Special education advocates: to hire or not to hire?
As mentioned in this post and this one and this one, students who are struggling in public schools may benefit from having a 504 plan, or by entering special education via an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). It’s possible to start either of these programs in high school, as well as in the earlier grades.
Most parents of struggling students don’t know what to expect, or what they can request, when meeting with school personnel about their child. Walking into school meetings armed only with trust in the people sitting across from you is OK in a rainbows-and-unicorns world, but is probably not going to be your most effective strategy in real life. School staff may not be 100% caring and transparent about the assistance they can provide, and in the worst-case scenario they may act like it’s a bother to even have students with special needs. How can parents increase the likelihood of getting the school to provide the services their child needs?
It may be a daunting and time-consuming task, but before plunging into meetings with school staff, parents need to educate themselves at least about the basics regarding 504s and IEPs. The Internet is of course a great place to start. See the Resources page of this blog for some suggested websites.
To get a feel for the climate of the particular school and school district you are in, you can also talk with other parents who have kids in the system. Support groups, either online or in person, are another resource, as are local chapters of nonprofit organizations that focus on learning disabilities (especially the board members, who are likely to have been there/done that).
One wonderful resource for those of us in Southern California is TASK, or Team of Advocates for Special Kids. They provide workshops on the following topics: IEP Rights and Strategies, IEP Tips and Pointers, Basic Rights, Section 504 Accommodations, Section 504 and Transition, and Transition to Adult Services. In addition, you can schedule a free one-hour IEP clinic with a TASK staff member to discuss your student’s particular case and to “plan strategies for the IEP meeting.”
However, If you have concerns about the school’s responsiveness and doubts about your own abilities to be an effective advocate, you can hire a professional known as a special education advocate or special education consultant. They also may be billed as “educational consultants”, which is confusing because the same name is also used for the specialists who can help you find an appropriate private school for your child (as discussed in this post). Some of the advocates and consultants are attorneys; some do not have a law degree but have a lot of experience with special education issues. They may be former teachers or administrators, and/or they may be parents of special needs children.
Here’s an article about hiring an educational advocate. The article is geared for students with ADHD, but the information mostly applies to anyone. Note that the link in the article to the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates locator page does not work. I did find a different link to COPAA, though. Since most states don’t regulate this profession, an organization like COPAA seems to be a good way to find a reputable advocate in your area.
Here is another article with advice about when and how to hire an advocate.
If you are going to bring an advocate, or anyone extra, to the meeting, I believe you have to inform the school in writing at least a three days in advance.
Our experience with an advocate did not turn out all that well. We hired one for Nathan’s IEP meeting at the end of his junior year, when he had been in the Special Day Class for emotionally disturbed students for almost a year. We had a nagging feeling that perhaps other arrangements might be better, or that more could be happening for Nathan in the SDC setting. From what we heard, much of his teacher’s time was spent breaking up fights and dealing with verbal taunts among the students. In the IEP meeting, we wanted someone on our side who would know the possibilities better than we did, and who would be able to ask the right questions and challenge any fishy statements.
The advocate we ended up hiring had previously been an educator. I forget how I found her. We talked on the phone, and she sounded OK. so some time later my husband and I drove an hour to her office for a consultation.
Two things stand out in my memory of that meeting. One was that, while we were in her office discussing Nathan’s situation, my husband’s cell phone rang. It was a vice-principal from Alan’s middle school, saying that Alan had been caught with inappropriate items in his backpack. Another cherished moment in parenting – not!
The second thing was that, in trying to summarize our uncertainty about the SDC, I mentioned to the advocate that we sometimes wondered if the class amounted to anything more than babysitting.
At the IEP meeting a few weeks later, it was clear that Nathan’s teacher, Mr. F, was a little unnerved by having an advocate present. I guessed it hadn’t happened many times before. Our advocate exchanged pleasantries with Mr. F at the outset, and listened quietly for most of the meeting.
The tone of the meeting was matter-of-fact. Mr. F talked about Nathan’s progress and some of the ongoing difficulties, and then we agreed on some new goals for the IEP. We were getting to the wrap-up stage when our advocate spoke up. “I know one concern that Nathan’s parents expressed,” she said, “is whether your classroom is just glorified babysitting. How do you respond to that?”
That was NOT a remark I had thought she would repeat! And she had tossed it in out of nowhere. Mr. F replied with a rambling, defensive, irritated answer, that no, he was not a babysitter.
Until that day, we’d had a good relationship with Mr. F, but from then on, he was much more distant with us. And I can understand why, given what our advocate had shared.
In the parking lot after the meeting, the advocate said that everything she’d heard in the meeting had sounded all right, and that there probably wasn’t a better placement option for Nathan. Then she said, “I threw in that babysitting comment just to shake him up a little.” Indeed it did, but with a negative impact way beyond the meeting.
The moral of our story is, the presence of an advocate and what they say can unsettle the school staff, and may damage the level of trust that exists between parents and staff. We probably should have spent a little time with the advocate talking about how we’d have preferred approaching the meeting. The plus side to hiring her was gaining some peace of mind that a professional looking at Nathan’s situation did not see anything major that could be improved.
Was it worth the $250 – $300 we paid? In our case, no. We chose not to use an advocate in an IEP meeting again. But under different circumstances, it could have been well worth it.