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How to disagree with an IEP

Advice from two experts about what to do when you need to push back during the IEP process

Written by: Kara Baskin

Sometimes, the IEP process doesn’t unfold as planned. You might be dissatisfied with the accommodations your child is receiving, the types of assessments used to evaluate your child, or the depth of understanding that your team brings to CVI. Even well-meaning people can reach an impasse when writing an IEP.  

Moreover, CVI is still not fully understood. Knowledge is continually evolving. Schools struggle with funding for special education. So many factors can trip up the IEP process.

What’s a frustrated parent to do? Many parents choose to bring in outside advisors, such as advocates or even attorneys, because the stakes are so high and the emotions involved are so overwhelming. What’s more important than your child’s education? 

We know that you, as a parent, are your child’s biggest champion. We also realize that IEP discussions can become deeply fraught. We hear you!

As such, we asked two top experts for advice. Educational consultant Jen Ritchotte works with  The Special Kids Company based in Ellicott City, Maryland, where she advocates for kids with special needs in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. CVI parent and attorney Monika Jones is executive director of The Brain Recovery Project in Los Angeles, California, a nonprofit organization that serves the community of children who need parts of the brain removed to treat their seizures. Both are fierce advocates for kids with unique educational profiles. 

Consider this your manual when you’re getting ready to push back.

Know your procedural safeguards

As a parent, you have rights. You should receive a notice of those rights, or procedural safeguards, as outlined by the IDEA.  You should receive them upon your initial request for evaluation; if filing a complaint; or upon request any time. Read more about this here

“These are your sword and shield,” Jones says.

These rights include prior written notice each time your school proposes or refuses to take certain actions with respect to your child; your right to disagree with evaluations done by the school system and request independent assessments; your child’s right to continue to “stay put” and receive services even during a dispute; and your right to use provisions allowed through the IDEA to resolve disputes.

Prior written notice can be confusing: Typically, you’ll receive it after your IEP meeting, but it documents modifications to the IEP, made prior to the change actually happening. You should receive this notice whenever your school proposes to initiate or change (or refuses to initiate or change) the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of your child. For example, you might request more services from a TVI, but your team might refuse. This change needs to be documented in a prior written notice. Learn more about prior written notices here.

If you do disagree with the contents of your child’s IEP, there are several ways to reconcile the issue. Many school systems have a parent response unit or resolution and compliance office to handle initial parent concerns.

The formal escalation process starts with due process, which is the formal mechanism for resolving IEP disputes, protected by the IDEA.

Due process begins when you file a written complaint against your school. Next, you’ll attend an optional resolution session, ideally to reach an agreement before escalating the complaint. This is different from an IEP meeting, because the goal is resolving the issue before it continues. By law, these meetings must happen within 15 days.

If you can’t reach an agreement in this meeting, you’ll then have a due process hearing. Learn more here, and read more about your procedural safeguards here.

Come to the IEP meeting in a maximum state of empowerment

Don’t confuse this with entitlement.

“You can’t make a school team do something they don’t want to do,” Jones says. That said, you can do your homework to maximize efficiency and ensure that the meeting goes as smoothly and productively as possible.

According to Ritchotte, this means reading applicable assessments and evaluations ahead of time (you’re entitled to request all data before the meeting). Write down each of your questions and requests, section by section. Send it to the team in advance so everyone has a script to maximize time.

“You cannot digest 40 pages of information during a meeting,” she says.

Some states allow you to record an IEP meeting; just make sure you let the team know in advance according to the timelines in your state’s law.

Make sure every section of the IEP clearly documents your child’s needs

Sometimes, Ritchotte encounters teams who might tell parents that certain accommodations are already being done because they’re just good teaching practices or are programmatic. That’s wonderful, but it doesn’t matter if they’re not written in an IEP.

“I’ll say, “That’s great. That’s the whole reason why this student is successful. If this student moves tomorrow to a brand-new school system, we want to make sure that every support that they require is documented in the IEP so that there’s no question,” she says.

