Surrogate Parents Support Unaccompanied Students in Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • Parent participation in IEP process is a protected right for students with disabilities. If a student doesn’t have a family caregiver or legal guardian to advocate in their behalf, a surrogate parent is assigned to fill that role.
  • A surrogate parent is not paid and cannot be employed by the school system, or any other agency involved in the care or education of the child.
  • The provision for a surrogate parent is part of federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Section 300.519).

Full Article

If a student eligible for special education services does not have a family caregiver, adoptive parent, or other legal guardian fulfilling the role of parent, then a surrogate parent is assigned to ensure the student’s rights are protected. The surrogate parent fulfills the family caregiver role on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team and advocates to ensure the student’s needs are met.

A surrogate parent is an individual appointed by the public agency (usually a school district) responsible for the student’s special education services. Schools are responsible to assign a surrogate parent within 30 days after recognizing the need. Note that a child who is a ward of the state may be assigned a surrogate parent by the judge overseeing their case.

If a private individual, such as a neighbor or friend, has explicit written permission from the student’s parent or guardian to care for the student, a surrogate parent is not required.

A student 18-21 is responsible for their own educational decision-making unless they have a guardian to exercise their legal rights. A school district is responsible to assign a surrogate parent for a student declared legally incompetent or if an adult student with a disability asks for a surrogate parent.

A surrogate parent is required for a minor student when the parent cannot be identified or located or if parental rights have been terminated. A student’s parents are considered to be unknown if their identity cannot be determined from a thorough review of the student’s educational and other agency records.

A student’s parents are considered unavailable if they cannot be located through reasonable effort that includes documented telephone calls, letters, certified letters with return receipts, visits to the parents’ last known address, or if a court order has terminated parental rights. A parent is also considered unavailable if unable to participate in the student’s education due to distance or incarceration.

If a parent is too ill to participate at a meeting, either in person or by phone, that parent has the option of giving another individual written permission to act for them.

An uncooperative or uninvolved parent is not the same as an unavailable one.  A surrogate parent is not assigned because parents choose not to participate in their child’s education.

A child identified as an unaccompanied homeless youth by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is an example of a student who would be assigned a surrogate parent to support them within the special education system. Children with surrogate parents might live in foster homes, nursing homes, public or private group homes, state hospitals, or correctional facilities.

In some cases, a state agency has guardianship of a student with a disability: That student requires the assignment of a surrogate parent. 

Foster parents need to be formally appointed by the school as surrogate parents if they do not have legal guardianship. Relatives without formal kinship rights also can be designated as surrogate parents within the special education process.

A surrogate parent is not paid and cannot be employed by the school system, or any other agency involved in the care or education of the child. However, an unaccompanied homeless youth may be supported by appropriate staff from an emergency shelter, street outreach team, or other agency temporarily until a surrogate parent with no conflict of interest is appointed.

A surrogate parent must have knowledge and skills that ensure adequate representation of the student. A community volunteer, guardian ad litem, or other invested adult might serve as a surrogate parent. The surrogate parent must commit to understanding the student’s strengths and needs and how the educational system is structured to support the student’s services. Ideally, the surrogate parent lives near the student and is a match for providing culturally appropriate help in the student’s language.

The surrogate parent represents the student in all matters relating to special education identification, evaluation, and placement and works to ensure that the student receives a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) from their school-based services.

The provision for a surrogate parent is part of federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Section 300.519).

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) includes some downloadable resources about the surrogate parent in its Special Education Resource Library.

PAVE is here to help all caregivers, including surrogate parents. For direct assistance, click Get Help to complete an online Help Request Form.

Advocacy Tips for Parents

When a child has a disability, parents often learn that getting their child’s needs met requires persistence, organization, and advocacy. Advocacy is an action. A person is an advocate when they organize the work and press onward until a goal is achieved. Laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities also protect parents as legal advocates for their children.

This article includes tips for parent advocates working with the school. For more about parent rights, read PAVE’s article, Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.

