Springtime brings IEP review time for a lot of families of kids with disabilities, so it seems a good time to talk about how to approach the conflicts that so often arise in IEP meetings. It can be a frustrating time for parents and school staff alike, but it doesn't have to be. Let's take a deep breath and see if we can't make this situation a little less tense, shall we?
In all my years working in the field of special education law, I can count on one hand the number of times that I met teachers or other school personnel who hated kids with disabilities. Sure, every profession has its sociopaths, but the pay in eduction is so low, and the amount of power wielded is so small, that sociopathic special education professionals are pretty rare.
And yet, I can't even begin to count all the parents I spoke to over the years who were convinced that the special education staff at their school hated their child. The parents would ask for something that they believed their child desperately needed, but the staff would refuse to do it, or fail to do it. What other explanation could there be for school staff to refuse help to a struggling child? It must be hate, right?
No. No no no no and no. Just, no.
And this is a huge problem, because if you jump to the conclusion that hate of children with disabilities is the driving motivation behind a teacher's actions, you're not going to be able to overcome the real challenges that are preventing that teacher from helping your child. You're also likely to say something in anger about that imaginary hate that will ruin your relationship with the person who is taking care of your child six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year. Which is a really bad thing. Trust me on this.
So, let's talk about what might actually be going on, and see if we can get around the problems to a solution, shall we?
1. Schools are seriously broke.
This is first on my list because it's definitely the #1 reason that I came across when dealing with conflicts between parents and schools. Schools are so broke that there have been court decisions in several states, including mine, saying that the state's underfunding of schools is illegal. There's a reason why your school's PTA is always asking for more money: They need it just to keep the school afloat. Lots of schools are cutting staff positions in areas that particularly hurt kids with disabilities, like school counselors, occupational therapists and nurses. On top of that, the federal funding out there for special education still doesn't cover the whole cost of educating kids with disabilities. It's pretty messed up, and none of that is because your kid's teacher is a jerk. It's because politicians aren't doing their jobs.
That said, federal law doesn't allow schools to deny services that kids need to receive a free appropriate public education just because a school is broke. So, if there is a service in your kid's IEP or 504 plan that they aren't getting and the school uses "we're broke" as an excuse, I mean, I'd politely call BS on them. I'd also be first in line to help organize a fundraiser, because again, it's not the school's fault that they're broke.
My son's school is in a crazy affluent neighborhood that I don't live in, and our PTA raises a ton of money compared to most PTAs, some of which goes to things like extra help for kids with disabilities or other learning challenges. And they spend it that way because they know it's important. If your PTA isn't spending at least some of its money on services for kids with disabilities, who are some of the most vulnerable kids in school, your PTA needs to be educated about why they should start. Remind them that things that help kids with disabilities also help other kids too-a school counselor is a good investment for all kids. Same with a nurse, an instructional assistant, etc.
2. They don't know what you know.
You know your kid better than anyone, even their teacher. Don't withhold information about what's going on in your kid's life, or what tricks work on their problem behaviors at home or what areas of struggle you're seeing when they do homework. How can they help if they don't know the whole story?
So, tell them you have cancer and your kid is scared about his mom being sick, and it's making it hard for him to focus. Give them a copy of the allergy testing that shows what foods are dangerous. (I can't tell you how many times parents refused to do this. It's the dumbest self-sabotaging behavior I can think of.) Explain how hard it is for your kid to understand the word questions on his math worksheet and that it takes him 20 minutes to do two word problems. Bombarding them with dozens of emails isn't helpful, but sending relevant information (and with a "Thank you for working so hard to help my kid" at the end of it) will help the teacher help your kid.
3. They don't know the rules.
And often, neither do parents, because they're complex and they change whenever new laws or regulations come out, which happens every so often. And, it takes time for new people to learn the ropes. I had a colleague who once told me that whenever there was a change in his state's public employee pension plan that would encourage people to retire, he scheduled extra trainings for school personnel on disability laws. He said that sometimes, he'd suddenly see a huge increase in complaints from parents, and he realized it was happening after the old hands left with their years of accumulated knowledge, and new people came in who didn't know the rules yet. (That guy is a genius.) In addition, lots of times parents think their child is entitled to something they're not actually entitled to. Remember, schools are broke, and although they want to help your child, they probably aren't going to be able to provide extras that aren't legally required. They just don't have the resources for that.
So, invite in an expert to speak to your school's staff about the rules that apply to kids with disabilities, and to parents too. A lot of districts now have a special needs PTA, and that's a great venue for getting both parents and school personnel on the same page. Often state and federal agencies will send someone to speak to you for free, and so will non-profit groups that support people with disabilities. That used to be my favorite work thing to do when I was still a working lawyer-to do presentations for groups about Section 504, because it helped prevent conflicts.
4. They don't understand your child's disability.
This is more rare, and tends to be limited to rarer disabilities and/or newer staff, but it does occasionally happen. If your child's disability is particularly unique, you're gonna want to pull some medical literature out for the staff and share it with them.
5. You've already alienated them because you hadn't read this post yet.
I'm looking at you, parent who tried to get the special ed teacher fired because she wouldn't provide summer tutoring to your gifted daughter with ADHD who's already acing all her classes. Teachers are people. They're patient to a fault, but they're not going to stick their neck out for some entitled a**hole who tried to get them fired when they were just doing their job. Be a grown up and apologize, and bring treats to the next IEP meeting. Because it's what's best for your kid.
I guess what I'm saying is, don't assume the worst of people. Put yourself in their shoes, and see if you can't figure out a way around the roadblock that is preventing the school personnel from giving your child what they need. You might be surprised at what you can accomplish.