Parents as Team Partners: Options When You Don’t Agree with the School

A Brief Overview

  • Not every meeting with the school ends in agreement. This article provides information about what parents can do when they disagree with decisions made by the school.
  • When parents disagree with a school’s recommendation, they may need more information and time to organize ideas and priorities to prepare for a meeting. Read on for ideas about how to find common ground and resolve conflicts.
  • Read PAVE’s companion article, Get Ready for Your Meeting with a Handout for the Team.
  • Support for Washington State parents is available from PAVE and the Three O’s: OSPI, OEO, OCR. Read on to know what the O’s can do for you and for links to information from these important agencies.
  • Read on to learn more about these dispute resolution options: Facilitated IEP, Mediation, Resolution Meeting, Due Process and Citizen Complaint.

Full Article

Parents partner with schools when they work together on a team to design and support an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The federal law that governs special education describes parent participation as a primary principle. However, not every meeting feels collaborative to every family. This article provides information about what parents can do when they disagree with decisions made by the school.

NOTE: PAVE has an article about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that describes key features in more detail.

Federal law has protected children in special education since 1975. Since the beginning families have been included as important school partners, with formal and informal options for disputing school decisions. When teamwork gets challenging, parents have options that are described in the “Procedural Safeguards,” an IDEA requirement.

Do your homework to be truly prepared for a meeting

What are the options when a parent disagrees with a teacher, evaluator, specialist, school district representative, or principal? Parents can start by understanding that their right to participate is protected by federal law, as described above.

Still, deciding when to challenge a school’s recommendation can feel overwhelming. Clearly, parents want the very best for their children. It can help to remember that schools want the best for children also. Seeking common ground at an IEP team meeting is the place to begin. Asking questions instead of aiming accusations can radically impact the direction of a conversation. Here are a few open-ended question starters:

  • Help me understand…
  • I’m wondering if you could explain to me…
  • Here’s the problem from my point of view. What would you suggest…
  • Is there another way to look at this problem?

The IEP team meets at least once a year to review progress and set goals for the next year, but parents or school staff have the right to request an IEP meeting any time they have concerns that the program isn’t working.

Being fully prepared for a meeting can help parents move the team toward outcomes they seek. See PAVE’s companion article about how to prepare a handout for a meeting.

Define the problem and set a goal

To problem-solve as a team member, it helps to first define the problem and consider what outcomes are most important. Parents can get overwhelmed by emotion. Contemplating that energy and time are limited can help parents set priorities and spend their resources on what matters most—usually a child’s health and success!

Preparing for a meeting with the school might require some research:

  • Is there a federal or state requirement that you need to understand? PAVE’s website might have an answer, so look around in our Learning and School section.
  • Is there a policy you need to read? Ask for copies of any relevant school or district policies or reports.
  • Do you have the most recent copies of your child’s educational evaluation and/or the IEP document? Get copies and understand what’s in those documents. For example, if the child has an unmet need, it’s possible that a new evaluation is needed in order to set a new goal and establish skill-building with specialized instruction.
  • Do you need better understanding of your child’s needs? Talk to providers and other experts and have them provide letters for the school. You can help the school team better understand your child’s needs in light of the circumstances of a unique disability.
  • Learn to be an advocate AND help your child learn to self-advocate! Asking your child for input can help direct you and school staff toward what matters most.

Find resources and allies

PAVE’s team of Parent Resource Coordinators (PRCs) are available to help you prepare for a meeting with the school. Click Get Help on our website.

In addition to PAVE, support for parents is available from the Three O’s:

  • OSPI–The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides guidance about state policies
  • OEO–The Office of the Educational Ombuds provides online resources and 1:1 support when issues are not resolved through collaboration
  • OCR–The Office for Civil Rights can help with questions about equity and access

Preparing for a meeting with the school can include asking someone to attend with you. Having a trusted friend, provider, family member or another ally can help you track the conversation and keep your emotions in check. Ask that person to take notes for you.

At an IEP meeting the team can agree to adjust supports and goals, request additional evaluations, and work together with the student to improve outcomes and access. Going into that meeting with a clear plan and agenda can help parents direct the conversation.

