Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Law is on Your Side

Fall is here, the leaves are changing colors and kids are all back in school. I know that many of you came into the new school year with concerns about your child and his or her school. Don’t worry. The law is on your side! Please refer to my previous post for a review of the federal laws pertaining to special education, as well as a brief explanation of the historical context for the laws.  

One of the most important things I want to emphasize today is the need to formalize your relationship with the school. This does not mean that you should have an adversarial relationship with the school. On the contrary, you and the school are collaborative partners in educating your child. However, the only way to ensure that your child is receiving appropriate services is to follow the protocols mandated by the federal laws. A number of parents have reported that the school principal or the student’s teachers have said, “Don’t worry, we will take care of your child and make sure everything is OK. We will do whatever we need to do.” As well-meaning as the school’s efforts may be, the only way to be sure that your child is receiving the appropriate services, is for you to do your part in the process. As a parent, your role is critical. You are your child’s best advocate!

The federal disability laws are designed to ensure that a child with a disability receives the services necessary to take full advantage of the educational opportunities being offered. The different disability laws mandate different entitlements, rights, and responsibilities, but each of the laws requires that the school make its educational program accessible to students with disabilities.     

Most children with dystonia will have either an “Individualized Education Plan” (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. §1400, et seq.) or a “504 Plan” under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. §701, et seq.)  An IEP, in a nutshell, identifies the accommodations and any related services the child needs in order to benefit from the educational program.  A 504 Plan, in a nutshell, outlines the modifications and accommodations the school will provide to ensure that the child has full access to the educational program.  I will discuss these different plans in more detail in a future blog, but for now I want to point out that once implemented, these plans are not carved in stone for the year.  They can be modified, as needed, during the school year. The law does allow for changes to a current year IEP without reconvening the formal IEP team in a meeting, provided the parent and the school agree that no meeting is necessary for the change to take place.  A 504 Plan may similarly be changed during the school year as necessary, with fewer formal procedures. 

Parents are often the first to notice when things are not working out at school. If you find that the accommodations and supports in place are not working for your child, politely request that the IEP team reconvene. You should do this in writing and be specific about your concerns.  This will start the conversation and allow for the school to begin working with you to resolve the problem. As noted above, the team may not need to meet, but your request will start the clock ticking, requiring the school to act.  If your child is under a 504 Plan you should still put your request in writing and ask for a review. The procedural time line is not the same, but the school is not in compliance with the law if the modifications and accommodations in place are not giving your child the same access to the educational program as their nondisabled peers. 

Please remember, parents are natural advocates for their children.  It is important to know the law, stay informed and work collaboratively with the schools.  Until next time . . .