Category Archives: Team meetings

Have a Business Relationship With Your Team, Not an Emotional One

craggy-clouds-8-textYou should always strive to treat IEP meetings as if they were business negotiations, not a friendly get together or a hostile confrontation. In an earlier article we wrote about the etiquette of dealing with your Team members. One caution we wrote about in particular, that parents should always maintain a courteous demeanor toward their Team even if that courtesy was not reciprocated, seemed to cause controversy among some parent groups on the Internet. Many wrote complaining that we were being too easy on teachers and that they felt entitled to vent their frustration at Team meetings when they thought necessary services were being denied.

Team Members Are Not Your Friends or Your Enemies

Displaying common courtesy, however, should not prevent you from critically questioning the Team’s decisions regarding your child’s education and examining your child’s IEP as if it were any other business or legal document before you sign off on it. In fact, your child’s IEP is a legal document.

This was something that we did not understand during our early years in special education. We felt so grateful for the help we were told our son was getting, that we regarded our school Team members as friends rather than as professionals. We would give Team members home baked bread for the holidays and send thank you notes each year at the end of the school term.

In one particularly egregious example of being overly familiar, we began our fifth grade IEP review with the announcement: “It’s so great to see you all at this meeting. It feels like a family reunion.” This created a warm and fuzzy beginning to the meeting, but it also signaled to the Team that we were trusting and not going to critically question their decisions. The result of our complacency was that our son went into the sixth grade without adequate supports and had a disastrous year. This was the result of what we have come to call “blind trust,” and it is something that we warn parents against.

The Problem with Blind Trust

Our experience is an example of what can happen with blind trust. We had not questioned the school staff because we assumed they always made decisions in our son’s best interest. We were wrong. Over the next difficult year we were fortunate to find Pete and Pam Wright’s excellent book, From Emotions to Advocacy. Reading it made us aware of the reality of special education in the public schools: budget constraints, a school culture that places a premium on job security over the needs of students, and invisible Team members who make decisions outside of the Team meetings. This book was a major wakeup call.

We then hired an advocate who discovered many procedural violations in our son’s educational history. Of course we were angry and upset. We focused our frustration and energy, however, on learning about the state and federal special education laws and understanding the rights they gave us. We learned to regard our Team members in a more business-like manner as we worked to collaborate with them about our son’s educational needs. We also focused on the details of school documents with a new understanding. We always remained polite with our Team, but we were no longer overly friendly.

As our advocate helped us focus on our rights, we realized that this knowledge is power, so we put our energy into strategy and negotiation, and steered away from having an adversarial relationship. Finally, we learned that for many school districts, special education is a calculated business, something we write about in the Introduction of our book.

A New Awareness

One of our discoveries was that we learned that Team members are, first and foremost, school employees. Their bosses, the people who write their annual reviews and decide on the school budgets, regard special education as a business expense, even though the law is clear that services must be provided on the basis of need and not cost. Your Team members may be fond of you and your child, but they know that services cost money and they must act in accordance with the district’s budget. Parents are at a disadvantage when they don’t realize this agenda, which is never mentioned in Team meetings. The natural emotional ties parents feel toward their child makes it difficult to see that the Team decisions are ultimately business and not educational decisions.

What Parents Can Do

As hard as it may be, you need to understand the school’s business approach to special education. Here are some suggestions we have to help:

  • Learn to express your emotions outside of a Team meeting or in school correspondence. Realize that you can be firm and take a stand, but keep a cool head. Being polite with your Team members does not mean that you have to accept inappropriate behavior from them.
  • Study the federal law and your state’s law for special education. Understand your legal rights. You may be surprised at the rights the laws give you and your child, and even more surprised that school personnel generally do not know these laws as well as they should.
  • Realize that school districts regard special education as a business with budget constraints and a legal transaction for school personnel. Focus on advocacy and negotiation as you try to collaborate with your team.

Knowledge is power.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Parents As Equal Participants in Team Meetings

equal participant 2 textThere is a lot of misunderstanding about the role of parents at Team meetings. In our conversations with other parents and in too many online sources, there is frequently a misconception that IDEA gives parents an equal voice with school personnel in deciding what services or educational placement their child needs. The phrase that is most often cited is “equal participant,” which many parents assume means that the school must accept their suggestions at Team meetings.

The Opportunity to Participate, Not Decide

While IDEA does require that parents be “afforded the opportunity to participate” in all Team meetings [34 C.F.R. § 300.322 (a)], the right of participation is not the same as the right of decision making. The law, in fact, only requires schools to schedule meetings so that parents have the opportunity to attend and for schools to consider any information (such as independent evaluations) or concerns that the parents bring to the meeting. “Consider,” however, does not mean “accept.”

