What’s a FERPA letter?

For those of you who are new to education law or are in a battle with your school district to make sure your disabled student is getting a “Free Appropriate Public Education”, you may have heard the term “FERPA” or been told to send a “FERPA letter“.  And you’re probably wondering “What the heck is a FERPA letter?” but are too proud / afraid / embarrassed to ask.  Well, now you’ll know!

FERPA is an acronym standing for the “Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act” [a U.S. federal law located at 20 U.S.C. §§1232g and 1232h and with regulations located at 34 C.F.R. §99.1 et seq.]

Now, that doesn’t tell you much, but it is a VERY powerful law.  The most important part of this law is that you, as a parent of a minor student (regardless of whether the child is disabled or not; the law applies to EVERY student), are entitled to see and make copies of EVERY document that is in your child’s educational records file.  This means, any document that is generated about your child as a student in your school district MUST be made available to you to review and copy.

  • If a teacher writes a note about your child, you get to see it.
  • If they test your child, you get to see the test, the results of the test, and the testing methodology.
  • If they evaluate your child, you get to see the evaluation, the credentials of the person who did the evaluation, the results, and the methodology.
  • If a disciplinary report is made about your child, you get to see the report, the investigation (if any), and any notes made (including those by witnesses, etc.)

In other words, every scrap of paper that has something on it about your child, you get to see it.  There are some limitations, but not many.

As a lawyer, I have sample FERPA letters that I use in nearly every case.  Because it is critical to know what is in your child’s file.  Here are some tips if you do this on your own (but I do recommend that you at least consult with an attorney who knows this law and its limitations and, more importantly, how the school’s try to circumvent the law or misinterpret the law):

  • Do NOT write on the original documents or your copy of the document.  Why? If you need this document later in a legal battle, you need to preserve it exactly as how they have it (otherwise, they can say you altered the document to your benefit)
  • Make sure you ask for EVERYTHING.  You may not know what “everything” is (another reason to consult a lawyer), but when in doubt, ask for it anyway.  The worst they can do is say no (and they may be flat out wrong, which gives you a reason to contest them later).
  • They can charge you for copies, but the charge must be reasonable.  And they can’t block you because it is too expensive or takes too much time to copy.  If you need more than one visit to review or copy everything, make as many visits as possible.

Download your very own FREE form FERPA letter from our website here.

(This is federal law, so it doesn’t matter where you are located to discuss this with me).

There is a lot more to know about FERPA letters and other documentation of your child’s school experience in our book SchoolKidsLawyer’s Step-By-Step Guide to Special Education Law.

The Law on Independent Educational Evaluations (IEEs)

Evaluations of your disabled child are critical to your child’s success in school and life.  If done properly, they can provide insights into services, therapies and accommodations that your child needs to access a “free appropriate public education” or FAPE.  But if not done properly, it can prevent your child from ever getting a proper education and destroy his/her future.

The PLAAFP

If your child is eligible for an IEP, his/her IEP must accurately reflect a child’s “present levels of academic achievement and functional performance” or PLAAFP.  20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(3); Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 53, 126 S.Ct. 528, 163 L.Ed.2d 387 (2005) (“Each IEP must include an assessment of the child’s current educational performance, must articulate measurable educational goals, and must specify the nature of the special services that the school will provide.”)  An IEP must address all of the student’s needs, which should be detailed in the PLAAFP part of the IEP.

How to make sure the PLAAFP is accurate

The only way a PLAAFP is accurate (and then the goals are appropriate) in an IEP is to make sure the evaluations of your child are valid and accurate.

The main body of IDEA 2004 enables schools to perform evaluations of children with disabilities.  See 20 U.S.C. §1414.  That section talks about initial evaluations and reevaluations and how they are performed and used by school district personnel in making special education decisions, like IEPs.

What if the school’s evaluations are not accurate or finding what you or your child’s doctor suspect?

