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.

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN 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.

 

 

What documents should be in your child’s special education binder?

If you are a parent of a special education student or advocating for one, do yourself a favor and . . .

PRINT OUT THIS ARTICLE (or at least the plan below).

Not only will this article save you time and lots of money, it will help you understand how best to help your child with a disability.

When clients contact me, most are armed with a box (or seven) of documents about their child’s special education.  It is wonderful that they are documenting their child’s path and what the school district is doing (or not doing) for their child.  It should be the mantra of every parent of a child with a disability: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING!

But . . .

Usually, the documents clients provide me are overkill and disorganized.  Inside the box(es) is a pile of papers, often not in order. I doubt highly that a client wants me to bill them at $375.00/hour to go through those papers to organize them and figure out what I need.  Thus, before you meet with a lawyer or advocate, you should organize your child’s special education documents first.  You should do this even if you are advocating for your own child.

Here is a plan to explain which documents you need, which documents you don’t need, and how to organize them.

THE PLAN

1. Get a 2″ 3-ring binder with dividers.  Label the dividers as follows: MEDICAL, FAMILY BACKGROUND, EVALUATIONS, IEPs / 504 PLANS, and SCHOOL DOCS.

2. Under MEDICAL, include any papers from the original diagnosis of your child.  Also include any changes to that diagnosis (e.g. ADHD -> Autism Spectrum Disorder).  Also include a list of any major medical events, such as surgeries, hospital in-patient stays, broken bones, major or chronic illnesses, and allergies (don’t forget dental events, such as tonsillectomies, baby teeth extractions, etc.)  As best you can, document the dates and locations of these medical events, as well as treatments received.  Finally, if there are any related medical or psychological disorders in the immediate family, note those here as well (e.g. grandfather diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, uncle diagnosed with ADHD, etc.)  Finally, in the front of this section, place a list of all current physicians and medical providers seen by your child – primary care physician, occupational therapist, physical therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, speech therapist, etc.  Make sure you have their name, the service they provide, and contact information (phone number, email address, website).

3. In the FAMILY BACKGROUND section, include notes of milestones in your child’s development (e.g. date first crawled, date first walked, date first spoke, first spoken words, etc.), especially any noted delays in such development.  Also provide a narrative of your family makeup and any major changes, such as number of living grandparents, parents, child’s siblings, aunts, uncles, etc.  It is critical to be honest about family events, such as divorces or separations, geographic relocations, domestic violence, financial or other stress, etc.  Place in this section other matters of importance in your family culture, such as religious beliefs, school history including any changes in school, ethnic celebrations, etc.  If you are in a divorced family, you should include anything that changes the name of the child and also any court order regarding physical custody, visitation, and especially legal custody or who has the right to make educational decisions for the child.

4. Do not include every evaluation of the child ever performed.  In EVALUATIONS, place only the most recent evaluations of the child.  These evaluations should be no more than 3 years old.  If the evaluations occurred more than 3 years ago, do not include them.  Thus, if this section is empty, one of the things you will be requesting is a new comprehensive educational evaluation of your child.

5. Like EVALUATIONS, within the IEPs/504 PLANS section do not include every IEP or 504 Plan since your child’s birth.  (That’s supposed to be humorous.)  My recommendation is to only include the current approved IEP or 504 Plan and all approved ones going back two school years.  You should only include a draft IEP or 504 Plan if it is related to the current approved IEP or 504 Plan (to show how the school changed or omitted certain information) or it is a current proposed IEP or 504 Plan with which you disagree.  Old drafts should be discarded because approved IEPs and 504 Plans overrule those drafts. Thus, this section should be at a maximum, 3-5 documents, especially since these are typically very long documents (you may consider only including pages from prior plans or drafts that conflict with the one currently at issue.)

6. The SCHOOL DOCS section is the trickiest of all.  My rule of thumb is when in doubt, include it.  First, if you haven’t done so already, send a FERPA request to the school for your child’s records.  (Click on the link to the left to read more about FERPA requests.)  At the beginning of this section, provide a list of all contact points at the school with names, phone numbers and email addresses of the superintendent, principal, assistant principal, all teachers that see your child, all service providers that see your child, all persons involved in lunch and/or playground monitoring, and any other person that your child may encounter in school.  Also include anyone on the IEP Team (Child Study Team) that is not included in the prior list, such as school psychologist.  [Why do this? First, it will assist your attorney or advocate into knowing who the players are.  Second, it will show the IEP Team that you are more than prepared when you show up at an IEP Team meeting with the list.  Can you imagine the fear on the faces of the IEP Team members when they see their names and contact information on a list in your notebook? Make sure you turn to that page in your binder when you first sit down.]  You should include here results from your child’s standardized tests, report cards, any disciplinary reports, absent/tardy reports, progress reports (triggered by the current IEP or otherwise), and any other key documents that discuss your child’s current levels of academic achievement and functioning in the school environment (sometimes emails from teachers or among teachers and administrators provide the true story).

