Category Archives: Advocacy

Avoid Special Education Misunderstandings: Choose words carefully

Vector member chat iconEffective communication is important to good working relationships between parents and schools. This is especially true when it comes to communication about special education. Parents are often the first to express concerns about their child’s development or learning. Parents are also required members of any group that makes decisions about special education evaluation, eligibility or development of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for an eligible student with disability. Whether you are at the beginning of the special education process or an IEP team veteran, it is important to use words that express your thoughts accurately.

Remember that communication is a 2-way street. There is a message that is sent and a message that is received. Unfortunately, they are not always the same thing. The chart below gives examples of words or expressions that may seem similar, but could mean something very different when used in special education-related conversations. Using the wrong term can lead to confusion, frustration and/or an unintended result.

Asking for extra help or tutoring for a struggling student.

This could lead to adjustments by the general education teacher, a referral to the school’s intervention team, or the parent might be told about tutoring available through the school or how they can find a private tutor.

Request for a special education evaluation or special education services.

This will trigger a formal process to gather information and determine if the student is eligible for special education services.

 

Home Bound

The student is enrolled in a public school that typically provides limited educational services either in the home or another community setting.

Home School

In N.C., home schools are considered private schools. Public school systems are not required to provide instruction except under certain circumstances.

Revoke consent for special education services.

All special education services will stop. Parents cannot hold school system responsible for providing FAPE.

Refuse a specific special education service while keeping other services and supports.

IEP Team must consider options and decide how to ensure that the student receives FAPE. There should not be an automatic “all-or-nothing” threat.

Making progress

Student is improving their academic or functional skills.

Catching up

Student is improving at an accelerated rate that will close the skill gap with typical peers over time.

If you are communicating with others and the response is not what you expect, check to make sure that they understood you correctly. It may be necessary to clarify what you mean. Consider using different words or giving an example.  Words do matter!

What is a Facilitated IEP Meeting?

Did you know that the Exceptional Children Division of the North Carolina Department of Public instruction (NCDPI) has a group of trained individuals who can serve as independent facilitators for IEP meetings?

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You will not find IEP meeting facilitation mentioned in the N.C. parent rights handbook because it is not a requirement of the federal special education law, IDEA. However, North Carolina is among many states who offer facilitation as a way to help IEP teams work through challenging situations. Facilitators are often able to help keep problems from getting to the point where formal dispute resolution steps are necessary.

IEP Team members are expected to work together and make good decisions on behalf of children who have disabilities. Sometimes, however, IEP team members have different ideas about what is in the child’s best interest. At other times, emotions, personality conflict or past experiences make it difficult for teams to have serious discussions without meetings becoming uncomfortable or unproductive.

NCDPI has cross-trained selected individuals who have backgrounds in special education or professional mediation to serve as IEP meeting facilitators. These independent facilitators are not employed by NCDPI or by any school district, but NCDPI does pay them for their services.

When to consider requesting a facilitator:

  • It has been difficult for the IEP team to make decisions, even after much discussion
  • Previous IEP meetings have been tense; Team members feel they are not being heard
  • The IEP meeting will have many participants, and complex issues to address.

 

How to request a facilitator:

 

What to expect:

  • The Facilitator will contact the school and family to identify the issues and create an agenda for the IEP meeting. They make sure that the meeting time is long enough to address each issue.
  • Ground Rules are established and the Facilitator will “run” the meeting. Facilitators do not have a say in IEP team decisions. They keep the team focused on the child, and the purpose of the meeting. They make sure that everyone has a chance to ask questions, provide information and offer ideas for consideration.
  • If necessary, the Facilitator will create a list of follow-up Action Items. Individual team members take responsibility for each item on the list, and a target date for completion is set.

 

If all goes well, the FIEP process can serve as a model of how the IEP team can work together effectively to help each student get the free appropriate public education that they deserve.

What counts as a disciplinary removal?

Grunge black answer word round rubber seal stamp on white background IDEA requires schools to take certain steps when students with disabilities face a disciplinary change of placement. At that point, schools are required to hold a meeting to conduct a Manifestation Determination Review (MDR). The purpose of the MDR is to determine whether the behavior that the child is being disciplined for is caused by, or substantially related to their disability. If it is, the child returns to their current educational placement, a Functional Behavior Assessment is conducted, and a Positive Behavior Support Plan is either developed or revised.

Sometimes, the disciplinary change of placement is very clear. A decision was made to move the student to an alternative school, give them a long-term suspension, or restrict them to homebound services.

