Friday, June 11, 2010

When to Take on Your School District

Parents often ask what they should do if they don't get what they want from their child's school. Do they fight? Do they accept what the school is offering? How can they decide what is the right thing to do?

The excellent website Wrightslaw deals with this very issue in their newest newsletter, looking at what issues parents need to consider when they are trying to decide whether to "Settle or Fight?"

The answer to the question is different in every circumstance, but there are some basic principles that families should consider when faced with this issue. The first is to understand what they can expect their child's school to do for them. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) only applies to students who have been diagnosed with specific disabilities and that require special education services because of such disabilities. So, even if your child has a disability, the school may decline to classify him or her as eligible for services under the IDEA (although he or she may be covered under another law known as 504) if your child is doing well in school. The standards for this determination are shifting and some states are more difficult to deal with than others.

Even once a child is classified as eligible under the IDEA, you may not be satisfied with the services set out in your child's IEP. Here it is important to remember that the standard of education the school must provide your child is not optimal but appropriate, sufficient to permit your child to advance from grade to grade. As parents, we all want the best for our children but, unfortunately, schools are not required to provide everything we think our child should receive.

We encourage parents to think about whether their child's IEP is not adequate, or is not being properly implemented. If the IEP on its face is a good one, sometimes going back to the head of the IEP team and pointing out the school's failure to do what it promised can help get things on track. But if the offer of services is substantially short of what you believe your child requires, that may be a situation where you need to appeal to a Hearing Officer or State Review Officer (depending upon your state) to seek additional services or a different placement for your child.

Then there is the unpredictability and expense of litigation. Appealing to a Hearing Officer requires compliance with specific rules and is somewhat like a trial. We always suggest that parents use an attorney or an advocate if they are going to do this. One resource for finding an attorney or advocate is the website of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, COPAA. Parents who have decided to fight for what their child requires have helped carve out important new rights for children who struggle. There is much to consider when parents are deciding what to do and often a skilled attorney or advocate can help lay out the potential costs and benefits.

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