Seek common ground

Even with good teamwork and great intentions, there will be times of disagreement. In moments where collaboration feels impossible, it can help to return the conversation to common ground. For example, a parent can remind the team that the student is skilled at something and look for ways to build on that skill to improve another area of need.

Parents can ask questions that are respectful and genuine. For example, “Given the expertise at the table, can someone help me understand a best-practice strategy to address this problem?”

Another idea is to return to the key issue—the child’s success or struggle. If a conversation gets off track and argumentative, a parent can redirect the conversation by asking, “Can we circle back to the most important issue, which is figuring out how best to help NAME successfully [do something specific]?”

Read your Procedural Safeguards manual and learn about your options

At official meetings with the school, parents are offered a copy of their Procedural Safeguards.  This manual describes the rights of special education students and the process of delivery. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides a downloadable copy.

A national resource for information about parent rights is the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE). CADRE provides a resource that describes resolution options in a side-by-side comparison chart.

Here is a brief description of the different types of resolution meetings. Each title is a link to a resource with more information:  

IEP Facilitation

An impartial person assists the IEP team with communication and problem-solving by leading the work-group, which is focused on improving the Individualized Education Program and writing changes into the IEP document. The facilitator asks the team to clarify where they agree and where they disagree. IEP facilitation is provided at no cost to the parent, and the IEP team still makes all official decisions. The facilitator doesn’t have any influence and cannot make recommendations. The third-party facilitator is there to help the group clarify issues to see if they can agree on a program. The goal is to build common agreements and understanding.

Mediation

This voluntary process brings parents and school staff together with a third-party trained in mediation, which is an intervention to help individuals find common ground and problem-solve. A mediator may have knowledge of special-education laws and services. The meeting is confidential: What happens in the room stays in the room and cannot be used later as evidence in a legal proceeding. However, the group may choose to sign a legally enforceable agreement that could be admissible in court. Sometimes families and districts agree to try mediation after a Due Process complaint is filed to attempt to resolve a conflict informally. Mediation is available at no cost to the parent, individual, or school unless a party chooses to pay for legal counsel.  Mediation is not guaranteed to resolve disagreements.

Resolution Meeting

A Resolution Meeting can be held during another dispute process and may solve the problem informally so that the other process is suspended. A resolution meeting is required within 15 days after a parent files a Due Process Complaint, which is a way to request a formal, legal hearing. If the school district does not hold the Resolution Meeting on time, a parent may ask the hearing officer or administrative law judge to start the hearing timeline. If held, the Resolution Meeting provides a chance for parents and schools to agree before decision-making authority transfers to an administrative law judge. Attorneys may attend, but schools cannot bring an attorney unless the family also brings a lawyer. If the family and school reach agreement, they can sign a legally enforceable document. The parties have up to 30 calendar days to work on a resolution before a hearing.

Due Process Complaint (Request for Hearing)

A Due Process Complaint initiates a legal process and is a way for a parent, student or public agency, such as a school district, to request a formal hearing before an administrative law judge. Due Process is the most adversarial of all the dispute engagement options and can impact a family’s ongoing relationship with the school.

This formal, legal process can address disagreements in many areas of special education. Here are some examples: identification, evaluation, educational placement or service provision. Schools are required to initiate Due Process if a parent formally requests an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) because of a dispute related to the school’s own evaluation or a refusal to evaluate, and the school refuses to pay for the IEE.

In most cases, a Due Process dispute in special education determines whether the school district is providing a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to a child who needs or is suspected of needing special education and related services.

The two sides are referred to as “the parties.” To request a Due Process hearing, one party submits very specific information, in writing, to OSPI and to the opposing party.

The due process hearing request includes:

  • The full name of the student
  • The address of the student’s residence
  • The name of the student’s school
  • If the student is a homeless child or youth, the student’s contact information
  • A description of the nature of the problem, including facts relating to the problem
  • A proposed resolution of the problem, to the extent known and available

Required forms and process are outlined in the Procedural Safeguards, and the school offers a copy to families at the beginning of this process. Until a Due Process decision is final, the child remains in the current educational placement. This provision is called “pendency” or “stay put.”

