to Make Special Education Work
By Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves
November 28, 2016
You should always strive to treat IEP meetings as if they were business negotiations, not a friendly get together or a hostile confrontation.
In an earlier article, we wrote about the etiquette of dealing with your Team members. One caution we wrote about in particular, that parents should always maintain a courteous demeanor toward their Team even if that courtesy was not reciprocated, seemed to cause controversy among some parent groups on the Internet.
Many wrote complaining that we were being too easy on teachers and that they felt entitled to vent their frustration at Team meetings when they thought necessary services were being denied.
Team Members are Not Your Friends or Your Enemies
Displaying common courtesy, however, should not prevent you from critically questioning the Team’s decisions regarding your child’s education and examining your child’s IEP as if it were any other business or legal document before you sign off on it. In fact, your child’s IEP is a legal document.
This was something that we did not understand during our early years in special education. We felt so grateful for the help we were told our son was getting, that we regarded our school Team members as friends rather than as professionals. We would give Team members home baked bread for the holidays and send thank you notes each year at the end of the school term.
In one particularly egregious example of being overly familiar, we began our fifth grade IEP review with the announcement: “It’s so great to see you all at this meeting. It feels like a family reunion.” This created a warm and fuzzy beginning to the meeting, but it also signaled to the Team that we were trusting and not going to critically question their decisions.
The result of our complacency was that our son went into the sixth grade without adequate supports and had a disastrous year. This was the result of what we have come to call “blind trust,” and it is something that we warn parents against.
The Problem with Blind Trust
Our experience is an example of what can happen with blind trust. We had not questioned the school staff because we assumed they always made decisions in our son’s best interest. We were wrong. Over the next difficult year we were fortunate to find Pete and Pam Wright’s excellent book, From Emotions to Advocacy.
Reading it made us aware of the reality of special education in the public schools: budget constraints, a school culture that places a premium on job security over the needs of students, and invisible Team members who make decisions outside of the Team meetings. This book was a major wake-up call.
We then hired an advocate who discovered many procedural violations in our son’s educational history. Of course we were angry and upset. We focused our frustration and energy, however, on learning about the state and federal special education laws and understanding the rights they gave us.
We learned to regard our Team members in a more business-like manner as we worked to collaborate with them about our son’s educational needs. We also focused on the details of school documents with a new understanding. We always remained polite with our Team, but we were no longer overly friendly.
As our advocate helped us focus on our rights, we realized that this knowledge is power, so we put our energy into strategy and negotiation, and steered away from having an adversarial relationship.
Finally, we learned that for many school districts, special education is a calculated business, something we write about in the Introduction of our book.
A New Awareness
One of our discoveries was that we learned that Team members are, first and foremost, school employees. Their bosses, the people who write their annual reviews and decide on the school budgets, regard special education as a business expense, even though the law is clear that services must be provided on the basis of need and not cost.
Your Team members may be fond of you and your child, but they know that services cost money and they must act in accordance with the district’s budget.
Parents are at a disadvantage when they don’t realize this agenda, which is never mentioned in Team meetings. The natural emotional ties parents feel toward their child makes it difficult to see that the Team decisions are ultimately business and not educational decisions.
What Parents Can Do
As hard as it may be, you need to understand the school’s business approach to special education. Here are some suggestions we have to help:
- Learn to express your emotions outside of a Team meeting or in school correspondence. Realize that you can be firm and take a stand, but keep a cool head. Being polite with your Team members does not mean that you have to accept inappropriate behavior from them.
- Study the federal law and your state’s law for special education. Understand your legal rights. You may be surprised at the rights the laws give you and your child, and even more surprised that school personnel generally do not know these laws as well as they should.
- Realize that school districts regard special education as a business with budget constraints and a legal transaction for school personnel. Focus on advocacy and negotiation as you try to collaborate with your team.
Knowledge is power.