There have been moments for Marini Hamilton Smith when negotiating aspects of her son’s Individual Education Program felt a lot like haggling with a car salesman.
The Los Angeles mom would tell the teachers, specialists and administrators in the room what her medically fragile son Colson needs in terms of therapy and special educational services. A representative of the district would offer something less — $80 per hour for a specialist instead of $95, for example — but Smith would hold firm. The district official would leave the room to speak with someone who could presumably approve the costs and then come back with a new offer.
"I don’t feel like they see my son as a person," Smith says. "It is not a partnership as it’s supposed to be. We’re only working as a team if you agree to what they’re offering."
Smith, however, sees the IEP process from multiple angles. A former elementary school teacher in the Inglewood Unified School District, near Los Angeles, she says she didn’t have much preparation regarding her role in supporting students with special needs.
"I would attend an IEP meeting and maybe didn’t even know what [the student’s] goals were."
Now a child development instructor at West Los Angeles College, she teaches future educators, who she thinks need more training on IEPs — the centerpiece of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s requirement that children with disabilities receive a “free appropriate public education.”
“The likelihood that you’re going to have an exceptional child in your class is so much higher,” she says.
Even with Smith’s experience as an educator — and the time she and her husband take to interpret and annotate the technical language in the IEP agreement — meetings can still leave her an “emotional mess.”
Such perceptions among parents of children with IEPs are among the reasons experts say school leaders can set the tone for how the IEP process is handled in their school.
“The IEP is at the heart of special education,” three past presidents of the Council for Exceptional Children wrote in the organization’s recent “State of the Special Education Profession” — a survey conducted for the first time in 20 years. “It is the roadmap for meeting the learning needs of students with exceptionalities. The extent to which school staff and administrators understand and use this map is important to the success of both students with exceptionalities and special educators.“
In the report, about a quarter of the 1,467 special education teachers who responded said their building principals were “well-prepared to support IEP goals.” Fewer — 18% — said the same thing about other general education administrators.
“Administrators who support the IEP process” was ranked as the third most important factor in special educators’ success. They also highly value having local school and district-level administrators who are “responsive, supportive and informed.”
“One thing administrators don’t understand — for them it’s just a meeting,” says Mitchell Yell, a special education professor at the University of South Carolina. “For the parent, it’s the meeting.”
A former special education teacher in Minnesota, Yell also has a child with special needs and, like Smith, has more than one perspective.
“It always seemed to me that it works best when you have a principal or a school district invested in making sure that everyone is present and the parents have a meaningful role,” he says.
Fewer than half of respondents in the CEC survey rated their district highly (on a scale from one to five) on valuing “meaningful partnerships with families.” A little more than a quarter — 27% — gave their districts a four or five on the question of “how much their district supported including families in the IEP development.”
A substantial proportion of the respondents — 900 — also provided additional comments, with many saying they needed more time to contact families and schedule IEP meetings, and they needed “ready access” to interpreters for families who don’t speak English or having documents translated.
“Given the increasing diversity of students and their continued disproportional representation, these findings are alarming,” the authors write.
The findings also back up Smith’s perception of her role in the IEP process when she was a teacher. Only 8% of the respondents rated general educators as “well-prepared to help students meet IEP goals.”
Working to prevent litigation
As Smith expressed, the IEP meeting can be overwhelming, especially for those unfamiliar with the jargon used or unclear on what questions to ask.
“Our IEP meetings are pretty full because [Colson] has so many specialists,” she said, adding there can be as many as 12 to 14 people in a session, with the majority working for the district. “That adds to the intimidation.”
That’s due to the IDEA law, which requires any teacher, specialist or other professional who is part of a child’s IEP team to participate, notes Julie Weatherly, an Alabama special education lawyer.
She adds disagreements over IEPs are part of the reason a lot of cases end up in litigation. Those in the field, she says, often share a cartoon of an IEP meeting in which one side of a table is crowded with educators and specialists, each representing a different aspect of the IEP. On the other side is a father and an advocate.
Through her organization, Resolutions in Special Education, Weatherly provides consulting services to districts on “exploring preventive avenues before formal litigation ensues.” When she does workshops for school leaders, she says they often ask her to come back and train teachers, as well.
Giving families plenty of advance notice before an IEP meeting and offering them the chance to adjust the day and time to fit their schedule gives parents more opportunity to prepare, suggests Harry Gregg, the director of special education for the Spring Cove School District in Pennsylvania.
Recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor, which clarifies families can use the Family and Medical Leave Act intermittently to attend IEP meetings, can also alleviate some of the stress involved in scheduling meetings that can take a few hours and sometimes must continue another day.
Special education teachers in Spring Cove also meet with families prior to the meetings to gather input to include in the IEP, Gregg said.
“I feel that our district has established a culture of open communication with parents on a frequent basis,” Gregg says, adding some IEP teams meet with parents as often as every six weeks. “We have frequent team meetings if a student is struggling and not making progress.”
Even making sure someone welcomes parents when they come to the office for the meeting or offers them a cup of coffee can improve the overall experience, says Jolly Piersall, director of Indiana’s state-funded IEP Resource Center. Giving them a prominent seat at the table can also communicate their role in the meeting.
“Sometimes those things that you would think are common sense, are not,” says Piersall.
‘Goals drive services’
Kelley Coleman’s 6-year-old son Aaron is only in kindergarten, but she’s already participated in eight IEP meetings, including those conducted while he was in preschool in the Los Angeles Unified School District. With that level of experience, she’s developed some opinions regarding what can make the IEP process more productive for families and educators.
First, she advises parents to take advantage of where the IEP team members have the most expertise — “developing the best goals for your child.” Instead of debating specific services, which can often lead to mediation because of the costs involved, she recommends focusing the discussion on what the student should be able to accomplish during the year.
“Goals drive services,” she says. “Before I fully understood this, I was doing it backwards.”
Helping districts develop IEP goals is also the focus of a new initiative in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. The agency recently finished accepting proposals for a new “technical assistance and dissemination center” that will focus, in part, on helping districts and charter school networks “develop and implement high-quality IEPs reasonably calculated to enable children to make progress.”
The new center is being created in response to requests from districts for guidance in complying with a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Colorado case, which involved a student with autism.
The justices ruled an IEP should be designed with the purpose of a student making progress “in light of the child’s circumstances,” that it ensures the child has “the chance to meet challenging objectives,” and that the plan describes how the child will meet both “academic and functional goals.” Experts say the ruling sets a higher bar for IEPs than in the past.
Being ‘an equal member’
Coleman also meets with members of her son’s IEP team in a type of “work session” before the official meeting. These gatherings, she says, have been an effective way to prepare, ask questions and review evaluations of her son’s progress.
“I think you’re not an equal member of the team if the first time you’re hearing these things is in the IEP meeting,” says Coleman, who also serves as a member of LAUSD’s Community Advisory Committee, which is required by state law and advises the school board and district leaders on special education issues.
She adds it’s important for families to know in advance who has authority to approve specific services, and for districts to make sure parents know “where to go if they are not able to resolve things at their school level.”
LAUSD’s special education services have been under close examination for more than 20 years, stemming from the settlement of a lawsuit and a consent decree requiring improvements, including making sure parents understand their rights and options. While some argue there’s still a lot of work to do, the consent decree — modified in 2003 — will be lifted at the end of this year.
“The District has built a strong foundation and infrastructure for operating its special education program in a manner that ensures and promotes program accessibility, equity, student success, parent engagement and support for its teachers and staff,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said in an August statement when the announcement was made.
Districtwide, “there is a lot of movement” around making information about IEPs available online instead of parents having to call, says Alesha Haase, the special education administrator for LAUSD’s Local District Northeast. But that local area district is also making additional efforts to be more responsive to parents of students with IEPs. Last school year, it began offering “drop-in clinics” for families to meet with special education staff members if they have questions or need help preparing for an IEP meeting.
Those staff members will also occasionally attend meetings “to serve as neutral parties to make sure policy is followed and implemented” and “make sure all the elements are discussed,” Haase says.
Making sure ‘everyone is heard’
Having neutral parties at the table is a service Indiana’s IEP Resource Center — a fairly unique model — provides to districts. Facilitators participate in IEP meetings to make sure “everyone is heard” and that schools and families “end up with an IEP than can be implemented,” says Piersall.
Sometimes, she says, districts will “dig in their heels” and say they won’t provide particular services unless forced to, and parents will ask for “Cadillac” programs or specific curricula not currently offered.
But Piersall stresses getting to know parents and children outside of the official IEP process can lead to greater agreement when it’s time to discuss specific aspects of the plan.
“To be honest,” she says, “if the school had a good relationship with the parent, they could have those conversations and they wouldn’t have to call us.”