Commentary: Parents of special-needs students must be proactive

The new school year is in full swing and it's time to review your child's Individual Education Plan.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, guarantees special education for children who have disabilities. For parents of a special-needs child, an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, is the foundation for their child to excel in school and benefit from their education.

Often parents of special-needs children become overwhelmed in the special-education process as they learn about their child's disability and how to achieve the best education for that child.

If you are such a parent, you should have already met with the school IEP team. But if not, below are a few tips to help you through an IEP meeting:

1.) Stay organized. Even if you are new to the special-education system, you have certainly realized that voluminous documents and paperwork are part of your child's education plan. Therefore, an organized system is necessary. I suggest a large, three-ring binder with labeled tabs to enable you to quickly look up documents. A great way to organize would be by year and within each year to further tab assessments, IEP documents and correspondence with your child's teachers and the district. Organization is especially helpful when you attend IEP meetings, so you are better able to follow along and access the documents you want to refer to.

2.) Know your rights. Knowing your rights, or rather your child's rights, is most important in special education. I taught a seminar on the IEP process and was shocked at how many parents were misled on their rights or were just left in the dark in regards to their child's education. Research your rights and keep up to date on current cases affecting special-education law. There are great websites that provide materials for parents such as disabilityrightsca.org and wrightslaw.com.

3.) Make a list of topics and questions to discuss at the IEP meeting. Before any meeting with your district to discuss your child's education, make sure to make a list of questions and topics you would like to discuss. You may even want to put sticky notes on sections of your child's assessments or IEP with questions or topics so that you may make reference to those documents as they are discussed. Do not hesitate to ask to have a follow-up meeting if you were not able to discuss all the topics you had written down.

4.) Review assessments and recommendations. Be sure to review your child's most recent assessment and the recommendations it contains. If you did not receive a copy, request one from your district. California Education Code Section 56329 requires an IEP meeting be held to discuss assessments once they have been completed, and you must be included in this meeting. If an IEP meeting was never held to discuss the outcome of your child's assessments in your presence, then your district is not in compliance with state law. Under Section 300.502 of the IDEA, you have the right to request an independent educational evaluation of your child at the district's expense if you disagree with your child's assessment. Even if you pay privately for an independent educational examination, the results must be considered by the district in its offer of free and appropriate public education, so long as the assessment meets district criteria.

5.) Get to know your IEP team. As stated in the IDEA, an IEP must be reasonably calculated to enable a child to receive educational benefits. The district has an affirmative duty to ensure that at least one parent of the child is present at the IEP meeting under Section 300.322 of the IDEA. But several other individuals also must be present. The IEP team includes at least one general education teacher if the child is or may be in a general education environment, at least one special-education teacher, a district representative who is qualified to provide special-education services and knows the availability of resources within the district, an individual capable of interpreting evaluations, and anyone the parent desires who has knowledge regarding the child's disability.

6.) Keep your own progress report. At the IEP meeting, annual and short-term measurable goals for your child must be established. Make a chart in your organized file, and keep a progress report of your own on how your child is progressing toward meeting these goals. If you see that your child is not progressing, request to convene the IEP team to discuss what changes may be made to aid your child.

7.) Remain calm. This is often difficult when you have just learned your child is special needs and qualifies for special education or you feel that your child's rights are being violated. It is good to get these feelings out and use them to propel you to your end goal, which is the best education for your child. It is always best to remain calm in discussions with your school district officials and teachers. You have to continue working productively with these individuals for the benefit of your child.

8.) Join a parent support group. It is understandable that as a parent of a special-needs child you will often feel that you are going through the struggle alone, but plenty of parents would love to share hope with you. Many school districts have their own special-education groups, and they can be located through the district's website. In Orange County, the Regional Center of Orange County (rcocdd.com) and Autism Society of Orange County (asaoc.tripod.com) are great resources, as well as Parents Helping Parents (php.com).

MIRANDA K. ANDERSEN is a special-education advocate attorney who recently joined the Newport Beach law firm The Foley Group PLC.

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