Category Archives: paper trail

Is the School Following Your Child’s IEP?

The Individual Education Program (IEP) is the cornerstone of special education. It is a legal contract between the school district and parents that defines what specialized instruction, accommodations, and modifications are necessary for a child to receive the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) required by law. Since each child in special education has unique needs, by definition the IEP must be individualized based on what objective testing reveals about a child’s disabilities and capabilities.

A new study, published in February of this year (2018) in the journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis has uncovered disturbing trends in the way that schools create and implement IEPs that appear to violate special education law. This study, titled (with typical academic brevity), “The Dynamic Interaction Between Institutional Pressures and Activity: An Examination of the Implementation of IEPs in Secondary Inclusive Settings,” states that its purpose is to “illuminate a dynamic interaction between institutional pressures and the activity of providing students with a special education.”

The study identified different approaches that two schools took in creating and implementing IEPs that circumvent the intention of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While this study was undertaken with the goal of influencing the anticipated congressional revision and reauthorization of IDEA and not as an indictment of special education in general, you may want to consider its implications for how your school implements your child’s IEP.

Two Ways to Ignore the Law

In one school, the study discovered that the IEPs for 10th and 11th grade students were written around the school’s existing curriculum for general education. The school would then follow the students’ IEPs, but without acknowledging that the services were simply based on getting the students to pass their general education courses and standardized tests. As a result, the students in special education did not receive the educational services and supports that their disability required. The study cites “institutional pressures” (no doubt including the school budget) as the reason, something the study’s authors point out is not the purpose of an IEP, much less special education.

The second school in the study wrote IEPs for each student that were individualized, but then mostly ignored them. Instead, the school relied on additional staff in the general education classroom as a way to provide more support for the special education students. In addition, these students attended a daily special education “study hall,” where they received more support. While the students in the second school had greater access to the special education curriculum than the first school, it was without the benefit of a program “designed to meet their unique needs,” the purpose of special education. [20 USC § 1400 (d)(1)(A)]

What Can We Learn From This?

It is important to remember that this study had a small sample size and is just the first of several planned studies with the goal of encouraging debate among educators and legislators on how to update special education law. Among future studies, the authors hope to focus on how to improve the creation and implementation of IEPs for special education students included in the general education classroom.

Still, we can extrapolate from this study that even after more than forty years of special education law and practice, there is a lot of uncertainty, and perhaps reluctance, on the part of schools to provide an appropriate education for students with disabilities. This is something that parents must understand and be prepared to deal with.

What You Can Do

Making sure schools are following the law is a responsibility that should not have to be left to parents. Still, the reality is that in addition to parenting a child with disabilities, you also have the job of being a watchdog over the school’s implementation of your child’s education.

Here are some suggestions to help you do that:

  1. Make sure that all services, accommodations, and modifications are clearly defined in the IEP. See our blog article: The Three Essential Parts of an IEP Goal for some tips.
  2. Create a special education “paper trail” by organizing all the paperwork and other communications with the school that relate to your child’s education. Include samples of your child’s work to illustrate any problems or successes. If you suspect problems, you can use your paper trail to provide evidence of your concerns.
  3. Start a parent journal that, among other things, records your impressions of how your child’s IEP is being implemented.
  4. Arrange a meeting with your child’s teacher to make sure the teacher has a copy of the IEP. Go over any sections that the teacher is responsible for implementing and make sure that you both understand them. Discuss possible ways that you can communicate with each other regarding issues or concerns that may come up. Note that teacher meetings are easier to arrange in elementary school than middle or high school.
  5. IDEA gives schools the ultimate authority over the content and implementation of the IEP.
  6. Contact your state’s Parent Training and Information center (PTI), which is a federally mandated organization to provide parents support and information on how to make the most of their child’s education. The staff at the center should be able to advise you on your rights under IDEA and suggest a course of action.
  7. Make sure this person is fully independent and does not have any conflicts of interest that may prevent this person fully supporting you and your child.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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A Parent Journal

journalAs a parent, you have an important tool right at your fingertips to help you in your special education experience. This simple tool, developed over time, can be one of your greatest assets in advocating for your child. It is your parent journal in which you record your impressions and descriptions of your child’s behaviors, moods, struggles, achievements, and any other notable information.

