It's back to school time around here, with some school districts starting back this week and many starting immediately after Labor Day. As expected, it is a busy time for all of us advocates and attorneys. Here are some of the concerns we hear all too often from parents as school starts back:
1) Where is my kid going to school?!
One of the common back-to-school disasters happens when a kid doesn't have a placement. Knowing where your kid will be in school when the year starts out seems like a pretty basic question, regardless of if your kid is on an IEP. How, you may ask, could not having a placement possibly happen?! Here are some examples based on real-life scenarios:
Scenario A: Child has been in an SDC for the past couple of years and now has "aged out" of that particular class. Parents disagreed with the offer of placement for the next school year, as the new SDC is substantially different and won't meet their kids needs. The school year starts, and parents and district are still in dispute. A problem arises because there is no "stay put" placement, since the child aged out of the previous classroom. Where does the kid go for the first day of school?
Scenario B: Child's specialized program, which the IEP team offered for this school year in the most recent IEP last spring, closed down over the summer based on an "administrative decision" and probably due to budgetary concerns, and no staff was available at that time to hold an IEP meeting.
Scenario C: Family moved into a new school district over the summer, and did not take the IEP document in to the school district because the office was closed, or they didn't know where to take it, or whatever the reason. On the first day of school, parents show up with the kid and the IEP, but the District does not have a placement readily available that is comparable to what the child previously received.
Scenario D: Child had significant emotional problems during the previous school year, to the point that he/she was unable to attend school due to anxiety. Parents requested assessments and an IEP at the end of the year, which have not yet been completed. Because there is no IEP, there is no offer of an appropriate placement, but because of the significant anxiety, child's doctor says he/she cannot return to school without a different program in place.
There are many scenarios which could lead to an issue about placement at the start of the school year. Advocates and parents (and districts) are often scrambling around at the last minute to locate an option that can be implemented. Here are a few tips on dealing with this:
Make lots of phone calls! In these circumstances, talking to a live person about the urgency of your concerns may get you further than starting off by sending a letter documenting all of the ways the district is out of compliance. That's not to say that you won't need to ultimately document all of your concerns, but starting out with a personal call may be the best first step.
Consider alternatives, but don't compromise your ultimate position. It's likely that what you are facing is a situation where there is a placement dispute that you may need to deal with further down the line through additional IEP meetings and due process complaints. In the meantime, you may have to be willing to accept some other alternative so that your child can go to school. Even if it isn't the best case scenario, this may be a situation where something is better than nothing, so you may need to consent to the placement being offered while documenting that you don't believe it is appropriate and you want to have an IEP meeting to discuss placement.
Try to anticipate these disputes. Although school is not in session and timelines for things like holding IEP meetings or conducting assessments may be different, parents can still pursue due process and all of their related rights during the summer. If you can anticipate that there will be a placement problem in the fall, try to resolve it early on. And if you have to file for due process, do so early in the summer so that the issue may be addressed in mediation, and so that you will have time to file for stay put before the school year starts if you have to.
Don't keep the kid out of school unless there is not any other option, or unless the child will be harmed in some way by going to school. Ultimately, it is the parent's choice, not the advocate's / attorney's. Parents have many factors that they have to weigh in these situations. If there is no placement in place, and the District offers something inappropriate for the start of the school year, you have to balance the advantages / disadvantages of keeping your child at home versus advantages / disadvantages of sending your child to an inappropriate placement. These are tough decisions! But ultimately, refusing to allow your child to attend the school at all, barring some clear indication that the child would be harmed, may work against you in later disputes.
2) I just got a call from the school - and they don't have an aide for my child!
This happens more often than you would think. It's the week before school, or even the day before, and parents get a phone call to say "we don't know if your child can start on the first day because we can't find an aide."
Is the aide support called for in your IEP to be provided by District staff or through a Non-Public Agency? If the aide is to be provided through an NPA, you may be able to do some of the "leg-work" yourself. Start calling around to see if any of the NPAs in your area have an aide available, then let the school know what you found out. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting the information to the right people.
Remind the District that compliance with the IEP is mandatory. If the District is saying that your child can't attend school because they don't have an aide (or other support) in place yet, document that statement in writing and also document your concerns regarding the fact that your child will lose educational benefit if he/she doesn't start the school year with all of the other kids.
Show up the first day anyway! Refusing to let your child attend school because they can't comply with the IEP is basically excluding your child from class because he/she has a disability. If school starts and there is still no aide in place, show up the first day with your child and a copy of your child's IEP and remind the District that they are obligated to implement the program called for in the IEP document. If they refuse to let your child attend class, you can follow this up with a letter documenting what happened.
3) My kid's IEP calls for transportation, but no bus showed up this morning to take him to school!
These situations arise when the school district's transportation schedule isn't all worked out before the school year starts. Sometimes, parents find out beforehand that their kid isn't on the bus schedule. Sometimes parents wait and wait the first morning, and no bus shows up. Other transportation mishaps can also happen the first week of school, like the wrong bus picking up the child, or the bus taking the child to the wrong school location.
Be patient and remember that mistakes happen. While you should document your concerns about the failure to implement transportation (which is a related service) pursuant to your IEP, you should also give the district an opportunity to correct this problem. Bus schedules are complicated, and some transportation guru who isn't part of the IEP process is working hard somewhere to map everything out and make sure the schedule covers every kid that is being transported. Make a phone call and let the school and district staff know that this happened, and that you expect the issue to be resolved immediately so that transportation is provided. Get an estimate as to when you can expect your child's bus schedule to be fixed. If multiple days go by, you may want to request that the district reimburse you for transportation you have had to provide yourself when the IEP wasn't being implemented.
4) My child is in general education, and his teacher didn't even know he had an IEP!
The start of the school year involves a lot of planning for school staff and teachers. They are busy getting their classrooms set up, creating lesson plans, studying new curriculum that will be used, organizing supplies, meeting parents, etc. If you find out that your child's teacher doesn't even know your child has an IEP, doesn't know what accommodations must be implemented, etc, it can be a very upsetting discovery! Reserve your frustration for the school district and the administrator involved in your child's IEP, not the teacher. Talk to the teacher frankly about your child's disability and why you think the IEP is important. Then make sure you let the school district know of the problem, and of your concerns regarding the fact that no one made sure the teacher had the IEP so that it could be implemented.
Ultimately, back-to-school can be a busy, stressful time for everyone involved. There are things you can do to prepare, and to help to ensure that everything will be implemented as needed for your child. But that doesn't guarantee that there won't be any back-to-school problems! Remember to stay calm, and to communicate with your child's school about the issues. Patience and persistence will help you get through whatever happens!
And one more thing- if you already have an attorney/advocate, give them a call as soon as you know these kinds of things are happening! All to often we get a phone call after-the-fact, when most likely there may have been something we could have done in the moment to help things get resolved faster! That being said, don't expect miracles! Ultimately, the District has the power to either comply with the IEP or not, to make resources available or not, or to come up with alternatives to ensure the child is educated even if disputes are happening.