Evaluations vs. IEP Meetings – A Very Important Distinction

A client recently told me they received a notice for an “evaluation meeting”.  Huh?  I asked, do you mean an IEP meeting?  The client wasn’t sure because the notice said just that – evaluation meeting.


Since I figured school districts are trying to confuse parents by using the terms “evaluation” and “IEP meeting” interchangeably, let me clarify the difference between the two for everybody.

What the law says

IDEA is very specific about what an “evaluation” is and what an “IEP meeting” is.  And they are in separate sections of the statute.  Here is what that law says:

Evaluation, 20 U.S.C. §1414(a), (b), and (c)

Initial evaluation: “A State educational agency, other State agency, or local educational agency shall conduct a full and individual initial evaluation . . . before the initial provision of special education and related services to a child with a disability under this subchapter.”  20 U.S.C. §1414(a)(1).

In other words, before a student can receive special education and related services for the first time, the school must conduct an initial evaluation of the child.  This is part of their “Child Find” responsibility if someone suspects that the child has a disability that impacts their education.

The next few subsections discuss the procedures used and the purpose of an initial evaluation (“to determine [eligibility]  within 60 days of receiving parental consent for the evaluation”) and parental consent.

Reevaluation: “A local educational agency shall ensure that a reevaluation of each child with a disability is conducted . . . if the local educational agency determines that the educational or related services needs, including improved academic achievement and functional performance, of the child warrant a reevaluation; or if the child’s parents or teacher requests a reevaluation.” 20 U.S.C. §1414(a)(2).

Thus, re-evaluation of a child must occur if the school believes a change in services is necessary or if a parent or teacher requests it.  Here is a very important part:

Reevaluation MUST occur at least every three (3) years, but not more than once a year, unless the parents and school agree that reevaluation is not necessary.

20 U.S.C. §1414(a)(2)(B).

What does an evaluation involve? “In conducting the evaluation, the local educational agency shall use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information, including information provided by the parent (to determine if there is a disability and what will be necessary in an IEP); shall not use any single measure or assessment as the sole criterion for determining (disability or the education program); and use technically sound instruments that may assess the relative contribution of cognitive and behavioral factors, in addition to physical or developmental factors.”  20 U.S.C. §1414(b)(2).

What the heck does all that mean?

It means that the school must use valid testing methods and get input from the parents and others who know the child in performing the evaluation.  The school can’t simply rely on what the teachers say.

This is where the trouble starts, because schools think that they can conduct an “evaluation” or “reevaluation” by simply having a meeting.  They can’t.

Let’s continue.

IEP Meeting, 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)

IEP Meeting:  The IEP Team (parents, at least 1 gen ed teacher who knows the child, at least 1 special ed teacher who knows the child, a representative of the school district who knows the resources available, a person who can interpret evaluation results, and possibly others) must assemble to develop an IEP for the child.  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B) and (C).  This is an IEP meeting.

The Team must meet to ensure that an IEP is in effect for each child with a disability in the school district by the beginning of the school year in the Fall.  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(2)(A).    The IEP meeting must occur “periodically, but not less frequently than annually, to determine whether the annual goals for the child are being achieved.”  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(4)(A).

So, hopefully you’re still with me.  And you can see that the law is crystal clear that an evaluation is something different than an IEP meeting.

So why are schools getting this mixed up (maybe on purpose)?

One sentence in IDEA may be the culprit:

“To the extent possible, the local educational agency shall encourage the consolidation of reevaluation meetings for the child and other IEP Team meetings for the child.”  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(3)(E).

The statute doesn’t explain what a “reevaluation meeting” is, but I think it refers back to the section quoted in Reevaluation above, namely a meeting to determine if a reevaluation is needed.  It is not a meeting where an evaluation takes place, but rather to decide if one is necessary.

Nevertheless, ASK the school what they mean by an “evaluation meeting”.  Ask them if they mean a meeting to decide whether reevaluation is necessary or if they mean an IEP meeting or a combined meeting.  And, as always, DO IT IN WRITING!

If you want further information on this, get our book SchoolKidsLawyer’s Step-By-Step Guide to Special Education Law or contact us for a consultation.