Before a meeting…

  • Invite someone to attend with you. A friend or family member can help you take notes, ask questions, and keep track of your agenda.
  • Make sure you understand the purpose of the meeting. Is it to talk about an evaluation, review the Individualized Education Program (IEP), write a Section 504 Plan, consider a behavior support plan, discuss placement, or something else? If you want a certain outcome, make sure it’s within the scope of the meeting. If not, you may need more than one meeting.
  • Make sure you know who will be at your meeting. An IEP team has required attendees. PAVE provides more detail about IEP team requirements in an article that includes a Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting.
  • Consider anyone else you want to attend. Parents have the right to invite vocational specialists, related service providers, behavioral health providers, peer support specialists—anyone with knowledge of the student and their needs.
  • Get copies of important documents (evaluation, IEP, 504 Plan, behavior plan, etc.). Read them carefully so you can use these documents to organize your concerns and questions. Keep in mind that a services program/plan is a draft until after you meet.
  • If the school doesn’t provide documents with enough time for you to prepare, consider rescheduling.
  • Mark up a Draft IEP with your suggestions and questions:
    • Read the educational impact statement carefully. Consider if it accurately summarizes your student’s strengths and needs. If not, makes notes about what you want to add or change.
    • Note any changes you want under Medical/Physical or Parent Concerns.
    • If a goal is too hard or too easy, make a note to ask about adjusting it.
    • If a goal is written with jargon and impossible to understand, ask for an explanation and maybe a rewrite
    • Prepare to ask how teachers are using Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) to help your student reach IEP goals.
    • Read the services table, sometimes referred to as a “services grid” or “services matrix” to understand how often and where your student is being served.
    • Consider any questions you have about placement or access to general education settings. If you believe your student could be successful in general education for more of their day, consider what supports would make that possible.
    • Write down any questions about how the classroom or curriculum are adapted to be accessible. You might ask if the teachers are using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies to support multiple types of learners.
    • Write down your questions about progress and how it’s being tracked.
  • For an IEP or 504 Plan, read the accommodations carefully and make notes to ensure they are individualized and implemented to truly support your student.
  • Highlight anything in the behavior plan that sounds like bias or prejudice and consider how it might be rewritten. PAVE provides examples in a video training about development of a Behavior Intervention Plan.
  • To help you organize your questions and concerns, PAVE provides: Get Ready for Your Meeting with a Handout for the Team.
  • Learn about student and family rights and practice the vocabulary that empowers your advocacy. PAVE provides a three-part video training to help: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

At your meeting…

  • Do your best to arrive on time to make sure there is time to address concerns. If you notice there may not be enough time to do this, request to schedule another meeting.
  • Make sure the meeting begins with introductions and that you know everyone’s job and what role they serve on the IEP team. If it’s important to you, when you introduce yourself you can ask team members to use your name instead of mom, dad, gramma, or something else other than your name when they refer to you.
  • Ask school staff to explain acronyms or jargon while they are talking because you want to understand what everyone says.
  • If an IEP team member is absent (WAC 392-172A-03095), parents must sign consent for the absence. If someone is missing and you don’t think it’s appropriate to continue, ask to reschedule. If key members need to leave before the meeting is over, consider ending the meeting and schedule an alternative day/time.
  • Keep focus on your student’s needs. Here are a few positive sentence starters: I expect, I understand, My child needs….
  • If you notice the conversation steering into past grievances, the district’s lack of funds, or what “all the other children” are doing, bring focus back to your child and their current needs. Try stating, “I want to focus on [name].”
  • Use facts and information to back up your positions and avoid letting emotion take over. Ask for a break if you need time for some regulated breathing or to review documents or notes.
  • Notice other team members’ contributions that support your child’s needs. Here are a few phrases to consider:
    • “I think what you said is a good idea. I also think it could help to…”
    • “I think you are right, and I would like to add…”
    • “I hear what you are saying, and…”
  • If you don’t understand something, ask questions until the answer is clear.
  • If you disagree about something and your comments aren’t changing anyone’s mind, explain that you want your position included in the Prior Written Notice (PWN), which is the document the school is required to send immediately after an IEP meeting.
  • If you hear something confusing, ask the school to put their position and rationale in writing so you can follow up.
  • Request to end the meeting if it stops being productive. Tell the other team members that you would like to continue working with them and ask to schedule another meeting. This might include adding people to the team to help resolve issues.

After a meeting…

  • Review your notes and highlight or circle places where there is an action or something that needs follow through. Transfer relevant information into your calendar.
  • When the Prior Written Notice (PWN) arrives (usually within a few days), compare it to your notes. Make sure all key agreements, actions, and IEP/504 amendments match what you understood to be the plan when you left the meeting.
  • If you want something changed in the PWN, ask for those changes in writing.
  • If you disagree with the outcome of the meeting, review your Procedural Safeguards (downloadable in multiple languages) and consider your dispute resolution options.
  • If you consider filing a Community Complaint, PAVE provides a video training to walk you through that option.
  • Consider contacting school district special education staff if they didn’t participate in the meeting and you think your team needs more support.
  • Consider asking for another meeting, Mediation, or a Facilitated IEP meeting, if issues are unresolved.

