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When a school district informs parents that their children are having trouble at school – whether it’s lack of focus, paying attention or having behavioral issues in the classroom – it often creates conflict. Some parents ask the district to assess their children for potential learning disabilities, but the district may be reluctant because it costs money to perform the assessments and the subsequent services, should they be diagnosed.
Parents can take some stress out of the equation by making the effort to have their children assessed for learning disabilities privately. Parents shouldn’t ignore an assessment from a school’s teacher or counselor when they suspect something is wrong, but they shouldn’t rely on the school to do its own assessment. After all, the school has a vested interest in the outcome and can tailor an assessment to fit its services, rather than the child’s needs. By getting an independent assessment from a professional, parents can approach the school with a list of what their children need in order to be successful students. This may mean recognizing signs in preschool or daycare before the child reaches kindergarten.
If parents are armed with this information when registering their special needs child into public school, they can tell district officials before the district administers its own tests. This way, the information is known before the child enters school, so the IEP/504 process can begin in a timely manner. District officials or parents might still want to label the student with a learning disability as part of their protocol, but it will help move the process of determining what services the student will need along more swiftly.
School districts are required by federal law to have parents meet with their Committee on Special Education (CSE) to discuss Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 plans at least once a school year. IEPs are highly detailed, written documents that include the child’s current performance in school, educational goals for the year, what type of services the child will receive and at what times of the day he or she will receive those services, accommodations to the learning environment, modifications to what is taught, participation (if any) in standardized tests and inclusion in the school’s general population. A 504 plan is simpler, as it focuses on what services and accommodations the school is willing to follow, as well as who will be providing the services.
With IEPs and 504 plans, meetings can be confusing as there may be many differing opinions – teachers, therapists and school administrators, along with parents and any other invited parties. The important thing for parents to remember in these meetings is to be their child’s advocate. An IEP or a 504 plan that doesn’t take into account the specific needs of a special needs student will not benefit that child.
This is why parents should consider having a special education attorney advise them what to say and do at IEP and 504 plan meetings. While it might seem like overkill to hire an attorney for a meeting between parents and a school district, an experienced attorney can reinforce the parents’ voice during the proceedings to ensure the child receives the proper services from the district. These meetings are usually a one-year commitment. Parents are contracting a school district to perform services to educate their special needs child and maximize the learning experience. An experienced attorney can help parents understand what they need to focus on during the meeting and how to secure the appropriate amount of school services for their children. They might need a shorter or longer list of services than what the school offers. Parents should also remember that a student’s needs and goals are agreed upon at these meetings. Goals may change during the course of the school year. There may be specific timelines that need to be addressed if changes are to be made, and an experienced attorney can assist with that.
Once the IEP or 504 plan is developed and implemented, the parents’ work is far from over. Their special needs child still needs to respond to the methods being used to educate them, and the child’s interactions with teachers, administrators and fellow classmates have to be monitored for any potential disciplinary problems. Again, it’s good to retain an attorney to help address any issues that come up during the school year, for they can advise parents what their rights are when they need to discuss what’s going on with their special needs child with administrators.
Ultimately, it takes a team of teachers, therapists, administrators, parents and attorneys – the latter behind the scenes – working together to ensure that special needs children receive an education that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
Gerald Raymond is Partner at Tully Rinckey PLLC’s Syracuse office. He is an experienced special education attorney.