Your binder may be huge, but volume is not the problem.  Disorganization is the problem which the binder resolves.  You, your attorney, or your advocate will appreciate this effort.  And, as stated previously, it will help zero in on the real issues your child with a disability is facing in the school environment.

[This article and other helpful tips for your child’s IEP are in our FREE report 5 Easy Steps for a Successful IEP MeetingDownload your copy here.]

For more on this and related topics, consider purchasing the book SchoolKidsLawyer’s Step-By-Step Guide to Special Education Law: Workbook for Parents, Advocates and Lawyers available now from Amazon.com or direct from SchoolKidsLawyer.com.

 

 

Aggravation in trying to access student records

As you may know if you have been reading my 2 Things: Special Education Law Tips Newsletter, there are laws which grant access rights to parents of their student’s educational records.  This is especially true when the student is a child with a disability.  Such rights are granted by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and its regulations (20 U.S.C. §§1232g and 1232h and 34 C.F.R. §99.1 et seq.), by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its regulations (20 U.S.C. §1415(b)(1)), and usually also by state laws and regulations (for example, in New Jersey it is the Special Education Code N.J.A.C. 6A:14-2.9).

But schools and their lawyers put up roadblocks to parents trying to review their child’s file.  First, often they do not even inform the parents that they have the right to review those records, even though the law says they must tell the parents of such right.  See 34 C.F.R. §99.7(a).  Second, schools and/or their attorneys play games with the definition of “education records” so as to block parents from seeing ALL of their child’s file, even though “education records” is clearly defined by the laws.  See 34 C.F.R. §99.3 Education Records.  That definition has very few exceptions, so essentially everything “maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution” that is “directly related to a student” must be produced to the parent.  34 C.F.R. §99.3 Education Records.

There are some other delay tactics that schools will play, but from my perspective the most aggravating one is that the schools and/or their counsel take the position that I, as the attorney for the parent(s), may not review the records; that it must be done by the parents themselves.  This is an inaccurate statement of the law and purely meant to obstruct this right.  Most state laws permit the access and review of the records by a “designated representative” of the parent, e.g. the parent’s attorney.  See e.g. N.J.A.C. 6A:14-2.9(b).  I can understand the precaution if a neighbor wants to review the records, in which case a school should make sure that such neighbor has the consent of the parent.  But when an attorney has already represented in writing that he/she is counsel for the parent, he/she is, by the nature of being an attorney-at-law, the legal designated representative of the parent.

This is the type of nonsense that needs to STOP in special education cases.  This is a source of my anger at the legal profession because it reeks of a lawyer trying to rack up fees instead of having his/her client obey the law.  It is no wonder that parents are so frustrated and annoyed by schools anymore, because it just seems like schools would prefer to play a litigation game rather than do the right thing for a child’s education.  IMHO, of course.

Top Ten Special Ed Law Tips

Sometimes you just need some quick tips to help you through the maze that is special education law.  Fair enough.  Here are my Top Ten tips for parents and advocates:

1.  Put everything in writing!  Document every single thing you do as it will only help your child and help if you find yourself in a dispute with the school.  Email is best because it has a date, time, and recipients noted.

2.  Make them put everything in writing!  Not only should you document everything, make the school do the same.  If they say something during an IEP meeting or agree to a service, make them put that in the IEP or in writing to you.  An old saying goes “If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen.”

3.  Do not sign anything until you are 100% sure about it.  If you need to consult with an attorney or expert in special education, do so.  If there is any doubt in your mind, don’t sign a document.  Make sure your child is getting the services you believe are necessary.

4.  Keep your expectations reasonable.  This does not mean that you shouldn’t demand the moon for your child; you should.  But also realize that schools have lots of kids – sometimes lots of other disabled kids – and they have limited budgets.  Talk to someone to make sure you are not being unrealistic in what you ask for.