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) program can help family caregivers organize their concerns and options. Click Get Help for individualized assistance.

Quick Start Your Advocacy in Two Steps

Asking for something you want or need for yourself or someone you love can take courage and inner strength. The ask is easier when you have basic advocacy tools. This short video provides a two-step process to help advocates step into their role with more confidence.

Here are the words that go with the video:

Being an advocate means speaking up to request something and pressing onward until the goal is met. The best advocates are really clear about two steps you cannot skip:

  1. Know what you want, and;
  2. Know who has the power to make that possible.  

This may sound obvious, but it’s not always easy. Let’s break it down with an example.

This is Julia—she’s a mom. Her 7-year-old son, Jose, isn’t learning to read like other kids his age. Julia wonders if Jose might have a learning disability. She mentions this to the attendance secretary one morning. Nobody contacts her. She assumes her worries are wrong or not important.

Hmmm, that doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

If she applies our two-step guide to advocacy, Julia can try again. She starts here:

  1. What does she want?
  2. Who has the power to make that happen?

First, she wants her son to get more reading help at school. Second, a classroom teacher or a special education teacher might help, but the attendance secretary is not the right person to ask.

It will take some work to press onward. Julia may need an appointment to formally talk with Jose’s teacher or a school administrator to get her advocacy project started. Here are some questions she might ask:

  • What do I do if I think my son might have a learning disability?
  • Is there a form for me to request a special education evaluation?
  • Who should I send my request to?
  • When will I get a response?
  • What’s the process for getting services to help my son?
  • What are my options if I disagree with the school’s decision?

Making a list of questions is an advocate’s homework. Taking careful notes helps with planning and often leads to faster results.

Remember, Julia wants her son to get more help learning to read. Her questions will help her figure out who to work with and what to do next.

Advocacy requires persistence. Don’t give up, and keep your eye on these two questions:

  1. What do I want?
  2. Who has the power to work with me and make that happen?

Telling Your Story with a Purpose: How to Inspire Action in Two Minutes

Every person’s story has the potential to impact how others think or act. Disability rights have been legislated because of individuals who spoke up and sparked change. This video introduces a strategy for telling a potent story in two or fewer minutes, using your own hand to guide the process. Think of this as a hand model for an inspirational elevator speech to improve or inspire:

  • Self-advocacy
  • Public comment
  • A meeting with public officials
  • Legislative forums or candidate meetings
  • Community education

 The Arc of Washington State provides pathways for people to participate in legislative advocacy. The Arc serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities of all ages and their families. 

Some staff members at PAVE are certified to teach Telling your Story with a Purpose, a training created by the state’s Department of Health and Seattle Children’s Hospital. For support to create your story, fill out a PAVE Helpline request, and a trained staff member will contact you.

Questions to consider first:

  1. What is the challenge or problem that you, your child or your family faces? Think of a problem that also affects other people and families. Consider writing one sentence about people in general and one sentence about your own story, child, or family. 
  2. How does this challenge affect others?
  3. How might this challenge affect others if nothing changes?
  4. What needs to change?
  5. What can be done to improve the situation?
  6. Who has the power to make a change? 

Key information for your story:

  1. Who are you?  Be sure to say your name and the district, city, or town you live in.
  2. If you want to include information about other people be sure you have permission before sharing anything confidential, such as names, ages, or health information.
  3. Clearly and simply describe the problem or challenge.
  4. Explain why this is important.
  5. Include a short story (4-5 sentences) about how this issue has affected you and your family. If possible, use a positive example – a situation where things went well and why you want others to have a similar experience.
  6. What do you want your listener to do? State your request in one sentence with 30 or fewer words. Avoid a general request for “support.” Provide a clear action:
    • “I ask you to vote for…”
    • “I want you to change this policy in order to…”
    • “I want you to fund a program that…” 
  7. Stop and check: Consider if your comments might make the listener feel criticized or attacked. Focus on the solution. Make sure you’ve included statements about how others in the community can benefit.
  8. End by restating your request and saying thank you. When possible, thank the listener for something they have done in the past that you appreciate–voting for a bill, serving on a committee, funding a program. 

Self-Advocacy: Becoming an Active Member in Your Community

If you have ever stood up and defended the rights of yourself or others you were acting as an advocate.