Put Communications Between Teachers and Parents in the IEP

A new tactic being used by schools against parents of children with disabilities is to require / funnel all communications with the school through one person, usually the case manager.  We’ve seen numerous questions by parents if this is illegal or whether parents can request two-way communication be listed as an accommodation in the IEP.

Yes it is, yes it can and it should be.

But you won’t find the requirement in IDEA.  You’ll find it in ESSA.  Read on.

Not in IDEA

IDEA does not have a requirement or regulation that says that there should be ongoing communication between teachers and parents of children with disabilities.  Probably because Congress felt that such communication was basic common sense and they wouldn’t need to actually write it into a law.

What IS in IDEA is the following:

IDEA guarantees parents and their child with a disability numerous legal rights identified as “Procedural Safeguards”.  See 20 U.S.C. §1415; 34 C.F.R. §§300.500-520.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is not only the child with the disability that has legal rights under IDEA, but the parents are also entitled to assert legal rights on their own behalf under IDEA.  Winkelman v. Parma City School Dist., 550 U.S. 516, 127 S.Ct. 1994, 1996 (2007).

One of the key Procedural Safeguards is “an opportunity for the parents of a child with a disability . . . to participate in meetings with respect to the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child.”  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(1); 34 C.F.R. §300.501(b)(1) (emphasis added.)  The parents of a child with a disability are mandatory members of the IEP Team.  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B)(i); 34 C.F.R. §300.321(a)(1).  Indeed, “the concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child” is critical in developing the child’s IEP.  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(3)(A)(ii); 34 C.F.R. §300.324(a)(1)(ii); see also Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305 (1988); Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 53, 126 S.Ct. 528, 163 L.Ed.2d 387 (2005) (Parents play “a significant role” in the development of each child’s IEP.)

Parental participation in an IEP meeting is so vital, it is set forth twice in the IDEA regulations.  34 C.F.R. §§300.322(a), (c) and (d) (emphasis added); 34 C.F.R. §300.501(b)(1).

But that is all concerning parental participation in the development of an IEP.  These provisions don’t discuss the daily, ongoing communication with the school.

Now, we look at ESSA . . .


In 2017, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, 20 U.S.C. §6301 et seq. (2017) (“ESSA”).  This was an amendment of the prior No Child Left Behind Act (“NCLB”).

The ESSA guarantees parents of a child with a disability to participate “in regular, two-way, and meaningful communication involving student academic learning and other school activities” and “play an integral role in assisting their child’s learning.” To accomplish that goal, parents are “encouraged to be actively involved in their child’s education at school . . . [and carry] out of other activities, such as those described in section 1116.” 20 U.S.C. §7801(39) (emphasis added.)

The activities referenced in “section 1116” state that parents may engage in to participate in their child’s education include, inter alia, ongoing communications between teachers and parents and classroom observation. 20 U.S.C. §6318(d) (emphasis added.)

Put Two-Way Ongoing Communication in Your Child’s IEP

Thus, since Congress deemed this so important that they wrote it into law, it is important enough to make it part of your child’s IEP.  Show them the law quoted above.  (Maybe even print out this article and bring it to the IEP meeting.)  Tell them that you want this accommodation written into the IEP, especially if the school is trying to deny this right of access.

I’m quite sure that even teachers would welcome such ongoing dialogue.  The key is not to abuse this right – don’t contact the teachers several times every day.  Be reasonable as teachers have other students and their parents to meet this obligation.  But, if you do so reasonably, there is no legal basis for a school to block such regular and common sense communication.

It’s no longer just common sense – it’s now the law.


Bullying and the Gebser Letter

You probably know what bullying is. You may not know what a Gebser Letter is or what it does. Sit down, grab your cup of coffee and read on.

The Effects of Bullying

First things first. It is now widely accepted as fact that children with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their neurotypical and able-bodied peers.  About 20% more likely, to be precise.  A study was performed by Chad Rose of the University of Missouri College of Education and Nicholas Gage of the University of Florida examining 6,500 students from K-12 during the years 2011-13.  Although the study did not include online bullying (which has now become more pervasive through social media), it found that students with disabilities were bullied more than other kids particularly in grades 3 through high school graduation.

