10 Tips For Hiring A Special Education Lawyer

When parents disagree with their child’s school about special education or services the student with a disability is receiving, they might consider hiring a lawyer.  This may be the first time they’ve ever needed or interacted with an attorney, so they may be overwhelmed and unsure how to decide whether to employ his/her services.

I’ve tried to simplify the process in the following 10 tips for hiring a special education lawyer:

1. Don’t tell your whole story during the first meeting or phone call.

Most special education lawyers have a pretty good idea why you are calling them and have dealt with situations like yours.  Don’t expect legal advice because he/she needs to learn your case and an initial meeting is usually not thorough enough to do that.  Plus, lawyers like to do legal research before they give advice or opinions.  We often want to make sure we know the current law on an issue.  All this goes hand-in-hand with . . .

2. Remember that time = $$$$.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” In other words, that is how lawyers get paid.  Our knowledge and expertise in legal matters is the value we bring to the table.  The fact that you are calling a lawyer indicates you can’t do it without help from someone who understands the legal system.  Plus, lawyers have cases other than yours and they will give equal priority to theirs as they will to yours.

3. Shop Around.

I recommend you talk to 2 or 3 lawyers before hiring one of them.  Not every lawyer is the same.  Ask yourself what you want your lawyer to be – aggressive? inexpensive? passionate? reasonable? Are you going to take the lead in helping your child or do you want the lawyer to take charge?  Most importantly, not every lawyer bills fees the same way.  It’s always good to compare among choices.

One of the ways to compare is to . . .

4. Research the lawyer.

You’re probably not sure how to do that.  There are websites that rate lawyers – Avvo; LinkedIn; Facebook; Yelp – but don’t put a ton of stock in those because lawyers’ friends may be posting the reviews.  Look at the lawyer’s credentials – where they went to law school; how long have they been admitted to the bar; how long has he/she been doing special education legal work; what is his/her reputation in the community or with peers; etc.  Much of this information you can get on websites, but ask your friends.

Or when talking to a lawyer you’re thinking of hiring . . .

5. Ask about other special education cases he/she has handled.

Lawyers won’t (and shouldn’t) name names of other clients, but they can describe generally other special education cases they’ve handled and what types of disabilities their other clients’ children had.  Ask if they won the case or if it settled; ask what the main issue / problem was; ask how hard the battle with the school district was; ask the highest court they’ve taken a case to; and ask if they have ever dealt with a case similar to yours.

And because special education law is becoming more about litigation (lawsuits), ask . . .

6. Does the lawyer know about both special education law and litigation?

School districts are fighting harder than ever in special education disputes.  In fact, recently a colleague (who is a trial attorney, but not a special education lawyer) commented that he was shocked at how difficult the school district’s attorney was in a case before referring it to me.  Yes, it is going to be a hard fight and you need a lawyer who understands legal procedure, evidence, examining witnesses, legal precedent, and how to argue persuasively – on top of knowing special education law.

7. Do you like him/her?

This sounds petty, but it’s not.  You need to feel comfortable with your lawyer; not as a friend, but as someone who understands you and what you want for your child.  This is a business relationship and just like you want to get along with your plumber, your mechanic, your doctor . . . you want to make sure this relationship is solid.

To make sure that this business relationship goes well . . .

8. Get a contract.

In legal terms, this is a fee agreement.  Don’t be afraid to negotiate.  Do you walk into a car dealership and just say, “OK, I’ll pay that price for this car with nothing customized to my needs”???  Of course not (or at least you shouldn’t).  You also shouldn’t just accept what the lawyer says for the agreement.  A fee agreement (also called a retainer agreement) is your contract with your lawyer.  You want to make sure that (a) the services are what you want, no more, no less; (b) you understand how fees will be charged and how much; (c) in special education cases, you may be able to recover those fees and if you do, how will they be reimbursed to you; (d) how long the contract shall last; (e) what happens if you fire the lawyer or change lawyers; and (f) what happens if you break the contract.  Expect the best, but plan for the worst.

