The Special Education Process, and Why a Parent’s Instinct is Key

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Your Role as Parent

It’s common to hear of parents of children with special needs struggling for their children to receive an adequate education. What they see and feel, and what they’re told by the school district, is often very different. In their hearts they know they’re child could be doing much better, if only they were given the right support.

A parent’s instinct is one of the strongest instincts out there. I’m not a psychologist, but a school district’s understanding of what your child needs is often not on par with the reality. As a parent, you’re with your child a lot; you worry about them 24/7. You’re with them on the weekends, you’re with them after school, you’re with them before school, you’re with them in the summer, you’re with them on vacations—you know your child. And a school district does not only sees a small aspect of your child’s life and personality.

The one person that knows your child best at the school district is the teacher. However, the teacher does not have the power to make a determination if the child requires extra services, or qualifies for special education and related services. A teacher, unfortunately, has a lot of kids to worry about, and they’re often struggling to keep up with their workload.

I’m not knocking teachers; they do an excellent job given the circumstances that they’re in—however, the very person that knows your child best at the school district rarely will recommend a student to be tested for special education. If the teacher does and the child gets recommended for an assessment, the school psychologists will assess the student, spend a couple of hours with the child, and based on that small window that they observed your child they’ll make a recommendation for qualification of services. If they do not qualify, that’s not the end of the road. That’s why you have to go with your instinct—and if your instinct is telling you that the program offered by the district is not appropriate, then believe your instincts – it’s not right for your child.

What You Can Do

If your instincts tell you that something isn’t right, you need to get an outside assessment—you need to gather more information. You can bring on an attorney, you can bring on an advocate, you can talk to other parents, but you cannot rest until you feel that the district’s offering the right program for your child.

Diligence, diligence, diligence is key. Part of building the package, or putting a case together, is getting the right information. It’s similar to going to a medical doctor—if one doctor tells you something, it’s a really good idea to get a second, third, fourth opinion even, until you feel at ease.

It’s the same principle with the educational system: the district’s not always right. To show or prove that they’re not right, you have to go out and get that information, get additional assessments. I’m not saying you shop around for an assessment that will be written for what you want. It has to be objective; it has to be focused educationally on what your child needs. Having an assessment by an educational psychologist or somebody familiar with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process is key.

If that assessment doesn’t show the right results, or if you’re uncomfortable with that, then go get a third assessment. It can be a hard uphill battle, but whatever you request from a school district, you have to have proof supported by experts.

Our Role

I rely a lot on parent’s instinct. As a Special Education attorney, while I love meeting their children, the opportunity for me to do that is very limited. I am mostly involved with the legal side—I have to rely on parent’s instinct. We become a team and we work together. Ideally, the assessment will bring to light what your child needs educationally. After sharing the assessment with the school, I thenl put together a program, an IEP that will address all the needs of your child.

Again, you cannot rely on a school district to do that—they don’t know your child like you do. They’re looking at numbers, they’re looking at money, they’re looking at staffing—your child is just a name to them. You’re going to sit in an IEP meeting with a few people at most that have ever met your child. You’re going to have a district administrator making these decisions. You have to go out and get that information if you feel what they’re offering, or failing to offer, or not offering is not adequate. Like I said before, go with your instinct. A parent’s instinct is key for every student’s success in school.

 

Suspensions And Students With Disabilities

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While educators, policy makers, and parents are questioning the usefulness of standard suspension protocol, suspension rates across all grade levels have more than doubled over the past three decades. Some studies have found that a large percentage of the suspensions are for minor infractions such as disrupting class, tardiness, and dress code violations, rather than for serious violent or criminal behavior.

Meanwhile, students who have been suspended are missing out on valuable days of education, which can lead to lower student achievement. Additionally, out-of-school suspension correlates the child’s increased likelihood of dropping out and greater risk of future incarceration.

A recent analysis of Department of Education data by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project has found that racial minorities and students with disabilities are suspended at almost twice the rate of their white and non-disabled peers. The data was culled from 10 states’ schools, ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade, from the 2009-2010 school year. Some 500 schools in California were represented in the study.

The study revealed that male students of African-American descent with disabilities had the highest rates of suspension, as 25 percent was suspended at least once during the school year (compared to 13 percent of disabled students and 7 percent of students without disabilities). Identified as disabled or not, black students were the most likely to be suspended of any race, though Latinos and American Indians also were suspended at higher rates than whites.

For example, during the 2009-10 school year, the Los Angeles Unified School District had an overall suspension rate of 5.9 percent. But when race was taken into account, the dramatic difference in rates became apparent. Amongst black male students, the rate was up to 23 percent, compared to 5 percent of white males. Rates were lower in general amongst female students, but minorities still faced higher rates of suspension than their non-minority peers.