Self-advocacy means taking the responsibility for telling others what you need and want in a respectful and direct way.   Anyone can be a self-advocate and while speaking up for you or someone else can make you feel empowered, independent and more in charge of decisions for your life, it is not always an easy thing to learn how to do. It takes time and practice.

Good self-advocates are informed about the topic they are sharing with others.  They speak clearly and calmly and they listen to others and consider the information that they are hearing as well.

Times that you might need to be a self-advocate could be:

  • In your IEP meeting if you are in high school
  • When you ask for accommodations for classes in high school or college
  • Asking for accommodations on the job.
  • Asking for assistance and accommodations so that you can be involved in your community.

Things you need to know to become a better self-advocate:

  • Understand your rights and responsibilities.
  • Make decisions based on what you want or need
  • Say yes or no
  • Know that its ok to change your mind
  • Know that its ok to make mistakes
  • Express your feelings in a safe and reasonable way
  • Know who your trusted support persons in your community are that you can ask for help when needed.
  • Be safe
  • Be treated with dignity and respect at all times
  • Learn to be assertive without being aggressive or disrespectful

It is important to have confidence in yourself, you know more than you may realize.  Being prepared is important and some things to remember are:

  • The goal is the wellbeing of the person you are advocating for
  • Communication skills, respond don’t react. Avoid seeing others as the enemy.  Try to be diplomatic
  • Learn how to read IEP
  • Maintain good records and request everything in writing.
  • Take notes or have someone take notes during meetings.
  • Don’t attend meetings alone. If you can bring someone with you for support and to help take notes, it really helps.  Try not to attend meetings alone.
  • Remember you are teaching by modeling good behavior and effective communication. Your efforts won’t just affect yourself and/or your loved one, but the community as whole as well.
  • Assert yourself with common courtesy but be firm. Begin with the end in mind and don’t let yourself get side tracked.

Another important thing to do in order to be a good self-advocate is getting to know your community.  What kind of resources are there that can help you?  You may gain knowledge and support from connecting with resources like: local support groups, advocacy agencies, faith communities, community associations, and private providers.

Each county has resources that can connect you to the special needs community.  PAVE has great programs and resources to help individuals build and strengthen self-advocacy skills such as Community Inclusion for Everyone (CIE) and Parent Training and Information (PTI).  You can go to PAVE’s website at www.wapave.org  to learn about additional programs.  Also, you can connect with your local DDA coordinator to get a listing of other local agencies and support groups/programs in your area such as Parent to Parent, People First, and others.  Attending local meetings is a way of connecting with like-minded people who have some of the same passions you do and can help you gain a deeper understanding of local relevant issues.

Becoming a strong self-advocate is key in achieving successful independence and healthy living as an adult in your community.  Always remember there are many people who are ready and willing to help you, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for assistance along the way!

 

‘What’s wrong with your brother?’

As a second grade student, this was a daunting question.

I knew Josh was different, but I didn’t know how to adequately explain the nature of his disability; he was just Josh, my brother. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an unwaveringly accepting and unconditionally loving family, as well as being a rather outspoken child, so I was able to converse with my parents about what exactly made Josh different and to find the best way to address these questions.

According to the Arc of the United States, an estimated seven million ‘typically developing’ American children have a sibling with a disability. These siblings often face many of the same challenges and joys as their parents, but they are also faced with their own set of unique tribulations. When a child with a disability is welcomed into the world an array of resources and supports become available to help educate and support parents as they begin their journey into the world of disability activism, but often times in the whirlwind of change and adaptation siblings aren’t directly addressed.

Growing up with a sibling with a disability gave me the opportunity to connect with others in similar situations to share stories and ask questions. We each share an unconditional love for our siblings—laughing about comical things they say or do, joking about the things that annoy us, the sort of stories you would expect to hear about ‘typical’ siblings. Amongst these conversations we also expressed the difficulties of having such a sibling; what it was like to be embarrassed to go out into public for fear of an outburst that would attract unwanted attention, dealing with less of our parents’ attention because our sibling required more, not knowing how to explain to our friends why they couldn’t come over to play, and most of all, dealing with the guilt of having these feelings in the first place.

In my opinion, my parents provided my brothers and myself with the most beneficial forms of support. We maintained open lines of communication and it was acknowledged and accepted that Josh had a disability. We were also provided with the scientific facts about his disability, so when posed with questions by uncertain peers we felt confident giving an intelligent answer. Often times that confidence put others insecurities at ease. Our feelings were always acknowledged and validated, and we learned as a family what it was that each member needed to feel appreciated and supported.