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Navigating special education can be tricky for parents

weston-special-ed-confused-Many families who confront special education programs that are full of jargon and complicated explanations often find that special ed processes are so complex they just let the schools handle it.

Most times the schools get it right, many parents and special education experts have said, but sometimes they don’t. It’s up to parents to know their rights.

What parents need to know

The first thing parents should do if they notice their child is struggling is contact the student’s teacher, said Noreen O’Mahoney, a parent and licensed social worker who has worked in the field of disabilities her entire career. If that doesn’t work, try the principal or someone at the central office.

One of the things school districts implement to try to catch kids who begin to show signs of struggle is what’s called scientific research-based intervention, or SRBI. This program has three tiers, with increasing levels of additional help.

“This instruction needs to be designed on an individual basis and carefully monitored by data analysis to ensure progress,” said Ms. O’Mahoney, who became an advocate for parents when she realized her own child needed help.

IEP

If a student is not progressing with SRBI, a parent has the option to request an evaluation to determine if the child requires specialized instruction. If the child is found eligible, then the district, in concert with parents, would develop an individualized education plan, or IEP.

Federal law states, however, that a person’s disability doesn’t necessarily mean they qualify for special education. The disability must impact the student’s ability to learn.

Parents are invited to be involved in the planning and placement team meeting, or PPT, which includes special ed professionals, and meets at least once a year to develop a child’s education plan, or IEP.

The IEP should detail the following:

• What are the child’s identified special needs;

• What services will be provided to address those needs and where, and when and how often they will be provided;

• What goals and objectives the child should be able to achieve at intervals throughout the year, and what data will be collected to measure that progress;

• What consultation or training the school team may require to implement the program.

Evaluations/504

If an evaluation finds a student does not need an IEP, parents have the option to seek a second opinion. This “independent evaluation” is supposed to be paid for by the schools; however, they don’t have to agree to perform one. The schools also need to agree on who would perform the independent evaluation.

Ms. O’Mahoney said there are numerous evaluators out there, and parents “really need to do their homework on which ones can provide them with the most thorough, useful and truly ‘independent’ assessment of their child’s needs.”

If the child is again not found eligible for an IEP, it’s still possible to get some extra help through a 504 plan, which is named as such from a section of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It typically includes classroom modifications or accommodations such as preferential seating, extended time for testing or modified assignments, which could be needed for a student to access an education, Ms. O’Mahoney said.

But one of the most helpful professionals for parents is the child’s pediatrician, according to advocates.

“If you have concerns, discuss them with your child’s pediatrician, request information regarding your child’s challenges and research online as much information as you can find about your child’s needs and diagnosis,” Ms. O’Mahoney said.

Disagreements

If a child gets an IEP but continues to show signs of struggle, this is where things can get difficult, for both the school district and parents.

If a parent believes the IEP is inadequate, he or she can call for a planning meeting (PPT) to discuss their concerns.

“Sometimes knowing what to ask for, and how to ask for it is the key to getting the right services in place for the child,” Ms. O’Mahoney said.

If parents and the district continue to disagree, each has the option to file for due process with the state Department of Education. The state can act as mediator to help both sides reach an agreement.

If that doesn’t work, parents and districts have the option to file for a legal proceeding, called a due process hearing, to have an independent hearing officer determine if the school’s program is appropriate or not.

If a child is on a 504 plan and is not making progress, there is a different process involving the federal Office of Civil Rights, because these services are under a different federal law.

“Our experience working with more than 2,000 families has made one fact very clear,” Ms. O’Mahoney said. “Unless parents clearly understand their child’s learning issues, what the effective teaching methodologies are to address those issues, and the intricacies of the process they need to use to ensure the school provides those services, there is a strong likelihood that their child is being underserved.”

New year advice

Faith Filiault, a special education advocate based in Wilton and owner of Advocate with Faith, agreed. She advised parents who already have education plans for their students with special needs to start the new school year by requesting progress data and grade-level curriculum to prepare for the coming year.

Parents should request monitoring data from the last school year quarter and data from summer school, if pertinent, and compare it with the progress report and baseline data, which the district should provide, Ms. Filiault said.

Through the Family Educational Rights and Protection Act, or FERPA, parents have the option to request all records related to their child’s education.

Kathleen Casparino, a former special education teacher who later became an advocate, said parent involvement is key at every turn.

“The overarching theme should be informed parental involvement,” Ms. Casparino said. “It is an intimidating process and parents should know they have the right to be included as full team members. This includes the right to ask for clarification when they don’t understand something.”

She added, “I cannot underscore enough the importance of parents reading and understanding their child’s IEP.”

Outside school help

Parents may get help through the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center (cpacinc.org), a state-supported organization that offers information and support, such as pro bono legal help, to parents of children with disabilities. They may be reached at 800-445-2722.

There are also many tutoring centers that offer additional help for parents.

For those interested in learning more about special education law and advocacy, Pete Wright, a Virginia lawyer, professor and founder of WrightsLaw.com, will be speaking at a conference in Wilton on Thursday, Oct. 17, at the WEPCO building at 48 New Canaan Rd. The cost is $190 and up. For more information, visit AdvocateWithFaith.com and click on the WrightsLaw conference logo on the left.

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