More about the study can be found in this excellent article “Disabled children more likely to be bullied during school years, study says” by HealthDay News.  There is even more helpful information on the statistics on bullying and harassment of students with disabilities at the National Bullying Prevention Center’s website.

It is also now widely accepted that bullying negatively affects a student’s ability to learn.  It directly impacts that student’s education.  The U.S. Department of Education’s official blog published an article called “Keeping Students With Disabilities Safe from Bullying” that highlighted a 2013 Guidance Letter on bullying.  A year later, the USDOE’s Office of Civil Rights issued an even stronger Guidance on how schools should handle bullying.

What is a Gebser Letter?

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in a case titled Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 (1998), in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the opinion for a divided court.  The Court decided that under Title IX, you cannot sue a school district for damages for bullying or harassment unless you have notified a school official who has the ability to take corrective measures on the district’s behalf of the misconduct and the school district is “deliberately indifferent” to the notice.

Out of that case came the very simple concept of preparing a letter – a so-called Gebser Letter – to provide the proper notice to the school.  The only question was whether the school then acts with deliberate indifference to the conduct.

This case emphasizes our constant mantra in special education law – If it ain’t in writing, it never happened. Document everything!

We strongly urge you to consult with a lawyer on the proper format and language of a Gebser Letter and/or if your child has a disability and is the victim of bullying.  We have provided a form Gebser Letter in our packet of special education legal forms, which are FREE to download, but remember that these forms do not constitute legal advice and are not a replacement for consultation with a lawyer in your state.  But the letter could get the ball rolling for your child and you.

Free Special Ed Legal Forms on SchoolKidsLawyer.com.

You can also have a 30 minute consultation with us for $100 to discuss your child’s case.


Public Schools Have Made Your Child the Enemy and You, the Taxpayer, Are Funding Their Battle

You pay federal taxes.  You have schools in your town.  Those schools have special education programs.  If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a parent of a child with special needs.

Well, guess what?  If you have a dispute with your school about your child’s IEP or otherwise not meeting your child’s special education needs, YOU are paying for the school to fight against you and your child.

Guess what else? Even if you don’t have a child with special needs or don’t even have a child in the school district, YOU are still paying to have the school fight against the child with a disability and his/her family.

Yes, you heard that right.  YOU are paying to fight against children with disabilities in your community – maybe your own child.

Let me explain this in greater detail and why the system should change.

Federal Funding For Schools

The federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§1400 et seq. or “IDEA” protects students with disabilities and guarantees they receive an appopriate education from their local schools.  This is accomplished and enforced through a federal funding mechanism within IDEA.  If a state receives federal funding for its schools, it must provide special education and related services to children with disabilities in its public schools.  20 U.S.C. § 1412.

In other words, some of the federal taxes you pay goes to fund special education and related services for students with disabilities.  You probably don’t object to ensuring a wheelchair-bound child can access the school via ramps or a child with diabetes having access to the school nurse to administer insulin shots.  You also likely don’t object to a chid with a learning disability receiving extra help in the classroom so they can achieve with their non-disabled peers.

YOU don’t object . . . but the schools are.

Where Does the Funding Go?

Those federal funds for special education – your tax dollars – are supposed to be used to assess if children have disabilities and evaluate their needs, prepare Individualized Education Programs or “IEPs” with special education adn related services to meet those needs, and decide the best location to provide those services for the child.  20 U.S.C. §1414.  Just as non-disabled children can get their education at their local public school for free, the goal of IDEA is to provide the same for children with disabilities, called a Free Appropriate Public Education or “FAPE”.  20 U.S.C. §1401(9).

Still sounds pretty reasonable, right?

How Does A School Make Sure It Provides a FAPE?

Schools are supposed to ensure a child with a disability provides a FAPE via two main mechanisms: (1) assembling an IEP team; and (2) ensuring that the rights of the child are protected and the parents are active participants in enforcement of those rights.  Tax dollars pay for schools to assemble an IEP team, which consists of the child’s parents (and the child if appropriate) and several key school personnel, to discuss how best to provide FAPE for the child with a disability.  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1).  States and schools must also put procedures in place to secure the legal rights of the child with a disability and his/her parents.  20 U.S.C. §1415.