If a school’s assessments are not matching what you have observed or your child’s outside medical personnel are documenting, you may need to get independent evaluations of your child.  But that is expensive, especially if your insurance doesn’t cover them.

Perhaps one of the more important sections of IDEA is found in the federal regulations.  34 C.F.R. §300.502 is the regulation for Independent Educational Evaluations or “IEEs”.  Here are the most critical portions:

  • “The parents of a child with a disability have the right under this part to obtain an independent educational evaluation of the child” subject to some rules.
  • “A parent has the right to an independent educational evaluation at public expense if the parent disagrees with an evaluation obtained by the [school] . . . .”
  • “If a parent requests an [IEE] at public expense, the [school] MUST, without unnecessary delay, either (i) File a due process complaint . . . or (ii) Ensure that an [IEE] is provided at public expense unless the [school] demonstrates in a [due process hearing] that the evaluation obtained by the parent did not meet agency criteria.”

The most important parts of this are that (a) the parents have a RIGHT to request an IEE if they disagree with the school’s evaluation; (b) the IEE must be at public [the school district’s] expense; (c) the school district has ONLY two options – to enable the IEE or to challenge it via a due process hearing.  Very simple.

The school district’s delay tactics

But, the school districts want to try to make this more difficult.  How?  They delay, delay, delay in responding to a request for an IEE.  They believe this is defensible because of the clause “without unnecessary delay.”  The school district will argue that a few days, a few weeks, even a few months is not unnecessary delay.  The courts have not really dealt with this issue decisively yet.  I think it is a very fair counterargument by the parents that a few days is OK, but a few weeks or longer is not OK.  After all, the further an IEE is delayed, the further a revised or improved IEP is delayed, and thus the further the child’s FAPE is delayed.

Do NOT allow a school district to linger on your request for an IEE.  If you have valid reasons to request an IEE, keep sending reminders to the school of your request.  If they delay too long, contact a special education lawyer or file a due process complaint on your own on this ground.

If you wish to demand an IEE for your child, download our FREE special education forms packet which includes a letter IEE demand.


Special Education law is not about revenge

Many clients come to me with vindication on their minds.  They feel they have been wronged and want to inflict pain on whomever did the wrong.  They want revenge.  This is especially true in the field of special education law.  They want to “get back” at the school district that they felt is interfering with their child’s education; or, the school district wants to show the parents their place, which is not to interfere with how they are handling the disabled children in their programs and that, somehow inherently, they know better than the parents.

However, that is not what the law is about.  The following is a longer version of what I tell any client that comes to me with a revengeful goal.

The law, especially the civil law of which special education law is a subpart, is not about revenge or vindication.  If that is the sole goal of pursuing legal assistance, two things are true for me: (a) I won’t take the case; and (b) the client will never feel satisfied.  More on these two results in a minute.

But, first, the response I get to this principle is “Well, what’s the point then?”

The answer to this is very simple: The purpose of civil law (and especially special education law) is to put the wronged person back into the same position they would have been had there been no wrong.

Let’s examine this with a simple hypothetical: Imagine a neighbor was trimming her hedges and she accidentally cut off a limb on a tree in your yard.  You had grown that tree from a sapling.  The tree doesn’t die, but does suffer a bit in growth.  You have to spend a lot of time and effort to protect the tree and make sure it lives.  You are really mad at your neighbor (probably, there is some other cause of that anger and this merely exacerbated it).  You want your neighbor to go to jail.  You come into my office seeking legal help.

Aside from me giving you a shorter version lecture on this topic, what will the law do?

First, the law will NOT put your neighbor in jail.  Jail is only for criminal actions and this is not a crime.  It was an accident, for which the civil law is designed.  We will discuss the nature of the civil wrong – it is trespass (unlawful encroachment onto your property without permission causing a harm).

Second, I will try to ascertain why you are so angry (if it is caused by something other than the tree) and what the true costs (we lawyers call this “damages”) the harm to your tree incurred.  For example, you spent money to protect the tree; the tree survives; and there may be some sentimental value to the tree to you.

