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Special Education, Legal & Planning

Top Ten Lessons Learned this IEP Season

Another IEP Season has come and gone and just like every IEP season I learned a few things.  You might remember from my last post that I work as a Special Education Advocate both professionally and for my own son who is graduating from elementary school. It has been a very stressful IEP season as I had to deal with my son’s transition IEP and many of my clients had very complicated issues revolving around mental health, bullying (by Students, Teachers & Principals), discipline and expulsion. This is in addition t0 the MANY annual IEP meetings we attended for existing clients that were not related to specific incidents but rather necessary to update their education programs for the coming year. The following highlights some of the things I have learned or intrigued me during this latest IEP season.

1. What a difference a year makes.

Being able to attend IEP’s for the same children, other than my own, year after year gives me a perspective many other parents don’t get to see.  If there is an appropriate IEP team in place and an IEP is written to provide meaningful benefit our children can flourish. Every child can learn but it takes hard work and dedication by all involved.  Parents and Teachers working together will increase the likelihood of success but this doesn’t mean you can’t maintain the school relationship and still be a strong advocate for your child.  When you find the proper balance, write an appropriate IEP and implement the IEP our children are capable of feats that amaze me every day.

2. Winning isn’t everything, making sure your child is receiving an appropriate education is much more important.

Sometimes the Parent and School relationship becomes so toxic it’s impossible to fix it.  It becomes a battle to win versus a mission to educate.  So why does this happen?  To quote Charlie Sheen, “Winning.” The constant need to win is embedded in our psyches’; to the point that the need to win actually drives us to distraction. In some cases this is what happens, Parents and Schools want to win so badly that everything else gets thrown out the window. This is actually when I tell Parents “it is time to take your ball and go home.”  I always say that an IEP is only as good as the people that implement it.  When the relationship has become this toxic even if you win I am highly skeptical that the IEP will be implemented correctly. This is when it’s time to look for alternative placement at another School where everyone can start fresh.  This might be another school in the District, a Non-Public School or a transfer to another District.  I do not look at this as giving up but rather finding a school for my child where they can receive an appropriate education.

3. When requesting educational records always ask for the emails.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) allow Parents access to their child’s educational records.  The first thing I do when I am hired as a Special Education Advocate is to have my clients’ request, in writing, for a full copy of their child’s educational records. Recently, I have started asking for any emails that are also considered part of my child’s record.  Each State will have a different view on when and how emails become part of the child’s educational records so please look up your State law on the subject. For instance, in California the State Department of Education holds the position that emails are only considered educational records if those emails are printed and placed in the Student’s file or maintained somewhere.  I used this tactic, of asking for emails, recently to receive an appropriate placement for my son for middle school.

4. Bullying is an IEP issue whether it’s real or perceived bullying.

Bullying has been determined to be an IEP issues as far back as 2000 when the Office of Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague letter.  More recently the Federal Courts have also weighed in on the subject and determined that bullying can cause a denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I was recently involved in an IEP where the child believed they were getting bullied every time there was interaction with a particular child.  The bullying in the past had caused too much emotional damage for the child to be able to separate appropriate interactions from bullying.  At this point it didn’t matter whether it was real or perceived because it was real to that child. The IEP needed to address the issue and make sure the child felt safe and was provided an environment that allowed them to receive a free appropriate public education.  There are many ways to address bullying in an IEP including creating a safety plan, writing new goals or creating safe zones for the children to play away from each other during unstructured time such a recess and lunch.

5.  I am amazed at the lengths some administrators will go to in order to remove a child with special needs from their school.

As much as I always talk about the fact that most Schools are well meaning in their intentions there are a few that are not.  Their mission is to remove your child from their school and they will destroy you and your family to get this accomplished. The most recent example of this occurred in a manifestation determination review I attended.  In this review the Teacher admitted to misunderstanding the child’s IEP and not providing the appropriate adult supervision as written in the IEP.   The School Administrator disregarded this information and unilaterally decided the alleged behavior in question was not caused by the School’s failure to implement the IEP. The same School administrator then recommended that the child be expelled from the School District.  Luckily we were taping the IEP and we can use that tape as evidence in a due process hearing.

6. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a complicated law and even federally funded technical assistance centers sometimes misinterpret it.

Recently on my website we wrote an article that the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) had provided guidance on the number of transition goals required in an IEP.  This was necessary because the National Technical Assistance and Dissemination Center, which is funded by OSEP, had written a guidance document a few years ago that had mistakenly stated that number of goals required in a transition plan. What this reminds all of us, is that IDEA is a very complicated law and misinterpretations are to be expected.  Parents should ask to see written proof when they are being told information that doesn’t match up with their understanding.  This will help both sides clarify the information being provided.

 7. Full Inclusion and Differentiated Instruction are wonderful but require full support of the School and District to work effectively.

The inclusion movement to have children with disabilities taught in a general education classroom using differentiated instruction is one of the best ideas I have ever heard.  While, it is one of the best ideas I have ever heard it can ONLY work if the School supports it.  A classroom with one teacher and 36 children with no additional support cannot accomplish successful inclusion. For inclusion to be successful one of the necessary tools is additional adult support in the classroom from a paraprofessional or co-teacher.  It also means each child is getting their needs met not that each child is receiving the same thing.  Only if the child can’t get their needs met then the discussion should move to the continuum of placement options available.

 8. Placement discussions can be about more than just classroom type it can also include the School location/facilities.

One of the biggest concerns I had for my own son moving on to middle school was the size of the campus.  He has severe social language deficiencies and I was fearful of his ability to access the campus of a large middle school and what effect that would have on his safety and education. My son’s IEP team, while they agreed with me, did not think they could offer another school for this reason.  They had thought placement discussions could only be about the type of classroom but did not include the actual school location/campus. They were mistaken; especially in California were Specific educational placement means that unique combination of facilities, personnel, location or equipment necessary to provide instructional services to an individual with exceptional needs.

9. IDEA frowns upon Lawyers attending IEP meetings but does not forbid it.

OSEP wrote a Letter to Clinton which addressed this issue, which stated: "The presence of an attorney could contribute to a potentially adversarial atmosphere at the meeting. The same is true with regard to the presence of an attorney accompanying the parents at the IEP meeting. Even if the attorney possessed knowledge or special expertise regarding the child (§ 300.344(a)(6)), an attorney’s presence would have the potential for creating an adversarial atmosphere that would not necessarily be in the best interests of the child. Therefore, the attendance of attorneys at IEP meetings should be strongly discouraged.

10.   In order to be fair we have got to treat them different.

If you don’t know who Rick Lavoie is, I recommend you visit his website immediately.   This philosophy makes so much sense but it’s completely counter-intuitive to how many people think. I was recently in an IEP meeting for a child with Aspergers and the Principal said, “This is middle school my Teachers have 200 students, they don’t have time to check to see if one child wrote down his homework correctly.”  If that child needs the Teacher to double check that they have written down the homework correctly then the Teacher is only being fair by doing that. This philosophy transcends the school environment and is also is important for parents to understand for the home environment.  We need to parent each child by giving them what they need because that is the only way to be fair. Dennise Goldberg is the owner of Special Education Advisor a community of parents, educators, and special education service providers dedicated to helping families with children who have special needs understand their special education rights and receive appropriate special education services. Dennise works with children with all forms of disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, aspergers, and down syndrome, to name a few. She is also the mother of a beautiful 11-year old boy who has dealt with developmental delays, apraxia of speech, fine motor delays, sensory issues, gross motor delays, and now has a learning disability (auditory processing disorder).  You can also follow her on Facebook at!/Special.Education.Advisor

WRITTEN ON December 25, 2013 BY:

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