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