Even more striking disparities in risk of suspension could be seen between students with and without disabilities. In the Placer Union High School District, 8 percent of non-disabled students experienced suspension at least once during the school year. However, disabled students were ten times as likely to be suspended, as a whopping 86.7 percent of students with disabilities had been suspended during the same school year.
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The California data supported the overall study conclusion that black males with disabilities had the highest suspension rates. In the San Bernardino City Unified School District, black male students with disabilities had a 59 percent rate of suspension, while amongst non-disabled black male students was 29 percent.

The disparity between non-disabled and the disabled students’ rates of suspension suggests that children with disabilities are not getting the additional support and counseling in schools.

With the correlation between suspension and future performance, the higher rates of disabled students being suspended for potentially minor infractions puts them at great risk for future incarceration. The implications of this study are sobering, as students with disabilities make up a large proportion of children who are in the juvenile justice system.

Overall, studies have shown that the practice of out-of-school suspension does not help schools provide a safer or more productive educational environment for the suspended student nor their classmates. Educators and policy makers are discussing alternative forms of correction or discipline, like in-school suspension.

Structured programs that address multiple issues can help students get back to class faster and stay there. However, while this may help reform the practice, it does not address the underlying issue that disabled students are subject to more disciplinary action than non-disabled students.

The History of Special Education in America

Education that fully accommodates the unique learning disabilities of special needs children is actually a relatively new and young installment of our public education system.

Prior to the 1970s, students with special needs had limited options and virtually no chance of succeeding by way of the free public education system alongside non-special needs children. The choices of the parents of these kids were one of the following:

  • Get their education at home — Parents would often resort to pulling their kids out of school and teaching them at home. While many parents choose to homeschool their children today, it’s often for reasons other than a hindering learning disability.
  • Pay for private school — Before the 1970s, private school was (and still is, in large part) an expensive luxury. While some families could afford it, the greater percentage could not, therefore leaving them with few options for educating their kids.
  • Pay for a private tutor — This kind of education crossed the two previous options together. Once again, this came down to an issue of cost, because if parents couldn’t afford private school, they weren’t likely to be able to afford a tutor either.

During the earlier half of the 20th century, special schools dubbed “institutions” were available for students with learning disabilities, but would often simply integrate those children with those with mental illnesses, where little if any education would ever take place.

There’s no question that the odds were stacked against learning disabled children. However the 1970s would turn all that upside down with just a few pieces of legislation.

Turning Point

During the 1930s, grassroots and advocacy groups began to form to lobby for the inclusion and accommodation of special needs kids in state and federally funded public schools. The culmination and fruit of these efforts came to its height in the 1970s with the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

These two laws dovetailed one another as EHA made it mandatory that the right to a public education be afforded to all children regardless of their limitations or disabilities, while IDEA required that individualized accommodations be provided for children with qualifying disabilities.

Other laws during this decade also played a role in providing strong foundational platform to support learning disabled children, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guaranteed civil rights to all disabled people, and included the right to a free public education.

These years marked an incredibly positive turning point for the parents and advocates of special needs kids, and would eventually lead to the extinction of the private special needs “institutions.”

Moving Forward

Fast forward to present time and you have nearly all special needs education occurring in the public schools, with private or homeschool options being taken as a matter of personal choice and not out of desperation or necessity.

Likewise the teachers who educate these students are being provided with proper training and education to better assist special needs children and make sure that they are getting the best education possible.

In the 2001 and 2004 under President George W. Bush, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) assured a greater measure of accountability to public schools to insure the proper education of special needs kids. The law also provided assistance for better technology and loan programs that were targeted to supper those who were learning disabled.

While there always seems to be room for improvement in America’s education system, we are certainly due some credit for turning our history in a positive direction when it comes to special needs kids.

Everyone should have a chance at a great education. Thankfully our country is continuing to move in that direction.

 

How To Prepare For A Meeting With Your Special Education Lawyer

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Make the most out of your meeting with your special education lawyer, whether at the initial consultation or on subsequent visits, by being prepared with all the necessary documents and information. The tips below will help you organize your notes and questions before the clock starts running at the attorney’s office.

Initial Meeting

You may have had to fill out a questionnaire prior to meeting with your lawyer so that you won’t have to waste time during the meeting going over basic information. Either send the completed form to the office with copies of all documents that accompany the questionnaire, or, if requested, bring that with you to the initial consultation. Like a first date, this first meeting can set the tone for the rest your relationship.