A written decision with findings of fact and orders is made by an administrative law judge and can be appealed to a higher court. The Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA), requires that Due Process complaints be filed within two years of the date when a party knew or should have known of the problem. The written decision is issued within 45 calendar days from the end of the resolution period, unless a party requests a specific extension. The decision is legally binding. However, if a decision is appealed the resolution may be put on hold until the appeal is final.

Public funds pay for the hearing, the hearing officer/administrative law judge, and use of any facilities. Each party pays any fees due to attorneys or witnesses.

Expedited Hearing Request & Resolution Meeting

An Expedited Hearing follows the rules of Due Process but is used when parents disagree with:

  1. a school district’s discipline-related decision that affects a child’s placement
  2. a decision from a Manifestation Determination review, which is a meeting to decide whether a child’s behavior is related to his or her disability

Faster timelines require a Resolution Meeting within seven calendar days, unless the parties agree in writing to skip the meeting or use Mediation instead. The hearing schedule proceeds if the issue is not resolved within 15 calendar days. The hearing must be held within 20 school days of the date the request was filed. The decision is due 10 school days after the hearing.

Citizen Complaint

Any individual or organization can file a complaint with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to allege that a Washington school district or another public agency violated federal or state law related to special education. Regulations governing the development and content of an IEP are contained in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A).

Citizen complaints are investigated by OSPI. Citizen complaints must be filed within one year of the alleged violation. OSPI issues a written decision within 60 calendar days of receipt with findings, conclusions, and reasons for the final decision. The response includes actions required to address the needs of the child or children related to the complaint.

The response may include timelines that specify calendar days or school days. Please note that “school days” will exclude weekends, holidays or any other days when school is not in session. Timelines for “calendar days” include all days, including weekends.

Good luck in your journey toward resolution!

Each of these options is available any time a parent or student disagrees with an action taken by the school. Getting well-informed and organized is key in any process. Start by clarifying how to direct energy and what the desired outcome will look like.

To get help and ask questions, parents can contact PAVE or one of the “Three O’s” listed above: OSPI, OEO, OCR.

 

Get Ready for Your Meeting with a Handout for the Team

Parents and students who go to meetings prepared and organized are more likely to come away feeling heard and with a good action plan. This article can help you and your student prepare a one-page handout to share with the school or another service provider. Most important is to highlight the student as the most important person at the meeting—even if he/she isn’t ready to attend in person!

If a young person is ready to lead all or part of a meeting, PAVE encourages this! Understanding the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and facilitating an IEP meeting is a great way to build lifelong skills and confidence. See PAVE’s article: Attention Teens: You Can Lead Your IEP Meeting.

For a student who isn’t ready or able to attend the IEP meeting, helping to prepare a document can be a great way to participate. Note that this form can be adapted for any service delivery meeting at school or in a childcare or medical setting.

Keep your handout short to highlight your most important points. This handout brings your child and your concerns to the attention of the group and sets a tone for the meeting that is child- and family-centered.

Note: You can send your handout to the school before the meeting, so team members have a chance to read it in advance. If there isn’t time to distribute it before the meeting, you can take a moment when you arrive at the meeting to hand out your one-pager and encourage everyone to take a few moments to read it.

The top of your handout should include your contact information and other basics about the meeting. Your handout will become part of the official meeting record, so get formal and include all of this:

  • Parent Name: Jane Hearmenow
  • Phone/email: 555-555-5555/memail@thisplace.com
  • Meeting Date/Time: XX/XX/XXXX, 3-5 pm
  • Location: Anywhere Elementary  
  • Topic: IEP Review, Evaluation Review, Section 504 Plan, Re-entry after Discipline, Medical provider appointment, etc.

Next you want to highlight what makes your child awesome. This is also a place where your child can voice his/her own opinions and “self-advocate” for accommodations or help. Here are sentence starters that might help you create bullet points or a paragraph about your child:

  • NAME enjoys…
  • He is motivated when… 
  • She’s interested in…
  • He wants more help in the area of…
  • She said she likes school the most when …
  • He says teachers are helpful when they…
  • She says she wants to learn more about …

Include a Photograph!

A photograph of your child shows the Very Important Person (VIP) and can make everyone smile as the meeting starts.