This is where the system usually breaks down.  Because the parents and the school staff don’t alawys agree on how the IEP is developed or what services are provided to the child with a disability.  Thereby, a dispute arises.

How IDEA Addresses Special Education Disputes – The Problem

IDEA provides mechanisms to address these special education disputes between parents and schools.  If a school wants to do something with which the parents don’t agree or if the school doesn’t want to do something the parents have suggested, the school can issue a Prior Written Notice or “PWN”.  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(3) and (c)(1).  Parents can review their child’s education records kept by the school as a check on whether the school is providing a FAPE.  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(1).

There are other “Procedural Safeguards” in IDEA, but none that causes as many problem as a party’s right to file a complaint challenging the “identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child” a/k/a a “Due Process Complaint.”  20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(6) and (f).

Why is this a problem?  Well, anytime lawyers get involved, there’s a problem, right? [He says half-jokingly, half-seriously.]  Each party to a Due Process case has “the right to be accompanied and advised by counsel.”  20 U.S.C. §1415(h)(1).

Still not a bad thing until you realize who is paying the school district’s lawyer’s bill.  The answer is . . . you probably guessed it . . . YOU ARE!

Paying For The School District’s Lawyer

That’s correct.  Whether attorney’s fees are paid directly by the school district’s Board of Education or through insurance (which is purchased using school budget money), the source of the money paid to the lawyers fight against your child with a disability is tax dollars.  YOUR tax dollars.

Schools are misdirecting funds intended to provide education to children with disabilities by spending it on legal bills or insurance to fight special education cases.

So what does that mean?  It means YOU, the taxpayer, are paying for the attorney sitting across the table from you and representing the school district.  The harder the school district lawyer fights, the more YOU are paying him/her.  The school district never has the incentive to resolve the dispute because they’re not truly paying the bill.

Now, I don’t know if you have ever been in a lawsuit before, but if you have, you know what a financial burden it is to pay a lawyer.  You have the incentive to get it over as quickly as possible because, in all likelihood, you are not Bank of America (or Citibank or Goldman Sachs or some other big bank).  But if you didn’t have to pay for your lawyer, you’d fight to the ends of the Earth, right?  That’s how the school district views it.

Not What IDEA Was Designed To Do

IDEA was not set up to favor the school districts.  In fact, IDEA was designed by Congress to “level the playing field” so that parents had a stronger role in the education of their child with a disability.  Specifically, Congress stated: “The purposes of [IDEA] are to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living; to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected; and to assist States, localities, educational service agencies, and Federal agencies to provide for the education of all children with disabilities” among other goals.  20 U.S.C. §1400(d)(1).

IDEA was meant to improve collaboration and cooperation between schools and parents to help children with disabilities receive better education.  Certainly, Congress did not intend for states and schools to use federal funds to wage bitter lawsuit wars against parents and their children with disabilities.

But that is what it has become.  Ask any of my colleagues at COPAA.

So What Can You Do About It? – TAKE ACTION!

If you are like me and fed up with this system of injustice and abuse of taxpayer money, you can take action.  What school districts and their attorneys don’t want you to know is that because the source of funds paying the lawyer fees is public tax money, they MUST disclose such payments to the public who are paying those taxes.

In other words, if you live in a school district that is waging a special education war against a child with a disability, you have the RIGHT to know how much the school is paying its lawyers.

How do you find this out?  You make a Freedom of Information Act or “FOIA” request (or your state’s version of FOIA; for example, in New Jersey it is called the Open Public Records Act or OPRA).

Each state has a website for FOIA requests (I’ve listed a few below as examples) and usually a form to fill out.  On the form ask to see “All fees and costs paid to lawyers by XYZ Schooll District for special education disputes or legal disputes under IDEA for the last 5 years” or something similar.  Prepare for a fight, but you have the lawful right to that information as long as you live in XYZ School District.

New Jersey OPRA Records Request Website and Form

Florida Public Records Act Website and Forms

Texas Open Records Requests Website and Forms

Pennsylvania Open Records Request Website and Forms

For those not listed here, Google “[Your state] FOIA request” and look for an official state website URL.

