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Article of Interest - IDEA

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Parents: The Invisible Majority
by Tricia & Calvin Luker, September 24, 2003, Our Children Left Behind

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It is crunch time. Our last chance to make personal, visual contact with our US Senators is October 4-12, 2003, while they are home during a Senate recess. The Senate almost certainly will consider S1248, the bill to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA], sometime after this early October recess. Our Children Left Behind [OCLB] has covered the primary talking points for S1248 in previous homepages. We need to use this last opportunity for “face time” to give our Senators the parent/family viewpoint. So far, the IDEA reauthorization process has been school-driven, not family-driven. The focus has been on making things easier for and more convenient for the schools.

We need to be sure that each Senator knows something about the reality of the special education process for the individual family and child or children who receive IDEA services. It is not enough to talk about the technical language of S1248. We need to talk about how hard it is now to work with IDEA, and how much more difficult it will become if the proposed changes are made. Our Senators must understand the practical realities that we confront on a regular basis. Here are our realities:

Schools drive the IEP meeting times. They choose the dates, times and places of meetings, frequently have proposed IEPs already prepared, and generally set time limits for how long they are willing to allow the meeting to go on before the IEP Team meeting and the IEP itself are concluded. Parents receive the notices and have to scramble like crazy to clear the time off work, arrange for care for all their children, change appointment schedules with other professionals involved in their child’s life, arrange for their own transportation to and from the meeting and make other arrangements and accommodations in order to meet the school’s schedule.

Schools drive the meeting. When is the last time any of you attended an IEP Team meeting where the number of parents, parent advocates and friends of the child outnumbered the school professionals sitting around the table? That never happens. How many times have you been outnumbered as much as 10 to 1 by school professionals? Imagine yourself a single parent, late teens or early 20s, just beginning to learn about the process? Talk about intimidation – all these “professional” who know the law, the system and the school. And there we are, the parents, alone.

Schools drive the paperwork. How many times have we prepared several points in advance to raise at our child’s IEP Team meeting, only to discover that once we’ve made the points they don’t show up anywhere on the IEP itself? It almost makes us feel invisible. When is the last time we remember there being anything resembling a vote on a program issue or a serious disagreement among the school professionals before the IEP form itself was filled out? How many of us now attend computer-assisted IEPs, where we don’t even get to see what is being written as the meeting progresses? And how many get a really fair opportunity to carefully review the IEP as written before we are pressured either to sign it in agreement or to request a due process hearing? How many others of us are told that the school will mail us the IEP once they get it written up, only to discover when you receive it that it has subtle but significant changes from what was agreed to at the meeting? How many of us end up receiving a legible copy rather than a fourth generation carbon or photocopy?

Schools own the resources. How do schools prepare for IEP Team meetings? They hold prep meetings during teacher break times. They consult taxpayer purchased educational and programming resources they keep in their offices/classrooms. They call taxpayer compensated professionals and consultants for advice and discussion. They consult with their taxpayer supported special education department and experts. They run their plans and concerns by their taxpayer provided law firms and school attorneys. They use their computers purchased by the taxpayers to participate in professional list serves and organizational entities who provide on-line resources. If they have an IEP preparation need they have a resource available, paid for by the taxpayers, to meet that preparation need.

Compare the school’s resources to the family’s resources. Most families have few or no educational resources at home. There child’s doctors and other professionals rarely involve themselves in special education and know little or nothing about the process. Many schools use gag orders so that if a parent wants to ask how the student is doing in school they only can gain that information from the teacher, principal or special education director and not necessarily from the professional or paraprofessional who is providing the service. Want to bone up on special education law? The school might give us a book on “procedural safeguards” with no tips or explanations to guide us in the finer legal points of programming. The public library might provide some greater information, if you have the time to wait to speak with reference librarians, find the books on the shelves and follow them to other sources (of course, after you have made all the child-care, work and other arrangements that we talked about in scheduling IEP meetings). Want somebody to help you prepare for the meeting? Who are you going to call?

All states have Parent Training and Information Centers [PTIs], but the quality of resources available and the knowledge level of the information specialist vary greatly from state to state and from office to office. Most, if not all, PTIs are on limited budgets and have to fight for scarce public grant funds to pay for their programs. They have nowhere near the resources necessary to respond to the dramatic needs of the families who call them. Many PTIs do not provide direct advocacy support at either the preparation or the IEP attendance stages.

Want help from other families who have gone through the IEP process and perhaps understand it better than you? Want a volunteer parent advocate? Again, scarce. Seasoned parent advocates have to make all the same arrangements to accommodate their family needs that you have to make so that they can help you prepare. Most parents don’t have that time. Volunteers face the same arrangement challenges and frequently limit their availability either by geography or by subject expertise. Volunteers don’t have budgets. They give what they can in copying, postage, gas money and related expenses but unless they are affiliated with a formal parent volunteer program – also very scarce – they can only go as far as their resources take them.

So maybe you want to call a lawyer to help you prepare for the meeting. You will pay for it out of your own pocket. There might be a nearby lawyer who handles special education issues for families, but don’t hold your breath. In Michigan there are perhaps 10 family-focused attorneys who do special education law on a regular basis for Michigan’s 200,000+ students eligible for special education services.

Schools always are “represented” at IEP Team meetings. Whether it is the building principal, a special education director or area manager, the school has a representative who understands special education law. For the really tough cases they can have their school lawyer attend the meeting. Families have no similar option. Already outnumbered at the table, most families are lucky if they receive volunteer or professional help to prepare for the meeting, let alone have those representatives attend the meeting with them.

Is it any wonder, given all of the control that schools already have over the IEP process, and the resource control they have over the parents, that schools now would push for the elimination of short-term objectives, greater disciplinary power and attorney fee caps? As intimidating as the process already is to parents, we can only begin to imagine how much more hostile it will become to families if these provisions pass.

Our next homepage will discuss the attorney/volunteer issue in greater detail. If you want to understand what is happening with S1248 and HR1350 you need only understand that the present system is already overwhelming to parents and families. Take away scarce resources, volunteer parent advocates and parent attorneys and you are left with a system completely controlled by the schools. Is this really what Congress wants to do to 6.5 million students and their parents and families? Ask your Senator that question.

Copyright 2003 by Tricia and Calvin Luker. Permission to forward, copy and post this article is granted so long as it is attributed to the authors and  


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