9. Don’t ask the lawyer to work for free.

First, go re-read #2 above.  You may have a great case, but you are asking a lawyer to use part of his/her workday to help you with your case.  Just like an electrician who charges for the time he/she is at your house to fix the wiring, the lawyer needs to be paid for the time spent working on your case.  If you were charged with a crime and needed a criminal defense lawyer, you’d probably find the money to pay him/her to represent you.  The same should apply for a special education lawyer who is representing you and your child with a disability.  Lawyers have bills, need food, clothes, and some pay college tuition – like you.  If you have a job, you expect your employer to pay you.  You are your lawyer’s employer.

10. Your lawyer should be passionate about special education.

Notice I didn’t end that sentence with “law”.  Your lawyer should understand that the ultimate goal is to help with your child’s education.  Are they passionate about helping kids with disabilities?  Does he/she have a child with a disability? Ask how and why the attorney got into special education law.

You want to hire a lawyer who is passionate about special education so he/she will be passionate and understanding about your case and your child.  That way, you can work as a team to help your child.

I hope these tips help the daunting task of hiring a special education lawyer.

 

The Appropriate Use of Assistive Technology for Students – Antonia Guccione, MA, MS [Guest Blog Post]

Discerning how, when, and why students should access Assistive Technology to support learning involves many levels of decision making.  It all starts with the IEP, the student’s present levels of performance, his educational needs, and the impact those needs have on learning. Thank goodness there is help! The Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative provides a series of tools for educators and parents. The WATI Assistive Technology Consideration Guide is a great place to start if you suspect that there are tools that are necessary to support a student’s learning.

For example, if a student has an issue with writing, it can seriously impact that student’s ability to function in the classroom and do grade level work. For our purposes, we will assume an upper elementary age male child and begin our assessment and decision making there.  He may not be able to express thoughts, opinions, or ideas on paper.  How will he form complete sentences and/or organized paragraphs?  How can Assistive Technology help him?

Discerning how, when, and why students should access Assistive Technology to support learning involves many levels of decision making.  It all starts with the IEP, the student’s present levels of performance, his educational needs, and the impact those needs have on learning. Thank goodness there is help! The Wisconsin Assistive Technology Initiative provides a series of tools for educators and parents. The WATI Assistive Technology Consideration Guide is a great place to start if you suspect that there are tools that are necessary to support a student’s learning.

http://www.wati.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/WATI-Assessment.pdf [PDF file]

THE WATI

Enter the WATI Assistive Technology Consideration Guide. First, the team must agree on the impact of this issue.  While many are possible, let’s assume that the major impact for this student is his ability to do grade level work in the classroom and express his thoughts on paper in an organized paragraph.  The question becomes whether there is currently assistive technology- either devices, tools, hardware, or software that might help address this need?

Referring to the Assistive Technology Continuum, there are Low Tech, Mid Tech, and High-Tech tools to consider. Have any been tried?  Is there data to support the trials?  Possible Low-Tech tools include specialized pens, raised paper, highlighters, post -its, and slanted surfaces. Mid Tech Tools include tape recorders, spell checkers and dictionaries.  High Tech tools include word prediction software, word banks, and word processors.

Finally, would the use of these assistive technology tools support the student in performing this skill more easily in the least restrictive environment? If the answer is yes, it is time to consult with the IEP team and document this need, its impact, and interventions that might be helpful.

https://adayinourshoes.co m/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/WATI-Assessing-Students-Needs-for-Assistive-Technology.pdf [PDF file]

Based on lack of progress on IEP goals, the Committee on Special Education must consider a student’s need for assistive technology devices and/or services, as well as possible modifications and accommodations.  If a student needs such devices and/or services, the appropriate sections of the IEP must specify the:

  • nature of the assistive technology to be provided; 
  • services the student needs to use the assistive technology device; 
  • frequency, and duration of such services; 
  • location where the assistive technology devices and/or services will be provided; and 
  • whether such a device is required to be used in the student’s home or another setting in order for the student to receive a free appropriate public education.