Third, I will discuss what is the goal of the case.  What would put you back in the position you were had your neighbor not accidentally cut off your tree limb?  This might be an apology; it might be some money to reimburse you for the costs incurred; or it might be for the neighbor to pay to have a new tree planted in your yard.

But you want to sue and get them back for what they did.

At this point, I will politely thank you for coming to my office and advise you that I don’t take cases for revenge.  Maybe you will say, OK, I don’t want revenge, I just want some repayment here.  Then we have a conversation on how to go about achieving the goal.

Now, this is the most important part of this post.  Achieving the goal is RARELY if EVER reached by litigation, by suing someone.  Adopting a “bully” attitude NEVER achieves the goal.  Remember that old saying your mom used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?”  (We won’t discuss why you want to catch flies in the first instance, but you get the point).

There are many ways to achieve the goal without a big fight.

These principles ARE and SHOULD BE applied in the special education arena.  If your disabled child is not receiving services that provide them with an equal opportunity at a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE), then we need to have a discussion on how to achieve that goal.  Resolution may be as simple as explaining to you your rights as a parent and your child’s rights and how the process works.  It may also be as simple as being an active, yet collaborative, participant in an IEP meeting or an eligibility meeting or in the evaluation process.

Occasionally, clients come to me after working with an advocate.  Some advocates (certainly not all or even most, but some) either provoke the revenge mentality or make it worse with the clients.  While I understand the reasons behind this (often advocates are parents of disabled students who have had to fight their way through the system on behalf of their own child with little knowledge of special education law and with some resistance from the school districts), it does not justify it.  Some advocates misdirect their anger from their own experience towards the client’s school district.  This causes a lot of misperception and sometimes legal inaccuracy about the client’s situation, and consequentially creates a negative atmosphere in which to create a solution.

Representing parents in a special education matter must be handled in a calm, objective atmosphere with the goal of a collaborative solution that truly helps the child.  Bitter fights over minor procedural mistakes do not necessarily help the child.  Certainly, a battle purely on “principle” is not a reasonable strategy because it ignores the needs of the child.

Part of this calm, objective atmosphere is the realization of two key facts: (1) the parents are often panicked or in grave fear for their child’s future; and (2) most school district special education personnel really want to do the best thing for the child.  [Thank you to my colleague Katie Kelly www.katiekellylaw.com for expertly enunciating these two salient issues to me.]

Most people, including those on the school district side, do not go into education (or special education, for that matter) without the bests interests of children in mind.  Extremely few school district personnel are vindictive about a special education situation.  Thus, parents should likewise not be vindictive.  It makes resolution that much harder (and expensive, if you are paying a professional, such as an advocate or attorney).

So, if you arrive in my office or contact me with a special education issue, I will represent your rights zealously and with passion.  I will try to reach the best possible solution to your disabled child’s educational problem.  I will NOT seek revenge or a bitter fight with the school district, but I will fight with fervor if I encounter the rare obstinate administration.

If you keep these thoughts fresh, in the end, you will be much more satisfied with the result and with the legal process.

Now I will sit and wait for the anticipated onslaught of hate mail . . . LOL

 


What Everyone Should Know About Special Education Funding

There has been a rush to judgment lately, by those without disabled children and those without children at all, that the increase in costs for special education is the fault of the parents of disabled children demanding too many services for their children.  Aside from the natural anger towards the attitude that disabled children don’t deserve an equal opportunity at education, I believe that there is a lot of misinformation and confusion on how special education is actually funded and what causes the costs to exceed school budgets.  Hopefully this brief blog post will clear up the misunderstanding and expose the realities about special education funding.

Where do schools get the funds for special education?

