Practice Areas: Defense of Persons Accused of Serious Felonies, Sex Assaults, Domestic Violence and DUI; Juvenile Defense; School Expulsion and Discipline Defense; Complex Civil Litigation and Personal Injury; Administrative Hearings.
Matt stays current with the frequent changes in DUI and Express Consent law in Colorado through a heavy book of DUI defense work, annual continuing legal education classes and frequent discussions with colleagues. He understands the license issues, jail alternatives, and legal issues that allow for a successful defense to minimize the consequences of the DUI charge.
Matt works to find issues — wrongful stops, poor investigations, inadequate chemical tests — that allow him to minimize the prosecution against his clients.View Profile
Having a disabled student is challenging. Thank you for working so hard for your kid! These are my common sense rules for parents who are dealing with special education issues with their sons and daughters. We have posted other articles about the strategic issues. This post is about tactics. How do you get what you want with a minimum of hassle? My hope is that this set of rules makes it a little less challenging.
It would take a doctoral dissertation in psychology or anthropology to explain it, but our experience is that parents who write letters – physical, paper documents delivered in the mail – get better outcomes than those who rely on verbal communications. Taechers are busy. Your issue can get lost in dozens of things a teacher has to remember every day. Something about having a physical reminder on a desk gets results. Letters also create a formal record of sorts that is more persuasive to the next person you have to persuade.
School administrators are, for the most part, former teachers. I would guess that the multitude of management, financial, administrative and educational issues that your local principal has to deal with every day is overwhelming and often outside of the principal’s primary expertise. Your request regarding your son’s or daughter’s services has to compete for the administrator’s attention with so many other pulls on his or her time. A physical letter is memorable and sits on a desk until it is resolved.
I recommend paper letters over e-mails, texts, faxes and voicemails. Meetings – where you sit down one-on-one and meet with the educator are a great way to communicate, but should be followed up by a letter. E-mails are easily replied to and deleted. Once I reply to the e-mail, I usually think the matter is in the other person’s to do list, not mine. Texts are buried after they are read and never re-read. Verbal conversations are important and effective in the moment, but a conversation last week rarely gets attention today. A phone call is easily forgotten. For some reason paper letters are more effective in getting and keeping an educators’ attention.
Our advice is to write a very short, polite, typed business letter confirming every agreement and memorializing every discussion. You can look at some examples of letters to school administrators at this link. All letters should be dated, contain all of your current contact information, be addressed to a specific person, and be written in a way that you would be proud to show it to anyone reviewing it later. Always keep a copy (see Rule #2). Be polite even when they do not deserve it (see Rule #3). Once your write the first letter, you have a template on your computer and it is easy to write the next one.
Keep copies of everything. All those e-mails, letters, all those test results, all those evaluations, and all those IEPs need to be kept neatly and orderly in one place. Techies: scan them and save them in the cloud. Luddites: get an old copier box and put them all in one place. It does not matter how you do it, just make sure it is done.
Some parents had to compromise results because records were not available or were not available in the time that mattered. Some school districts take weeks to respond to records requests. Some school districts literally shred your child’s special education files when s/he moves or changes schools. Special education records are very important because they allow you to document the length and severity of issues. It is not some accident that our first two rules are about letters and keeping records: parents who do a good job educating their special needs children keep well organized records.
Assume that your educator is working in good faith and for the best interests in educating your son or daughter until that educator proves otherwise. Ideally your teachers and paraprofessionals look forward to seeing you. The easiest way for educators to marginalize parents is to label them as a hot head or threatening. If they can deny you access to the school, they no longer have to answer your calls, return your calls or buzz you in through the front door. Many parents have hired us after the school would no longer work with the parent directly because of some alleged threat. Yelling, even arguing loudly, can quickly get a parent isolated from decision makers.
Remember that these folks have been through hours of training and drills on preventing mass shootings in their facilities – all to protect your children. Colorado suffered the Columbine shooting and other more recent mass murders. We can understand that educators might be more willing to see a statement as a threat today than in the past. Just keep the context in mind and remember that schools are not kidding about fears of hostile parents. If you find yourself getting irate – that happens often with the large and winding chain of command in a public school system – make a strategic retreat. Excuse yourself and continue the discussion another day.
