Special ed law tips

TACA’s special ed law day was amazing — informative, interesting, and jam-packed with stuff I’m putting to use right away.

I walked away wishing I had known some of this before, as I’ve already broken a few “rules” as far as how best to interact with Regional Center and the school district, but live and learn! I also felt so humbled to be around other parents who have been on this road with their children and done so much. One mom put her son on the GFCF diet just four days after his autism diagnosis and then used an advocate when dealing with the Regional Center to negotiate many more hours of therapy, including in home, than were originally offered. I was nowhere near that up to speed with the research or ready to act that soon after Nate’s diagnosis. It took us several months before even starting enzymes, and I never knew Nate could or should have more hours of therapy. However, I am so thankful for the progress he has made regardless of whether he should or shouldn’t have had more done earlier.

So, back to the law day. There were five sessions with speakers including special ed lawyers, a TACA mom, a Pepperdine law professor (loved him), and a neuropsychologist. Here is some of the most salient information from their talks:

IDEA (federal law)

  • Sections to know: 1400, 1401 (definitions), 1412 (least restrictive environment info), 1414, and 1415.
  • The IDEA requires education must be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which means maximum exposure to typical peers.
  • Education must be individualized and appropriate to the child’s needs; it should not be the school district trying to fit the child into its existing program(s).
  • If the program the district offers is inappropriate, the parents have the option to place their child in an appropriate private program and seek reimbursement from the district.  

The IEP meeting

  • Go into the meeting with “convicted civility,” not expecting a fight but hoping for cooperation. Making friends with the IEP team is valuable.
  • Create a list of items that your child must have as part of his/her IEP — goals you want to be sure are included. 
  • Tape record it, making sure to give written notice at least 24 hours in advance.
  • Request copies of the assessors’ evaluations in advance, so that you may be familiar with them before the meeting.
  • Have the district explain everything. Ask “stupid” questions, forcing them to get specific. If it’s written the child will have an hour of speech, then with whom? What are that person’s qualifications? Will it be one on one? In a group? If in a group, how many other children? And what types of abilities will those other children have? etc.
  • Think beyond what is currently available at the school.
  • Talk about goals first, then placement. Looking at a goal, determine how many hours a week of each service would be necessary to meet it, then decide how to place the child.

Independent assessments 

  • Get independent assessments for the child if possible. These are expensive, but consider the next points.
  • District assessors are looking for how my child is like other children; independent assessors are looking for how my child is unlike other children and what we can do to help fix that.
  • District assessors, either consciously or subconsciously, are limited in what they can write, and they already know what resources the district has available; independent evaluators don’t answer to anyone about what they’ve written and make recommendations not based on available resources but based on what the child needs.
  • If getting these assessments is not feasible, you may do it later: if you disagree with the district’s assessments, you may request independent assessments at the district’s expense. You are not obligated to use any of the independent evaluators they suggest, but realize, too, that the district will get to see the assessor’s opinions no matter what (whereas if you fund them, you get to see the recommendations first, and you don’t have to share them with the district).

Other tips

  • Keep everything in writing. If you do make a phone call, follow it up with an e-mail detailing all agreements, so you have record of them. 
  • Be leary any time the district mentions something is its “policy.” It very well might be a district policy, but it might violate law, and federal law always trumps district policy. Know your rights (e.g., you have the right to receive all assessments before the IEP meeting).
  • Contact each evaluator individually and ask that he/she include recommendations on the evaluation. Many will balk at this and say it’s up to the IEP team, but keep asking, because the IEP team will only decide based on the expert’s recommendations.
  • Protect your child’s privacy by not allowing information sharing.
  • You can include dietary requirements (GFCF, no soy, etc.) in the IEP, with a prescription from a doctor (like your DAN! doc). The school is required to provide special food; however, cafeteria workers often don’t know about cross-contamination of foods. I plan on sending GFCF food with Nate every day and including in the IEP that he may only eat food I have provided or approved in advance, and I will receive three days’ notice of any food-related event at school.
  • You can also include dietary goals as part of the IEP (e.g., self-monitoring when offered food — knowing what items are off limits, or knowing to ask a parent, etc.).
  • Remember: in these proceedings, your goal is the successful and appropriate education of your child.
  • WrightsLaw.com and AboutAutismLaw.comhave great information. AboutAutismLaw has lots of sample letters, too.