An unofficial change of placement occurs when students have missed more than 10 days of school due to disciplinary removals. Most schools do a good job of documenting out-of-school suspensions. However, many schools do not keep an accurate count of the days when students are sent home early, given in-school suspension (ISS), or forced to sit in someone’s office for hours at a time because of their behavior. In each of these situations, students are removed from their normal educational placement for disciplinary reasons. When these shorter removals happen again and again, they can eventually add up to a disciplinary change of placement.

Principal school. Parents kids teacher meeting in office. Unhappy mom, son talk with angry principal. School educationParents should keep track of the number of times that they are called to pick up their child from school early because of behavior. Be sure to note the time of day. Ask your child to tell you when they are sent to the office or ISS. When the total removal time reaches the equivalent of more than 10 days, ask for a Manifestation Determination Review.

The MDR requirement exists so that students are not repeatedly punished for having a disability. Instead, schools are supposed to look for better ways to support each student and help them develop the skills needed to function more successfully. Learning appropriate ways to get needs met is critical to long-term success in school and in life. Frequent undocumented removals also cause students to miss valuable instructional time, which places them at an increased risk of falling behind academically.

Poor record keeping is not an excuse to deny students the behavioral support and instruction that many of them need to receive a free appropriate public education.

Be informed before giving consent

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When it comes to special education, there are several points at which parent consent is required before things can move forward. Some school teams do a better job than others at making sure that parents fully understand the documents that they are asked to sign and what they mean for their child. Before you sign anything, make sure that you have all of the information you need to make a good decision. You have a right to have this information provided to you in a way that you can understand. This could mean using an interpreter or having documents translated into your primary language.

Evaluation:

Parent consent is required before schools can do any testing on a child that goes beyond what they normally do with all students. When a child is being evaluated for special education, the Consent for Evaluation form should list every area that the evaluation will include, such as Psychological, Educational, Motor or Speech-Language. Each of those areas can involve a variety of assessments. Parents have a right to more details about their child’s evaluation.  For example, will the psychological evaluation include social-emotional/behavior and/or intellectual assessments? Will the motor evaluation focus on fine or gross (large) motor skills, or both? Will the educational evaluation only look at the academic skill area where there is the greatest concern, or will it assess all of the basic skill areas so that academic strengths can also be documented and other possible weaknesses identified? It is better to ask questions before giving your permission, than be surprised or disappointed after the evaluation is completed.

Release of Information:

Sometimes parents are asked to give permission for schools to get information from professionals who work with your child outside of school. Make sure that you read any release form carefully so that you know what kind of information is being shared and under what conditions. Sometimes the school may only need to have your child’s doctor complete a form, or to get a written evaluation report from a private psychologist. There may be other situations where the school nurse may want to be able to talk to a medical provider to clarify details about the child’s healthcare needs while at school. A good guideline is to make sure that the school is able to get the information that is needed to serve your child, while still protecting your right to privacy.

Consent for Special Education Services:

Schools cannot provide special education services to a child without parent consent. Parents are only asked to give written consent for special education services one time unless the child moves into another school system. That one consent form gives permission for the school system to provide the services and supports on the child’s IEPs for as long as they continue to be eligible for special education. Parents do not have to consent to each separate service. In fact, parents cannot pick and choose which services they are willing to accept. They must work with other members of the IEP to create an educational program that is appropriate for their child. If necessary, there are many ways to try to resolve special education disagreements.

Providing consent is a choice. The very fact that you are asked to provide permission for something means that you have the option of saying “yes” or “no.” You also have the option of revoking, or cancelling, your consent if you change your mind later. However, you should make sure that you understand what will happen if you revoke your consent and what it could mean for your child. It is best to become as informed as possible before making any major decision about your child. Their education is no exception.

How Perception Hinders Progression

Billy Pickens working with Apex device 2018-08-20

By Billy Pickens, Intern

As a senior in college, I have had the pleasure of taking many classes in which I received a great deal of powerful information.  One thing that made every college class worthwhile was the fact that, no matter how important I felt each class was, I still learned a valuable lesson that would leave a lasting impact on my life.  Some of these lessons were immediately recognizable.  However, there were some that did not occur to me as extremely valuable until I really thought about them.

One specific example of the latter was a lecture given by my General Psychology professor.  In this lecture, we were discussing the history of mental illness in America and how it has been dealt with over time.  My professor made the point that prior to scientific research and progressive movements within the disability community, those with disabilities were often seen as useless or less than human.  Many were seen as being under the spell of a demon and therefore were locked away, abused or even killed simply because they did not live up to the standard of what was considered “normal.”

