How Can You Best Advocate For a Special Education Child?
As schools prepare to open, many parents wrestle with a federal law called The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, passed in 1975. The goal of this law is to help children with disabilities succeed in school. Before it was enacted, public schools frequently ignored children with disabilities, or shunted them off to inferior or distant programs. The IDEA created the concept of special education: special services and programs for students with disabilities. Since its enactment, millions of students have had access to improved educational opportunities in public institutions. But much of the language in the act, for example, terms such as “disability,” “appropriate education,” and “unique needs” stir up emotional, medical, legal, and financial issues. Lawsuits between school districts and the disabled and their advocates are not uncommon. So what should a parent do when their child has a disability, and how can a parent maneuver through the maze of special education rules?
And what about school districts squeezed for funds? How can they best provide for the needs of all students? We start with the principle that a child qualifies as being disabled by meeting two standards. First, the child must have a listed disability. There are a list of disabilities in the IDEA such as physical disabilities, hearing, speech, and vision impairments, emotional and mental conditions including autism, retardation, and attention deficit disorders, and many other conditions. For example, in October 2006, Tourette’s Syndrome was added to the list. Second – and both of these conditions must be met – the child’s disability has to adversely affect the child’s education. A child who qualifies under the IDEA must then consider special education options with the school district. The key for accomplishing these goals is the Individualized Education Program, or IEP, and it is here, with the IEP, that parents face the greatest challenges. We spoke with Lawrence Siegel, an attorney who has represented many parents of disabled children in the IEP process, and is the author of “The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for your Special Ed Child,” and “Nolo’s IEP Guide: Learning Disabilities.” We asked him to explain the basics of the IEP.
LAWRENCE SIEGEL: Well, under IDEA, the special ed law, the Individualized Education Program, the IEP, is actually several things, and it is the blueprint for the child’s program, and it describes what the child is going to get. The IEP is a meeting that usually takes place once a year, in which the family and the school district meet to discuss all elements of the child’s program, and that’s written down on a form called an IEP, and that IEP will create with a good deal of detail what the child’s program is going to look like, and that’s what both the family and the child and the school and the teacher will follow to provide the child with the individually-tailored program that meets his or her needs.
NOLO: It’s estimated that there are over five million school-age children with disabilities, or one out of twelve children or teenagers. As we noted, to qualify under the law, it’s not enough that a child has a disability; the disability must adversely affect the child’s educational performance. So, how does a parent prove that a disability affects learning?
LAWRENCE SIEGEL: Well, there are a number of ways that a family can prove that, and they should, whether their child is in or out of special ed, qualified or not, they obviously should keep track of how the child is doing in school. First of all, through grades, of course. Second of all, is there a discrepancy between the child’s general ability, wherever that may be, and how the child is performing? If there’s a discrepancy, that’s fairly important. Thirdly, are there physical things that impact on the child’s ability to be educated? A vision loss, hearing loss, or physical restriction. Other ways in which you can determine whether the child’s education is adversely affected would be, how’s the child doing in developing various skills that a child ought to have at a certain age? Cognitive skills, is the child becoming literate, is the child developing the ability to write… if it appears the child is not doing that, that suggests that something is going on, and would be proof that the disability is affecting education.
NOLO: The IDEA states that a child with a disability is entitled to an appropriate education at no cost to the parents. That term, “appropriate education,” is one of the terms that has been subject to a great deal of debate since the law was enacted thirty years ago. We asked Lawrence Siegel his interpretation of the meaning, “appropriate education.”
LAWRENCE SIEGEL: It means, ultimately, that the child can progress from year to year, and make academic progress. It does not mean, if I can use a cliché, it doesn’t mean a Cadillac program, it means a Chevrolet program. So, you’ve got to look to the fact that the child with that program is going to advance academically and make progress.
NOLO: Another controversial aspect of the IDEA, and IEPs, is the concept of mainstreaming. Some courts have concluded that mainstreaming is a requirement of the IDEA. We asked Lawrence Siegel what mainstreaming means.
LAWRENCE SIEGEL: Mainstreaming is really the same as placement with non-disabled children in a regular class. It’s one option on what’s called the continuum of placement options under IDEA. IDEA doesn’t really use the term “mainstreaming,” what it says is, the legal term – and this is very important – is that every child with a disability is entitled to be educated in the least-restrictive environment, as determined by the IEP team. Furthermore, the law says that a child is entitled to be educated in a regular classroom and cannot be removed from that regular classroom unless there’s evidence that the child cannot achieve satisfactorily in the classroom, even with supplementary aides and services. So, at least theoretically, it means that all children should start in a regular class, and only be removed to a non-regular placement when there’s evidence that they can’t succeed there.
