An advocate and a lawyer, both moms, offer tips for getting through this gateway to special-education services.
The process of agreeing on an Individual Education Plan (IEP) – a document detailing special-education services your public school district will provide for your child – can be an emotional and overwhelming time for families, especially when their idea of what’s best for their child is in conflict with their school district’s evaluations and findings. Offering up some advice for parents going through the process are two mothers who have been going to IEP meetings and advocating for their children with special needs for years, Dina Kaplan and Nicte Mack.
What is an IEP?
The IEP process begins with the school district conducting a comprehensive assessment of the child in all areas of his or her suspected disability. Once these assessments are completed, the child’s IEP team meets to discuss the results of the assessments and determine the child’s eligibility for special-education services.
To request an evaluation from the school district, write a letter to the district special-education director detailing your concerns about your child’s educational progress, and send a copy to your child’s teacher and principal. The letter should say that you are making a referral for an assessment for special-education services, according to Disability Rights California (www.disabilityrightsca.org), a nonprofit advocacy organization.
All school districts draft their IEP’s a little bit differently. Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, has its own computerized program for drafting IEP documents, according to Kaplan. Smaller districts often organize themselves into Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs), a group of districts in the same geographic region that pool resources to provide for the special-education service needs of all students residing within the region.
The school district or SELPA evaluates children based on a “mean.” For example, if the child is 3 years old, they should have skill levels that are average for children that age, says mother and advocate Mack, who has two children with IEPs.
The school district will use the evaluation to determine whether it recommends occupational therapy, speech, psychological or other services for the child. All of these recommendations are presented at the IEP meeting. IEP meetings are typically held once a year, but once your child has an IEP, you can request changes before the year is up.
Many parents aren’t emotionally prepared for this part of the process, according to Kaplan, a lawyer who has been representing families of children with special needs in the IEP process for 19 years and attending her 21-year-old son Brandon’s IEP meetings for 18 years.
“At the time of my son’s first IEP meeting, I had been a litigator for many years and I thought I could handle the IEP with ease,” says Kaplan. “I ended up crying through the whole thing! It is a very emotional process when everyone is sitting around a table going over all of the things that are wrong with your child.”
About Due Process
Sometimes a district may try to say that a child is performing at a higher level than he or she actually is, so that they can avoid paying for additional services – especially if the district is having financial trouble, says Mack. “My daughter cannot read or write, but I had a teacher tell me she was doing advanced multiplication,” she says. “But I brought all of her homework [to the meeting] and proved to them what she could and couldn’t do.”
If a child’s parents and school district cannot agree on an IEP, the next step is Due Process.
“The law that provides for IEPs is called The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA,” says Kaplan. “California has its own set of laws that mirror what is required by IDEA in the California Education Code.” Due Process is the dispute-resolution part of the process. “It can involve a resolution session, a mediation and a formal hearing with the Office of Administrative Hearings in Sacramento,” Kaplan says.
Kaplan recommends that parents seek the advice of an attorney who specializes in Special Education Due Process if there is a dispute with their school district or SELPA about an IEP. “The process is complicated, and often parents are unfamiliar with what is necessary to be successful in Due Process proceedings,” she says. If a family is successful with their Due Process claims, they are entitled by law to have their attorney fees reimbursed by the district, and sometimes attorneys will represent families without charging fees up-front, Kaplan says.
Mack agrees that parents definitely need an attorney if they get involved in Due Process. “Attorneys know the lingo that often times people don’t understand,” she says.
If, despite having an IEP in place, a child’s needs are still not being met, families can request that the district help pay the cost of private school for the child. Many private schools serve only students with special needs. But Mack recommends researching prospective schools thoroughly before beginning this fight, because the process is not easy and you want to make certain the school you are fighting for is a good fit for your child.
Preparing for the IEP Meeting
Getting ready for the IEP process means knowing as much as possible about your child. “Starting early, parents should observe their child very carefully and notice whether or not they are doing what other kids their age are doing,” says Mack. “My main recommendation is to collect data on your child and to know exactly what they are doing.”
Also, be aware of the data the district and others have collected about your child.
“It is very important for parents to be equal participants in the IEP process,” says Kaplan. “They should ask the district to provide them with copies of all assessment reports prior to the meeting, so that they can review them and be prepared to participate in the discussions.”
Parents also need to know their rights. “Educate yourself,” says Kaplan, who recommends a document called “Special Education Rights and Responsibilities,” available from Disability Rights California at www.disabilityrightsca.org. Another resource Kaplan says parents should check out is www.wrightslaw.com, the website of Peter Wright, a special-education attorney who himself has a learning disability.
At the Meeting
One important thing to note about IEP meetings is that you don’t have to go it alone. “Parents can bring whomever they want to an IEP meeting, as long as the person has knowledge of the child,” says Kaplan. “This can be a spouse or other family member, a friend or even an advocate.”
Both Mack and Kaplan highly recommend audio-recording IEP meetings. This allows you to go back later and double-check information that was discussed. It is especially important in helping parents make sure that what is said in the meeting corresponds with all details on IEP paperwork the district will ask them to sign. “Recordings are helpful to remember the actual discussions at the IEP meeting, and can be useful if there is a dispute that leads to Due Process,” says Kaplan.
“It also keeps people on good behavior,” Mack says. “Sometimes things can get ugly and it is really emotionally draining.”
You must give the district written notice 24 hours ahead of time if you want to record the meeting, and the district often also records meetings when a parent does.
It is also important for parents to document everything. “All communications with the district should be in writing,” says Kaplan. “Email is not recommended as the sole means of communication. Letters can be dropped off at the district office and a copy stamped with the date received for the parents to keep in their files.”
During discussions, Mack suggests focusing on small goals, and keeping your expectations for your child’s progress reasonable. “Be realistic about where your child is at,” says Mack. “If you don’t set short, realistic goals, you will always be frustrated that your child isn’t reaching them.”
The end result of the IEP process is an IEP document, signed by district representatives and parents, detailing the special-education services the school district will provide for the child. Kaplan advises taking your time in signing it.
“Parents are not required to sign agreement with the IEP at the IEP meeting,” says Kaplan. “It is recommended that parents take a copy of the document home to review, as there are often mistakes or omissions.”
The IEP process is a lot of work, but when it goes well, it can result in children with special needs getting a public-school education that meets their needs, helping them learn and progress and preparing them for the future.
Melanie Gaball is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to L.A. Parent.