The Paper Case: Managing Your Documents Under IDEA, Part One:

January 03, 2013

Parents of children with special educational needs can easily be overwhelmed by paper in a short time. From the beginning of school to the time their child either graduates or “ages out” of entitlement to special education services, the accumulation of IEPs, evaluations, progress reports, correspondence, notes, journals, samples of the child’s work, medical records and so forth can fill several drawers of a file cabinet or several feet of shelf space.

Some may be tempted to throw out documents when they become too cumbersome to manage easily, but it may be a mistake to do so. Even the oldest documents in a child’s history can sometimes help parents make a case for increased or different services for their child under IDEA.

Parents should learn the relative importance of various kinds of documents and organize them sensibly. With this in mind, here are some guidelines for managing documents under IDEA.

What Documents Should You Keep?

What follows is a list of the kinds of documents that will be generated during the educational life of a child with special educational needs. You should keep them all!

You should also go to your child’s school or the special education office occasionally to inspect your child’s student records to be sure you have all the documents the school has and to see if there are documents in your possession that have been omitted from the files. You should find out about your state’s rules and regulations for accessing your child’s records. In general all states must provide access under a federal law called the Buckley Amendment (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1221, 1232g). Generally, with reasonable notice, you will have the right to see the records, wherever and by whomever they may be kept, and to have copies provided to you, at a reasonable copying charge, of any documents you request. You may also have the right to request that a document be removed, with an appeal process if that request is denied, and the right to place a document next to the one you wish to have removed with your comments or with additional information.

A general comment: Except in rare cases, once you have a final version of a document you are creating or that others are developing with your review, you should discard all prior drafts of documents and you should both delete any drafts from your computer and then “empty trash” in the computer. Those earlier drafts can lead to confusion if you ever need to seek services for your child through the due process system. This is one area where you can and most often should lighten your document load.

