How to Fight for Your Special Needs Child's Rights

Recently, I got a plea from the mother of a child with special needs. She asked: "Can you do a column on how to investigate your child's special education file?" Two thoughts flashed to my mind: 1) That's such a fundamental and important thing to be able to investigate. And 2) I don't know anything about it.

Luckily, one of the joys of working at ProPublica is being surrounded by super smart people. And our education reporter, Heather Vogell, is uncommonly sharp, having covered the most important stories in education for years. (Remember the cheating scandal in Atlanta schools? Heather and her colleagues at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered that.)

So I turned to her for help. Under federal law, each school must create an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, for a child with qualified special needs. The plans spell out what kind of services each child should expect to get (counseling, occupational services, etc.) to succeed in school. Many parents have had long, difficult battles with school officials over the plans. How to get behind the scenes?

First, the obvious stuff. Parents' rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act can be found here: The bottom line is this: "Both custodial and noncustodial parents have the right to access their children's education records." And education records means those documents which "contain information directly related to a student."

Sounds easy, right? A parent can just go in and ask for all the records about his or her kid. Why am I even writing this column?

Because, as any investigative reporter knows, the distance between what the law says and what an agency will actually give you is a vast expanse that is cold and lonely and filled with weasels and attorneys. So Heather's advice for parents is the same as any city editor's would be to a reporter: go out and ask questions.

"My first step would be to forge as close a relationship with the classroom teacher and any and all aides in direct contact with my child as possible. This may not be easy if issues are in dispute, but it is worth some extra emotional effort (and may require biting your tongue at times in order to bring up problems in the most constructive way possible).

I'd also branch out to try to build relationships with others who are likely to see my child in the classroom environment at least sometimes – including other parents, other subject teachers and even administrators. This may seem obvious, but I can't stress enough how important it is to build human sources and get reports from as many people with eyes on your child as possible. It increases the chances that if something is amiss, someone will tip you off."

I can't stress this step enough, either. Investigative reporters love documents. But often, the best information comes from sources — an overwrought journalistic term for people who know the scene, be it the Pentagon's E-Ring, or your kid's classroom. The power of a question is phenomenal. Just ask. You'll be amazed at what people will tell you.

But what questions? Heather's words of wisdom again mirror those of a city editor (but with much, much less swearing).

"A more specific inquiry – how is my child's writing? Or, how is he socializing with peers on the playground? Does he contribute to class discussions? – is typically better than a broad question like ‘How is Jane doing?' It's just more likely to generate an honest answer."

And that's what you're after — honest, perhaps painful, answers. Here's a piece of advice I once got from a fellow reporter: If a question feels wrong, it's the right one to ask.

There's logic to this. If you feel a little hesitant, it's probably because you're a decent human being. You're afraid that the inquiry might make someone uncomfortable or embarrassed or unhappy. But dammit, that's precisely the information you most want — what the other person most wants to conceal. You want to know what's wrong. You want to know what's bad. So screw up your courage and ask. It's your kid. If you don't ask the tough questions, who will?

Heather closed her guidance with two related points. First, get educated. And second, if you absolutely must, get a lawyer.

"Once your child's specific issue is identified, I'd of course recommend reading up on it as much as you can, and trying to track down experts who can point you to state-of-the-art approaches to dealing with it in academic contexts. This isn't the easiest thing to do. But it is worth some effort. Think about it like getting a doctor's second opinion for an important diagnosis and treatment plan.

I'm not recommending litigation – it is a very hard route – but you might also consider consulting an attorney if the school seems unwilling to work with you. Special education law is complex, and you should at a minimum know your rights. The school district should, too."

The Dig is putting its shovel away. A new project beckons. But the column could return. In the meantime, keep digging.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

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