Avoiding Stormy IEP Meetings:Tips for Chairing an IEP Meeting

  Principal Fife was the captain of the good ship HMS Middle School. He knew his mission, keep the school ship shape, hatches battened down, and sailing straight. Through twenty years serving in her majesty’s local education agency he’d successfully weathered the storms sent his way. Why then had the IEP meeting he just chaired been such a disaster? He was assigned to act as the designee for the Director of Special Education and, though he had attended many IEP meetings, this was the first time he scheduled, planned, and chaired an IEP meeting for a student with a disability.

 He thought he’d run a tight meeting. He invited only the essential professionals. To keep the meeting on time as well as non adversarial, he kept discussion to a minimum and discouraged the questioning of the professionals. After all, each professional was an expert in their area of service provision and their recommendations shouldn’t be second guessed by others.  Thanks to him the meeting was completed in ninety minutes (thirty minutes past the one hour he had announced at the outset as the time allotted for the meeting). So, what was the deal? Why did the parents leave angry and threatening to see a lawyer? 

  In the above scenario Principal Fife wanted to have a productive Individualized Educational Program (IEP) meeting. He wanted to develop to a good program for the student, but his emphasis on efficiency sacrificed quality and unnecessarily angered the student’s parents. Sure, there are going to be disagreements in IEP meetings. Educational programming is not an exact science. You should expect that, at times, parents will disagree with the recommendations of the educational professionals and educational professionals will disagree with one another. But proactively seeking parent input in the IEP process can help you avoid unnecessary disagreements and help make those disagreements that may be necessary less disagreeable. 

Eight Tips for Planning and Chairing an IEP Meeting 

1.      Schedule the meeting at a time reasonably convenient for the parents. The IDEA requires this and it makes good sense. Let the parents know in writing when the meeting is scheduled and make sure they know they can reschedule for another time and who to contact if they wish to reschedule. Then, if they ask, reschedule. You do not want parents to call the wrong person and be told the date is set, etched in stone, and cannot be changed. 

2.  Tell the parents, in writing, who the school district is inviting to the IEP meeting and what their role is. The parent may not know what role each professional plays in their child’s life. You don’t need to provide a biography of each IEP team member, but include their title and be sure the parents know they can find out more information if they wish. 

 3.  Make sure all of the right people are invited to the IEP meeting. For example, if the student will be transitioning from elementary school to middle school next year, it might be wise for you to include some of the middle school teachers in this year’s IEP. Or, if you expect a discussion regarding placing the student in a private or non district program, make sure appropriate staff from that program attend the meeting to describe the program and answer questions. Parents and other professionals cannot make a decision about a placement in a vacuum.  

4.  Ask the parents if they would like other individuals invited to the meeting. The IDEA requires that “not less than one of the student’s regular education teachers” attend the meeting, but students in middle school and high school often have more than one regular education teacher. The parent may want to have more than one regular education teacher. The IDEA also allows parents or school personnel to include on the IEP team other individuals who have knowledge or expertise about the child’s special needs. For example, the child may be seeing a therapist privately and the parent may want that individual invited to the meeting.. When it comes to IEP meetings more is not necessarily merrier, but too few is clearly not be enough. 

 5.  Do not set a time limit for the meeting. Try to schedule sufficient time, but if the IEP is not completed in that time, schedule another meeting to complete the IEP.  Be sure that the parents and other professionals know that this IEP will not be rushed to completion.   

6.  Facilitate open discussion among all members of the IEP team. Encourage parents to ask questions of the professionals and the professionals to ask questions of the parents and each other. 

 7.  Translate professional mumbo jumbo. Break down education speak so that all team members understand what is being said. 

 8.  Remember whose child it is. Listen to the parents and treat them as you wish to be treated: as a professional. Parents are members of the team. Remember, that while school professionals want what’s best for the child, they are not the parents. The professionals know the child as their student while at school and during the child’s school career. But the parents will be the child’s parents for life. 

  Using these tips will tell parents that you and the other educators in the IEP meeting really want what is best for their child and value the parents’ input. If parents think that you are not open to their ideas, they can become frustrated and angry. Refusing to reschedule meetings or to invite individuals that the parents would like at the meeting sends a message that you don’t really care. Since you do care, don’t send that message. Also, listening to the parents, having the right people at the meeting, and facilitating open discussion will help ensure that a good plan is developed. There will be disagreements in IEP meetings. That’s’ OK. There are times when IEP meetings may become rancorous and adversarial. That’s OK too. But you don’t want the meeting to become needlessly adversarial because you didn’t seek parent input into putting the IEP team together and  you didn’t respectfully listen to the parents concerns .       

