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Resolving Special Education Disagreements at the Local Level

From DREF (Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund):

This is Part 1 of a 2 part series on dispute resolution. This month we focus on resolving conflicts at the local level—before issues escalate to state complaints or due process hearings.
The purpose of the IEP team meeting is to create an IEP that will provide meaningful educational benefit in the least restrictive environment, based on evaluation data, input from all team members, including the parent and the student where appropriate, and after identifying what kind of specialized instruction, support, accommodations, modifications and services will ensure that these goals can be met. No matter what the reason, it can be very stressful as a parent to find yourself in disagreement with the school team. Parents are often unsure what appropriate next steps are in this situation.
An IEP can open the door of educational opportunity so that our children can learn and prepare for the life ahead of them. But sometimes the door is locked or blocked and we can't agree with the school district about how to open it. For example:
  • You requested evaluation for an IEP and the district refused, or they conducted an evaluation and found your child ineligible for services, or not eligible under the category you have reason to believe is the key concern. (For example, finding a student eligible under speech and language, but not autism when you have a medical diagnosis).
  • The district is proposing to exit your child from services you think are still needed (a 1:1 aide, or occupational therapy) or telling you that your child is no longer eligible for an IEP and you don't agree
  • You disagree with the type of support and how much support your child needs to meet IEP goals.
  • You disagree that an IEP goal is appropriate, or has or has not been met.
  • You disagree about what placement is being offered, how your child is being disciplined, or whether your child is being discriminated against because of a disability (for example, is not able to participate in field trips or other school activities) or is experiencing bullying.
How do you resolve the problem without hurting the relationships with staff who you may be working with for years to come?
Our first tip is "Don't Wait." Inaction can cause the conflict to simmer and escalate. Be proactive because time matters for children, and all of the processes described here take time. Parents are often worried that they will be seen as hostile or difficult if they raise their concerns, refuse to sign an agreement, or use their legal rights. But waiting too long to address concerns can make things worse and finding solutions more difficult.
Parents have access to a set of powerful protections called "procedural safeguards." In general, it is best to start at the local (school and district) level. Options can include:
  • Requesting a follow up IEP meeting (in writing--must be held within 30 calendar days except during vacations greater than 5 days). But be careful—if the team has met repeatedly on the same issue without resolution, it may be time to take the next steps.
  • Writing to higher–level administrators (a Special Education Director, for example), laying out your concerns and evidence to back them up.
  • Requesting an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) when you disagree with the assessments/evaluations the district/charter conducted (see our sample letters). New data and recommendations from a qualified assessor taking a fresh look or deeper dive who is independent of the school is often critical to developing an effective IEP.
  • Requesting a Facilitated IEP when meetings are becoming unproductive or hostile. A facilitator is an impartial, trained person who will work with a student's IEP team and will manage the meeting. The facilitator helps keep the IEP team members focused on developing the IEP while addressing conflicts and disagreements that may arise during the meeting, and tries to create an environment in which the IEP team members can listen to one another's points of view and work together to develop an IEP that is acceptable to both the parents and the school district. 
  • Meeting with the Special Education Administrator before filing a formal complaint or requesting a hearing, including requesting an Alternative Dispute Resolution meeting.
  • Requesting more assessment/evaluation by the district by someone with more expertise in the area of concern, so that both sides have data to consider, including in California, referrals to State Department of Education Diagnostic Centers.
  • Agreeing to try something different for a limited time period and then re-evaluating the situation. For example, delivering an evidence-based multi-sensory reading program to the student who isn't making progress for 60 days, to see if it produces results that will help the student reach a reading goal.
  • Filing a "local" or "uniform" complaint with the school district when you feel district policy, or state and federal law are being violated. Every principal should be able to provide these forms and a description of the process.
Local resolution works best when all parties recognize that while there is disagreement, flexible problem solving is in everyone's interest. It can be faster, save time and legal costs, and may preserve relationships with staff.
Next month, we will consider options when a local resolution process is either not effective or not appropriate.

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