Monday, December 24, 2012

Could Using An Advocate Help You Get What Your Child Needs In School?

from by Reed Martin, J.D.:
(Written for Autism/Asperger's Digest. Check out this great magazine from Future Horizons)

When a parent learns that their child has been diagnosed on the Autism spectrum they are introduced into what many have aptly called "the special education maze." We all know that parenting by itself is difficult enough but are you now expected to become a special education law expert? Federal studies have shown that most parents of children with special needs spend their energy and emotions on other problems related to their child and accept whatever they are offered by their public school system.

Our experience consulting with thousands of families in all 50 states over thirty-plus years shows that parents will eventually realize that important gains for their child are being delayed or even permanently lost by simply accepting what their public school chooses to offer and by not advocating for more.

What might be lost for the child? The Congress established four educational goals for our children in 1990 in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which were repeated in the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504): (1) to get as close as possible to being able to live independently by the time they exit high school, (2) to learn work skills that make them as employable as possible, (3) to learn how to acquire further education and training beyond high school if possible, and (4) to learn how to gain access to recreation and leisure in the community in which they live.

Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have recognized that the system works only if there is effective advocacy for the individual child. In several sections of the IDEA, discussed below, Congress recognized that parents need the assistance of advocates. The Supreme Court ruled in their first special education decision that "Congress sought to protect individual children by providing for parental involvement.. " and by emphasizing "the process of parent and child involvement... to assure that appropriate services are provided." Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, at 208-09 (1982).

We regularly consult with parents in telephone conferences, over the internet, and through internet-based video conferences. We interact with very hard working parents, who care a great deal about their child, and have invested a lot of energy -- but who have hit a "dead end" and often do not know "the next step" to take to make their advocacy effective. Parents often report to us that they have been discouraged by being told "You are the only parent who is not satisfied with our program" or "The law will not allow us to do what you are asking."

For that very reason, whatever step in the process the parent is in, we urge that they consult someone who has been through it before. Join a disability group. Consult an advocate. Learn from others. Share strategies. Keep from burning out. Celebrate each others' victories. You will undoubtedly find someone who has wrestled with a school district on the same issue you are now pursuing. You can learn invaluable information from them and they might join you as an advocate for your child. You will learn that you are not the only parent who is not satisfied and that the law might require the school to do precisely what the school is refusing to do.

Who can be a parent Advocate? There are no real standards at this time. The IDEA statute refers to "individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child." You need someone you can trust. Someone who truly cares, but who can give you an objective view of your situation. Parents will tell us they want to go to court immediately because a teacher said their child was "a waste of their time and that they did not go to college to teach children like that." An objective advocate will probably suggest that the parent spend their time instead on nailing down a really good evaluation of the child so that they can get an IEP that will direct that teacher in writing to do exactly what they need to do for your child.

A first step is, with the advocate's help, to get the written statements of the parent's and child's rights under the procedures that govern the IDEA, Section 504 and the ADA. Once you get those statements, an advocate who has been through this before can help interpret them. If your school district and State education agency fail to get you the required statements, an advocate can help you write a letter of complaint which lets the school know that you will not accept violations of the law.

A next step in advocacy is to get access to all of your child's school records. The parent has the right to "inspect and review" all the records collected, maintained or used in regard to their child. The advocate can help write the proper letter and go with the parent to look at the files and get copies. In fact, the IDEA regulations, at 34 C.F.R. 300.562(b)(3), recognize "the right to have a representative of the parent inspect and review the records" so an advocate could go by themselves if, for example, a parent could not get off during school hours.

Once you get the records, the advocate can be invaluable in making sense of them, and in estimating if there are records that are being withheld. In my experience, with innumerable record requests since the 1974 basic Federal law on record access, no school district has complied lawfully with a records request. The advocate can help the parent pursue that complaint until the records are produced.

The review of your records is needed to show what the school is thinking about your child. An advocate can help the parent change anything that is "misleading, inaccurate or violates privacy or other rights." An advocate that has been through this before would probably have a process to help the parent pursue that. Without changing the inaccurate and misleading information, the school personnel planning the child's program might be misled.