While there is some variation from state to state, most states get some of their funding through state and/or property taxes.  However, that is not the source of the majority of funding.  Believe it or not, a majority of the funding comes from the federal government (good ol’ Uncle Sam) through the U.S. Department of Education.  From the mandate of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and other federal legislation, the federal government must provide funding to states that set up programs for special education of disabled students.

So, even though some of your local taxes do go to help local disabled children, it is a very small part because those taxes are actually part of the general education fund.  Only a portion of that is broken away for special education (if any at all).

And, yes, I agree, it is still “your tax money” that goes to the IRS that ultimately funds special education and the USDOE, but that is where we get to whether the money is wisely distributed, spent or not.

How are state funds distributed for special education?

The federal laws that fund special education on the state level require that states set up special education programming in the schools.  If the states comply, they get funds.  If they don’t, they don’t get funds.  Thus, there is a HUGE motivation for states to set up such educational programs and (to my knowledge) all of them have complied (even D.C., the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, etc.)

It gets tricky on how the states distribute that money once received from the feds.  Some states distribute it evenly across their school districts, regardless of whether there are even special needs students in those districts.  Some states distribute the money based on population models.  Some states distribute it based on economic models, where the lower income districts get more money.  None of these methods accurately track the proportion of disabled students in each district.

Pennsylvania recently passed legislation which will distribute these funds proportionately based on the number of special education students in each district.  In other words, the funds will be “tied” to the special needs kids in each district.  This is a much more accurate and targeted use of those funds and should be modeled by other states.

How do schools spend the special education funds?

Once the states distribute the funds to the school districts, it gets even trickier on how those funds are spent.  Theoretically, those funds should only be spent on special education services and equipment.  They are targeted to support the special education kids in those schools.  Unfortunately, this is not always how it works in reality.

Some schools and school districts have been caught taking special education funds and putting them into the general education fund.  Big deal, you ask?  Well, think of it this way.  The schools that do this spend the money on extracurricular activities (for example, new football uniforms or equipment) when they should be paying for teaching aides, occupational therapy, physical disability modifications, etc.  Essentially, special ed kids are missing out on their education so the cheerleaders can have new pom poms.

Now, I don’t mean to sound crass and I do appreciate extracurricular activities, but take a closer look at that word – extracurricular.  Emphasize the “extra” part.  That means it is something beyond the basic curriculum.  Perhaps those activities should be privately funded, but certainly should not come out of the special education funds that have been hijacked into the general education fund.

Still, there is a far worse culprit for how special education funds are wasted.

Why is special education always causing the schools to go over budget?

AHA!  The answer to this is definitely NOT parents of disabled children seeking services for their kids.  In fact, if schools appropriately provided services to disabled children without unreasonable hesitation, the federal funds for special education might never be used up in a given academic year.  WHOA, TJ, this is not what we’ve been told.  I repeat, AHA!

Unfortunately, school districts have developed a mentality that is counter-intuitive to educating disabled children.  They view the request for special services to be an annoyance and meddling in their budgets.  They do everything they can do create a negative PR campaign about how special education is destroying their budgets and they can’t afford all these special services.

BALONEY! (or Bologna, as its properly spelled)

School district administrators, who rarely understand the federal mandate to provide an equal education opportunity to disabled children (i.e. THE LAW), make every effort to block special education services.  They hire attorneys who bill at astronomical hourly rates to fight these special education services.   These attorneys are not only making a mint off of representing school districts, they are providing training on how to fight special education battles.

Take a guess the source of funds to pay the school district attorneys?  Yep, that’s right, the federal special education funds.  And if that runs out, they take from the general education funds.  Thus, logically . . . wait for it . . . YOUR TAX DOLLARS pay for the school districts and their attorneys to fight against providing special education to disabled children.  YOUR TAX DOLLARS are making school district attorneys very wealthy.  VERY wealthy indeed.

Is that really how you want your tax dollars spent?  Wouldn’t it be smarter to spend the money on actual special education and not have any more tax hikes or complaints that special education is causing school budgets to explode?

I think so.  What do you think?