http://www.p12.nysed.gov/specialed/publications/iepguidance/present.htm

GOALS

Goals must be written accordingly, and I recommend using the concept of a SMART Goal.  A specific goal which is measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely has a greater chance of being accomplished than a general goal.

https://east.madison.k12.wi.us/files/east/Smart%20Goals%20Information%20CC%2011_0.pdf [PDF file]

Here is an example of an objective taken directly from an AT-Resource Guide for written communication which utilizes Assistive Technology:

Goal: Jon will use an electronic graphic organizer to write an opening topic, a closing, and three supporting detail sentences to construct a five-sentence paragraph, by the end of the first semester.

Objective: Given five sentences in an electronic graphic organizer, Jon will identify and arrange the opening topic, the closing, and three supporting detail sentences to create a paragraph, by the end of the first six weeks of school.

https://www.ocali.org/up_doc/AT_Resource_Guide_6.pdf [PDF file]

IN THE IEP

Another resource which offers support to parents in understanding what Assistive Technology is and how to get it into a student’s IEP is noted below:

https://adayinourshoes.com/assistive-technology/

Once the tools have been obtained, how does one manage the Assistive Technology?  Who trains the teachers and parents? Who trains the student?  But that is a whole other discussion!

Even if the present levels of performance indicate a student who can participate in a discussion, that doesn’t mean he can write about it. A basic understanding of texts and current events is not the issue. However, ask him to summarize that information in a paragraph and the sky falls down.  On the IEP, present levels of performance are recorded, and appropriate sources of data have been discussed and administered.  These have included both formal and informal assessments, with work samples, and data charts to show progress or lack of progress over time. Are there modifications and accommodations that have been incorporated? Have these interventions resulted in significant progress or is this student still having difficulty responding to a writing prompt.

FINAL NOTES

In conclusion, Assistive Technology provides many tools to support learning and can result in a positive outcome.  It is a timely process, but one worth pursuing. Better to know what works sooner rather than later.  Assess the student’s needs, document the impact on learning, and then choose the appropriate tool to support learning in the least restrictive environment.  Keep accurate data to demonstrate progress.

If you suspect your child could benefit from assistive technology, reach out to the professionals involved in his education.  In addition, access the sites documented in this article.  I’ve only presented one need, and that is for writing. I haven’t even touched on communication, mobility, motor aspects of writing, reading, learning and studying, math, recreation, or activities of daily living, vision, hearing, and language processing. Understand that the array of Assistive Technology Tools is vast.  Following a process to obtain these tools may be involved, but it can result in access to tools that can help this child for life. 


Antonia Guccione, MA; MS

Antonia is a consultant, educator, and author with over forty years’ experience working with students of all ages, strengths, and needs.

