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.
What is the difference between “placement” and “assignment” when it comes to students who have disabilities? This topic should actually fall under the heading of: Questions parents don’t ask because they don’t know what they don’t know.
“Placement” and “assignment” are often used as though they mean the same thing in conversations about the education of typical students. However, there are some very real differences in how these words are used when talking about students who receive special education services. There are also big differences in how decisions about placement and assignment are made.
Special education placement describes the type and amount of special education and related services a student receives based on their Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP will also describe the location where the services will be delivered. The IEP will state whether the services will be provided within the general education setting, special education setting, or the total school environment. The team of people who create each student’s IEP includes the child’s parent(s), a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and someone who can represent the local education agency (LEA) or school system. The IEP team can include other individuals, depending on what is being discussed or when invited by the parent or school.
Students with disabilities must be educated alongside students who don’t have disabilities as much as possible, as long as their needs can be met. The IEP team has to explain why a student is removed from his non-disabled peers and why they cannot be adequately served in the general education setting, even with the use of supplemental aids and services. The least restrictive environment for each student must be determined based on the unique needs of that particular student and not factors such as age or type of disability.
Some students with disabilities stay in the general education setting all day long, some removed for a short time each day, and other students require a specialized environment for most of their day. There is a wide range, or continuum of alternative educational placements that the IEP team can consider. The amount of time that the student is removed from their non-disabled peers will determine whether their placement on the continuum is described as regular, resource, separate, separate school, residential, home/hospital, etc. The IEP team, including the parent(s), has full responsibility for deciding special education placement.
Educational assignment refers to administrative decisions that are made by people who have been given certain authority to make them, as well as the guidance of school board or other policies. For example, principals typically have the authority to assign students to specific teachers. In North Carolina, principals also have sole authority over each student’s grade assignment or classification, including promotion and retention decisions.
Most school systems have a written policy that details how students are assigned to particular schools. In addition to a “home” school based on the student’s address, there may be other school options that parents can apply for by following certain steps. There may even be an appeal process if the request to change schools is denied.
If the IEP team has decided that a student’s disability-related needs require a specialized setting at, or beyond, the “separate” level of service, that student will be administratively assigned to the school closest to home where his or her needs can be met. School system administrators can decide where to locate various specialized classrooms, and they can be moved from one school year to the next. In most cases, parents of these children will not have a choice about which school their child will be assigned. Parents also do not have a right to pick and choose their child’s teachers.
If there are special considerations that make the standard administrative process or the resulting decision, not appropriate for your child, find out who has the authority to do something different. That would be the contact point where you should focus your efforts to advocate for your child. Communicate with the decision maker(s) to help them better understand all of the issues involved. If necessary, reach out to the school board members and others who actually create the policies that everyone else has to follow.
The IEP team process gives parents a clear role in making decisions about special education placement decisions, but parents can sometimes influence administrative decisions as well. It is important to be clear about which decisions you are talking about.
As parents, we are convinced that we know what’s best for our child, or at least what they need. When it comes to school, we may have very strong opinions about how our child learns best, how much structure they need, what kind of teacher they would work well with, what kind of classroom setting would work, or the amount of support that they need. This is especially true for children with disabilities who may require an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and specially designed instruction to meet their unique needs. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we could just tell the school what to do?
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately in some cases), that’s not how educational decisions are made. Parents have a voice in developing their child’s IEP, but they do not have the power to control the decisions of the IEP team. The IEP team may decide to agree or disagree with any suggestion that a parent makes. Other decisions, such as school assignment, teacher assignment, curriculum, school bell schedule, and graduation requirements are usually made with no input from parents at all.
It is sometimes difficult to accept decisions that you honestly feel are not in your child’s best interest. But, if you want your child to have a fighting chance to be successful in a less-than-ideal situation, you will need to be careful about the spoken and unspoken messages that you send your child. If she hears you using catastrophic language and talking a lot about how terrible things are going to be at school, it will be very difficult for her to expect to have a good experience.