Protecting Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities from Abuse: Connecting CAPTA with the IDEA

      Congress originally passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974 to provide federal funding to states to support Child Protective Service Agencies to help prevent child abuse. Over the years, CAPTA has been amended several times, most recently in 2003 by the Keeping Families and Children Safe Act. Additionally, research has found that children who are abused or neglected often have physical, mental, or emotional problems requiring specialized intervention. Thus, the 2003 CAPTA amendments require that states that receive CAPTA funds develop procedures to refer children who are under the age of three and are involved in a substantiated case of abuse or neglect to Early Intervention Services under Part C of the IDEA. The IDEA’s Part C requires that states have a coordinated interagency program of early intervention services for children with disabilities from birth through age two. Moreover, when the IDEA was amended in 2004, Congress also required ,through Part C, that states have procedures for referring a child who is under the age of three and who is involved in a substantiated case of abuse or neglect for early intervention services under Part C.    

Historically, child welfare workers and early intervention providers have done their good work from within their respective systems, often unaware of how the other system worked. There are differences in the two systems. Child welfare services’ mission is generally keeping children safe. To that end, child welfare workers may work to strengthen families, but their primary focus is protecting the child. Unlike early intervention services, child welfare services may require court involvement, termination of parental rights, and many abused or neglected children are placed out of the home in foster care. Again, while child welfare workers may try to support the family, their mission is to keep the child safe, not to ensure family input and choice in the child protection process.

   On the other hand, under the IDEA Part C early intervention services focus on working cooperatively with families to ensure that infants and toddlers with disabilities receive the early intervention services they need. Under Part C, early intervention services are designed with family involvement and provided through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). Part C emphasizes family choice and input. Moreover, Part C contains specific procedural safeguards for families including the right to informed consent to evaluation and services, appeal rights, and provides for surrogate parents for children without parents. Connecting infants and toddlers who have been abused or neglected to Part C early intervention services requires that the two systems, child welfare and early intervention providers, work together. It is important, therefore, that child welfare workers and early intervention service providers understand how both systems work. 

   To that end, many states have developed interagency agreements between the state child welfare agency and lead agency for Part C early intervention services to ensure cooperation between the two systems. Moreover, many state and local representatives of the two systems have provided conferences, regularly scheduled meetings, and cross trainings to help their colleagues understand how the systems can work together on behalf of children. For information on what is happening in your state you can contact your state child welfare agency through the Child Information Gateway website and/or your state’s Part C lead agency which you can find at the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (NECTAC) website.           

New Jersey Places IDEA Burden of Proof on School Districts

  Yesterday New Jersey’s Governor Corzine signed into law state legislation placing the burden of proof in all special education due process hearings on the school districts regardless of whether the parents or the school district requested the hearing. Similar to New York’s legislation passed last fall, this bill rectifies the Supreme Court decision in Schaffer v Weast placing the burden of proof on the side challenging the IEP. In the Schaffer decision the Supreme Court did not discuss whether a state could pass legislation overriding this rule. The New Jersey legislation went into effect immedialtley upon Governor Corzine’s signing.

Denying Qualified Students with Disabilities Access to Accelerated Programs Violates Section 504 and Title II of the ADA

  Apparently, some schools or school districts have refused to allow qualified students with disabilities the opportunity to participate in challenging academic programs such as Advanced Placement or Baccalaureate classes or other accelerated programs. Moreover, some schools and school districts have required that students with disabilities give up their specialized services in order to participate in these accelerated programs. Thus, on December 26, 2007 the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Dear Colleague letter advising educators that these actions violate Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and if reported will be investigated by OCR. 

  Both Section 504 and Title II of the ADA protect qualified students with disabilities from discrimination based on disability. Schools, therefore, may not use criteria or administer programs in a manner that has the effect of discriminating against students with disabilities.  To be sure, schools are not required to admit students, including students with disabilities, to accelerated programs who do not meet the criteria for acceptance into the program. But if a student with a disability meets the criteria, denying admission based on disability violates 504 and the ADA.  

  The OCR letter also makes the point that participation by a student with a disability in an accelerated program would generally be considered part of regular education or regular classes under Section 504 or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Thus, if a student needed related aids and services to participate in the regular accelerated program, the school cannot deny the student those services. For example, if the student needed Braille materials, extended time on tests, or the use of assistive technology, like a computer in order to take notes, the support services must be provided. 