The final section of your handout describes your concerns. You may need to start on scratch paper with a longer list and then edit to prioritize your key points. Remember that you want the team members to be able to read your handout quickly. You also want this list to help track your priorities at the meeting. If it gets too long, you won’t be able to use it as a handy reference.

Here is a sample short paragraph to get you started, and your introductory paragraph can be followed by key bullet points:

My son/daughter’s disability in the area of [briefly describe the condition] makes school difficult because… My biggest concern is that …

My primary topics for today’s meeting include:

  • A need that isn’t being met
  • A communication or behavior challenge
  • Something you want to change because it isn’t working
  • A goal that isn’t being met
  • Something working well that needs further development
  • Anything else concerning

If you or a support person takes notes at the meeting, it’s great to conclude by making a list of Action Items. Make a simple chart to list:

  • The agreement/action
  • Name of person responsible
  • Deadline
  • Communication plan, so you have follow-through

If your meeting is part of a formal special education process, such as an IEP meeting, the school provides parents with a letter called a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to reflect agreements and discussion at the meeting. Your handout and notes provide checks and balances with the school’s PWN and guarantees that your concerns and those of your student are part of that formal meeting record.

The website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides information about PWN requirements for schools in Washington. According to OSPI, “Prior Written Notice is a document outlining important school district decisions about your student’s special education program. It is not a meeting invitation. School districts must provide you with Prior Written Notice after a decision has been made regarding matters affecting your student’s IEP or eligibility for special education, but before any decision is implemented or changes to your student’s program take place.

“Prior Written Notice must be provided in your native language or other mode of communication that you understand.”

PAVE provides a variety of articles on core topics related to special education, including the IEP process, goal tracking, evaluation and Section 504 Plans.

The Parent Input Form for a Meeting with the School  is here for easy download. If a download is not possible, all the information is above. If you need any support with this form, please email PAVE

IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was passed in 1990 and has been amended. The IDEA provides children with qualifying disabilities, from birth to age 21, with the right to a free public education that is specifically designed to meet their individual needs.

Some important concepts carried over from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. That was the first United States law that required schools to provide Special Education to all children with disabilities. This article provides a quick summary of the IDEA, which is unique as a law that provides an individual entitlement.

Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program that’s already built and available. The strengths and challenges of a specific student are assessed, and a team including family members and professionals works together to design a program.

The local school district is responsible for providing the program—specialized instruction, services, accommodations and anything else that the team has identified as necessary to provide the student with a high-quality education. Progress measurements are guaranteed under the IDEA to ensure that the student finds meaningful success, in light of the circumstances of disability. If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming that are deemed necessary, then the school district is responsible for creating a program and placement that does meet the student’s needs.

The federal law drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures. Title 34, Part 104 is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office of Civil Rights Department of Education. In Washington State, rules for the provision of special education are in Chapter 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC).

The IDEA is written in three parts: A, B and C. Part A describes the general goals and purpose of the law. The right of a child with disabilities to receive an education that prepares that child for adult life is stated: ​”Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society…

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Part B of the IDEA covers children ages 3 through 21—or until graduation from high school. Students who receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are covered under Part B, and the principles listed below describe IDEA’s Part B protections.

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 8.

To qualify for an IEP under the IDEA, a student meets criteria in one of 14 disability categories
Autism Deaf -blindness Deafness
Emotional Disturbance Hearing Impairment Intellectual Disability
Multiple Disabilities Orthopedic Impairment Other Health Impairment
Specific Learning Disability Speech / Language Impairment Traumatic Brain Injury
Visual Impairment/Blindness Developmental Delay (ages 0-8) Traumatic Brain Injury

The disability must be found to have an adverse impact on learning. When a student qualifies for services, specialized instruction is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability in order to access meaningful learning. PAVE provides comprehensive articles about evaluation and the IEP process.