Additionally, you should ask the lawyer if they have handled similar cases in the past and how they addressed the case then. Find out how long it took them to reach a resolution, and how much of their practice centers on special education needs. His/her response will give you a sense of how they plan on managing your situation. Did he/she handle each case personally, or were a number of junior attorneys the main point of contact? Ask to meet with other members of his team that may work on your case.

Documents

Bring copies of every document that pertains to your special needs child’s file, no matter how insignificant or old it may seem to you. You lawyer will rely on that information to create a picture of the situation, and later, use it as support for their arguments.

The documents below are just a few of the reports, forms and evidence of correspondence that will help your attorney. Bring copies to your initial consultation and any new documents to subsequent meetings.

–        all evaluations done by the school or privately

–        waiver forms

–        emails and letters between you and the school and the child’s doctors

–        report cards and progress reports

–        disciplinary reports (if any)

–        any other school records

–        doctors’ and therapists’ records

–        hospital admission records (if any)

–        any other documents pertaining to the case

Organize your child’s files chronologically prior to handing over the copies. By preparing these files in a systematic way that allows the lawyer to quickly peruse the documents, you will save both you and your lawyer time. Use binders and tabs to keep all the paperwork neatly organized. This will also allow you to double-check for duplicates of documents or omissions.

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Goal Setting

Prepare a list of objectives and expectations for your lawyer prior to your meeting. This will help your lawyer determine if this is a case that he or she is able to take on, as well as the best approach to achieve those aims. The goals may be broken down to smaller steps to be accomplished between each meeting.

Some common goals set for each meeting include reviewing contracts and other legal documents, responding to a legal complaint, lawsuit or threatening letter, obtaining legal advice to understand your rights, or determining if you have a case or legal recourse against someone else.

Attend meetings with your special education lawyer with a list of questions related to achieving your goals. Here are some sample questions to help you and your lawyer work toward your objectives:

–        How should you respond?

–        What are the legal areas of concern?

–        How is the opposing side likely to respond (to our action)?

–        What are you options, in and out of court?

–        What difficulties can the lawyer see with the case?

After you’ve met with the lawyer, follow their instructions to the letter. If asked to provide more paperwork, sign forms, etc., perform the tasks in a timely manner. You will accrue additional fees if attorneys have to follow up with you.

By spend a little time preparing to meet with your attorney and setting goals for each meeting, you’ll be able to get the most out of your time with your special education lawyer and get your case one step closer to resolution.

Understanding the Steps of Due Process In Special Education

Because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, parents of special needs children have several options available to them when they are in a dispute or disagreement with a local school district regarding the special education services their child is receiving.

One of those options is a Special Education Due Process Hearing.

A Due Process Hearing is intended to be an impartial procedure modeled after a civil court hearing, where both parties have the opportunity to have an attorney represent them or represent themselves as they state their case before an Impartial Hearing Officer (IHO).

These hearing are not designed or intended to resolve criminal issues, but instead will typically address complaints that parents might have about the way their children’s needs are being met by the school system.

A special education due process hearing will also be used to address a disagreement where the school system is disputing whether or not a child actually has a learning disability, or where they disagree with the medical claims of the child’s parents.

The Steps

Once the allegations are made and the necessity for a hearing has already been established, there are seven steps involved with the actual hearing.

1. Plaintiff’s Opening Statement and Allegations

The plaintiff is typically the parents who are bringing allegations against their child’s school, although in some cases the school system will act as the plaintiff.

The first step of such a hearing will be for that party to present their allegations in the form of an opening statement, upon which they will also assume the burden of proof.

2. Opportunity For Both Parties To tate Their Cases

After the plaintiff’s opening statements, both parties will be afforded the opportunity to state their cases and present evidence that must be deemed adequate and admissible and must be accompanied by supporting documentation. Typically, these documents will be comprised of the student’s medical records or confidential educational files and information.

3. Briefs

As a follow-up to opening statements, both parties will be afforded the opportunity to provide a brief to the Impartial Hearing Officer. These briefs will usually include relevant background information that would clarify or expound upon information in the opening statements.

4. Witnesses

Both parties will have the opportunity to present witnesses, which are often made up of a family members, teachers or doctors who might have familiarity with the child’s medical history. Witnesses can be subpoenaed by way of affidavit or deposition.

5. Cross Examination

Both parties are then given the chance to cross-examine any of the witnesses that have given testimony.

6. Decision from the IHO

Once each party has made their case, the Impartial Hearing Officer makes a decision based on existing laws and precedents, which is then handed down to both sides and formally marks the ends of the special education hearing process.

7. Appeal

Both parties have the option to appeal the ruling if they are able to present reasonable evidence that proves the initial ruling was incorrect or made by way of incomplete information. Usually this will only be successful if additional evidence surfaces that can significantly affect the outcome of the case.