NOLO: Because the IDEA and the IEP rules are so complex, we asked Lawrence Siegel where parents whose children may qualify under the IDEA can look for assistance on these topics.
LAWRENCE SIEGEL: Your school district has an absolute legal duty to provide you with information about the whole special ed process, that’s the first place. Secondly, your state Department of Education usually will have a whole bunch of information about IDEA – how it works, what the rules are. So, you can start in those two places. If your child’s not in special ed yet, but you think your child belongs there, you certainly should start to talk to his or her teacher, talk to your doctor about the child, is the child not meeting developmental milestones, is the child having trouble with certain courses, is the child having trouble with handwriting, or a learning disability, or whatever it might be. So, talk to your teacher, talk to your doctor; there are a whole number of both generic support groups in your area and in the country, as well as specific support groups for specific disabilities who can give you some direction on what you should be looking for if you suspect your child is autistic or learning-disabled. Then, you may want to think about getting an assessment done, which the school has a duty to do, or even go outside of the school and get an assessment done.
NOLO: The IEP hearing can be quite expensive for a parent, especially if they have to pay for expert witnesses. We asked Lawrence Siegel for any suggestions about keeping fees down.
LAWRENCE SIEGEL: In terms of expert witnesses and other costs, this recent decision in the Arlington v. Murphy case, the court did say that, when there’s an expert witness who testifies in a hearing, you better be prepared that, if you have such a person and you win the case, you’re not going to get reimbursed for those costs. So, some alternatives would be, first of all, again, contact those organizations, and they’re fairly easy to find on the web and in my book. Those organizations that provide support for individuals and families with the specific disability your child has, they may in fact know a nonprofit or other folks who can provide you the expertise at no or low cost, that’s certainly one option. The second option is, if your expert has also done an evaluation on your child, I’d suggest you talk to the expert about the possibility of her testifying in a hearing, and whether she would do that or he would do that, as part of the total cost, and that total cost, for the assessment, is reimbursable. That’s one way to do it. And then, one other way, although I don’t particularly like it, is when you go to hearing, the expert may in fact provide written information as well as testifying. An alternative to cut your costs down would be to have the expert do a very thorough written report, which you would submit to the hearing officer, and not have that person testify. Now, I prefer that both happen, because it’s important that you have live testimony, but that would be a way to cut down your costs, too.
NOLO: The IEP hearing can also be a tense situation. Lawrence Siegel has participated in many of these hearings, and we asked him to describe what it’s like.
LAWRENCE SIEGEL: Well, you know, obviously the tension level will depend a good deal on the personalities involved… some administrators, even though they disagree with you, are really fairly decent people, and then others can be very difficult. It also depends on what the nature of the dispute is, and if it’s been acrimonious in the past then you can anticipate that it will be that way in the hearing. As a general rule, these hearings will take place certainly not in courts; they often will take place in the school district. They’ll be in rather informal settings, like a conference room. The hearing officer will generally try to put people at ease. It does have the trappings of going to trial in a way, but it’s much more informal so that there’s certainly going to be an anxiety level; everyone feels that, including the most jaded and experienced lawyer, but it’s informal enough that if you’re in it and you’re doing it yourself, you can always say to the hearing officer, “Can we stop? I’m really confused here,” or “I’m nervous,” or “I don’t know,” and it’s the kind of setting where you can ask questions like that.
NOLO: Should a family bring a lawyer to these hearings?
LAWRENCE SIEGEL: Certainly if you think the district’s going to have an attorney, you better seriously think about it. If the district’s not going to have an attorney, I think – and you can go to my book and other places to get some recommendations how you do the hearing yourself, but it’s certainly something that if you can do it, you should have an attorney. You’re probably going to do better with an attorney, and remember, if you win, you’re going to get reimbursed. In the alternative, one way to do it is to do it yourself – then you don’t have to put money out for an attorney – but possibly hire a special ed attorney. Remember, not every attorney is going to know special ed law, so make sure the attorney knows special ed law. Perhaps you can hire the attorney for a couple three-hours to review your case, and he or she can give you some pointers. That’s a heck of a lot less expensive than having the attorney go to the hearing, which can often involve anywhere from twenty to fifty hours of time for the lawyer.