You may not think that day to day life is worth recording or perhaps you think you are too busy to find the time to write journal entries. We want to tell you that this is valuable information that grows in importance over time.

Why is a Journal Important?

Remember the scene in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town in which the main character Emily goes back in time to see her twelve year old self at home with her parents for one day? It is a poignant scene of an adult woman seeing herself as a twelve year old girl with her parents. She notices how young everyone is and all the details in her childhood home. She sees everything with fresh eyes, from a different perspective provided by the passage of time. What was absolutely ordinary and common years ago suddenly takes on a new meaning and significance for her. Your parent journal can do the same for you.

How We Started

We began our journal when our son started special education in preschool. Initially we just recorded details of phone calls and letters related to school, but as time went by we started recording the details of everyday life: what foods our son ate and his reactions to them, his activities, and how he slept. At an early age he had food allergies, so keeping a journal was essential to pinpoint his sensitivities to certain foods.

The journal evolved as he started elementary school, with details about his difficulties learning to read and write. We recorded our impressions of how schoolwork was going, parent-teacher conferences, and Team meetings. The more we became involved in special education, the more we wrote, since there were so many details to keep track of.

Over time, keeping our journal became a habit. We wrote detailed notes and impressions immediately after Team meetings and phone calls with school personnel. We recorded our son’s mood after he came home from school each day. We followed up these experiences with letters to school personnel. Writing factual notes became an important part of the special education experience for us. By middle school our entries revealed that school personnel were giving us conflicting information about our son’s school experience and helped us understand that his placement was not appropriate.

How We Used Our Journal

When we began to work with a lawyer to seek reimbursement for a more appropriate placement, she was able to use the facts and dates to strengthen our case. Through her, we began to appreciate the importance of the “trail of paper” we had created. When our school district served us a discovery request we had the information they requested at our finger tips. Notes that we had taken years earlier suddenly became significant and had a new meaning, just like Emily’s experience in Our Town.

For example, in third grade our school had sent us reports saying how well our son was doing, but in our journal we had recorded details of his frustration at not being able to read at grade level. We could clearly see his struggles with school assignments. He was not excelling in all academic areas as the school had claimed. Testing by professionals independent of our school district confirmed what we had written. Our journal entries were an important part of our case.

Your child will change over the years, but change can happen gradually. Sometimes weeks or months go by and you feel like nothing different has happened. But growth is always happening, so be aware, observe your child, and start recording the details of his or her life. You may feel too busy, but if you make it a practice to spend even five minutes a day recording your impressions, either in writing or in a recording, over time you will see details emerge that will pay big dividends in the future as you advocate for your child.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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How to Use a Paper Trail

lily pads- 3As we wrote in our previous article, How to Create a Paper Trail, special education generates an enormous amount of paperwork. There are many different types of documents such as letters, meeting notices, IEPs, consent forms, and evaluations, that your school district creates as well as documents from outside sources, such as your pediatrician and independent evaluators. The longer your child is on an IEP, the more the paperwork accumulates. All this paperwork shows the chronology of your child’s educational experience and you must file it and organize it so that you can find important documents when they are needed.

Lawyers call this the paper trail, although there are actually two paper trails: yours and your school’s. While these two paper trails may contain many of the same documents, they serve different purposes and often get used in different ways. Parents should understand why they need a paper trail and how they can use it. They should also understand how schools use their paper trails.

How Parents Use a Paper Trail

A clear, well organized paper trail has many benefits for parents. The most immediate benefit is to help you understand your child’s educational history and progress. It can also improve communication with your school district. Ultimately, if you should have a dispute with your school district, your paper trail will be important evidence to support your position.