5.  Consult a special education expert about what your child needs.  You need to be able to translate your child’s needs into concrete things a school can do for your child, whether that is different curriculum, access to the classroom, therapies, services, etc.  A good education advocate or education psychologist can often help you know what your child needs.  And don’t jump onto bandwagons, such as the 1-on-1 aide bandwagon; such aides are helpful, but only when your child actually needs that.  For example, if your child is dyslexic, an aide won’t do much for your child unless that aide is a dyslexia specialist.

6.  Be prepared!  I know I sound like the Boy Scouts, but it is a good motto for special education.  Read as much as you can about your child’s disability; make sure you understand your child’s challenges (reading? writing? math? social? behavior?).  Go into an IEP meeting or any other interaction with the school armed with tons of information – more is better.

7.  Know your rights.  Most parents don’t know their and their child’s rights under the law for special education.  First, the school should give you “procedural safeguards” that list your rights.  Read that carefully or consult with a special education lawyer who can tell you your rights.

8.  Keep your emotions in check.  I know this is easier said than done when it comes to your child, but yelling matches never accomplish anything.  This is why advocates are sometimes helpful because they can remain calm and objective.  Remember what our mothers always told us: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  If you follow Tip #6 above, it will help you follow this Tip.

9.  Take copious notes.  Write down everything, especially at an IEP meeting.  Again, this may be when an advocate comes in handy.  Parents are often overwhelmed at these meetings and intimidated by the sheer number of people around the table “on the other side”.  You will need notes to confirm what you heard and make sure everything is in the IEP that should be.  These notes also come in handy if you end up in a dispute with the school.  Keep a journal or diary or let your advocate do that.

10.  Don’t back down.  This is an easy thing to do when you think “it’s me against an entire school district.”  But if you have followed all of the Tips above and you still feel strongly that you are asking for the right things for your child, do not let them convince you otherwise.  They are obligated by LAW to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to your child with a disability.  And if you have to fight them and you win, you can be reimbursed for your attorney’s fees.  So don’t be afraid to do battle.

I hope these are helpful.  If you need more tips beyond these 10, consider getting our book “Schoolkidslawyer’s Step-By-Step Guide to Special Education Law” which also includes forms and an explanation of the entire special education process for you.

And always, you can contact me for a consultation at 856-335-5291 or info@schoolkidslawyer.com.

 

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.

Pass the IEP, please!

You remember at the dinner table (perhaps most notably the Thanksgiving Dinner table) when you would ask someone to pass something along?  Maybe it was the stuffing bowl; maybe it was the cranberry sauce; maybe it was the dinner rolls; or maybe it was the fruit cake (OK, I know it wasn’t the fruit cake because no one asked to have that passed, unless it was to pass it along to the waste basket).

The point is, you wanted to make sure everyone at the table had equal and full access to every part of the meal.  Wouldn’t you have felt left out if you didn’t get any mashed potatoes? or Pumpkin Pie?  or [insert your favorite part of the meal here]?  Of course you would.

The same principle applies to your child’s IEP.  You want to make sure each and every teacher and school staff member that may encounter your child has equal and full access to your child’s IEP.

Failure to do so might result in one teacher violating the IEP unknowingly or not knowing how to respond to a certain situation.  For example, if the gym teacher doesn’t know that Tina isn’t supposed to be required to participate in group sports and the gym teacher makes her the pitcher in softball, Tina may have a complete meltdown or other reaction that triggers her disability.  Then Tina may have to miss her remaining classes for the day, all because the gym teacher didn’t even know Tina had an IEP and wouldn’t have assigned her to that task had she known.

As a parent, do not assume the school has circulated your child’s IEP to all of the contact points.  You need to handle this yourself.  Whether that means sending an electronic copy to each contact person by email or even walking a hard copy in to every person, you need to assure that this is done.  You need to consider every potential aspect of your child’s day: special education teachers; general education teachers; “specials” teachers (art, music, gym, computer lab, etc.); school nurse; school guidance counselor; director of special education; vice principal; principal; even the janitor, if that person interacts with your child.  So what if they’ve already received it?  A duplicate is not going to harm them (and an electronic duplicate doesn’t harm the environment).

This is not a silly concept.  If your child is experiencing some aspect of his/her disability, let’s say it is epileptic attacks, and a teacher encounters your child not knowing what is going on, they may make an incorrect and potentially dangerous decision.  A simple thing like providing these personnel with the IEP at least will clue that person into the fact that someone in special education or the medical staff need to be alerted to the situation.

So, much like the salt and pepper on the dinner table, make sure you pass the IEP to everyone at your child’s school to avoid any misunderstandings and help your child succeed in the system – even if they never have need of the IEP (like the salt).