Next, the parent needs to make sure that a correct evaluation of their child is the basis for the program. Does the parent know what to ask for? Do you know what to reject? Does the parent need to pursue an "independent evaluation" under 20 U.S.C. 1415(b)(1)? An experienced advocate that has been through the evaluation process should understand how to get the information that is needed to plan a program for your child.

The next step is the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) planning meeting. The parent should receive written notice prior to the meeting and an advocate can help them prepare for the meeting. Congress made clear at 20 U.S.C.1414(d)(1)(B)(vi) that the IEP team includes "at the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child..." That means the parent can take their advocate to the IEP meeting and the advocate functions as a full member of the team. If the school district says the advocate cannot play that role, then the advocate will know how to add that to the school's growing list of violations.

It is important for the parent to have someone with them at the IEP meeting. This writer has been to IEP meetings, including those for a family member. Many IEP meetings are something of a circus and you need more than one person on the parent's "side," and someone who is taping the meeting. (Yes, the IDEA Regulations say that the parent can tape the meeting. The 1999 Appendix A at Q&A 21 recognizes that if taping is "necessary to ensure that the parent understands the IEP or the IEP process or to implement other parental rights guaranteed" under the IDEA, then the school cannot prevent it.) In IEP meetings this writer attended for a family member, in the parent role, there is a huge amount of self-imposed pressure and the meeting would have been a blur without a taped record to review afterward.

At the conclusion of the IEP meeting, the parent needs to be able to decide whether the proposed IEP can be the basis for a program or whether someone needs to ask to reconvene the meeting. Calmly and objectively discussing the process, and reviewing whatever was produced in writing, can best be done with an advocate.

Within a few days after the IEP meeting, the school must issue Written Notice to the parent (20 U.S.C. 1415(b)(3) and (c)) which explains why the school proposed each thing they proposed at the IEP meeting and why they refused any proposal of the parent that was refused. An advocate can help the parent get what is actually required in that Written Notice and that information might help the parent really understand the IEP. If that required Written Notice is not issued, an experienced advocate can help the parent use that major procedural violation to their advantage.

A proper IEP must provide reports to the parent at the same interval that regular report cards are issued. An advocate could help the parent assess whether those reports meet the requirements of the law, what they are really showing, and how to complain effectively if they do not.

One type of complaint might be to the local school district and another might be to the State education agency. Complaints are difficult to draft the "first" time, but an experienced advocate would presumably have forms that would be suitable.

The above examples are obviously based on problems. An advocate could also bring good news, explaining to the parent that what is being proposed by their school district is according to the law and facilitating the parent and school working together as partners on the progress of the child.

The use of advocates has become so widespread that there are parent advocates that are fully employed helping parents in their community or even across state lines. With the continuing increase in problems facing parents in getting appropriate services for their children, we can only assume that the use of advocates will continue to grow.

This information is educational and not intended to be legal advice. Reed Martin is an attorney with over 34 years experience in special education law. He can be reached through email at or

Check out the list of parent advocates, disability organizations and attorneys listed on our website

Yellow Pages For Kids

Starting out: Special Education Parent Advocacy Guidelines, Information and Game Plans

Autism Articles and Resources

Getting Your Child With Autism What They Are Entitled To Under Federal Laws

Special Education Articles

ADD/HD & LD Articles and Resources

Ideal Lives



Illinois Federation of Families

Virginia Transition Resources


That Kid's My Light


New Mexico learning Disabilities' Association

The Disabled People's Direct Action Network

Center for Disability Issues in the Health Professions Disabilities Resources and Advocacy

Daniel L. McCall
Attorney at Law
1539 Mason Rd.
Katy, Texas 77450
(713) 589-5807 (under construction)
Special Education Law Practice Since 1990

Betsy Combier
paralegal and advocate
315 East 65th Street
New York, NY 10021

We at parentadvocates provide advocacy work for any person of any age who believes that there are illegal or retaliatory actions being taken against him or her in the workplace, at home, or at school. We are, if needed, in touch with lawyers who may take some of our cases, but we are not lawyers, and we do not give legal advice. We have a sliding scale for fees and we do suspension hearings as well as 3020a hearings, Impartial Hearings, telephone calls, letter writing, or whatever is needed to bring resolution to a problem.


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