While I found this history both riveting and disheartening, it was a story I had heard too many times before as a person with a disability.  For that reason, at first I did not see it as anything inspiring or thought-provoking.  It was not until I began serving on the Student Advisory Board for my school’s Disability Services that these stories gained more impact and became more important to me.

As a student advisor, one of my tasks is to go into classrooms throughout my school and talk to students about how I have managed to live a normal, productive life despite my disability.  My peers and I share stories of how we had been underestimated, written off and treated unfairly by many who had negative perceptions of persons with disabilities.  It was through our stories, and students saying that our testimonies really changed their own perspectives, that I was reminded of my professor’s lecture.

I began thinking more about my own journey and how I found myself in college striving for employment, yet many of my friends with my disability are still relying heavily on the support systems around them.  While pondering the perceptions of the world and the history of disability culture, I came to the conclusion that one of the key reasons why many with disabilities struggle to flourish in today’s society is society’s attempt to change a person’s disability instead of adapting to it.  However, I believe that this is not so much the fault of society in general, but the support system of the person with a disability.

From the time I was born, my parents were prepared for the possibility that I would be totally blind with gradual hearing loss.  There had been a slight hope that maybe I would be born completely normal.  However, being that my condition was genetic and the chance of me inheriting the gene was extremely high, my parents knew that this was highly unlikely.  Even so, I was raised normally, participated in activities relevant to my age group and attended public school.

There was always the lingering conversation of restoring my sight. I remember from a young age attending conferences centered around vision restoration.  While I willingly agreed to attend these conferences with my parents, restoring my sight was hardly ever a desire of mine.  What is the point? I am achieving my goals despite my blindness and have no time to focus on changing it.

I say this to say that if you are a person who has a disability or are associated with someone who has a disability, the last thing you should do to help that person is try to cure them of that disability.  I am not saying that if the opportunity to cure someone of a disability arises you should not benefit from it.  However, you should focus more on adapting to the present situation than trying to find a cure. In my opinion, this is the most important characteristic of someone who overcomes obstacles and turns perception into progression.

We have come so far as a culture in awareness of our value to society.  We are showing the world each day that we can break down barriers, and do it with our disability.  People like Helen Keller, Louis Braille and others were not respected just because of their disability, but because of what they chose to do with that disability.  Those who embrace their disabilities and use them as motivation instead of defeat will have the main ingredient in conquering any obstacle that comes their way.  Likewise, people who support those with disabilities may experience a shift in their own perspective when they focus more energy on teaching skills to successfully adapt to the environment. Through this approach, they will see how obstacles are conquered and real progress is made.

Worried that your child may be retained?

Mother and daughter using smart phoneAt this very moment, many parents are very worried about the possibility that their child might be required to repeat their current grade. Many of these parents have received one or more letters notifying them that their child was at risk for retention because they were not meeting grade-level expectations for learning. These are often form letters that are sent automatically based on the child’s performance on academic testing done at several points during the school year. In many schools, the warning letters do not take into account that the student may have an identified disability.

With only a couple of exceptions, North Carolina’s public school law gives principals sole authority to determine what grade a student is assigned to. The exceptions include 3rd grade, when the Read to Achieve law mandates retention of any child who does not demonstrate “proficient” (grade level) reading skills on the End-of-Grade (EOG) assessment. Principals can request a “good cause exemption” for students who meet certain criteria. Students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) based on disabilities that impact reading are eligible for such an exemption. The tricky thing about this is that the principal is not required to request the exemption. They can still choose to retain students who have this kind of disability. In high school, students are assigned to a grade based on the number and type of course credits they have earned. However, a high school principal can decide to assign a student to a homeroom that is different from the grade shown on their official transcript.

Parents do not have to just sit and wait anxiously for that last report card. There are things that they can do to try to help their child.

If you get a letter in January or February warning you about possible retention, you can contact your child’s teacher(s) to get more information about why the letter was sent. If your child is not learning at the expected rate, you can ask about what actions have been, or can be taken, to help them make more progress. For a child who does not have an IEP, this might mean starting or intensifying research-based interventions as part of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS).

If your child has disability and receives supports as part of a Section 504 Accommodation Plan, you might want to consider asking for an evaluation to see if the child now needs special education services. If your child already has an IEP, you can request an IEP Team meeting to consider making adjustments to instruction and/or supports to improve learning.