Go get ’em!

What is a “reasonable accommodation”?

Recently I was asked to explain what a “reasonable accommodation” is.

The person put the question in some context:   Their child’s “special education school thinks a table in classroom with curtain is a reasonable accommodation for his bathroom needs. The class is coed teenagers with different cognitive and physical abilities.”

I doubt this is a “reasonable accommodation”, but let’s explore how we get there.

504 and ADA, not IDEA

First, “reasonable accommodation” is 504  and ADA language, not IDEA.  Under IDEA, a school must develop an IEP that meets all needs of a student with a disability.  This is not an ‘accommodation’; rather it is a legal requirement so that a child may receive a FAPE.

What does 504 require?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504 for short) is a federal law that prohibits a  facility that receives federal funds from discriminating against a person with a disability.  Under 504, a public school must ensure that a child with a disability has equal access to education and services.  To accomplish that, the school must provide modifications to education and services or a “reasonable accommodation” to such student so that he/she is not discriminated against because of his/her disability.

What does the ADA require?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is very similar to 504 and applies to schools equally.  The purpose is to prevent and prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities, so it requires the same as 504.

How is “reasonable accommodation” defined?

Unfortunately, neither 504, ADA, nor their regulations define this specific term.  We know from caselaw that schools are required to make reasonable accommodations according to a person’s disability unless such changes would fundamentally alter the nature of the school’s purpose, i.e. providing educational services.

There are obvious accommodations like making sure there is wheelchair access to all parts of the school for a student confined to a wheelchair.  There are slightly less obvious accommodations like assigning a staff member or student to assure that child in a wheelchair can get out of the building in case of fire or a fire drill.   But this is still reasonable.

Types of “reasonable accommodations”

There are several types of accommodations already determined to be reasonable.  They fall under categories.

a. Accessibility: This includes the wheelchair example above and a special needs bus or transportation.

b. Service Animals: For children who need the assistance of a service animal, schools must allow access to accommodate that child’s needs.

c. Interpreters: Access to sign language interpreters or hearing aids for those who have hearing disabilities or access to other interpretors like Braile materials or interpreters when a child with a disability does not speak English.

d. Auxiliary Aids and Services: A school may need to provide a medical plan or extra access to a nurse for a child with diabetes, epilepsy, or other illness requiring medication and/or monitoring during the school day. Or perhaps a child’s disability requires a smaller classroom, less noise, less distraction, different lighting, etc.

e. Removal of Barriers: If doors or stairways or other typical structural aspects of the school are a barrier to a child with a disability, the school must find alternate ways to accommodate that student.

There are several others, but these are the major categories in which schools must provide accommodations.

Is the accommodation reasonable?

Reasonableness is going to be determined by what the disability is and how it interferes with the child’s access to educational services.  So, accommodation may be decided on a  case-by-case basis, but, again, can’t change the fundamental purpose of the school.

Some guidelines (not legal advice):

– Identify your child’s specific needs

– Suggest an accommodation (don’t necessarily rely on the school to design one themselves, as it may not be appropriate)

– If the school finds your suggestion unreasonable, ask them to state why

– Ask the school to suggest an accommodation

– Provide medical documentation if appropriate

– Ask the school to respond to request in a reasonable time

Is the bathroom example in the question reasonable?

Although the person did not reveal what the disability of the child is, a desk in a room with other children with a curtain does not seem reasonable for numerous reasons: anxiety of the child because of the location; potential health risks because of unsanitary conditions; and may not appropriately address the need of the child.

Final word

Follow the guidelines above (and think of more yourself) to determine a reasonable accommodation that the school should make in order for your child with a disability to access the educational services.  If the accommodation that the school provides seems shocking or inappropriate, it is not likely reasonable.


Websites for Parents of Twice Exceptional (2e) Kids








Audio Recording IEP Meetings – Is It Allowed?

Having an audio recording of what happens in an IEP meeting is powerful evidence, especially when school districts deny what was said or fail to put a service in writing into the IEP.   For example, an audio recording can prove or disprove what was actually discussed during the meeting, whether the parents were given proper opportunity to participate, and what decisions or objections were made.   For those reasons, parents often wonder if they are permitted to record an IEP meeting.

