Top Five Advocacy Tips for Parents
1. Just As Your Child Is Asked To Do, Do Your Homework!
Learn your rights prior to going to an IEP meeting or any meetings with district personnel. Know the law and know the special education terminology. The ISBE parent’s rights handbook and the ISBE website are both good places to start. Our website at www.whittedtakifflaw.com provides many free publications and links to other websites. There are also multiple seminars, such as Wrightslaw, that parents can attend. Also, the Family Resource Center in Chicago provides free training sessions. School district personnel usually respond more positively to parents they perceive as informed, interested and involved.
2. Organization Is Your Friend
There is nothing wrong with drafting up a list (typed preferably) of issues you would like discussed at your child’s IEP meeting. Make copies for each member of the team. Ask the district to address all of the issues on the list in addition to the agenda items the district needs to get through. Keep in mind number three below though.
3. Stay Focused, (in the words of a great law professor) Be Brief, And Be Realistic!!!!
The most common mistake we see from parents who have reached impasse with a school district is that they try to accomplish too many things at one time. Similarly, some parents will write the school district rambling, lengthy letters replete with 42 issues to which they want responses. Not only does this strategy water down your main issues, but, many school district personnel are not going to provide the level of detail you want. (I’d be surprised if they even get through half the letter). Parents need to determine what they really want. Other issues can be brought up at a later time; you don’t have to worry about waiving them. In addition, parents can request IEP meetings at anytime they determine that there are issues to be discussed (within reason – most hearing officers will think four meetings a month is unrealistic). Finally, regarding realism – most parents want the “Cadillac” for their child; what parent wouldn’t? However, the Supreme Court Case, Rowley, tells us that they are only entitled to a well running “Chevy.” In line with keeping your issues focused, be realistic about what you are asking for, and, for that matter, what your child can handle within the school setting. One of the best ways to do this is to utilize experts, as we discuss in number four, below.
4. Paging Dr. Somebody: Use Reputable Experts
The law clearly allows parents to obtain their own private evaluations at their own expense and districts have to consider the information at an IEP meeting. The law also mandates that school districts pay for the evaluations in certain circumstances, but we always advise parents to spend the money if possible, as it keeps them in control. Use reputable experts who have experience dealing with school districts. Ask any intended evaluator if they will accompany you to an IEP meeting to discuss their recommendations with the school district. Any expert who will not go to IEP meetings is not one that you want to waste your money on. Any evaluation you obtain should be comprehensive and should provide clear recommendations that can be implemented in the school setting. We also recommend using experts who know education placements for parents who are encountering placement disputes with their districts to conduct observations of proposed programs.
5. Don’t Ever Let Them See You Sweat! In Other Words, Do Not Be Intimidated!
The IEP teams may at times become voluminous and seem to hold fancy degrees, but who knows the child best? Hopefully the parents! Parents should listen to the educational team, consider their recommendations, but should not be afraid to disagree with any team member. With that said, always be as kind and cooperative as possible. I have seen more parents get what they want with kindness and respect than by being rude and aggressive. District personnel are people too and, like most people, they likely won’t respond well to insult or threats. Parents may become angry that district personnel are disagreeing with them but they should always stay civil. In addition, many people, including the best lawyers, become unfocused when blinded with anger. The more calm and civil a parent, the more likely they will think clearly.