Know Your IEP Rights: A Resource for Parents
“Each public school child who receives special education and related services must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Each IEP must be designed for one student and must be a truly individualized document. The IEP creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities.” So starts the Introduction to the Guide to Individualized Education Program on the US Education Department’s website.
This guide is an invaluable tool for understanding the process of how an IEP is developed and what information and types of services must be provided under the plan.
BUT—there is a big BUT that parents should be aware of, from the same source as above: “While the law tells us what information must be included in the IEP, it does not specify what the IEP should look like. No one form or approach or appearance is required or even suggested. Each state may decide what its IEPs will look like. In some states individual school systems design their own IEP forms.”
The upshot of this is that from one state to another, a child’s IEP can look completely different, from the forms that need to be completed to the final IEP to the resources available when parents disagree with an IEP or are not getting the services needed. So what’s a parent to do?
There are resources online to help families navigate the IEP process for their children. The Center for Parent Information and Resources can assist in clarifying how development of an IEP should proceed, what follow up is recommended, and when and how to reevaluate a student’s IEP. These are useful strategies for working with a school or district that is doing its best to meet your child’s needs.
When you are faced with a school that you believe is not willing to provide the services your child deserves, you need to know your rights within your state of residence. While that sounds fairly simple, it is not as straightforward as it seems.
Depending on where you live, there may be a State Education Department document or online resource that lays out your child’s rights under an IEP and your recourse as a parent if IEP services are not being provided as intended. For example, in Massachusetts, the EdLaw Project provides information on parents’ right to request a hearing “regarding the denial of a free appropriate public education pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and/or IDEA.” As of 2015, New York State started an IEP Facilitation Pilot Program to provide facilitators and advocates for parents in need of assistance, to get their child appropriate services. Information is available on the NYS Education Department website in a variety of languages, and interpreters can be requested for meetings. Each state offers its own resources. It can be very confusing.
If possible, find a local advocate to walk you through the system in your city and state, and to make sure you know what documentation is needed and what language to use to get results. John Scardina, school psychologist and parent educator (and full disclosure: my husband) has advocated for parents of children with learning disabilities in Pennsylvania and New York. In one instance when he was unavailable to attend a school meeting with parents, he loaned the family a copy of the PA state guide for parents and advocates on special education—in this case from the Education Law Center in Philadelphia—
and suggested that they place the pamphlet on the table in front of them at the meeting. Sometimes all it takes is demonstrating clearly to the school administration team that you know your rights and have resources or an advocate supporting you, to get them to ramp up their efforts and provide the services called for in the student’s IEP.
Finding an advocate can be challenging. Having established a good relationship with your child’s teachers and other staff at the school can be helpful. The school counselor or other personnel may be able to answer some of your questions about your child’s educational plan, and connect you with a local advocacy organization.
Don’t be deterred by the hurdles you encounter in this process. If you can’t think of someone in your immediate circle who can champion your case, search online to see which local or state agencies provide information or even advocates who can accompany you to a meeting with the school at no cost. Nationwide, a great resource for finding an advocate is Wrightslaw.com. This site guides you with strategies on how to assert your rights effectively, what questions to ask, and other useful information. More specific information for your locality will be available on individual state education and special education support websites. It may take some doing, but it will be worth it when your child is receiving the support and educational services he or she needs.