I worry about children who spend all summer listening to their parent wage battle after battle in a losing effort to overturn some school-related decision. Maybe they wanted their child to be promoted, or maybe they wanted to keep them at the same grade instead of being “pushed through” to the next one. Maybe they wanted to keep their child with the same effective or caring teacher as last year, or maybe they wanted to get away from one that they felt was not a good match for their child. Maybe they wanted their child at the neighborhood school, but the special education class that he needs is at another school, or maybe they were hoping to transfer out of a school with a bad reputation or one that was in the wrong part of town. Maybe their request for an important accommodation, piece of assistive technology, or one-on-one support person was denied. Whatever the issue is, the child may have heard or overheard the parent repeatedly talking about how awful it was going to be for their child if _________ did or didn’t happen. Some parents even promise their children that,”I’m not going to let them do this to you.” What happens to your child if you lose your battle and things don’t go the way you want?
It is great, and often necessary for parents to advocate for their child’s education. However, there is a right way to do it and a point at which you need to shift your focus toward helping your child accept and be comfortable with the situation that they will walk into when they return to school. To the extent that you can, keep you child out of your conflict with the school. Try to have conversations when you know that your child (or his/her siblings) is not going to hear you or see your look of frustration afterward. Communicating with the school in writing helps with the first part of that suggestion, but you still must watch your body language and what you say to others about the situation.
If it becomes clear that you have a less than 70% chance of getting what you want for your child, then you should make a deliberate effort to help your child be open-minded about what might happen in the future. Every option has pros and cons. Try to think and talk about some possible positives of things going the other way. For example, if your transfer request was turned down, you can talk about the shorter bus ride, the friend from last year that will be at that school, the fact that the school is newer, has a better playground, or the fact that your child already knows their way around the building. If your child was retained, you can talk about how this will give him a chance to catch up with his skills and be a much stronger student when he does move on to the next grade, the fact that he can still spend time with his friends outside of class, or how he will have a head start on his classmates because he won’t be hearing everything for the first time.
Even while you are hoping for the best, you should prepare your child for the worst. Do your very best to help your child go into the next school year with hope that things will go well. Continue to work on academic, organizational or social skills over the summer to help your child become a stronger student. Look for ways that you can work with the school to create a successful experience for your child, even if things didn’t exactly go the way you wanted them to. Helping your child develop resilience, the ability to bounce back from hardship, will be a greater gift than smoothing out every potential bump in the road to adulthood. You know what they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” What you definitely don’t want, is to have your child go to school looking and feeling like he just sucked on a giant lemon!
Answer: As a general rule, parents do not have the right to select the school staff who will be working with their child. However, there may be ways that parents can influence that decision.
This question is usually asked by parents of children in elementary school. The situation in middle and high schools are complicated by scheduling limitations (only so many sections of a particular course are offered at any given point in time), the requirement that secondary teachers are highly qualified in the content area in order to teach a core subject, and the practice of organizing middle school students and teachers into “teams”.
Elementary school principals are typically responsible for assigning students to specific teachers. It is expected that this process is not done randomly. Principals have lots of information available to them to help make that decision. They can consider student factors such as age, gender, skill levels, discipline history as well as teacher input and recommendations. Teacher characteristics, experience and training are also usually taken into consideration.
Once classroom assignment decisions have been made, most principals do not want to deal with a lot of parents who are unhappy that their child did not get assigned to the most popular teacher at that grade. They often worry that the floodgates will open if they give in to a parent’s request to add “just one more child” to Miss Suzie’s class. This is understandable. The principal is trying to make sure that all teachers are valued and seen as competent, and that there is an equitable (not necessarily equal) distribution of the student population. A parent who pushes the issue too hard can find themselves on the losing end of a power struggle.
So, what can you do to help get your child assigned to a teacher that will be a good match? Or at least avoid a worst-case scenario? Some kids can go with the flow and will be fine with almost any teacher. For that child, it will probably be safe to let things occur without any interference. However, if you have one of those children who is not going to be okay in every situation, or will not do well with every teaching style, it is best to be proactive. It is always easier to influence a decision before it’s made, than to change it after the fact.