Under any condition, it would still be a good idea to meet with the school principal to discuss your concerns about possible retention. Most public schools are too large to expect a principal to know each child well. You can discuss potential pros and cons for your child. For example, you can explain why it might make more sense to promote your child to the next grade with targeted supports and services, than to require the child repeat the entire curriculum of his/her current grade. You can also take that opportunity to share additional information about your child that the principal can consider as he/she makes their decision.

The principal does have the authority to make the final decision about retaining or promoting your child. However, you can try to influence that decision before it is made. You can also continue to advocate for your child to get the instruction and services that he/she needs next year, regardless of the grade they are assigned.

Get ready for next school year

As one school year winds down, its good to start thinking about the next year. Perhaps you have a child who will simply be moving from one grade to another in the same school. Maybe your child is facing a more dramatic transition such as:

  • Starting Preschool for the first time
  • Entering KindergartenToday's Preparation... Tomorrow's Success!
  • Moving from Elementary to Middle School
  • Beginning High School

It is time to move from thinking to planning!  Take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible by gathering information about what might be coming up, and sharing important information about your child with the right people.

If your child is staying at the same school, find out what might be different for the coming year (e.g. class size, number of teachers/aides, daily schedule, curriculum, meal times, etc.).  Each of these factors could impact your child and may require some changes in how your child’s needs are met.  You might also want to speak with the Principal about the classroom environment and/or teacher styles that are likely to be successful or unsuccessful for your child.  Hopefully the Principal will use this information to make a good match when class assignments are made.

If your child is moving to a new school, you will still want to know the things mentioned above, PLUS:

  • Visit the new school to check out the physical layout and ask about a typical day
  • Think about any possible barriers or challenges that your child might have in the new setting
  • If your child is entering middle or high school, ask about required courses and any options that may exist. Some courses are offered at multiple difficulty levels, and there may be other ways to help make sure that your child gets a course schedule that will work for him/her
  • Request a transition IEP meeting to discuss and make decisions about any changes that may be needed in the accommodations, modifications, supports, services and/or goals
  • For many children, it is helpful for them to have an opportunity to walk through the new school and possibly see their classroom(s) and meet their teacher(s) sometime before school starts. There may also be other steps that you can to help make this transition a smooth one.

Most importantly, stay positive and help your child feel good about the upcoming school year!

What happened to the EC teacher in middle school?

When IEP teams plan for a student’s transition from elementary to middle school, many parents are surprised to find out that their child’s special education services are going to be quite different. Children who have had pullout resource services for years may suddenly be expected to survive in general education core courses without any dedicated special education support time. It is a challenge to explain this reality to parents, while still making them aware of the IDEA requirement that a full continuum of services be made available so that IEP teams can decide what is most appropriate for each child.

There was a time when middle schools had sections of core academic subjects that were taught by special education teachers. These classes typically followed the standard course of study, but the smaller class size allowed the teacher to move at a pace that  students could handle, and to explain concepts in a variety of ways. This worked for a lot of children.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) changed all of this with its definition of “highly qualified teacher” and requirement that core courses in middle and high schools could only be taught by a teacher who was highly qualified in that specific academic subject. Before NCLB, North Carolina, as did many states, certified special education teachers in “special education” and not each separate academic subject.  Under NCLB in-service teachers had to take specific steps in order to be declared “highly qualified” in a core subject. To make matters worse, one of the options that North Carolina had developed to accomplish this  was rejected by the U.S. Department of Education after many teachers had completed that process. All of this led to a shortage of special education teachers who were available to teach core subjects at the secondary school level.

The solution that most school systems came up with was to have general education teachers serve as the “teacher of record” for these core courses, while having a special education teacher also in the room to provide extra support for students who needed it. These courses are generally referred to as “co-taught” or “inclusion classes.” Most middle schools offer such courses in English Language Arts and Math. Some schools also include Science and Social Studies.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to special education. The inclusion classes meet the needs of some students, while others continue to need additional support. Many schools also offer “curriculum assistance” or “resource support” classes as elective courses. (The actual class titles vary from one school district to the another.) These classes are taught by special education teachers who often introduce study skills, along with other content and strategies that are useful for most of the students to know. However, the chief benefit of these smaller classes is that they provide an opportunity for students to get extra help with their general education coursework as well as their IEP goals.

No Child Left Behind is no longer the law of the land, yet many schools continue to deliver special education services the same as they have for years. Schools and parents  should be aware that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides room for a wider variety of ways that special education students can be served.

