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Who's In Charge Here? Looking Behind the Curtain in Special Education Matters

Let's say you have a daughter named Dorothy.

Dorothy is (ahem) 9 years old and has recently been evaluated for special education and related services for her ADHD and high functioning autism. A few days later, you receive your club Welcome Packet and official "Team Dorothy" jersey!!

Ok, maybe not. Instead, you receive a rather legal looking notice from the school district summarizing the results of the evaluation and inviting you to attend a team meeting to review the evaluation data, determine eligibility and develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to address Dorothy's needs (In Texas, this is known as an Admission Review and Dismissal or ARD Committee meeting). It's a little less festive but extremely important.

"Hmmm", you say to yourself, "Team meeting? Who else is on this team?"

Great question! Let's meet the other members of Team Dorothy, shall we?

The official IEP team roster can be found in Section 1414(d)(1)(B) of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). It includes

  • you (the parent),

  • at least one of Dorothy's "regular" education teachers,

  • at least one of her special education teachers or providers (the one responsible for implementing the IEP),

  • a representative of the local education agency (LEA, or as we call it here in Texas, the school district),

  • someone who can interpret the instructional implications of the evaluation data (the role of interpreter can be played by one of the other members of the team or a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology or an education diagnostician),

  • Dorothy (if appropriate) and

  • anyone else the parent or agency feels has special knowledge or expertise relating to Dorothy (such as an advocate!).

The Statute further defines the district representative as one who is:

(I) qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities;

(II) knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and

(III) knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the local educational agency

(20 USC 1414(d)(1)(B)).

Sounds great, right? With this kind of line up all working together, how can Dorothy lose? After all, you know Dorothy's teachers and they all love her and they're always so helpful. Of course they're going to do what's best for her. And Glenda, the Special Education teacher, is an expert on working with children like Dorothy and will know exactly what to do for her. And we all want to do what's best for Dorothy, right? Unfortunately, even taking into account all of the above to be true, which is not always the case, the majority of our team members don't have a lot of power, magical or otherwise, and there are more powerful, usually hidden, team members with other motives at work.

"Who are these hidden team members and what do they want?" you ask. Well, that may require a little investigating on your part. Who has the authority to make decisions with regard to special education programs? Is it the principal? The local Special Education Director? The local school board? The Superintendent? How is power distributed? To answer those questions, you need to examine your LEA policies, which are public information and should be readily available to you. Check their website. If you can't find them, ask. As a member of this team, you can't play the game unless you know the rules. As for what they want, they want uniformity. They want consistency. They want efficiency. They want convenience. After all, they are tasked with the education of hundreds, or even thousands, of students. They can't possibly be concerned with the needs of one child, even one as special as Dorothy.

While you may never see these team members at an IEP meeting, their presence will be reflected in the actions of those that are. You will hear it in phrases like "We can't do that" or "we don''t have the budget for that." They will tell you about district policies governing what they can and cannot provide. Most of the time such policies are "unwritten." They will sympathize with your frustration and wish they could do more. They will offer what services they can within limits. If you are looking for services that are more unique and individualized, you will find resistance even if what you're asking for is perfectly reasonable and will truly benefit Dorothy.

My reason for telling you this is not to discourage you, but to empower you. Despite their best intentions, know that you are the only member of your child's IEP team with only your child's best interests at heart. You are the hero of this piece. You must be great and powerful.

"Me?" you ask, "What can I do?" The answer is A LOT! You gain power through knowledge and preparation. You need to walk into that IEP meeting knowing as much as you can about your child's disability. What services and/or techniques have proven effective? How do they relate to your child's unique needs?

Go online.

Talk to your pediatrician.

Talk to an advocate.

The more you know, the better prepared you'll be. Pick your battles. You may not win them all so it's important to prioritize. If it's minor, be prepared to let it go. If it's a top priority, don't take no for an answer. Remember you are fighting for the noblest of causes; your child's future.

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