IDEA is clear that the school has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that a student’s IEP includes the services and placement needed for a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Because the law makes the school responsible, the law must also give the final decision on what constitutes FAPE to the school. If parents disagree with the school’s decision, the law provides a due process remedy, either through mediation or a hearing.

Unfortunately, pursuing due process rights can be expensive, time-consuming, and have an uncertain outcome. This means that short of going to mediation or a hearing, you must arrive at Team meetings prepared to be as persuasive as possible in advocating for the services and placement you feel are necessary for your child.

What Can You Do?

Some recommendations we have are:

  • If the Team won’t agree to all your suggestions, try to come to a mutually agreeable compromise. Remember that your goal is to achieve the best possible result for your child’s education, not to “win” a contest with the school.
  • Have a relative or trusted friend attend the meeting as a note taker so that all important agreements are recorded and the subject of a follow-up letter to your special education liaison. This will prevent later misunderstandings about what was agreed to. You can record a Team meeting, assuming your state allows this, but our experience is that this is not always the best option. (See Recording Team Meetings, Not That Simple)
  • Become familiar with any federal or state law that might impact the service or placement you want to have included in your child’s IEP. Sometimes school personnel and administrators aren’t familiar with the laws that regulate special education. A citation, gently delivered, can work wonders in breaking down uninformed resistance. If the resistance is intentional, making the Team aware of the law will work toward your advantage before a hearing officer, if it comes to that.

The bottom line is that thoughtful preparation is the best way to become “more equal” in helping your child obtain an appropriate education.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Surviving Team Meetings

mountains-38 textThe Team meeting experience can be stressful and confusing for parents who have children in special education. We know, because we went through fifteen years of them. Over the years we gained some insights into why these meetings can be so emotionally draining and we’d like to share some thoughts on the underlying dynamics of a Team meeting and how to prepare and make them productive.

Types of Meetings

The first thing to understand is the different types of Team meetings, because each can have different goals. There are meetings to determine eligibility for special education, meetings to  determine annual goals and develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP), and, every three years, a meeting to reevaluate the student to see how much progress he or she is making. There can also be additional meetings to discuss specific concerns that may occur during the school year.

The first Team meeting parents might attend is the initial eligibility meeting to see if their child has a qualifying disability as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This meeting is held after evaluations have been performed by the school to determine the existence of a disability. Once the Team agrees that the child needs special education services, parents and school personnel work together to create an IEP.

After the initial meeting, the Team meets annually to update the IEP, define new goals, and discuss any concerns. Then, every three years the school must perform a reevaluation of the child and discuss the results at a Team meeting. Finally, parents or other Team members can convene a meeting at any time to discuss a wide range of issues that do not fit into the time frame of the annual meeting.

Conflicting Agendas at Meetings

Regardless of the type of Team meeting, and with special education in general, parents need to realize that they are regarded as outsiders by school personnel. School employees who work together on a daily basis know each other and their positions in the school hierarchy intimately. They understand the culture and the unwritten rules of the school. Parents are rarely aware of this subtext.

This inherent tension surfaces in Team meetings because there are usually two agendas happening simultaneously: parents wanting an appropriate education for their child and the school district wanting to contain costs. The stronger agenda is that of the school district. It has more people and more resources, and they present themselves as the education experts. Parents can easily believe that it is the school professionals who know best, leading parents not to question what they are told.

The school’s primary concern, though, is often not the student’s welfare, but the fact that special education services can be expensive and the school district must pay for them. Although IDEA is clear about a student’s right to an appropriate education, school officials watching their budgets will often come up with creative ways to deny expensive services, yet never admit that this is their agenda. The parents’ agenda, on the other hand, is usually open and transparent as they talk about what they think their child needs. This can make Team meetings confusing and uncomfortable for parents, who rarely understand or even suspect the existence of these conflicting agendas. Accepting this reality and understanding the school personnel’s position, however, can help you better prepare for your next Team meeting.

Preparing for Team Meetings

Begin your preparation by writing down your thoughts about how your child’s disability affects his or her education, how your child is currently doing in school and at home, and what your concerns are for the future. You might also want to list your child’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests. This becomes your parent report to help the Team better know your child from your perspective.

Next, create a preliminary agenda and share it with your special education liaison. Collaborate with that person and if possible, create the final meeting agenda with the liaison. Try to be realistic about the number of items that the Team can cover in a single meeting.

When you arrive at the meeting, hand out copies of your parent report and the agreed-upon agenda to make sure that everyone has this information. This is a good way for you to document your concerns and goals for the Team. Documentation is critical in special education.

One essential aspect to advance planning is to request in writing copies of any reports or evaluations that will be discussed at the meeting. Ask to receive these documents at least two days before the meeting so you will have time to study them and prepare any questions you might have about them. Having these documents in advance is a right guaranteed by federal law (34 CFR §300.623(a)).