So, can you do it?

Federal Law

There is no federal law prohibiting a parent or school official from recording IEP meetings.  IDEA and the other special education laws are silent on that specific issue.

However, IDEA does say a few things that are relevant to the discussion:

  • Parents are critical members of the IEP team
  • Parental participation in IEP meetings is vital and if a school blocks such participation, it is a denial of FAPE
  • Parents have the legal right to understand the IEP and, if necessary, have it explained to them

Audio recording an IEP Meeting, when the IEP Team is aware and consents to it, is not a violation of federal privacy law.

So that means you can do it, right? Not so fast.

The U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has issued a letter opinion and Policy Memorandum on this subject in June 4, 2003 (PDF file).  The bottom line of the analysis is that it is a local policy issue and depends on several factors.

When a federal law is silent on an issue, the individual states can decide or legislate on the issue.

State Privacy Laws

The next hurdle to overcome is what state law says on privacy and audio recordings.  Each state has its own laws regarding the consent required to audio record events, even if they are ‘public’ events.

Some states are known as ‘dual consent’, which means both parties must know about and agree to the recording.  Some states are ‘single consent’ which means that only one of the interested parties (usually the parent who wishes to record the IEP meeting) has to agree to it.

While not exhaustive of every state’s law, the Digital Media Law Project collected links to some state’s laws on this issue.  This site is not being kept up to date, so make sure you check your own state’s law on recording or consult with a local attorney.

School District Policies

It is therefore left to the State Educational Agency (SEA) or Local Educational Agency (LEA) to determine the policy on audio recording these sessions.

The SEA or LEA (local school district) may issue a policy requiring, prohibiting, limiting or in any other way regulating audio recording of IEP Meetings.  If the public agency has a policy that prohibits or limits the use of recording devices at IEP meetings, the policy must have exceptions necessary to protect parental rights, such as the ability to understand the IEP or the IEP process. Any such policy on tape recording IEP meetings must be uniformly applied.

Protecting Access to Recordings

Any recording of an IEP meeting maintained by a public agency is an “education record,” within the meaning of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)[1] and would be obtainable by the parents through a written request.  It would also be subject to the protections of FERPA prohibiting its release to anyone not authorized under that law.

So what do you do?

Parents wishing to use audio or video recording devices at IEP meetings should consult state laws or local school policies for further guidance or consult with a local education attorney.


[1] 20 USC §§1232g and 1232h; Regulations 34 CFR §99.1 et seq.

The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

A group of smart minds in the New Jersey world of special education gathered and put together an excellent guide to assist schools, parents, and providers in helping children with dyslexia.  They recently issued “The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook: A Guide to Early Literacy Development & Reading Struggles” (PDF) which is free to download from the NJ Department of Education website.

The table of contents shows that it covers everything from the definition of dyslexia to screening to various interventions and accommodations that can be made for the student.

If you have a student with dyslexia, you should download your free copy here:




Making a Complaint About Your Child’s Special Education

Your child is not receiving the attention or services he or she needs in school. As a result, your child is doing poorly in school. You’re not even sure of the cause of the problem, but you know something is wrong. What do you do?

If you are the parent of a child with special needs, this may sound painfully familiar. But, there is a solution. Remember the old saying, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil?” Well, that is just as true in special education as it is in other aspects of life. For those who feel uncomfortable being a “squeaky wheel,” remember that you are acting for your child’s benefit.

The following is an outline of the ways you can complain about your child’s special education services.

Consultation to Discovery the Problem

A good first step is to consult with a special education advocate or attorney to discuss your options. Perhaps the biggest problem in this area is that most parents do not know their options or that they have options at all. Most parents share the sentiment, “The school will do what is right for my child.” Tragically, that is not always true.

You, as the parent acting on behalf of your child, have many options. The approach to improving your child’s services may vary depending on your child’s specific diagnosis, individual educational capacity, the school district’s resources or current individualized education program (IEP). An advocate or attorney is trained to know the best way to address the issue, so seek a consultation.