IDEA’s Primary Principles:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is not only free but also “appropriate,” designed just for them. Under IDEA rules, schools provide special education students with “access to FAPE,” so that’s a common way to talk about whether the student’s program is working.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at children with potential disabilities. There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the child’s education can be improved.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): The IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper. The document that describes a student’s special education program is carefully written and needs to be reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and parents/guardians. Every student on an IEP gets some extra help from teachers, but the rest of the program depends on what a student needs to learn. Learning in school isn’t just academic subjects. Schools also help students learn social and emotional skills and general life skills. By age 16, an IEP includes a plan for life beyond high school, and helping the student make a successful transition into being an adult can be a primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” That means that regular classrooms and school spaces are first choice as the “least restrictive” places. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to be successful, then the IEP team considers other options, such as a structured learning classroom. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA makes it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision-making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices.
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. Parents may receive procedural safeguards any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a citizen’s request or a due process complaint. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally.

    PAVE provides information, resources and, in some circumstances 1:1 support through our Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. To get help, reach out through our Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.

Get SMART About Tracking Progress and Updating Goals with Your IEP Team

Holiday break is a good time to check on your student’s progress in school. You can take another look at the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and compare the goals to current progress. If you don’t have a current progress reports on IEP goals, mid-year is a good time to ask school staff to provide them.

If you don’t believe the student’s progress is on track, you can request an IEP team meeting to discuss the program and what might need to change. If you request an IEP meeting that isn’t a required annual review, you can formalize your request with a letter that describes your reason. Concern about progress toward goals might be why you want to meet. PAVE has a letter template to help with your written request.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that schools provide students who are eligible for special education services with access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The Supreme Court  in 2017 determined that in order to meet the requirements of FAPE, schools must provide students with opportunities to make meaningful progress toward IEP goals. Schools also must provide clear explanation for their decisions about services, according to federal standards.

An acronym that can help you determine whether the annual goals in your student’s IEP are appropriately robust is SMART. PAVE provides a handout to help you use this acronym when participating in the IEP process.

S = Specific

M = Measurable

A = Achievable

R = Relevant

T = Time-Bound

Goals are based on educational evaluations, which determine where a student is strong and needs more help. The data from an evaluation will help the IEP team write statements called Present Levels of Performance (PLOP), and these statements form the basis for goal-setting and program design.

As you review goals you might think about your student’s placement—the locations where education is provided. The IDEA requires students receive education in the Least Restrictive Environment to the maximum extent appropriate. A student’s lack of progress might be related to where the student is placed. This could be a topic for the IEP team to discuss when goals are reviewed.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees all school districts in Washington State, provides a variety of “model forms,” guidance documents for schools and families, including a downloadable “Parent Input Form” that can help you makes notes to share with the IEP team.

For additional resources about IEP goals, you can visit the following websites:

Parent Center Hub.org

Understood.org

IEP Goal Tracker from Understood.org

OSPI Special Education Guidance for Families

 

SMART Goals

In general, goals:

  • Are required as part of the Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Are designed to help a student make meaningful progress in light of the circumstances
  • Encourage a student’s progress toward grade-level standards and participation with peers
  • May focus on academics, Social Emotional Learning or skills for everyday living, called Functional Skills

Present Levels of Performance (PLOP): Goals flop without good PLOP!

Not every school uses the term PLOP, but this acronym refers to the part of the IEP where a student’s achievements and challenges are described. A lot of this information comes from evaluation, but parents, teachers and providers can add information. The goals get built from this information, so it’s important. We need to know where we are to figure out where we’re going!

This section of the IEP describe what’s going on with the student in specific areas: cognitive, adaptive, and developmental/functional. The statements include two required elements, dependent on the age of a child.

  • How the child’s disability affects the child’s involvement and progress in general education​
  • For preschoolers, how the disability affects the child’s participation in appropriate activities within the natural environment​

These statements impact a child’s placement and how “Least Restrictive Environment is provided to the maximum extent appropriate,” as it’s written in special education law.

Parents can make sure that the strengths and interests of a child are described. Knowing how to teach skills and encourage growth based on a child’s natural talents and curiosity sets up an important collaboration between the child and the team and can inspire everyone toward progress!  ​

Determine whether the IEP Goals are SMART:

S             Specific … Is the targeted skill clearly named or described? How will it be taught?

M          Measurable… How will progress toward the goal be observed or measured? 

A            Achievable… Is this goal realistic for the student, considering current abilities?

R            Relevant… Is the skill something that is useful and necessary for the student’s success in school and life?

T             Time-Bound… What specific date is set to determine whether the goal is met?