Your Disadvantages

Many parents feel uncomfortable at Team meetings. One reason is that there are often more school personnel than parents, which can leave you feeling outnumbered. Another reason for discomfort is that the main topic, your child, can be an emotional one. If there are significant problems to discuss, it can be hard to focus and think clearly. It can be even harder to listen to the conversation and take notes. In some states and school districts, recording a Team meeting is allowed, but there is no universal right to do this. See our blog topic Recording Team Meetings, Not That Simple for more information.

What You Can Do

With these thoughts in mind, we offer the following tips:

  • Don’t go to a Team meeting alone. If possible, bring bring a spouse, relative, or friend who can be supportive and take notes. Immediately after the meeting, write down your thoughts and impressions of what was said and agreed to. If someone took notes, get a copy of the notes.
  • Send a written summary of your understanding of what was agreed upon at the meeting to your special education liaison as soon as possible. Include a list of any agreed-upon action items along with a timeline of when they will be accomplished. The letter lets the school personnel know what you expect them to do and serves as documentation for your records.
  • Since Team meetings can be intimidating for many parents, consider hiring a professional advocate who can help with navigating the meeting and negotiating with school personnel. An advocate who understands the laws can speak up on behalf of your child’s rights. Parents who do not know the laws and their rights may miss important opportunities for their child.
  • If you have an outside professional evaluate your child, consider bringing that person to a Team meeting to explain the results of his or her evaluation and what it means for your child’s education.
  • Find a forum other than a Team meeting to express anger or frustration. Use a spouse or trusted friend for animated discussions about what may be troubling you. A trained advocate can be a good sounding board for your concerns as well as a source of advice for how to proceed when you encounter roadblocks. You might also want to talk to other parents who have been through Team meetings for their input.
  • Keep an open mind at Team meetings and consider all suggestions thoughtfully. If you find it necessary to seek a due process remedy, the mediator or hearing officer will want to know that you first have made every effort to cooperate and try reasonable suggestions that school personnel offer.

Ultimately, there is no magic formula for surviving a Team meeting, but an awareness of the different agendas in the room, advance preparation, and written follow-up give you the best possible chance to obtain the appropriate education that is your child’s right.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

The above article was adapted from Chapter 8, “Team Meetings” in Parents Have the Power to Make Special Education Work.

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Parents as Equal Participants in Team Meetings

equal participant 2 textThere is a lot of misunderstanding about the role of parents at Team meetings. In our conversations with other parents and in too many online sources, there is frequently a misconception that IDEA gives parents an equal voice with school personnel in deciding what services or educational placement their child needs. The phrase that is most often cited is “equal participant,” which many parents assume means that the school must accept their suggestions at Team meetings.

The Opportunity to Participate, Not Decide

While IDEA does require that parents be “afforded the opportunity to participate” in all Team meetings [34 C.F.R. § 300.322 (a)], the right of participation is not the same as the right of decision making. The law, in fact, only requires schools to schedule meetings so that parents have the opportunity to attend and for schools to consider any information (such as independent evaluations) or concerns that the parents bring to the meeting. “Consider,” however, does not mean “accept.”

IDEA is clear that the school has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that a student’s IEP includes the services and placement needed for a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Because the law makes the school responsible, the law must also give the final decision on what constitutes FAPE to the school. If parents disagree with the school’s decision, the law provides a due process remedy, either through mediation or a hearing.

Unfortunately, pursuing due process rights can be expensive, time-consuming, and have an uncertain outcome. This means that short of going to mediation or a hearing, you must arrive at Team meetings prepared to be as persuasive as possible in advocating for the services and placement you feel are necessary for your child.

What Can You Do?

Some recommendations we have are:

  • If the Team won’t agree to all your suggestions, try to come to a mutually agreeable compromise. Remember that your goal is to achieve the best possible result for your child’s education, not to “win” a contest with the school.
  • Have a relative or trusted friend attend the meeting as a note taker so that all important agreements are recorded and the subject of a follow-up letter to your special education liaison. This will prevent later misunderstandings about what was agreed to. You can record a Team meeting, assuming your state allows this, but our experience is that this is not always the best option. (See Recording Team Meetings, Not That Simple)
  • Become familiar with any federal or state law that might impact the service or placement you want to have included in your child’s IEP. Sometimes school personnel and administrators aren’t familiar with the laws that regulate special education. A citation, gently delivered, can work wonders in breaking down uninformed resistance. If the resistance is intentional, making the Team aware of the law will work toward your advantage before a hearing officer, if it comes to that.