Addressing the Issue With the IEP Team Manager / Case Manager

The first approach is to bring your complaint to the person identified by the school as the point person for your child’s special education needs. In most school districts, there is a case manager or head of a “child study team” assigned to your child. This person should have the most knowledge about your child and his or her IEP; however, you may need to go to the director of special education for your school district if this approach has already failed. You need to get someone to listen. Again, you need to be the squeaky wheel that someone hears.

Due Process Complaint

If you reach an impasse with the school district or disagree over something relating to your child’s special education, you may need to file a due process complaint. This is not something to be taken lightly and I highly recommend that you consult with an attorney (not an advocate) for this approach. This is akin to suing the school district and if you don’t do it correctly, you will fail.

Essentially, a due process complaint is a complaint to your state’s department of education alleging that your school district is not complying with the law with respect to your child’s education. You will need to prove that before a hearing officer, sometimes called an administrative law judge. This is called a due process hearing and looks very much like a trial, involving presenting evidence, witnesses and sometimes an expert witness.

Each state has its own due process procedures and forms. You need to follow those procedures carefully or the case will be dismissed without any help for your child. If you win at due process, you are likely to get most or all of your attorney’s fees back. However, even if you don’t succeed at the due process stage, you have another chance (see the section on appeal below).

Other options at this stage are filing a formal state complaint or requesting mediation. Both can be done before or after filing a due process complaint.

Civil Rights Complaint

Another option is to file a civil rights complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Essentially, this is an allegation that your school district has violated your child’s civil rights, which are guaranteed to him or her as a child with a disability. Just like employers can’t discriminate against people of certain races, creeds, gender, etc., schools cannot discriminate against students with disabilities.

Filing a civil rights complaint does not necessarily preclude the filing of a due process complaint, but the two may be filed simultaneously as they involve different laws. However, like a due process complaint, a civil rights complaint is very technical and must follow its own set of procedures and forms. This is another area where a special education lawyer is critical, and pursuing it alone is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart.

Appeal / Lawsuit in Court

The losing party at the due process or civil rights stage has the right to appeal that decision to a court of law. This may be state or federal court. Although you can handle any part of this process pro se (by yourself), you risk not helping your child. I don’t meant this to be an advertisement for lawyers, but simply a caution that even though you are passionate about your child’s needs, you may get in over your head. There is a reason that lawyers went to law school, took a bar exam, take hours of continuing legal education credits each year and “practice” law; it is to ensure that they have experience and knowledge on how the court process works and are therefore in the best position to protect your child’s rights.

At the end of the day, that is the goal of any of these complaints: to enforce your child’s special education rights and to make sure your child is provided a “free appropriate public education.” Since children typically can’t do this for themselves, the parents (and their counsel) must be the squeaky wheels to get the oil that will help their child succeed.

Originally published on the Special Education Guide Blog.

Are Special Education Advocates Performing UPL (Unauthorized Practice of Law)?

The answer to the question posed in the title is, typically, lawyerly – it depends.

What is the “practice of law”? “Unauthorized practice of law (UPL)”?

First, let’s discuss what is the “practice of law” and “UPL”.  Virtually every licensed occupation is regulated by the State.  For example, in Pennsylvania, the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs regulates almost every licensed occupation, such as accountants, nurses, barbers, funeral directors, dentists, etc.  However, lawyers are regulated exclusively by the highest court of the state – in Pennsylvania, it is the PA Supreme Court.  This regulation includes the power to define what constitutes the practice of law.  See PA. Constitution Article V, Section 10(c).

That is not as easy as it sounds. Courts don’t face this issue very frequently. Generally, there are three categories of activities / services reserved to those who are admitted to the bar: (1) advising clients as to what the law is to enable them to act and pursue their affairs; (2) preparation of documents that require familiarity with legal principles an ordinary person wouldn’t know (such as preparing a court document); and (3) appearing before a public tribunal, such as a court or administrative hearing.  Put another way, a person who doesn’t have a license to practice law should not tell someone what the law is and advise them to act accordingly, prepare a legal document, or show up in court on behalf of anyone but him/herself.  Doing so would be the unauthorized practice of law, or “UPL”.