Here are some ways to use your paper trail:

  • Periodically study your child’s special education documents in chronological order. You will see certain trends emerge as you analyze the data over time, giving you the “big picture” of your child’s educational history. You should do this because your IEP Team members are transient and they aren’t aware of the overall history that you can see. This will improve your ability to communicate with your Team members and advocate for your child. For example, pay special attention to your child’s IEP goals over time. If you notice that one goal stays the same for many years, that means your child hasn’t achieved it and the goal needs to be updated or changed to reflect the lack of progress. An unattained goal might mean that there is a need for different services or that it wasn’t realistic and needs to be rewritten.
  • Use the follow-up letters that you write after every Team meeting (see How to Create a Paper Trail) to document your understanding of what was discussed and agreed to at the meeting. If there is a misunderstanding, you can get it straightened out while memories are still fresh and it is easier to correct. If an agreed on item recorded in your letter doesn’t take place, then a copy of your letter serves as a diplomatic reminder to the person who had agreed to the action item.
  • At least once a year compare your child’s IEP goals and IEP progress reports. Make sure the progress reports reflect your own observations as recorded in your parent journal. If these progress reports do not contain accurate information, be sure to question them in writing to your special education liaison. This will become part of your paper trail, and will prevent the school from using inaccurate progress reports to prove that they were providing an appropriate education in a due process hearing (see “How Schools Use a Paper Trail” below).

How Schools Use a Paper Trail

In our book, we describe how we would get consistently positive progress reports, even after it became apparent that the comments in the reports didn’t match what our son was experiencing. The reason for this, we realized, was not just to try to make us feel better, but for the school to create a paper trail to indicate that it was providing an appropriate education. If you should be compelled to take your district to a mediation or a due process hearing, the school can produce all their positive progress reports to prove they were providing the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) required by law. When the progress reports you get don’t match your observations and you don’t dispute them in writing, the school can use them to demonstrate to a mediator or hearing officer that your child was achieving his or her IEP goals.

This is not just speculation; schools are always prepared with written documentation to supply as evidence in a hearing. A few years ago, our school district used progress reports as part of its defense in a hearing with another family, claiming that the student’s progress reports showed he was meeting the goals and objectives in his IEP. Throughout the thirty-page hearing decision, there are seven references to the school district quoting from progress reports about how well this student was doing in the public school. This was in sharp contrast to the parents’ and the experts’ testimony as to how much the student was struggling and not making progress. Happily for the student and his family, there was enough other evidence for the hearing officer to rule in the family’s favor.

A Parent’s Right to Inspect School Records

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives parents the right to inspect and make copies of their child’s school records. It is important to periodically examine these records because they may contain information that you have not received or may have misplaced. Make copies of everything you don’t have and include these copies in your files. In our case, we discovered handwritten notes in the margins that we hadn’t seen on the copies of documents that the school had sent us. These notes, even if they don’t seem important, should be part of your files, too.

You can inspect your child’s records by writing a letter to your school district requesting a convenient date and time for you to view them. Be sure to request the complete file, as documents may be in different locations; for example, medical records in the nurse’s office and academic records in the special education department office. Most states have regulations that specify how much advance notice you are required to give and how quickly the school is required to respond. You can check the regulations on your state’s department of education website. For a nominal copying fee, you can make copies of anything you want. If you have misplaced any of your school documents, you should find them in your child’s file and make a copy for yourself to complete your records at home. You may even find documents that you did not know existed. Going through your child’s school file is a valuable exercise.

Correcting Inaccurate School Records

Although we have not had to do this, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives parents the right to ask the school to correct records that they believe are inaccurate or misleading. If the school refuses, parents then have the right to request a hearing to compel the school to make the correction. Some state laws may give you similar rights. Of course a hearing is an expensive and time-consuming process that has no certain outcome, so it is best that you only attempt one if an error significantly impacts your child’s education, and then only after you exhaust every other means to reach a mutually agreeable solution to the problem.

The Importance of Being Prepared

Your paper trail is evidence of your child’s progress or lack of progress in special education. Someday you may need these documents to help tell your story to an impartial observer in a mediation or a due process hearing. You may think that a dispute that requires mediation or even a hearing will never happen to you. But if it should happen, you must be prepared. Your school district can even demand documents from you in a legal process called “discovery.” We have been through this, compelled to supply many of our records, and our paper trail was critical to doing it successfully.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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This article is adapted from Chapter 9 of Parents Have The Power To Make Special Education Work.

How to Create a Paper Trail

Special education generates an enormous amount of paperwork. The longer your child is on an IEP, the more paperwork you will accumulate. It is essential that you organize and manage this paperwork. Take this job seriously, for without ready access to a complete history of the documents that describe your child’s experience with special education, you run the risk of missing important opportunities.