The bottom line is that thoughtful preparation is the best way to become “more equal” in helping your child obtain an appropriate education.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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Please visit our Amazon page

Recording Team Meetings, Not That Simple

A number of special education experts, including Pete and Pamela Wright, recommend recording Team meetings for later transcription.1 The obvious advantage of doing this is that you have a complete and unambiguous record of what was said in the meeting that can later be submitted as evidence in a due process hearing. While that is true, we have never felt the need to record a Team meeting, and instead see some potential disadvantages in doing so. Using a voice or video recorder at a meeting is likely to inhibit discussion. Team members may feel “on the record” and be less likely to talk freely about possible solutions that might benefit your child. Also, any service a Team promises in a meeting should be the primary subject of the follow-up letter to your liaison for written confirmation, which would make a transcription from a recording unnecessary.

The most significant reason, however, not to record meetings is that in our experience, when schools violate the special education laws, it is the violation that is important rather than details of discussions during a meeting. When we initiated a hearing request with our school district, it was the fact that the school had not prepared an IEP for our son the previous year that was important to the hearing officer. All our other evidence, some of which was based on statements made at Team meetings, was secondary and probably wouldn’t have resolved our case by itself.

Federal Law Doesn’t Mention Recording

What is more, IDEA does not explicitly give parents the right to record Team meetings. Some states, like California and Massachusetts, have laws requiring “all parties consent” before any recording of a conversation between two or more people can take place. This means that if just one person refuses to agree, it is illegal to record a meeting. IDEA does require schools to give parents “the opportunity to participate,”2 so that could provide a justification to record a Team meeting when one or both of the parents have a disability that prevents them from taking written notes, if a meeting is conducted in a language other than the parents’ native tongue, or possibly even if only one parent can attend. Any school policy regarding recording must be consistent and cannot change, ad hoc, from family to family or from meeting to meeting.

State Policies on Recording Vary Widely

The only sure guide about what is legal and appropriate is to consult your state or local policies and even these can be confusing. For example, in California, a state with an “all parties consent” law, the Department of Education (CDE) has a policy stating that a student’s parent or guardian “has the right to… initiate their intent to electronically audiotape the proceedings of the IEP team meetings,” if they notify the members of the IEP Team of their intent at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.3 There is no mention of how this CDE policy supercedes the state statute prohibiting recording if even just one meeting participant objects.

A few other states have regulations that permit recording a Team meeting, though there is no apparent consistency to them. New Jersey, for example, permits parents to “Tape record IEP meetings if you inform the other persons orally or in writing, prior to the meeting, stating that you intend to record the meeting.4 Virginia allows the use of audio recording devices at meetings, requiring only that parents “must inform the school before the meeting in writing if you plan to record the meeting with a tape recorder,” but even if parents do not inform the school in advance, audio recording is still permitted as long as the parent provides a copy of the audio recording to be included in their child’s school record. Apparently, Virginia regards video recording differently as the state policy allows schools to “permit, bar, or limit video recording of the IEP meeting or other meetings.”5 The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) straddles the fence, appearing to encourage parents (“You may want to tape record IEP meetings.“) but then pointing out that “Oregon law allows districts to either restrict or permit the tape recording of a meeting.”6

You Must Do Your Own Research

When you research your state or local school district’s policy regarding recording Team meetings, be sure of the accuracy of your sources. As we discovered many times during the years our son was in special education, school personnel and even administrators, while they might understand their particular specialty well, do not always know the law. Even worse, the Internet can provide as much misinformation as it can accurate information. Inaccurate “facts” can be repeated so often that people begin to believe them, especially when the source appears to be reputable. The most common myth regarding recording Team meetings that we have seen on many national disability advocacy group websites and even special education lawyer’s blogs is a variation of the California policy, that parents can record a meeting as long as they give the school 24 hours advance notice. While this might be true (or close to true) in some locations, this statement is always presented as if it were true everywhere. As our research shows, state and local policies vary widely. If you decide that you must make audio or video recordings of a Team meeting, first check with your state regulations, and then the regulations of your school district.

Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves

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1. Pete Wright, “Tapes are `Best Evidence’ in Litigation,” http://www.wrightslaw.com/blog/?p=63
2. 34 C.F.R. § 300.322 (a). The authorizing statute is 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (b)(1)
3. Notice of Procedural Safeguards CDE, T07-037, pp. 1-2. http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/qa/pseng.asp
4. Parental Rights in Special Education p. 15. http://www.state.nj.us/education/specialed/form/prise/prise.pdf
5. Parent’s Guide to Special Education pp. 39-41 http://www.doe.virginia.gov/special_ed/parents/parents_guide.pdf
6. Special Education: A Guide for Parents & Advocates p.62 https://droregon.org/wp-content/uploads/Special-Education-A-Guide-for-Parents-Advocates-Sixth-Edition.pdf