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