The IEP season is now in “full swing” and parents often wonder how they should conduct themselves at their child’s IEP meeting. It truly is a balancing act to be “cooperative” with your child’s IEP team while also advocating for the educational supports that are appropriate for your child. Striking the right balance between cooperation and advocacy can be difficult for some parents. The following tips may be useful.
Identify and Prioritize Your Objectives Before the IEP Meeting
Before you attend your child’s IEP meeting, you should identify clearly what results you would like to achieve from the IEP meeting, and what issues are most important to you. For example, you might be satisfied with the placement your school district is recommending for your child, but you feel that your child requires higher related service mandates or other IEP modifications. On the other hand, you might be wholly dissatisfied with the placement and program recommendations that your school district is offering and thus, you might be considering a different (more appropriate) school placement and program for your child.
The objectives you identify, of course, will be based upon the unique and individual needs of your child. For example, let’s assume that your daughter, Sara, is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. In order for Sara to make “meaningful progress” in her “least restrictive environment,” Sara may need to be placed in a mainstream classroom with typically developing peers, but she also requires a significant amount of “social skills” support. If your school district recommends an appropriate mainstream setting for Sara, the “objectives” for your IEP meeting might be geared toward securing appropriate social skills supports for Sara.
Create a list of factors that are important and arrange your list in order of importance. If you identify your educational imperatives prior to the IEP meeting, you will walk into the meeting prepared to advocate for your child’s needs, and you will be able to better navigate the meeting knowing where you can and cannot compromise.
Use Your Child’s Evaluations to Identify Your Objectives and Support Your Requests for Services and Programming
It is strongly recommended that you secure evaluations with specific recommendations from the professionals working with or evaluating your child. The recommendations of your child’s providers will help you identify the core components that should be a part of your child’s educational program and placement.
You should provide your school district with all reports and evaluations prior to attending your child’s IEP meeting. At the IEP meeting, make sure that everyone on the IEP team has a copy of the reports and ask all members of the IEP team to meaningfully consider the recommendations.
For example, recent education evaluations for Jim, a student with autism, recommend 40 hours per week of 1:1 Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, five 60-minute sessions of speech and language per week, five 45-minute sessions of occupational therapy (OT) per week in a sensory gym, and two 30-minute sessions of physical therapy, all as part of a 12-month school year program. You can rely on this evaluation during Jim’s IEP meeting to ask the IEP team to consider all of Jim’s needs and encourage the IEP team to implement these services as a part of Jim’s IEP. It is always preferable to make the discussion, “this is what the professionals are recommending,” as opposed to, “this is what parents want.”
To determine whether the school district’s proposed placement and program would be appropriate, you might ask the IEP team: Does your program provide services during the entire 12-month school year? Where, if at all, is the “summer” program located? If my child attends your program, how many hours of 1:1 ABA can you provide? Who will be assigned to teach? What related services do you offer? Do you have a sensory gym? Will the school district therapists actually be able to fulfill the IEP’s related service mandates?
Use the recommendations on the reports and evaluations to guide not only your objectives, but also your questions at the IEP meeting.
Get a Feel for the “Temperature” of the IEP Team
If, during the IEP development process, the IEP team is meaningfully considering your requests and the recommendations from your child’s providers, congratulations! You are in an excellent position to continue advocating for your child’s needs. Continue to rely upon your evaluations to request all of the services and supports in the IEP.
Always Remain Open-Minded and Willing to Consider the District’s Recommendations
Some school districts are not willing to consider additional services or recommendations for your child. In New York City, for instance, students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders who require a full-time 1:1 ABA program and placement are rarely, if ever, offered such placement.1 For NYC children, this means one of two things. On one hand, parents can place their child in a placement and program that is not appropriate. On the other hand, some parents elect to “unilaterally” place their child in an appropriate placement and program and sue the school district for reimbursement for tuition and educational related costs.
During this “due process” lawsuit, the judge or hearing officer will analyze parental cooperation with their school district. Reimbursement cases are analyzed under the Burlington/Carter2 analysis and address three questions. Prong 1: Did the school district offer the student a free appropriate public education (FAPE)? Prong 2: Is the parents’ unilaterally chosen placement and program “reasonably calculated” so that their child can make “meaningful progress?” and Prong 3: Do the “equities” favor an award for the parents?
Recently, more than ever before, hearing officers and judges have placed a higher emphasis on Prong 3 – the consideration of the “equities” – in determining whether parents will prevail. Among other things, the hearing officer will look at whether the parents cooperated and acted reasonably with the school district. In fact, with respect to Prong 3, the U.S. Supreme Court has expressly held that “[C]ourts retain discretion to reduce the amount of a reimbursement award if the equities so warrant.”3
Accordingly, this “equities” burden weighs quite heavily on parents who may need to sue their school district. No matter what happens during your IEP meeting, you should always remain open-minded and cooperative with the IEP team and your school district. You can disagree without being disagreeable. If you sense that the IEP team is not meaningfully considering your child’s evaluations and recommendations, you still must remain cooperative and act reasonably with your school district.
IEP season is, perhaps, the most critical time of the year for parents of students with autism. As parents, you must comply with your school district, act reasonably and cooperate at all stages of the IEP development process. At the same time, you must remember that YOU are the expert of your child. Many times, you know better than anyone else at the IEP meeting what your child requires in order to make meaningful progress. With evaluations and recommendations from your professionals supporting your position, you can feel comfortable politely but firmly advocating for your child and advising your school district what your child really needs. Cooperation may be time-consuming and tedious, but at the end of the day cooperation is key.
Maria C. McGinley, MST, JD (New York Law School, ‘10) is an Associate at Mayerson & Associates, a New York law firm dedicated to representing children and adolescents on the autism spectrum, and assisting families in accessing the education and related services necessary and appropriate for students. Prior to practicing at Mayerson & Associates, Ms. McGinley taught students with autism spectrum disorders when she was a special education teacher for the New York City Department of Education.
- In New York City, there is only one school that offers students full-time 1:1 ABA support. The New York Center for Autism Charter School admits students strictly by lottery, and very few students in New York City (less than 50) are fortunate enough to be selected. For a city with thousands of children with autism, there are simply not enough publicly funded appropriate placements and programs available.
- The “Burlington/Carter” analysis is derived from Sch. Comm. of Burlington, Mass. v. Dept. of Educ. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359 (1985) and Florence County School District Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1988).
3. Forest Grove Sch. Dist. v. T.A., 129 S.Ct. 2484, 2496 (2009).