Why Schools Shouldn’t Reject Your Child’s Diagnosis

Recently, I have heard (far too many) stories from parents that the schools are taking away services from their child and/or denying providing services because the school does not believe the child’s diagnosis.  This is wrong and illegal on so many levels, but I will adress the three (3) most important reasons why schools should never deny or reject a child’s diagnosis. 1. Only licensed physicians (medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, and/or nurse practitioners depending on your state law) may provide a diagnosis and most IEP team members from the school district are NOT licensed physicians (school psychologists are not licensed physicians). As an example, in New Jersey (and most states have similar laws to my knowledge) a person must have a license to “practice medicine or surgery”.  N.J.S.A. 45:9-6.  Diagnosis is practicing medicine.  N.J.S.A. 45:9-5.1. If one of the school staff suggests or takes the position that your child doesn’t have a diagnosis that has been confirmed by a physician, ask such person if he/she holds a physician’s license in your state. 2. Many diagnoses are “hidden” disorders or neurological problems, but should not be denied simply because you can’t “see” them. If a child has Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy or Muscular Dystrophy or is an amputee, the disability is likely obvious.  (I prefer not to automatically assume it is.)  However, many disorders like Autism, ADHD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Dyslexia, Cystic Fibrosis, Sensory or Auditory Processing Disorder, Krohn’s Disease, Depression, and others are what I call “hidden” disorders because they are often not obvious just observing a child.  This is another reason that only licensed physicians who understand what tests need to be performed in order to make the proper diagnosis should do so.  I’ve heard teachers and school administrators (people who should know better) say, “But [he/she] looks normal!”  What an awful comment about a child with a disability. Frankly, I can’t understand why school personnel even question this.  For example, I have diabetes – a neurological disease.  Looking at me, you would not know this.  I do long charity bicycle rides of 70+ miles.  Most people would say, “He seems fine.”  While that may be the outward appearance, does it mean that I don’t have diabetes or that the disease does not affect me? It is wrong to deny that. The huge problem with this is that when services are denied because the school does not observe the disorder, the child’s disorder may have devastating effects.  Children with Autism may have meltdowns; children with ADHD may be distracted in classes; children with Auditory Processing Disorder may become disoriented or frightened; children with Krohn’s Disease may become exhausted; etc.  Once this occurs, access to education is impeded.  This is exactly what IDEA, 504, ADA, and other laws are designed to prevent. 3. Schools may respond that they don’t witness how the disability impacts the education, but they also don’t see the aftermath when the child arrives home. While it is true that under IDEA and 504, there are two parts to the question: (a) does the child have a diagnosis that fits them within an eligibility category? and (b) does the child need special education and related services or accommodations because of the disability?  20 U.S.C. 1401(3)(A); 29 U.S.C. 794. However, children have amazing capacity to overcome their disabilities.  In colloqual terms, they can “hold it together” during school hours, but then come home and “let it all out”.  Children know home is their “safe space” and if anxiety, frustration, fear, depression, anger, or similar emotions build up during the school day because the disability is not being recognized by the school, the parents must bear the brunt of those released emotions in the home. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance letter that states “IDEA and the regulations clearly establish that the determination about whether a child is a child with a disability is not limited to information about the child’s academic performance.”  USDOE Guidance, Letter to Clarke (2007).  That means behavior should also be considered – whether in school or in the home, because remember a parent is a critical member of the IEP team.  20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(1)(B)(i). Conclusion Schools should not reject a child’s diagnosis made by a licensed physician because (1) it is unlikely that an IEP team member is a physician; (2) just because they can’t “see” the disability doesn’t mean it’s not there; and (3) they need to consider all effects of the disability, including behaviors at home triggered by the failure to address the issues at school. If a school rescinds services to your child under an IEP or takes away the IEP because they don’t believe your child has a disability, contact a special education lawyer ASAP.  

Who is on the IEP Team?

Perhaps one of the most confusing parts of special education law for parents (and some schools) is who is on the IEP team.  There are both “mandatory” members of the IEP team as well as “permissive” members.  IDEA makes this very clear.

Mandatory Members of the IEP Team

There are five (5) mandatory members of the IEP team set forth in IDEA.  They are (in order as the statute lists them):

  1. The parent(s);
  2. At least one regular education teacher who interacts with the child in a general education setting;
  3. At least one special education teacher or provider who interacts with the child;
  4. A representative of the school district (“local educational agency”) who meets certain requirements (see below); and
  5. “an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results” (who may be also #2-4).

20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B); 34 C.F.R. §300.321(a).

Before moving on to the permissive members, let me clarify some things about the mandatory members.  The word “and” is underlined above, because that means ALL five are required.  If Congress meant that only 3 or 4 of those persons were necessary, they would have used the term “or”.  Remember Conjunction Junction from School Kids Rock?

The Parent(s)

At least one parent must be present at an IEP meeting. If there are two parents, both are not required to be there – one can act for both.  But, notice the parent(s) are listed first.

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) . 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) (emphasis added.)

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) ; 34 C.F.R. §300.501(b)(1).

The LEA Representative

The representative of the school district can’t be just anyone.  Often the school will send a case manager or principal or other administration staff member as the representative, but such person might not meet the requirements of IDEA.

The LEA representative must be:

  • qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities;
  • knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and
  • knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the local educational agency (school district).

