Challenging Your School District’s Individual Education Plan

Every local public school district is obligated to educate all school-aged children within its borders. When it comes to children with special needs, the district must create an appropriate individual education plan (IEP) for each student according to that student’s specific strengths and weaknesses.

While this is a legal requirement of the district, it is also the parent’s responsibility to ensure that their child is receiving appropriate services, and districts and parents sometimes disagree about what is appropriate. When these disagreements arise, parents oftentimes find themselves needing to advocate for additional or different services on their child’s behalf.

If you are the parent of a special needs child and you disagree with your district’s special education personnel about your child’s IEP, you will need successful strategies to respond to these conflicts. The strategies that will be most useful depend on when you recognize that you do not agree with the district’s recommendations. No matter when you realize this, before, during or after the IEP team meeting, there are steps you can take to pursue an appropriate IEP for your child.

Disagreements Before the IEP Team Meeting

If you know before the IEP team meeting that you disagree with district personnel about appropriate goals, programs, or services to be included on your child’s IEP, you are in the best position to prepare for your meeting. You should consider completing the following before the meeting:

  • Give the district copies of all of your private evaluations;
  • Request copies of all district evaluations;
  • Carefully read the district’s evaluations;
  • Immediately put all your disagreements in writing;
  • Consider requesting that the district pay for independent evaluations;
  • Consider seeking additional private evaluations at your own expense;
  • Arrange to bring people to the IEP meeting who work with your child;
  • Notify the district that you intend to tape record the IEP meeting and bring a recording device with you; and
  • Notify the district that you intend to bring an attorney or special education advocate to the meeting.

Disagreements During the IEP Team Meeting

If you begin to realize that you don’t agree with district personnel during the IEP team meeting discussions, you may become very upset. If this happens to you, stay calm and focused and proceed as follows:

  • Clearly express what you want on your child’s IEP;
  • State why you feel the programs or services you are seeking are appropriate for your child;
  •  Listen to the district’s specific recommendations; and
  •  Take notes on what the district plans to include on the IEP.

It is important for you to understand that you are considered an equal member of the IEP team. However, you must accept that the district is not obligated to agree with your opinions when drafting the proposed IEP. You should recognize that, while you should express your opinions fully, the district will ultimately make a final decision about the services they will offer in the form of a written, proposed IEP.

Disagreements After the IEP Team Meeting

You may first discover your disagreement after the IEP team meeting is over, when you read the proposed IEP for the first time. You may be surprised to see some of the recommendations. To address this possibility:

  • Closely read the district’s proposed IEP as soon as you get it;
  • Quickly decide how you feel about the proposed IEP; and
  • Immediately exercise your rights to challenge the proposed IEP.

Challenging the District’s Proposed IEP

You are not obligated to accept a proposed IEP that you do not feel is appropriate for your special-needs child no matter when you recognize your disagreement. You are cautioned to be careful, though, because unless it is your child’s first IEP, it is frequently drafted in a way that allows it to go into effect if you fail to actively challenge its proposed services.

If you want special education services for your child, but do not agree with the district’s proposed IEP, you must do one of three things to challenge it: (1) ask the district for another team meeting; (2) request mediation help from the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA); or (3) file a complaint for a hearing with the BSEA.

Unfortunately, parents often spend a significant amount of time trying to convince the district to see things their way. By the time parents realize they’ve reached an impasse, they are frequently very upset about the amount of time that has passed while their children continue to go to school without an appropriate IEP in place. Therefore, making a quick decision to seek another meeting, go to mediation, or schedule a hearing is extremely important.

The Importance of Independent Evaluations

Whatever course of action you decide to pursue when you disagree with your district’s recommendations, you should seek independent professional evaluations and recommendations that clearly state what is appropriate for your special-needs child’s IEP. It is highly unlikely that you will be successful in challenging a district’s proposed IEP if you do not have them.

It is best to complete these independent evaluations and give them to the district before the IEP meeting.

However, it is not necessarily too late to seek independent recommendations after the IEP meeting has occurred. You may decide to get private evaluations yourself, or in some specific situations, you could ask the school district to pay for them.

When advocating for an appropriate educational program for your special-needs child, it is important for you to keep a cool head and be well-prepared. Remember that the school district is not obligated to agree with you, so it is a good idea to seek your own evaluations, which may then be considered in companion with those of the district.

Stacey Brock, Esq. is an associate with Bacon & Wilson, P.C., who focuses the majority of her practice in education law. She represents parents of special-needs children in their attempts to seek appropriate services from their public school districts. She is a former staff attorney in the Special Education Division of the New York City Department of Education, where she focused primarily on IDEA and Section 504 compliance; sbrock@bacon-wilson.com; 413-781-0560.

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