The key to being both polite and firm is knowing what you want and saying what you want. You have to figure out what your student needs ahead of time. That means consulting with doctors, other parents and special education experts. We advise many potential clients to hire psychologists to address disputes about disability and accommodations, specifically psychologists who have specialties in education accommodations. Getting your student’s doctor, therapist or evaluator directly involved is often very persuasive to the educators about the need for accommodations, especially when the educators are working in good faith.
Be specific in your requests. Asking for “special education services” is not as effective as asking for “20 hours each week with a paraprofessional trained in educating students with autism spectrum disorder.” The Colorado Department of Education has a document, 2015-16 Colorado Instructional Accommodations Manual: A Guide to the Selection and Implementation of Accommodations for Students with a Disability, that has a wealth of accommodation suggestions, sorted and listed by disability. You can view it at: https://www.cde.state.co.us/cdesped/accommodationsmanual. A letter (see Rule #1) stating exactly what you want before and IEP meeting is a great practice.
Remember that your team of educators has to deal with dozens of meetings and dozens of students with disabilities. Please value their time and be ready for your meetings. You get a better result if you have a letter from your son’s or daughter’s doctor or therapist to hand out before or at a meeting. Bring multiple copies so all those on the IEP team can get one. If you think you are asking for a lot, maybe you should have your doctor or medical provider appear at the meeting in person or by telephone. Decisions are made at the individualized education plan meeting that are very hard to reverse later. Put together the information that supports the specific services you want for your student and be ready to share it at these meetings (or ahead of time). Effective parents bring all their relevant files to every meeting. You never know when the records will be required to make your point.
It is not fair that you have to do the planning and teaching about your student’s disabilities and learning needs over and over and over again. Repetition is required to successfully educate your student. The law requires that current IEPs and accommodations are communicated throughout the school every year, but seldom does that get done perfectly. The communication burden often falls on you as a parent. Accept your role and do a good job of communicating.
Communication breakdowns often happen with a change of personnel, a change of school year and a change of school. Be proactive in your communication. Call up the school to schedule next year’s triennial IEP review before the last day of school. If a teacher misses the IEP meeting, mail the teacher a copy of the IEP and describe what you think your child needs in the class to be successful. Follow up with all the teachers after the first week of school to see if things are going well. When a trusted educator leaves a position, ask to meet with the educator and his or her replacement before the transition occurs.
Coming full circle to being polite (see Rule #3): it is always in your son’s or daughter’s best interest if you as a parent have a friendly relationship with the teachers and administrators who provide the services you need. We suggest quick e-mails or handwritten thank you notes to thank teachers who do nice things for your kid. Kids with disabilities present all kinds of openings for thank you messages: “Thank you for dealing with Tim so kindly yesterday when I know he was not being kind to you. It is always appreciated when you respond to his poorest behavior with kindness.” I know one parent who takes a small gift – soap, a candle or a $5 gift card – to the teacher at the end of each semester to thank the teacher for all of his or her efforts in teaching her student. People like to be praised and appreciated. Effective parents find thoughtful, meaningful and inexpensive ways to appreciate the extra efforts our educators take to teach their children. It fosters the relationship you need to discuss issues that come up openly, builds trust, and gives you credibility.
Like in other areas, working up the chain of command in a school system requires some finesse. Be careful you do not alienate the front line educators who are actually providing services to your student. The front line educator is the person you have to rely on to teach your child. Taking an issue to the teacher’s boss could make things worse. Nonetheless, you need to advocate for your student at times up the chain of command, especially when the front-line educator lacks the resources or experience to solve your issue. Let’s face it, sometimes you get a bad draw and need to deal with someone else. Doing so kindly and artfully is very important.
Our working strategy for moving up the chain of command is exhaustion and disclosure. “Exhaustion” means that you should investigate all the ways to solve your problem directly with the teacher before you move up the chain of command. At a minimum, you need to have discussed the issue with the teacher on two occasions, written a follow up letter to the teacher each time, without progress, before you attempt to move up the chain of command.
“Disclosure” means that once you have decided to move up the chain of command, you give notice to the teacher (or principal or mid-level administrator) and invite him or her to participate in that process. You say to the teacher, for example, “I am not happy with the results we have gotten, can we raise this issue with the principal?” Then you write a short letter describing the results you seek and the efforts you have made to seek them with the teacher. When you exhaust your efforts with the principal, have the same conversation, “I am not happy with the results, who is your supervisor? Can we speak to him or her?” Inviting the teacher or principal to participate in moving up the chain of command communicates that you want to collaborate, not reprimand. You do not lose any tactical advantage because any good supervisor will discuss the issue with the subordinate. You do not want the teacher to be hostile to your request when the principal finds the teacher to discuss the matter.
