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Being the Best Advocate for Your Special Needs Child

A recent newspaper article discussed a school superintendent’s termination for “lack of compliance” with special education requirements. Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. I attended Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings throughout my career and have been on some very effective IEP teams, but occasionally also some ineffective ones.

Every special education student has a tailored IEP. The plan is reviewed by the IEP team annually, and revised as needed. Parents can request an IEP meeting as often as they desire and for most any reason. Generally, IEP meetings cannot be held without at least one parent attending.

Special education laws give the child and the parents specific legal rights that are mostly not negotiable by the schools. The Wisconsin statute is Chapter 115, Subchapter V. Additional funds come into schools for each special education child – more than what schools receive for mainstream students.

I strongly encourage parents to take the time to educate themselves thoroughly on their special education rights. Well-informed parents can be the strongest, best advocates for their child.

Problems you can face in the IEP process

Here are 10 common problems I’ve encountered with IEP staff/administration:

  • Suspending students indefinitely or until some event happens (example: meeting). Tip: familiarize yourself with the federal 10-day limit and the state five-day limit on suspensions.
  • Use of locally-contrived terms to justify inappropriate suspension, example: “administratively excused.”
  • School moves quickly toward expulsion without sufficient rationale or without following Department of Public Instruction-established protocol.
  • Change of school placements initiated without parental knowledge or that don’t follow least-restrictive-environment guidelines.
  • Substantive changes to the IEP, made outside of the IEP process.
  • Staff who grow to dislike certain students or their parents, and the impact of that on the student and his or her progress.
  • Unrealistic or unattainable behavior plans or academic goals.
  • School staff not fully implementing the IEP.
  • Unwillingness to think creatively when conventional strategies are failing.
  • Unwillingness to designate a student with an appropriate special education classification, even if a licensed psychiatrist has diagnosed the child with a mental health diagnosis.

Stand up for your kid

Some of my past experiences with special education staff/administration have been, at times, nothing short of astounding. When staff and administrators are tactfully reminded that they’re not following special education policy or procedures, mostly they try to improve on that, but I’ve also seen differing forms of resistance and even arrogance. Parents have told me that certain school administrators have told them in so many words that despite the special education laws, they’re going to “run their schools as they see fit.” While they may believe they have that much autonomy, they actually don’t.

Don’t let behaviors like that discourage you. These are public servants and they all have supervisors somewhere, up to the level of the Madison DPI office. I’ve been forced to contact Madison many times and when the problem rises to that level, things typically get back on track. Why? Because the Madison DPI office sets policy and provides funding statewide. 

If you’re dissatisfied with your child’s progress, first try climbing your local special education “chain of command.” If you don’t speak up, your silence may be misinterpreted as your approval. Always keep in mind that parents can file a formal complaint with DPI any time they choose – that’s DPI policy.

A few more things regarding advocacy:

  • Formal advocacy services are often provided free of charge to the parents.
  • Get an advocate involved when you first sense that your child’s IEP is not meeting his/her educational needs or that your own advocacy is not having an impact.
  • Ask your advocate to attend all IEP and other related meetings, at least until you see improvement. Notify them well in advance of meetings, so they can be there alongside you.
  • When you bring a formal advocate onto the IEP team (your legal right), you’ll see a fairly dramatic difference in the school’s approach to you and your child’s education. But keep in mind that an advocate’s involvement may result in changing your relationship with the school to one with a more adversarial tone.

Most IEP teams I’ve participated in were creative, dynamic, and effective teams of professionals who had the best interests of the student at heart, and it reflected in the student’s progress. But as with anything, the small percentage of any group sometimes reflects poorly on the majority. 

Be active on your child’s IEP team and try to keep the team focused on, and accountable to, the IEP and how it’s implemented. But help the team revise the plan when needed, also. Your child deserves to receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education, which is the overarching goal of special education services.


This was made by

Jim Catlin  author

Jim Catlin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout. He invites readers to submit questions and offer ideas about what they would like to see in this column.