Don't Wait To Obtain An IEP
Last week there was a big back to school event for my kids' school district and my alma mater. It was amazing to be inside and see how much my school has grown from that time so many years ago when just 54 of us walked across the stage to today’s district graduating classes over 300 and 400 kids. It also highlights some of the issues facing our teachers and families every school year. While our school started last week, other schools around the county are starting this week.
I’ve always done my best to support the schools in any way I can from volunteering in the classroom and PTO to donating supplies and treats for teachers but that just doesn’t seem to be enough anymore. As a lawyer, I learned education law to advocate for my children and then began advocating for others. I learned quickly that the schools cannot keep up with the increasing demand for special education services.
Depending on which study you read, Oklahoma ranks somewhere between 42nd and 49th in education. Our low ranking is a combination of a lack of school funding, low teacher pay, high teacher attrition, high amounts of emergency teacher certification, high levels of poverty and food insecurity, plus high rates of addiction, incarceration, abuse, and mental illness in homes. Our kids have it coming from all angles. Teachers are expected to do more than just teaching, they also take on high amounts of parenting, counseling, and other non-teaching responsibilities. These struggles within our schools are real and difficult and not just limited to schools with high rates of poverty.
Another complicating factor for children and students is the special education “school to prison pipeline” which refers to the practices which tend to push children with disabilities out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system. Studies indicate that up to 85% of children in juvenile detention qualify for special education services related to disability but that only 37% of student receive services. However, even youth in detention are entitled to special education services including an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and behavioral support. Parents who have a child with a disability that impacts learning and behavior must be proactive in requesting IEP and special education services. Additionally, they must push back when schools lacking sufficient resources fail to offer services.
In my opinion, the first thing a parent should do after a child is diagnosed with a disability is to seek a referral for special education services. Many tell me “well he/she was progressing ok so we didn’t think it was necessary.” However, children are often progressing OK until they aren’t and that switch can flip quickly and sometimes without notice. The first step in getting an IEP is to have a referral. Either the school can make a referral or a parent can ask. If a child has been diagnosed with a disability, the school must assess the child even if the child is doing “fine.” The request may be verbal but in practice should be in writing and the parent must execute a consent for the child to be evaluated.
An evaluation must check the child for limitation in any areas related to the child’s disability or suspected disability. The assessment should look at the child’s major life activities including interpersonal relationships, school performance, home behaviors and others to asses needs. If the parents disagree with the outcome of the evaluation, they have a right to request a Independent Education Evaluation (IEE) to be paid for by the school. After the appropriate evaluations are done, the school and the parents work together to develop an IEP for the student. There is an IEP team which typically includes parents, educators, administrators, and specialists to help plan for the child's learning needs. A proper IEP should have long and short-term goals that are measurable and achievable. Afterwards, the IEP is implemented and the school begins providing services. For a child with behavioral problems this may mean modifying the approach to the no tolerance policy for physical outbursts or destruction of property. This is not the avoidance of consequences but the application of consequences in a different context. Other modifications that might be allowed are testing in a space outside the normal classroom, frequent breaks, access to the restroom, access to food, and the ability to move or fidget to help with learning. These are just a few of the accommodations that might be given to a student.
If a parent suspects that their child has a learning or medical disability they should not wait until the child starts to fail to obtain accommodations in school. It is best to start early and plan so that children do not lose skills when they can no longer function within the existing system. This is a hard relaxation for both parents and schools. There is a great resource available to parents of children with learning disabilities and physical or mental disabilities which helps teach them how to advocate for their children found at www.Wright’slaw.com. The materials here were invaluable to me as a parent who started learning about educational advocacy and in teaching my clients how to advocate for themselves.