As parents begin to think about their child moving on to middle school, they should consider making contact with staff at the middle school to discuss the existing options. However, they should also keep in mind that if those options do not meet their child’s needs, they can challenge the IEP team and the school system to create additional options. With more choices, IEP teams have a much greater opportunity to create an educational program that will meet each individual student’s unique needs. At the end of the day, that is what special education is all about.

 

Understanding the role of the LEA Representative

In many IEP meetings one of the school system staff members is introduced as “the LEA” without further explanation. If there is a lot of discussion and debate around an issue, it will often appear that this LEA has more influence than most other members of the IEP team. This may not seem fair to parents, who usually are outnumbered in the first place. However, it is important to understand that the LEA Representative does have a unique role in the IEP process.

First, let’s clear up some education jargon. LEA is short for Local Education Agency. Each individual school system that has a central administrator, usually known as the Superintendent, and School Board is actually a distinct LEA. Some LEAs are county-wide, some just cover a particular city, and some are public charter schools. Charter schools will typically have a Board of Directors rather than an elected School Board, and their central administrators have a variety of job titles, such as Headmaster, Dean or Principal.

IEP teams are required to include someone who can represent the LEA. The person who serves in the role of LEA Representative must meet certain criteria:

  • Be qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of special education instruction;
  • Be knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and
  • Have knowledge of the resources available to that LEA.

Every student with a disability who qualifies for special education services must be provided with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). It is the LEA (school system) that has the responsibility for delivering FAPE to its students. It is also the LEA that is held accountable when that does not happen.

To a large extent, the contents of an IEP define what FAPE looks like for that particular student. This makes the decisions of the IEP team extremely important and legally binding. IEP team decisions are expected to be based on data and the input of every member of the team. Most of the time IEP teams are eventually able to reach decisions that everyone can live with. That’s called reaching a consensus. If the team fails to reach consensus about a relatively minor issue, the matter may be put on hold until more information can be gathered.

When the IEP team cannot come to agreement about a really important proposal, the LEA Representative has the authority to make the decision. This allows the team to move forward with finalizing the IEP so that the student can be served. Having a clear decision also gives the parent the right to formally challenge that decision through one of the options available for resolving special education disputes. Those options are detailed in the Procedural Safeguards Notice* that is often referred to as the “Parent Rights Handbook.” Parents should be given a copy of the handbook at least once each year, but they can ask for a copy at any time.

In rare cases, individuals who serve as the LEA Representative over-use their decision making authority and the IEP team is not able to function properly. If this happens, a higher-level special education administrator should be notified so that corrective action can be taken.

* North Carolina Parent Rights and Responsibilities

What are surrogate parents?

Our federal special education law places a lot of importance on the role of the parent in decision making. It is understood that parents’ number one priority is looking out for the best interest of their child. But what happens to those children who don’t have a parent who can speak on their behalf?

First, let’s look at how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 defines “parent.”

  • A biological or adoptive parent of a child;
  • A foster parent, unless state law, regulations, or contractual obligations…prohibit a foster parent from acting as a parent (e.g. therapeutic foster parent);
  • A guardian generally authorized to to act as the child’s parent or authorized to make educational decisions;
  • An individual, with whom the child lives, acting in the place of a biological or adoptive parent, or an individual legally responsible for the child’s welfare; or
  • A surrogate parent who has been appointed in accordance with IDEA ’04

For children who are wards of the State, or for whom no parent can be identified or located, or unaccompanied homeless youth, a trained volunteer must be appointed  by the public school system, or local education agency (LEA), to protect the rights of the child in special education processes. The LEA has to develop a procedure to identify children who may need a surrogate parent, and a way to assign surrogate parents to those children. For children who are wards of the State, the judge overseeing their case also has authority to appoint a surrogate parent.

Surrogate parents are involved in the same decisions that require parent participation. This includes decisions related to evaluation, determining eligibility for special education services, development and review/revision of the Individualized Education Program (IEP), educational placement and the provision of a free appropriate pubic education (FAPE). Surrogate parents also participate in the Manifestation Determination Review meetings that look at the possible role of disability when students are facing disciplinary changes in placement.

Surrogate parents must have sufficient knowledge and skills to adequately represent the child so many LEAs provide training to volunteers. Surrogate parents have access to the child’s educational records and should be expected to have some familiarity with the child and his/her needs before attending an IEP or other school meeting.

Good surrogate parents provide an important service to children that may have no other adult who can stand up and speak up for them when critical decisions are made about their education. If you, or someone you know has the time and flexibility to volunteer as a surrogate parent, please consider this as a great way to make a real difference in the life of a child who is facing multiple life challenges in addition to having a disability.