  Finally, the OCR letter clarifies that if a student needs special education or related aids and services, schools may not require students to give up those services in order to participate in the accelerated program. Both Section 504 and the IDEA require an individualized determination of a student’s educational needs. That determination may result in a decision that the student requires related aids and services in order to participate in the accelerated program. Schools may not ignore the student’s individual needs and automatically deny the student the needed services in an accelerated class or program.

Special Education and Surrogate Parents

             Joanna was frustrated. She had just been assigned to be the social worker for a three year old girl with fetal alcohol syndrome who was in the hospital. The little girl was scheduled to be assessed by the school district to determine if she should receive special education services. Joanna knew that the girl’s parents had to sign and consent to the assessment, but the father was unknown and she hadn’t been able to find the mother. The school district said they needed someone to consent to the assessment but that, legally, Joanna could not. Joanna was sure that there was something more the school district had to do to resolve this dilemma, but she wasn’t sure what. 

            While educational and early childhood services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are provided to children, a child’s right to those services is generally enforced by parents. But some children with disabilities do not have parents or their parents cannot be found. Who looks out for children without parents? The IDEA has a process that appoints a surrogate parent to protect the rights of children with disabilities who don’t have parents. 

           Whenever the parents of a child are unknown, can’t be located, or the child is a ward of the State, an individual must be assigned to act as a surrogate parent for the child in the educational process. The surrogate parent has the rights that any parent would have to make sure that the child with a disability receives appropriate educational services. Thus, the surrogate parent can consent to a child being assessed and placed in special education. The surrogate parent can review the child’s school records and attend individualized educational program (IEP) meetings. Finally, if there is a disagreement between the surrogate parent and the school district regarding the child’s school program, the surrogate parent has the authority and the responsibility to use dispute resolution procedures. Surrogate parents, however, are only appointed to protect the child’s rights in the education process. So, the surrogate parent does not have the authority to act on behalf of the child outside that process.  For example, the surrogate parent cannot consent to medical care or make other treatment decisions for the child that are not educational decisions.   

          Since the surrogate parent is responsible for making educational decisions for the child, the surrogate parent must have the skills and knowledge needed to be able to support the child in the educational process. The surrogate parent should. therefore, know about the child’s rights under the IDEA and the child’s educational needs. School districts and state departments of education often provide training to prospective surrogate parents so they can learn about the IDEA. And, once appointed, a surrogate parent has the right to meet the child, look at the child’s school records, and talk to teachers and other professionals to learn about the child’s educational needs.  

           It is important that the surrogate parent not have personal or professional interests that might conflict with the child’s best interests. For example, if the surrogate parent also worked for the school district serving the child, the surrogate parent’s judgment might be affected by that working relationship. So, to ensure objectivity, the surrogate parent cannot be an employee of the state department of education, the school district, or any other agency that is involved in the child’s education or care. 

            Children with disabilities who do not have parents are often in the care of departments of social services and similar agencies. Since those agencies are involved in the care of the child, social workers cannot be surrogate parents for children served by their agency. That does not mean that a social worker could not attend an IEP meeting or other educational meetings. In fact, the social worker would likely be very helpful in the educational planning process. But the social worker cannot be the surrogate parent.              In some circumstances a child may have been assigned a guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem is a person, usually an attorney, appointed by a court to act in the best interests of a child. If a court has given the guardian ad litem specific authority  to make educational or early childhood service decisions for the child, then the guardian ad litem fulfils the role of parent in that process. Consequently, a  surrogate parent is not necessary.  

           Anyone who believes that a child with a disability may need a surrogate parent can contact the appropriate school district to have a child’s need for a surrogate parent determined.  If you believe a child may need a surrogate parent, or you would like to be a surrogate parent for a child, you should contact the director of special education for the school district or contact your state department of education. The surrogate parent requirement also applies to Part C of the IDEA providing early intervention services to children with disabilities under age three. If you are concerned about appointing a surrogate parent for a child under the age of three, then you should contact your state’s lead agency that is responsible for providing Part C services.

             Being a Surrogate Parent  

           Being a surrogate parent involves getting to know the child, reviewing school records and other information, and talking with teachers and other service providers. It involves participating in IEP meetings. The surrogate parent, like any parent, makes points and asks questions in these meetings to make sure the child is receiving appropriate services. And, if the surrogate parent believes the child is not receiving appropriate services, the surrogate parent should use the IDEA’s dispute resolution procedures to enforce the child’s right to a free appropriate public education. Being a surrogate parent means providing a valuable service protecting the educational rights of children with disabilities who do not have parents.    

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