An Attorney Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Special Education Process

decorative image of step by step diagram with magnifying glass, foot prints and scales of justiceLike many parents, my first special education meeting did not go as planned. Despite knowing I am an attorney, school officials told me that they could not evaluate my daughter for special education eligibility until she was two grade levels behind. They also told me they don’t test for dyslexia, and one person even told me that dyslexia isn’t real! I went through a year-long battle to get my daughter evaluated and finally get her an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”). Even then, very little was done to actually help my daughter learn to read and write. I felt helpless and frustrated. I would do anything to get my daughter the help she required, but I didn’t know what she needed or how to get it.

My own special education experience led me to my new passion – educating and empowering other parents to effectively advocate for their children’s educational needs. What can attorney parents do to effectively advocate for their children? When should they step back and bring in a special education advocate or attorney? Here are my top three tips for parents.

Know the Rules of the Game

Most parents, even attorneys, know very little about special education. The good news is that we have all learned how to effectively research and interpret the law. You don’t need to become an expert in special education law, but parents are most effective when they know the basics. There are fantastic online resources and print media designed to educate parents about special education timelines, how to request an assessment for special education eligibility, and how to draft IEP goals. (See Wrightslaw, Disability Rights California, and Disability Rights Education Defense Fund.) Do your research.

If you suspect your child has a learning disability (or perhaps they already have a medical diagnosis), the first step is to request an evaluation for special education eligibility. (Cal.Code Regs. Tit. 5, § 3021; Cal. Ed. Code §§ 56029, 56300 – 56329). Your request should provide background regarding your child’s struggles in school and your concerns. The school district then has 15 days to send you an Assessment Plan and obtain your consent to evaluate your child. (Cal. Ed. Code § 56321(a)). Once you consent to the Assessment Plan, the school district has 60 days (not counting school vacations of more than five days) to conduct the evaluation and hold an IEP meeting to discuss its findings and review eligibility. (Cal. Ed. Code § 56344(a)).

In addition to research, attorneys are well equipped to “paper the file.” The most important driver of special education eligibility and services is data collection. Collect your child’s work samples, gather all your communication with his teachers, and look at grade reports. Parents can also request a copy of their child’s education records maintained by the school district. Under Cal. Ed. Code § 56504, districts have five business days to provide you with a copy of your child’s education records.

One way to gather data regarding your child is to collect your own. Watch for patterns of strengths and weaknesses when looking at your child’s schoolwork, while reading, or while doing homework. Is your child skipping or guessing words while reading? How does your child react with timed assignments? Is there a noticeable difference in your child’s oral abilities vs. written? Pay attention to subtle cues and keep a diary with your notes. When you go back and read it, you may better be able to identify patterns to share with the school team.

Know the Players

Once you understand the basic timelines of the special education system, you need to understand how your child’s disability affects their educational performance. This is particularly true if your child has a rare disability. It may be up to you to explain your child’s disability and how it impacts them in an educational setting.

One of the most important things a parent can do is fully understand their child’s disability, how it impacts them, and what resources/accommodations they need to succeed. No two children are alike, and disabilities often occur on a continuum. They may show up differently in girls than in boys. Some disabilities are commonly connected with each other (e.g., dyslexia and ADHD is a common combination). Again, there are fantastic online and print resources to help parents understand their child’s disability and how it may impact their education.

Parents also need to know who the other members of the IEP team are and how they interact with the student. If your child receives pull-out resource support, who is the person who provides that service? Is it a special education teacher? Paraprofessional? What level of training does that person have? Parents must not make assumptions about who provides services to their child or that the provider has proper training. I’ve seen parents assume their child was being provided with specialized reading instruction by a credentialed special education teacher when, in fact, their child was being taught by a paraprofessional or a substitute. There is no reason to anticipate that this is the case with your child, but parents should do their due diligence. Ask questions and observe the classroom and resource instruction.

Know When to Step Back

Parents can be their child’s strongest advocates, but at times they may not be the most effective. Under some circumstances, parents may want to involve a special education advocate or attorney. Parents may not agree with the school team, and they should ask tough questions. Parents should ensure that the goals developed in their child’s IEP make sense, address the child’s needs, and are objectively measurable. Parents are equal members of the IEP team and should be active participants.

Special education is often a highly emotional process. To be an effective advocate for their child, parents need to remove emotion from the conversation and focus on the objective data and the law rather than airing grievances and placing blame. You must keep your cool, and some parents are simply unable to separate themselves from emotion. Remember, you don’t want to do anything that can be used against you…because it will.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some parents prefer to avoid conflict. That’s not to say that IEP meetings are combative, but everything is a negotiation. If a parent is not comfortable pushing back and standing firm in a meeting where parents are always outnumbered, that parent may encounter difficulty when advocating for their child.

Most often, parents feel overwhelmed by the entire special education process. Being a parent to a child in special education can be a full-time job in itself. There are so many acronyms used in special education, it can feel like the rest of the team is speaking a language that parents do not understand. There are a lot of nuances to special education law, and sometimes it is difficult for parents to understand what their child needs and what is being offered.

If parents don’t understand the special education process, feel outnumbered, or cannot control their emotions, hiring an advocate or attorney to help explain the process and help you advocate for your child can make all the difference.