Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Top Ten Ways to Protect Your Rights and Keep Your Sanity

By the time we meet with Parents they are usually so frustrated with a school district or an administrator that they are ready to cry or pull their hair out (their own or the administrator's). Here are just a few tasty tidbits that can keep you from losing your mind as well as protect your rights along the way.

10) Never sign anything before you have a chance to completely read the document. This goes for assessment plans, IEPs and even settlement agreements. Just because the district, an assistant principal or a teacher tells you something doesn't meant it is written in the document. Read it and then reread and then have someone else read it.

9) When in doubt write it out. Put everything in writing - it can't hurt. There are many rights under the law which are not activated until you document your request in writing or provide the district with written notice. For example, always put in writing a request for assessments, a request for documents, and a notice of your intent to remove your child from a placement. Take notes during IEP meetings (or have someone else do it for you) and during telephone conversations. I like to follow up particularly "interesting" telephone conversations with a letter that documents all the statements made by the other party that are false or outside the scope of what is allowed under the law (you may want to save this for a particularly noteworthy conversation as the person will be less likely to say anything that "interesting" ever again).

8) You don't want the "best" you want what is "appropriate." Whenever a Parent says "best" at an IEP meeting I wince as it is a perfect opportunity for a district representative to pipe in about providing that child with a basic floor of opportunity. If you keep focused on what is appropriate they won't ever be able to say that you are after the "Cadillac" (although personally I would prefer a more efficient car - but I digress).

7) Don't over rely on technicalities. The law is filled with procedural rights that are meant to protect Parents and children but if you get caught up in the technicalities you could lose focus of the big picture - what your child needs to make educational progress. Unfortunately, a hearing officer or an administrative law judge is probably not going to care that the district didn't provide you with "prior" written notice that your child was no longer going to receive speech services - especially if you can't find anyone who recommends that he still needs speech services.

6) You need to learn to share. Provide the district with copies of all reports that you have done and with information about outside services you are providing. Parents sometimes want to keep information, such as independent evaluations or the fact they are providing services a secret until a hearing. This only makes you look like you have more to hide down the line and provides the district with the perfect defense - "had we known we would have paid for it/implemented it/considered it" (or the more likely "we would have provided you with notice we weren't going to pay for it/ implement it/ consider it").

5) Keep and organize all your documents. While you can always request records from the school district it is much easier if you have kept your own set of records if you need a document immediately or if you need to provide your documents to an advocate or an attorney. Also if there is going to be a "smoking gun" (and there usually isn't) it will be that the district has a "different" version of a document at a later date and your original document will help clear up any confusion. Also don't write on the documents - they may need to be used later as evidence and clean documents are better than ones where Parents have scribbled out words or taken notes all over.

4) Kill them with kindness. This could be a hard pill to swallow especially to Parents who have had a hard time with a particular administrator in the past but just because you are having a disagreement over services does not mean that you should be rude or get angry with someone as it usually won't serve any purpose - other than bringing a meeting to a screeching halt or making Parents look vindictive if they file for due process later. I've found that you can get a lot more information out of people if you are polite rather than calling them a liar or throwing papers in their face. Also you will come across as a much more credible witness to a hearing office or administrative law judge if you don't have a history of battering district employees.

3) Be the squeaky wheel. You can't assume the district will do what's right, fair, appropriate or even legal. While you should be courteous that doesn't mean you should lay down and let them roll over you. If you want an independent evaluation- ask for it. If your student isn't making progress - request an IEP. A school is much more likely to address your concerns if you let them know what they are on a regular basis rather than waiting until your child's annual IEP to ask questions.

2) Learn the lingo. An IEP can be all about whether your student needs an SDC to address his SLD because RTI was unsuccessful based on his PLOP and if any other DIS services are needed for FAPE. If you have no idea what any of these acronyms mean you are going to quickly get lost at an IEP meeting. While you can certainly ask a district representative to explain them to you (although in my experience they hardly ever know what DIS actually stands for) you will have an easier time of it if you familiarize yourself with the acronyms and any other vocabulary related to your child's disability beforehand.

1) If you need help - ask for it. This can all be overwhelming and technical to a Parent who hasn't been through the process before and there are advocates and attorneys who can help you navigate through it. If you can't afford an attorney or advocate there are organizations that will work with parents at little to no cost and with a little research you should be able to find some in your area. Also consider joining a parent support group as there will be parents there who have been through the process and likely willing to give you some advice or even come with you to an IEP meeting.

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