In late spring, try to set up a face-to-face meeting with the principal to talk about your child and his educational needs. Share information about what makes your child unique. Discuss relevant personality traits, past experiences, learning style and disability-related issues that you would like the principal to think about when they are deciding who to assign as your child’s next teacher. You can talk about classroom environment and teacher traits that will allow your child to function at her best. You can also mention past situations that did not work well for your child. Be careful to not put down any past teachers! Instead, you can talk about teaching styles, amount of classroom structure, authoritarian versus nurturing approaches, physical environment requirements, health and safety needs and any special issues regarding interaction with other students.
Unless the principal is new to that school, they should know their staff well enough to know which teachers are a good match for your child and which will likely lead to disaster. Leave a written summary of the key points that you want the principal to think about. The actually classroom assignments may not be made until weeks or months after your meeting, and your document can be a much-needed reminder of the things you talked about. If you learn that the decision will not be made until the end of summer, consider sending a greeting (by phone or email) expressing that you and your child are looking forward to the new school year, and thanking the principal for taking the time to meet with you earlier to talk about your child. If you send an email, it might not be a bad idea to attach another copy of the reminder document. Play that one by ear though, and skip the attachment if you think that the principal might consider it too pushy.
Remember, the goal is to get a good situation for your child, not for the principal to feel like you are trying to tell them how to do their job. Diplomacy and effective advocacy are often about knowing when, how, and how hard to push.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives parents of children with disabilities several rights and protections. One of these is the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at the school system’s expense if they disagree with an evaluation that was conducted by their public school system. The IEE is intended to provide a “second opinion”, and would be limited to the same areas of focus that were included in the school evaluation. For example, if the school evaluation included psychological, educational and speech/language assessments, the IEE would only include psychological, educational and/or speech/language evaluations. The parent would not be able to add an occupational therapy evaluation and have the school system cover that cost as part of the IEE.
Most of the time, there is no need for an IEE. A properly planned and conducted school evaluation will typically give the IEP team the information that is needed to make decisions regarding a child’s eligibility for special education services, and to develop an appropriate individualized educational program (IEP) to meet that child’s specific needs. However, there are other times when a parent may want to consider the option of requesting an IEE.
If a child is found to be not eligible for special education services based on a school system evaluation, an IEE may provide additional information for the team to consider and perhaps change the eligibility decision. Sometimes the test scores will be higher or lower, or they may show a larger gap between the child’s general ability and his functioning in an area where there are concerns. The independent evaluator may use different tests or assessment methods that provide additional insight into the nature of the child’s difficulties and the pattern of strengths and weaknesses. This new information may tip the balance, and convince the team that the child does meet the eligibility requirements for special education services.
In some cases the school’s evaluation has resulted in scores that meet the eligibility criteria, but the team feels that there is not enough evidence that the student requires “specially designed instruction.” Team members may cite an acceptable level of performance, or a belief that factors other than a disability (e.g. excessive absences or a lack of appropriate instruction), may be responsible for the child’s weaknesses. In this situation, a second round of testing is not likely to change the eligibility decision.
For a child who gets, or already has, an IEP, there may be other decisions that are influenced by initial or re-evaluation results. The need for related services, certain accommodations or supports may be based, in part, on information gathered during a school evaluation. Inaccurate evaluation results may result in low expectations, disability issues that go unrecognized (and unaddressed) or even placements in more restrictive settings. The IEE could provide data that could prove to be a “game changer.”
The school system may provide a list of local clinicians who are qualified to conduct the requested evaluations, in an effort to assist parents in obtaining the IEE. However, parents are not limited to the persons on the list. They can select any professionals who are qualified to conduct the evaluation(s). The school system cannot establish an arbitrary dollar limit on the cost of the evaluation. The school system also cannot require the independent evaluators to only use certain assessment tools. Typically, billing arrangements are set up before the actual evaluation is scheduled, and the school system will receive a copy of the evaluation report. Note: When parents pay the cost of a private evaluation themselves, they can control whether or not that information is shared with the school.
If you feel that the school’s evaluation does not paint an accurate picture of your child and his or her needs, then an IEE may offer one of the best chances of obtaining the information needed to possibly change the outcome when the IEP team reconsiders important decisions.