A person can get in serious trouble for UPL.  In fact, in most states it is a crime.  In Pennsylvania, for example, it is a misdemeanor of the 3rd degree for a first time offender; misdemeanor of the 1st degree for a repeat offender.  See 42 Pa.C.S. Section 2524(a).  It may also be a violation of a state’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, which would subject them to civil (money) penalties.

Special Ed Advocates and UPL

So how does this apply to Special Education Advocates?  Again, it depends.  A description of the typical special education law case timeline is helpful.

Briefly, the first event is that a child is diagnosed with a disability that triggers the right to have special education in school.  The next event is that a team of school personnel, physicians, and the parents decide what should be in the special education program for that child (this is called an Individualized Education Plan or “IEP”).  Sometimes there is disagreement over what should be in the IEP or how the school is implementing it.  What comes next may be a due process complaint and hearing.  This is a semi-formal process where the school and the parents put on a case before a hearing officer (not always even a lawyer).  The hearing officer decides whether the services are appropriate or not.  If either the school or the parent disagrees, they can then appeal that hearing officer decision to a court.

The laws and regulations make it clear that parents are entitled to have “other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate” with them at IEP meetings.  See 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B) and 34 CFR §300.321(a)(6).

As a result of this language in the laws, a cottage industry of advocates, mostly made up of parents of disabled children themselves who are veterans of the battles with schools over special education, has developed and flourished.

Do not misunderstand me – I think advocates are wonderful and perform great services to parents, especially since most parents of special needs kids are heavily burdened with medical and other expenses making lawyers unaffordable at almost every level.  Well-trained advocates offer objective, yet passionate assistance to parents so that they can make informed decisions without the emotions getting in the way.

However, there are limits to this participation.  The portion of the law quoted above comes under the definition of an “IEP team”.  Matching that with the description above of what is the practice of law, an advocate should stick to helping a parent to prepare for and make it through the IEP meeting in an informed manner.  The advocate should be careful not to suggest a path for a parent based on an interpretation of the law – this is acting like a legal advisor and is likely UPL.  However, an advocate can certainly tell a parent, “the law states that an IEP should include . . .” or that the law requires certain procedures to be followed.

So what CAN’T an advocate do?  This depends a great deal on state law.  While some states permit advocates to act as lawyers in due process hearings, most states still do not.  To be safe, an advocate should not prepare a due process complaint, represent a parent at a due process hearing, or draft an appeal of the hearing officer decision in a court pleading.  These are all the practice of law and if an advocate, not licensed to practice law in that state, provides one of those services, it is UPL.  Of course, there are licensed attorneys who provide advocacy services, so they are entitled to provide any and all of these services.

Why is UPL a bad thing?

The reason why the above-described tasks are UPL may not be so obvious.  Many people might think, “I represented myself in my own divorce case, so why can’t someone help me with my special ed case?”  And therein is the answer – you can represent YOURSELF in any legal proceeding (that is called acting “pro se” or for yourself), but someone else cannot represent you.  Why?  Lawyers are trained to understand, not just the law, but legal procedure.  For example, it is important in a due process complaint to make sure you plead every option available to you; failure to do so might give up a right or two or seven.  In some states, you may have a civil rights case under Section 504 or the ADA, but many advocates don’t know this or even if they do, they don’t know you MUST include those allegations in your due process complaint.

Two other critical examples are the Rules of Evidence and Appellate Procedure.  Most advocates don’t know the rules of how documents or testimony get “into evidence” so that a judge can consider them.  Further, if you have to appeal an administrative decision to court, it is like an appeal and sometimes only the record that is made at the due process hearing is considered by the court and if you don’t get the information in at the due process level, you might have to fight a battle at the appeal level to get it in – and you might lose.  Many well-trained advocates don’t know these rules because they aren’t licensed lawyers.

To conclude, Advocates are a necessary and crucial part of the special education process.  There is no better (and more affordable) help with making sense of this maze of special education law, especially when you are simply trying to get services for your child at school, than a well-trained advocate.  However, remember that they are limited in what they can do and when it comes to advising you on a legal path or preparing your complaints or representing you at a hearing, only licensed attorneys can help you in those situations.

Recommended reading: “Guidelines for Choosing an Advocate” from COPAA.