Updated: Apr 25, 2020
I work with families who have school-aged children with special needs navigate through the special education process. What does that mean exactly? First and foremost, I listen to the families. Then I help them put into words what they desire for their child now and in the future, I clarify the jargon, I give them a voice with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, and teach them how valuable they and their child are to our society. I am not a lawyer, but was a special educator for over 25 years and have attended many seminars regarding the law, so I also share the federal law, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as I understand it and will direct a family to seek an attorney if necessary. Thankfully, I have not had to do that. I try to build bridges between the school district and the family to maintain a positive relationship with all members of the IEP team. This is imperative in order to write an appropriate IEP for the child that meets the child's unique needs and prepares that child for further education, employment, and independent living.
When I tell people what I do for a living I often get the question/statement "So, you're an advocate?" My response is usually the same, "No, but technically yes." Based solely on the definition of a special education advocate -someone who works on behalf of a student and student's family to help the family obtain special education services- yes, I am. However, based on the mindset I have regarding advocates, how I approach working with the families, and the results I have achieved, then no, I am more of a coach. I can even call myself a Master IEP Coach® since completing the Master IEP Coach® Mentorship Program.
Having been a former teacher I can remember having advocates attend a few of my meetings. When the term advocate is mentioned in a school setting, the tension rises. Even though I believed I was doing everything correctly and appropriately for the child, it caused anxiety in me. Other members of the IEP team became defensive and seemed ready for a fight. Even if the school is completely in the right (or they think they are), bringing in an advocate is adversarial to them. That is not how I want the families I work with to be perceived. I do not want to be perceived as a "finger pointing, blame throwing, carrying pitchforks and torches" person. I want the families and myself to be considered an equal part of the IEP team. I want the child with special needs to be the main focus. I want to see all children, with or without disabilities, be successful in life. That looks different for every individual and that's okay. I want to work with both groups to find solutions, come up with ideas, try new things, and really collaborate with one another to write an appropriate IEP for the student.
Since becoming an IEP Consultant and Master IEP Coach® I have become involved in many groups online and in person (when allowed). Many of these groups are filled with parents of children with special needs. Some of the groups are filled with what I call "Adversarial Advocates." These are the people whose only intent seems to be "finger pointing, blame throwing, and carrying pitchforks and torches." I have nothing against those advocates. I believe they are necessary in some cases. It's probable that their type of advocacy is why and who we have to thank for our special education laws. However, that is not my style. I have read comments in these groups, personally spoken with parents, or received emails from parents feeling very torn and worried about what is happening with their child's education. There seems to be two very different approaches on how this should be addressed.
Right now we are traversing through choppy, uncharted waters as we have had to embrace remote learning. Right now, no student is getting the education they were expecting to get for the remainder of the school year. Right now, educators are doing the best they can. So many of my teacher friends are agonizing over not being able to teach their students face to face. TMany of them are figuring out how to parent and teach simultaneously, while learning new technology. The school districts are scrambling trying to figure out the best way to reach and serve all students. Everyone, teachers and students, are now learning differently. Some students are thriving with this new way while others are not even able to check in to get the work. Some students have a parent who was home (working for an outside company or for themselves) already and others have parents who are trying to balance working from home and teaching their child(ren). Some are dealing with sickness, loss of jobs, less income, and all are worrying at some level. If this is an ideal situation for a family, they would be the exception. Children who learned differently from the start have even more challenges. Their families have even more challenges. Their teachers and therapists have more challenges.
School-aged students who have been identified under a category of IDEA are guaranteed a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
Is my child's IEP being followed exactly as it is written? Probably not.
Is that okay? Nope but there isn't another option.
Are children without that guarantee getting the same education as they were in February? Nope.
Is any school district doing this with intent to harm? Nope.
Is every school district across the country trying to figure out how to reach and serve their students? Yep.
Have some school districts not provided any services to anyone for fear of being sued because they could not provide equal access to all students? Yep.
Is that right? Nope.
Has FAPE been denied to all students with IEP's? I am not a lawyer, so I cannot give a legal answer. In my opinion I do not believe the A in FAPE is being denied.
Is there anything that can be done for a child with an IEP who is now not getting the services as they were written in the IEP? Yep and Nope.