  1. Individualized Educational Programs (“IEPs”) and other official service plans. In addition to IEPs, these might include, for example, Individualized Family Service Plans (“IFSP”) (the service plans that describe early intervention programs for children before they are old enough to receive special education services); Section 504 plans (describing accommodations necessary for a student to access the educational program); or plans that are written by agencies other than the local school system such as a department of mental health or mental retardation.
  2. Evaluations. You should keep copies of all evaluations performed by the school system and those written by independent evaluators whom you have chosen. Depending on the child, these might include, for example: Educational; Psychological and/or Neuropsychological; Speech and Language; Occupational Therapy; Physical Therapy and other evaluations.
  3. Medical records. You probably don’t need to keep all medical records with your child’s IDEA documents – only those that bear on the disability or disabilities that affect his/her ability to learn or to access school programs and facilities. As with any other kind of document, however, when in doubt, keep it!
  4. Progress reports and report cards. Keep any formal documents in which the school system periodically describes how your child is doing.
  5. Standardized test results. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts administer periodic testing to measure how students are progressing in fundamental academic skills. Also, school systems often administer other standardized tests, such as the California Achievement Tests, to students to measure their skill development. Such tests can provide a helpful objective comparison to the more subjective reports of progress provided by a child’s teachers.
    1. Notes from the teacher to the parents, or from the parent to the teacher, about the child’s progress or behavior, and/or journal entries between the child’s service providers and parents. Sometimes the occasional notes from a concerned teacher tell a different story than the formal report the same teacher develops at the request of his/her supervisor when the TEAM convenes.
  6. Any correspondence between the parents and the teacher(s), special education administrators, TEAM Chairpersons, evaluators, etc. pertaining to the child. Don’t forget emails: print them out and include them in your correspondence file. Also, correspondence from the school system addressed to parents generally or to all special education parents describing issues that affect the child: for example, letters describing new programs or changes in programs or services or describing school system policies around children with special education needs or budget issues.
    1. Note: Should you use certified mail, return receipt requested, when you send letters or notices to the school system? While sometimes you do need to have the kind of record of delivery that certified mail would give you, often using that system merely adds unnecessary delay to your delivery of the letter or notice. It is better to hand-deliver the document and, if you are concerned that it might get lost, ask the secretary or person to whom you hand it to date-stamp a copy of the letter or give you a receipt. (Remember, too, that in most courts and administrative forums, a letter mailed in ordinary first-class mail is presumed to have been delivered within three days of its mailing.)
  7. The parents’ notes or minutes of conversations or meetings with school personnel, evaluators, the child’s TEAM, or any other interactions bearing on the child’s program or needs. We advise parents to be certain to take excellent notes at key meetings or, better yet, to have someone with them whose only task is to take such notes, especially at TEAM meetings. Such notes can help enormously when, months later, parents try to recall exactly what various people said or what agreements were reached.
    1. Note: Do you have a right to tape TEAM meetings? Should you tape meetings? The answer to both of these questions is “probably not” in most instances. Under the laws pertaining to discrimination on the basis of handicap you may have a right to tape a meeting if that is necessary to accommodate a disability (for example, if one or both parents have a language processing disorder). You may also have a right to tape if the meeting is conducted in a language other than the parents’ first language. Generally, though, no right to tape a meeting has been determined to exist under IDEA. Ordinarily, if you ask in advance to tape a TEAM meeting, a school system should permit you to do so as a courtesy and most likely will also tape the meeting themselves. You need to consider, however, that having a tape recorder present may inhibit the participants and/or create a feeling of hostility at the meeting. Again, it is usually preferable simply to have someone take excellent notes.
  8. Any documents having to do with discipline and/or behavioral concerns. These include, for example, notices of detentions and suspensions (both in-school and out of school suspensions), letters describing the concerns of service providers or school administrators about behaviors, records of behavioral assessments, and records of behavioral plans for addressing behavioral issues.
    1. Note: Under the amendments to IDEA which became effective in July 2005, school districts are deemed to have knowledge that a child’s misbehavior may be caused by a disability if: 1) the parent expresses concern in writing to a teacher of the child or to supervisory or administrative special education personnel that their child is in need of special education and related services; 2) the parent requests an evaluation of their child; or 3) the teacher of the child, or other personnel of the LEA, has expressed specific concerns about a pattern of behavior demonstrated by the child, directly to the director of special education or to other supervisory personnel of the agency. 20 USC 1 415(k)(5)(B). Thus, it is important to communicate concerns before behaviors lead to disciplinary actions for a school to be held accountable for providing services to address the behaviors through special education services.
  9. Formal notices of meetings scheduled to discuss your child. You should develop the habit of marking on the top of any such notice the date on which you receive it, since the question whether a school system has met time requirements is sometimes important under IDEA. (Note that it is sometimes a good idea to keep copies of the envelopes in which such notices arrive: check the date of the notice or letter and the date of the postmark – if the postmark is later than the date on the notice, that fact could be significant.)
  10. Samples of schoolwork. You don’t need to keep every scrap of writing or drawing your child produces for this purpose, but it sometimes is helpful to keep examples from year to year, or even shorter periods, which can be compared to show whether and how much progress your child is making in various academic areas.
  11. Invoices and cancelled checks relating to services that you provide on your own for your child relating to his/her educational development. For example, if you pay for an independent speech and language pathologist to provide an hour per week of therapy to supplement the school system’s services, keep a record and evidence of your payments for that service; eventually, you might seek reimbursement for that expense if you can prove that it was necessary because the school’s services were insufficient to enable your child to progress effectively.
  12. Public documents that help explain how your school system works with children like yours. These might include, for example, newspaper articles describing pronouncements by special education administrators, school committee members or superintendents about how they are planning to reorganize all special education programs, how they plan to cut expenses in special education, what new teaching approach they plan to use, etc.

Copyright © 1998, 2006 Robert K. Crabtree

Kotin, Crabtree and Strong, LLP

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