Mistakes People Make: Parents:

January 03, 2013

(An earlier version of this article first appeared at the Family Education Network at www.familyeducation.com.)

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In my practice as a special education attorney for parents and students for more than twenty-five years, I have seen certain issues and frustrations expressed repeatedly. I have written a series of short articles to discuss some of the mistakes people make in the special education process that often cause or exacerbate those issues and frustrations. The articles focus in turn on mistakes commonly made by parents; school districts; independent evaluators; and, finally, advocates for parents and students.

For these articles, with a promise of anonymity, I solicited the comments of several persons who either work in special education or are the beneficiaries of it and for whom I have great respect. They include lawyers who regularly represent school systems, hearing officers in special education proceedings, evaluators, parents, and parent/child advocates. These are the results:

Here are several common errors which can undermine parents’ ability to obtain appropriate services. In these descriptions I sometimes refer to “hearing officers.” That is a reference to persons whose job is to decide, after hearing testimony and reviewing documents, whether a school district’s proposed program and services for a student with a disability is enough to provide a “free appropriate public education” – often called “FAPE” – the legal standard required by federal special education law – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or “IDEA”: –

  1. Viewing the special education process as the moral equivalent of war, fighting that war with a “scorched earth” approach, and letting personal animosity toward administrators and/or teachers distort one’s judgment about both what is best for the child and what is realistic to accept;
  2. The opposite mistake: Trusting administrators and teachers too uncritically; assuming that if they are “nice” they are also competent and interested in serving the child’s best interest; not questioning slow, or nonexistent progress as long as the child, parent and teacher have a cordial relationship;
  3. Taking an “all or nothing” approach: waiting too long before getting good independent advice, then insisting on instant delivery of needed services rather than steady progress toward the right program;
  4. Failing to understand that the special education process sometimes requires that the parent educate the child’s special education team about the child’s disabilities and needs (the school system may not be willfully refusing to meet the child’s needs; they may simply not understand those needs);
  5. Not trying a program or added services, even on a temporary basis, when they are offered by the school system – holding out for an alternative program only to have a hearing officer later decide that the untried program might have worked (remember that under IDEA, school districts generally enjoy the benefit of any doubt, especially if a proposed service or program – if it is at all reasonable – has not been tried);
  6. Attempting to “micro-manage” the details of a child’s life in school; even if parents don’t feel things are going well, their efforts to control the child’s day usually backfire when a hearing officer concludes that the parents were over-protective and didn’t let the school professionals do their job or, worse, actively undermined the school’s ability to provide services;
  7. Focusing on minor, nonprejudicial procedural missteps by the school (e.g., the parent who already knows her rights who says, “Aha! Gotcha! School district forgot to give me the brochure telling me about my rights!”) instead of focusing on the substantial issues in the case;
  8. Not consenting to school evaluations;
  9. Choosing the wrong independent evaluators: e.g., “hired guns” who only say what the parents want them to say, and have a reputation for doing so; those who will not follow through by observing programs, attending team meetings, etc.; those who do not have training or experience to evaluate a child like yours;
  10. Not providing copies of independent evaluations to the school, or not providing them in a timely way (note that if information in an independent evaluation is withheld from the school district, all the district needs to say later is “If we’d only had this information, we could have met this student’s needs”);
  11. Not responding in a timely way to proposed IEPs (whether a response is “timely” depends on whether the student is already getting the services s/he needs and the IEP proposes reducing those services, in which case a parent may want to use as much time as is allowed, or the student is not getting the services s/he needs and the IEP proposes increasing services, in which case a quick response is usually what’s called for);
  12. Not documenting issues with the school; not sending letters to confirm agreements with the school or to record important conversations with school personnel;
  13. Seeing the school system as a monolith (“ All those teachers are incompetent [or wonderful!]”); failing to look carefully at alternatives within the system for this year and at next year’s teacher possibilities.

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