Why Organize Your Papers

Planning for the future by organizing your documents now doesn’t come naturally for most parents of children in special education. By necessity, you are intensely focused on just managing the present. How are you going to get through the next week or month, or finish the school year successfully? Or, how are you going to begin the new school year on a positive note? Remember, however, that school employees follow procedures that require sending parents a variety of documents, such as evaluations, Team meeting invitations, consent forms, IEPs, and progress reports. It’s easy to slip the latest document into a drawer filled with bills and bank statements. Even a recently mailed IEP can be misplaced or lost for good if your incoming mail is disorganized. Don’t let this happen to you.

Starting Down the Trail

You need a system for saving and organizing your documents so you don’t have to undertake a major search for them later. Begin by creating a file for each school year and put all the school documents you receive into that file. Make sure each document has a full date, including the year, and if you need to make marginal notes or underline anything, make a copy and mark the copy up. Never write on an original and never give the original to anyone, even if it is a professional evaluating your child. Only share copies. Keep the original documents in a safe place and in good condition. Even if you can do no more than this at the beginning, it is an important step to take before the papers become scattered and lost.

Types of Documents to Manage

There are many different types of documents to keep track of. These include forms from school, independent evaluations from outside professionals, notes from meetings, and logs from telephone conversations. The following are some suggestions of what to keep:

Paper Documents:
In a file drawer or simple file box, create and label folders for your child’s documents from school as well as documents from outside evaluators. Be sure to also include any pertinent medical records. When you receive a letter or document from the school, keep the envelope that it was mailed in with the document. The postmark date on the envelope can be important later to show whether the school complied with a specific deadline.

Electronic Communications:
Emails are as important as formal letters, so be sure to keep these messages organized. Make and file paper backup copies of all your email and other electronic communications that you write to and receive from teachers and other service providers, your special education liaison, or the school district’s director of special education. Also back up the electronic files on a CD or other non-volatile media. The headers and date notation can serve as proof of an agreed-upon service or notification.

Conversation Logs:
As soon as possible after a conversation (telephone or person-to-person) with school personnel, record the essential points of that conversation in a notebook you keep especially for that purpose. Be sure to include the date and time. If something important was said, write a letter to that person describing what you understood in the conversation. Your letter can be a reminder of what was discussed, especially if it was about an action item.

Parent’s Journal:
In addition to the conversation log, keep a journal to record your observations about your child’s progress. Write about his or her activities and other interests. Be sure to include the full date and any details you think are significant. A parent’s recollections can be important to let the Team know how things are going at home and outside of school. You can read more about keeping a journal here.

Meeting Notes and Follow-ups:
Take notes at all your Team meetings or have a friend or relative be the note taker. Be sure to transcribe all handwritten notes as soon as possible while the specifics of the discussion are still fresh in your mind. Also, after reviewing your notes, send a letter to your liaison with a list of all the topics that were discussed and agreements that were made. This provides a record of your understanding of what happened at that meeting. If there is a misunderstanding, you can get it straightened out while memories are still fresh and it is easier to correct.

Proof of Receipt:
When you write a letter to the school, either send it with a return receipt or hand deliver it to the school’s secretary with a second copy that the secretary can stamp with the current date so you can prove that the school received the letter and on what date. FAX transmission can also be useful for this purpose if you save the confirmation sheet and mail the original copy. This may sound extreme, but certain communications between parents and schools must be in writing and must be received within a certain number of days either before or after a specific event, such as unilateral placement in a school outside the district. Otherwise, you may jeopardize some due process rights.

Canceled Checks and Invoices:
Another category of records are receipts for the cost of services that you pay for related to your child’s education. There are situations where having these records available will lead to full or partial reimbursement.

Public Records:
Look for and file any public documents that describe the schools in your town or contain interviews with administrators or teachers. This would include newspapers, magazines, or even minutes of school committee meetings. These documents can provide valuable background information about the attitude of your district toward the special education programs your school offers.

How You Benefit

You need well-organized files (your “paper trail”) because there are inevitable breakdowns in communication between parents and schools. Having a clear, written record of who has said what, when it was said, and to whom, serves to reduce misunderstandings and increase positive communication.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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This article is adapted from Chapter 9, “The Paper Trail,” of Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.