20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B)(iv); 34 C.F.R. §300.321(a)(4).

In other words, this person must have supervisory capabilities over special education curriculum and services, know the general education curriculum, and know the services available as well as placement options within the district.  If the person the school district sends to the IEP meeting is constantly having to check with someone else about whether the school district can provide such services, the wrong person is in the meeting.

The Evaluation Interpreter

While the fifth mandatory member is only stated as “an individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results”, IDEA is no more specific and doesn’t define who this is.

Typically, this person is the school psychologist because that person’s role is to translate evaluation reports into special education and services to be provided to meet the needs of the child.  Most parents don’t know how to interpret evaluation reports.  Heck, even some highly skilled teachers don’t know how either.

Make sure someone is in the meeting who can put testing results into actions and services for your child.

Permissive Members of the IEP Team

IDEA allows other persons to be on the IEP Team.  Specifically,

  • “at the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate”
  • “whenever appropriate, the child with a disability.”

These are “permissive” members because they are not required to be there and are only there if the other IEP team members think it is appropriate or necessary.

The first of these options has been interpreted to include “education advocates” for parents; social workers or therapists contracted by the school district; or, anyone else who might have valuable input into the formation of an IEP.  There is no restriction on the number of these individuals so long as they have the requisite knowledge about the child or services and it doesn’t bog down development of the IEP.

The second option is at the discretion of the parent(s).  Whether you bring your child to an IEP meeting is up to you and most agree that the child should only attend if (a) he/she is emotionally capable of hearing about areas where the boy or girl is struggling; and (b) he/she has valuable input to offer, such as when or where he/she is having difficulties (e.g. “I struggle in math class because of the classroom noise.”)

Is it a properly assembled IEP meeting?

The most important lesson of this article is for both parents and school districts to understand when an IEP meeting is properly constituted.  As stated above, all of the mandatory members must be present [especially the parent(s)].  Without all of the mandatory members present, the proposed IEP may either be improperly designed (because not all of the necessary input was received) or not implemented (because the district does not have the necessary resources) or both.  If there are no permissive members, the meeting can still go forward.

Parents have the motivation to make sure that an IEP meeting is properly assembled so their child receives a FAPE.  School districts have the motivation to ensure that the IEP cannot be challenged on these grounds.  All of this is intended to benefit the child with a disability.

So, if the law is followed on the IEP team, it is a win-win-win.

 

 

 

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 . . .

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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transportation is a Mandatory “Related Service” for Special Ed Kids That Need It

Under IDEA, transportation is a “related service” that must be provided to kids with an IEP.1  Transportation must also be provided to infants and toddlers as part of Early Intervention Services.2

Transportation includes travel between home and school; between schools (if the child attends more than one campus); travel within and around school buildings (if that is a challenge); and specialized equipment like ramps, lifts, or adapted buses if required to transport the child with a disability.3

What kind of transportation will be provided to my child? This depends entirely on what your child’s needs are. If your child has Sensory Processing Disorder, he/she may not be able to ride the regular large bus to school. If your child is in a wheelchair or has other physical impairments, he/she might require a specially-adapted vehicle. Alternatively, you as the parent may be reimbursed by the district if you provide the transportation agreed to by the IEP team.

Transportation needs should be discussed during an IEP meeting or 504 planning meeting. If the school district needs to send the child with a disability outside the school for services or places the child in an ‘out of district’ program or private school, the school district must also provide transportation to those services or program.

Learn more about how school buses and transportation for your child with a disability fits into planning for your child’s education and IEP in our book SchoolKidsLawyer’s Step-By-Step Guide to Special Education Law.


1. 20 U.S.C. §1401(26)(A); 34 C.F.R. §300.34(a).
2. 20 U.S.C. §1432(4)(E)(xiv); 34 C.F.R. §300.34(a).
3. 34 C.F.R. §300.34(c)(16).

 

 

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:

http://www.state.nj.us/education/specialed/dyslexia/NJDyslexiaHandbook.pdf