Based on a 1982 court case the word appropriate, as it pertains to special education, means "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive some educational benefits." In more recent years, courts are upholding a slightly different definition. That definition states "access to the general curriculum to meet the challenging expectations established for all children.” What does that mean? "While the law does not require services that necessarily maximize a student’s potential, it does require services, accommodations, and modifications that give the student the greatest chance of progressing towards grade-level performance based on state and local standards." (quoted material in this paragraph from What Is An “Appropriate” Education? By Matt Saleh, PhD, JD) I also understand the meaning (again, not a lawyer) to be-- appropriate to the individual student in light of what is comparable for the general education population.
What I am seeing now is that state and local standards have been changed. General education students are not receiving the same education they were a month ago. The expectations established for all children at this time has been changed. General education students are not expected to learn new material for which they will be held accountable in order to proceed to the next grade like they were a month ago. If the general education populations standards and expectations have changed then to me it makes sense that so would the special education populations standards and expectations. This is why I don't think the A in FAPE is being denied. According to our federal and many state governments it is not safe for large groups of people to be together and even small groups of people if one or more of the small group is immunocompromised. For health reasons, schools have been shut down in almost all states for the remainder of this school year. Most general education students are required to spend a small fraction of the time they used to spend on school, then of course the special education students would receive less time than what they used to also. What is happening now is crisis learning, NOT homeschooling. As I have read several state board of education directives the main focus is to keep the child healthy, both physically and mentally. Many districts across the country are saying that if the anxiety to the student or to the family is too much, to put education on the back burner. Teachers across the country have shared a Facebook post stating they can help a student with education deficits when we return, but they won't be able to fix social-emotional trauma that prevents the brain from learning. In other words, teachers are saying not to stress about academics. This post encourages parents to laugh, relax, play games, and let your child make positive memories during this time.
I am working with my families to make the best of the situation and to follow those guidelines set by teachers and state boards of education. We are having virtual IEP Meetings with schools now to discuss what is going on and make plans for when school is back in a building. We are collaborating and communicating with districts to get the problems fixed with technology, therapies, lessons, accommodations, etc. Both parties are providing grace to one another which will shore up a good relationship for the future. I know there are some of the "adversarial" advocates shouting for parents to fight for compensatory services or extended school year because FAPE is not being provided. Many of the parents haven't even seen any outcomes of the services they are being provided. They don't know if their child will improve, they are just assuming they won't and blaming the school. I worry about that.
Why do I worry about that? I worry because that does not build bridges but tears them down or at least makes them weaker. Schools and teachers know they aren't providing the same level of education as they were in February and early March, but they aren't doing so because they wanted this. To me, it is like being rear ended then going after the local mechanic who put the brakes on your car three weeks before the accident. The brakes on your car had nothing to do with the accident and the mechanic had no control of what was going to happen once you left the shop. The local school district had no control over the COVID 19 virus or the school shutdown, but they are working diligently to try to help. Demanding compensatory services right away seems harsh and punitive.
I worry because what would compensatory services or extended school year (ESY) even look like? Who would provide those services? Where would the money come from to pay for those services? Teachers, at least the ones I've spoken too, are overwhelmed and working even more than they were before this happened. I can't imagine any of them would want to or be able to provide more services in a couple of months. Also, are schools even going to be allowed to open to provide the services? The federal government wrote the IDEA law and promised major funding to make it happen, but they have never fulfilled that promise. States were supposed to pick up some of the funding, too. Guess what? That hasn't happened in most states either, not their full amount anyway. Many schools across the country were in peril of consolidation because of budget issues before this happened. If tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars would be necessary to provide compensatory services and ESY, that could completely shut down schools that were barely hanging on. I don't forsee any one district wanting to work with a family or families who made another school close its doors. If schools consolidate that would mean bigger classrooms, I mean more students, and research shows that isn't good either.
I worry about the days when we return to school and families are calling IEP meetings left and right to demand their child's compensatory services. I worry because that will mean even more time the special and general education teachers and therapists will miss teaching their students while they attend all the meetings. I worry again about the relationships between the families and the school districts and how that will ultimately affect the child.
This is a sad situation and I don't believe there are any easy answers. However, I do believe there are steps that can be taken now to maintain your child's IEP and keep a good relationship with the school.