually the teacher of a class in which the student is meeting some modicum of success that is invited, because the administration knows that if they invite the regular educator who is frustrated daily with the kid’s performance, they may well state that at the meeting.
If you find yourself in a dispute over special education services with your district, you may not have to look further than the walls of your child’s school for support.