Oh yes, an attorney will be provided to you and the good news (for the suspect) is that it's at the taxpayer's expense (that's you and me!). As a society, we've decided that it's so important to be fair and make certain that justice is served that we are willing to foot the bill for every criminal who cannot afford an attorney. OK, we get it.
But, what happens when you are in conflict with a school district because you feel they are not providing your child with the "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE) to which they are legally entitled? That's right, no taxpayer-funded attorney for you! You, Mom and Dad, have the right to find an attorney and scramble to pay the retainer while the district has attorneys on retainer using your tax dollars! Oh, of course, it's all legal! Is it fair? Is it just? After all, your child did not commit a crime. You didn't commit a crime. Why do you have to pay for the system's failures?
The school district uses your very own tax dollars to fight you when you are trying to get services for your child that they have failed to provide.
However, you are not helpless against the "institution". You can make significant progress on your own if you understand the basics of special education law. The law that established the access to education for all handicapped persons is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and is formerly known as Public Law 94-142 (1975). It was reauthorized in 2004 with important changes and is being reauthorized again.
Although there are many resources, both online and in the form of advocacy groups, parents in my practice have found the Special Education Rights and Responsibilities manual (SERR) to be very helpful. It gives you a great start. It is offered through the Disability Rights California organization (formerly known as Protection & Advocacy, Inc.).
Because IDEA is a federal law, the information generally applies to every state. Go online to www.disabilityrights.org. Click on the Publications & Resources tab and it is listed under Special Education Rights and Responsibilities Manual on the left side of the page. You can print it!
Go through the chapters one by one, make notes; develop questions about your child's issues. It will startle you to realize that "you don't know what you don't know". Let your new-found knowledge empower you. However, because knowledge is power, you must use your power in the best interest of your child.
You may become quite angry over "acts of omission". You begin to realize all of the information you "should" have been told, but were not. You may find that the more of this information you share, the more "distant" school personnel become...but why? Here are some insights:
- In my experience, school districts may find you to be a challenge and may prefer you to be less "powerful".
- The more you know, the more you question and they may not have the answers.
- You just might tell other parents (uh oh!).
- You'll be making demands (oh no!).
- You become more "in charge" (can't have that).
The following are recommendations I make to the parents in my practice:
- Stuff your feelings. As soon as you lose control, it all becomes about you and your behavior.
- Focus on the future. We are on the "right track" now, so move on.
- Schools are a bureaucracy, the wheels turn slowly, but as long as they are turning, we're OK.
- Start your documentation in an organized fashion. Get a large notebook with lots of dividers. Keep up with it. Documentation is very, very, very, very important.
- Start collecting work samples that highlight your concerns. Your child needs to write their own name and date on the assignment.
- Makes copies of tests or other assignments that showcase your child's struggle before you return them to the teacher.
- Conversations or interactions that merit a "letter of understanding" that outlines what was said and what occurred are to be delivered after the event.
- Behave cooperatively. Do not dismiss a recommendation "out of hand", but state that you are grateful for the idea and will explore it.
- Acknowledge all efforts when someone works hard to help, even if it is not fruitful.
- Give 24-hour advance notice in writing that you will record the IEP or Section 504 or other meetings.
- Put your concerns in writing. If you do not get a response, write again and indicate that there was no response.
- Do not disparage any one person. Phrases such as, "Is not a good fit for Sally" are more productive than, "This teacher is terrible!"
The focus of my practice is assessment, so I am well-aware of the role that a comprehensive evaluation plays in determining placements and services for students with special needs. If the true nature of your child's needs are not known, how can an effective support plan be crafted?
School districts are responsible for determining if your child is eligible for a program or service. As a result, their assessment focus is on "eligibility" and not on a "diagnosis". A comprehensive diagnostic assessment conducted by a private clinician is not bound by any federal or district guidelines that limit the tests that can be used or the amount or kind of data that can be collected. Ethical and "best practice" guidelines should be be their only standard. Additionally, school personnel are allowed to tell you only about the services they offer whereas the private practitioner should outline a complete list of services to address your child's needs.
...more on assessments later including how to obtain an independent educational evaluation at school district's expense. But for now, just let me say there are those days where I'm really angry over a career criminal getting an attorney for free and my families are on their own.