Parents: Who Should You Call?
Hopefully, you and your child will have a wonderful school experience; each of your child’s needs will be met, and teachers and staff members will continually exceed your expectations. However, what happens when this isn’t the case? Navigating these delicate situations can be easier when you know where to take your concerns, and what you should expect to hear when you voice them.
When to Talk to the Teacher
Without question, you should be speaking with your child’s teacher regularly. If your child is doing well, you should be speaking weekly. If your child is struggling, you should be speaking several times a week, or even daily. Keeping the lines of communication open between the teacher and the parent is the best way to prevent misunderstandings or escalating situations. Remember that teachers have many students and, often, twice as many parents with whom they are required to communicate, so take it upon yourself to call or email for weekly or daily reports. Keep it brief, and allow him or her to do the same. A simple “Johnny finished all of his math problems but still needs to finish his writing assignment” should suffice.
If you have a question or concern, address it immediately. This is much easier if you have already established rapport with the teacher. If you communicate with him or her regularly, he or she won’t feel like you have been absent all year and then surfaced just to complain. If you are at all upset, try speaking over the phone or in person to avoid the misunderstandings that can result from communicating via email.
When to Talk to the School Administrator
You should only speak with the school administrator about a problem in the classroom after you have attempted to resolve the issue with the teacher. If the teacher does not respond to your calls or emails, or if you were unable to reach an agreement, it may be time to speak with a school administrator. It is always polite to let the teacher know that you will be contacting the administrator before you do so. In most cases, the administrator will ensure that the teacher responds to your concerns, but will not become too involved. If there is a dispute about services or an individualized education program (IEP) issue, the administrator will most likely refer you to the special education coordinator or district special education representative.
You should also speak with a school administrator if your child was involved in an incident that involved students outside of your child’s classroom. Sadly, bullying is a common reason that parents of students with disabilities contact administrators. If you are at all concerned that your child is being bullied—in or outside of the classroom—it is imperative that you speak with a school administrator and demand an action plan for preventing bullying in the future. Bullying of any kind should not be tolerated.
When to Talk to the District Administrator
You should speak with a district administrator when you believe that there are direct violations of your child’s IEP, and the school’s staff has not attempted to fix the problem(s).Remember that your child’s IEP is a binding contract for services between the district and the parent. This means that if your child’s IEP states that he or she will receive speech and language services twice per week, the district is required by law to make sure that this happens. It also means that your child’s teacher must be able to provide evidence (such as work samples or test scores) that she is working on your child’s academic and behavioral goals.
If you believe that your child is not receiving the services and/or instruction promised in his or her IEP, and the teacher or service providers are unresponsive or unwilling to provide these services, you may want to speak with the district’s special education director, coordinator, or other person in charge of special education for the district. (Administrator titles vary by state and district, but if you use the title “special education director,” everyone will know with whom to put you in touch.)
Generally, once you have brought your concerns to the district representative, an IEP meeting will be called to examine your concerns. The teacher or service providers will be asked to provide evidence that services are being offered, and that the student is working toward academic and/or behavioral goals. If your concerns are valid, an action plan will be drafted to ensure that the appropriate services and instruction are provided. Generally, a follow-up meeting will be scheduled to hold the IEP team accountable for providing these services.
When to Talk to a Lawyer or Student Advocate
You should only speak with a lawyer or student advocate when you have attempted to contact the teacher, school administrator and district administrators about an IEP violation, and have not received responses or have not been able to reach an agreement. Additionally, understand your legal rights concerning dispute resolution that come from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These dispute resolution options can be explained by your calling the state Department of Education and asking for special education dispute resolution.
A student advocate is usually a volunteer, sometimes connected to a support agency or independent. Typically they are trained to help support the parent in understanding and navigating the special education process. They are usually not lawyers, but the good ones have training in the processes and procedures of special education practice. Anytime you feel you need to obtain some help with navigating, advocates are welcomed. Please remember that they are support for you, but are not consensus-bearing IEP or ARD team members.
Speaking with a lawyer should be your last resort. Remember that in some states, you will be responsible for all lawyer fees if the court finds in favor of the district, and that the court will only rule in your favor if it can be proven that there were IEP violations, or egregious violations of the student’s rights under the law. Remember, too, that the burden of proof is on you, which means that you and your lawyer must be able to prove that these violations have occurred.
There are, of course, the cases in which lawyers have proven beneficial, but because of the cost involved and potential harming effect on your relationship with the school district, it should be a last resort. You must ask yourself the purpose of hiring a lawyer in your situation. Is it really because there has been a violation of the IEP or your child’s rights, or because you want a lawyer arguing on your behalf during a disagreement? If you believe that the district has directly violated the IEP contract, and if you have attempted to contact the district and received no response, then you may want to talk to a lawyer or student advocate; however, if you simply disagree with a decision, a lawyer may not be the best (or most affordable) option.