November 29, 2004
Students diagnosed with special needs have rights.
Specifically, they have 143 pages of rights under a 1975 law that Congress reauthorized for the fourth time on Nov. 19 — and which is now awaiting approval from President Bush.
Students with disabilities and their parents can demand an IEP. And FAPE. And to be taught in the LRE. And if any public school denies these things, parents can complain to ADE and then OSERS.
Many parents who serve as advocates for their children at East Valley schools agreed this month that the world of special education can be intimidating — especially with all the acronyms, clinical terminology and reams of rules.
"If you don’t do your homework before you go in, it’s a bewildering thing," said Mesa parent Dave Lane, a member of the Mesa Unified School District’s special-education advisory panel and the father of a special-needs child. "A lot of parents are easily intimidated and think it’s an ‘us against them’ thing."
‘US AGAINST THEM’
The Arizona Center for Disability Law often hears from parents who end up in specialeducation disputes with school administrators.
Jerri Katzerman, an attorney at the center, said her office receives about 1,700 complaints a year from parents worried that their children’s rights have been denied. Some of these cases make it to court, she said, but most are resolved within the school system.
Katzerman said changes in the law that cleared Congress this month will put even more pressure on parents to stay vigilant as advocates for their special-needs children.
She said the law’s amendments will make it easier for school districts to remove students who cause discipline problems because of mental retardation. And, she said, the new law will allow schools to replace short-term learning objectives for specialeducation students with broad annual goals.
"I had to go through a period of mourning, to tell you the truth," Katzerman said. "This is a major setback for children with disabilities."
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, offered qualified support for the changes — which the organization said would reduce paperwork and give teachers more control in their classrooms to discipline students as appropriate.
HELP FOR PARENTS
Mesa parent Susan Modos, East Valley representative of the state-funded Parent Information Network, said she frequently hears from parents who say school administrators fight against them rather than work for the benefit of their special-needs children.
She said most complaints that reach her office come from parents of children with "invisible disabilities" such as attention deficit disorder.
"It is easy for the teacher to forget that the child has a disability," Modos said.
But Modos said parents who make an effort to communicate with educators will usually find that East Valley schools are eager to do whatever is best for the child.
"We understand when people are frustrated," Modos said. "But we also believe in the system."
She said parents of a special needs child must first oversee the creation of an individualized education program, a legally binding document that outlines accommodations that a child is entitled to receive. These documents are created by teams at each school that always include the parents.
Modos said parents should not be intimidated when they step into a room filled with professional educators to draft this document.
"Speak up, but with a nice tone of voice," Modos said.
She said parents who are unhappy with a school’s execution of the individualized education program once the document is drafted should follow a certain chain of command.
First they should work with their child’s teacher, then the principal and then the district’s special education director.
Jacque Cooper, a specialeducation program specialist in the Tempe Elementary School District, said parents who do not understand any part of the process should ask questions — and educators will be happy to help.
"We want it to be as parentfriendly as possible," she said.
Be an advocate for your child Randy Gray and Rhonda Urtuzuastegui offer the following tips to parents preparing for their first individualized education program conference:
• Visit your child’s classroom before the conference and make observations.
• Bring a scrapbook or daily log to the conference that describes teaching methods that have worked for your child at home.
• Create handouts that list the strengths, needs and goals of your child. Distribute these at the conference.
• Do not be intimidated by the various professionals who will attend the conference. Remember that no one knows your child as well as you do. "There’s no such thing as ‘just a parent,’ " Urtuzuastegui said. "All parents are educators, too."
Resources for parents
• Parent Information Network: Consultants provide free support to parents of special-education students. Call (480) 654-1559 in Maricopa County or (520) 836-3023 in Pinal County. Or visit www.ade.az.gov/ess/pinspals.
• Raising Special Kids: Free parent-to-parent programs match Valley families through a trained volunteer network. Visit www.raisingspecialkids.org or call (602) 242-4366.
• Arizona Center for Disability Law: Group offers free monthly classes for parents of special-needs children. Visit www.acdl.com or call (602) 274-6287.
Alphabet soup IEP: Individualized Education Program. A legally binding document that establishes an education plan for a student. IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. Requires that children be educated in the setting they would be in if they did not have a learning disability.