Tip: Print out your child’s prior IEP and the new IEP to review side by side to ensure that the appropriate provisions have been carried over.

“If there’s anything that’s missing on the new IEP, I ask, ‘What happened to this accommodation?’ It’s fine if there’s a good reason for it to be removed, but I want to know why,” she says, with reasons backed up by data.

Pay special attention to continuity in the goals and objectives section and present levels. These need to be written specifically, with data pointing to progress. Also make sure you understand the supplementary aids and services section, which explains your child’s classroom accommodations. This part gets to the meat of: What does your child really need in order to level the playing field so that they can make progress?

For example, if your child student needs intentional use of a specific color and dark plain background to make letters and numbers visually accessible, you want to make sure that that language is specific. 

Always ask for data

Anecdotes without data are meaningless.

“If your child’s IEP says something like, ‘The student will retell a story with 80 percent accuracy on four out of five occasions,’ and then the present levels just say something like, ‘The student has improved in being able to retell a story,’ don’t accept that as your data,” Ritchotte says.

Instead, request percentages and ask for work samples to illustrate how your child is doing. Information should be concrete and data-based, and therefore measurable year by year.

You control the tone of the meeting

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, you can always pause the meeting and ask to reconvene at a different time. This is your right. You deserve time to process information and ask informed questions.

“Sometimes you’re not going to change minds in the moment, in the meeting. Bear this in mind, because oftentimes, these meetings are emotion-driven. Do not try to litigate in the meeting,” Jones says. Simply move on to your next point and revisit later.

You can also ask for any requests to be documented in the notes of the meeting. 

“I always tell parents, and I do this all the time–if the school will not agree to a change that you want to make, you ask them to make sure it’s documented in the notes of the meeting. There’s always supposed to be some kind of documentation,” Ritchotte says.

If this happens, remain calm. Simply tell the team, “I hear that you disagree with what we’re asking. We want to make sure it’s documented that we’ve requested this change. We want it documented that you don’t agree to this change. And we want to make sure the reason why is documented,” she says.

If you do end up requiring mediation or legal recourse, you’ll have information in writing. 

Sometimes I’ll sit in a meeting where a school backs themselves into a corner. They stand so firmly in, ‘This is what we’ll agree to; we won’t agree to anything else.’ Sometimes, that’s a good time to say, ‘We’d like to pause the meeting and reconvene at a different date.’ That gives the school a chance to save face and come back and change their minds.

Educational consultant Jen Ritchotte

Be diplomatic

Striking a collaborative tone is essential (even if you’re frazzled). Make sure to copy everyone on the team in any follow-up emails, which signals inclusivity (and also ensures nobody can claim to have lost your note!). But be appreciative and forthright. Ask questions; don’t make demands.

“I always thank them for their hard work and then ask to have a conversation when asking a question,” Ritchotte says. 

Yes, you might be upset. You’re driven to protect your child. It’s a primal instinct.

“Understand the process, understand what your rights are, understand your child’s disabilities and conditions, but be a collaborative parent. Don’t be the mama bear who comes in and thinks she knows everything who’s going to fight, fight, fight. You’re just setting yourself up for a problem,” Jones says.

Pick your battles

Realistically, you will likely need to compromise a bit with your school district.

“Parents have to think about: What do I really need? What are our trade-offs?” Jones says. “Focus on the things that are important to you, try to get the team on board with that, and really aim for collaboration.” 

For some parents of younger kids, it might be your child learning to read. For others, it might be ensuring that your child has the skills to make a successful transition to independent living.  List out your priorities, and recognize that you won’t get everything on your wishlist. It’s important to remember that, under the IDEA, you are entitled to a free, appropriate education for your child. 

“You want a perfect education for your child. You’re not entitled to that under the IDEA,” Jones says. 

Accepting this will make it easier to effectively push for and prioritize your child’s needs.

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