Parents who understand the special education process and understand their son’s or daughter’s disability are more effective advocates. The Colorado Department of Education has a page for special education: https://www.cde.state.co.us/spedlaw/. It has a lot of useful information for parents.
Randy Chapman has published a third edition (2008) of The Everyday Guide to Special Education Law. I have a current copy and every parent of a disabled child should have one too. You can get it from: https://disabilitylawco.org/resources/mighty-rights-press/everyday-guide-special-education-law. A Spanish-language version, Guia de La Ley Educación Especial, is also available. I like Mr. Chapman’s book because he has citations (so you can find the law) and it is comprehensive. It also helps that he is a Colorado resident.
Ask your doctor or psychologist what to read about your student’s specific disability(ies). Learn as much as you can and keep learning. My guess is that you are doing this anyway. Have some confidence that you know your child best and know your child’s disabilities well. Remember, however, that disabilities change their manifestations as your child grows. Accommodations you needed in kindergarten may not be necessary in middle school. Likewise, accommodations and services may need to be added as your child matures. You really need to become knowledgeable in child development and disability.
A common tale is of parents agreeing to reduce services in an IEP meeting, which results in bad educational outcomes for the student. Why get rid of the services that are causing your child to be successful? Unfortunately, it happens all the time. My practice encounters students who have behavior problems that result in school expulsion proceedings that coincide with a reduction of services. Students who are frustrated in their learning can act out.
Which is not to say that all reductions in services are always unwarranted. Sometimes they make sense. The truth is that if the IEP evaluation and accommodations are set up correctly, they are essential for the student’s success. Why would a school spend precious resources on such services if the services were unnecessary? Here, record keeping is very important. If your child had learning or behavior issues before the services the school now wants to cut were provided, make sure you pull out the records that show it. It would be very rare that a student who needed an IEP last year would not need one again this year with similar services.
There was a time when some schools hid the disabled students away from the regular classroom all day. I hope those days are long behind us as a country. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) requires that disabled students get educated in the least restrictive environment. However, some school districts have created alternative schools for students with autism or who have a significant identifiable emotional disability (“SIED”), for example. My anecdotal experience in El Paso County is that most of these alternative schools are good faith attempts to focus resources efficiently. A lot of the educators at these alternative schools are dedicated to educating students of a particular disability. They can be wonderful placements for a child with a challenging disability to educate. I have had a number of student-clients who have thrived in the alternative schools.
Do your due diligence on the alternative school. Talk to the principal, the teacher who will be your student’s first teacher, and other parents whose children are in the school. A lot of these alternative schools publish and promote their success. If you cannot find any statistics on success rates, maybe you need to look a little deeper. My point is that you should think of an alternative school as a viable option if your child’s disability creates a special challenge for his or her education in the local school building.
Another common mistake is to change schools after you have hired counsel to fight an expulsion, hired a psychologist to advocate for more services, or resolved some other dispute with the school. I get it. You decide these particular educators are jerks and you want to try to do better at another school or district. Maybe you are right. Moving schools can make sense when you move out of a rural school or a small charter school, which often have a harder time providing meaningful services. Larger urban school districts tend to have more resources and experience with special education issues.
It often does not make sense to move within a district or from one urban district to another. You have just spent hours and thousands of dollars to educate your teachers and administrators about your child and his or her disabilities. Why move and have to do it all over again? If you successfully stopped or minimized an expulsion, if you got services the school did not want to initially give, or if you saw some hints that your student’s situation was better understood, then it probably makes sense to stay put. You are doing a good job and, frankly, so are the educators.
You are a wonderful parent. We know that because you are searching the Internet for tips on how to better educate your child with special needs. Find other parents who are struggling with the same issues. They have a lot to share with you. You have a lot to share with them. Remember that in the depths of frustration with whatever struggles you have to endure, our local school, our state, and our country are spending lots of money trying to do a much better job of educating students with disabilities and helping you raise a better-educated child. Somewhere inside every administrator and teacher, perhaps buried deep, are the motivations that got him or her into education in the first place. Working together we can overcome difficult personalities, improve services and get all our children educated and off pursuing happiness.
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