Special education can turn into a battle for many parents, which is an unfortunate reality. This happens when parents and school administrators have different beliefs about a child’s needs. Emotions can run high for parents because their child is involved. Administrators can also have strong feelings about protecting their budgets, keeping costs under control, and defending their programs. This is the conflict that we describe in a previous article, Surviving Team Meetings.
When the beliefs of both parties are far apart, and when parents feel their concerns are being ignored or minimized, then a dispute can arise. For those involved, this conflict can feel like a psychological war. At this point, the relationship with the school district is frayed and parents usually consider hiring an attorney to help them resolve the impasse.
Of course, we are not suggesting that getting into a battle with your school district is a good thing to do. As we have written in our book, we feel it is important to maintain a polite and functional relationship with school personnel to make sure your child has the best possible chance of success. For many reasons, hiring an attorney should always be a last resort because once the school knows you have done so, it can be interpreted as a hostile act. But if you are at the point of needing an attorney, then detailed preparation and a tough mental attitude will go a long way towards achieving your goals.
We went through this experience on two separate occasions, and we have some advice to those who may be approaching the same situation. Once we could no longer continue informally negotiating with our school system, we felt forced to hire a special education attorney. It was a serious step to take. We had worked with an advocate, who had pointed out all the violations of special education law that had occurred, but once we felt that our district was unreasonably ignoring our concerns, there was no other option. We realized we needed legal representation.
After an initial consultation, our attorney confirmed that we did have a strong case. The question was, how to proceed? We decided to work with her behind the scenes. She coached us before each Team meeting, advised us how to interact with school personnel, and told us what evaluations and classroom observations were necessary to build our case. She had an overall vision of what had to be done. We worked like this for many months, but at one point, she decided it was time to write a demand letter. It was then that the school knew we were working with an attorney.
Around this time we discovered a book titled The Art of War written by Sun Tzu approximately 2,500 years ago. Sun Tzu was a member of a Chinese family with many generations of experience as military advisors. While Sun Tzu wrote his book for military leaders, his philosophy applies to conflicts of any kind. We began to study The Art of War since we were then in a major conflict with our school district over differing beliefs about what our son needed to get an appropriate education. It was a stressful time and we needed to gain a psychological advantage to succeed. This book helped give us that.
The overall philosophy of the book is how to use strategy, not force, to prevail in a contest. One of the most significant passages reads: “To win without fighting is best.” The way to do that is to know your opponent and to be thoroughly prepared in all aspects of a conflict. The book teaches that tactics are individual acts and that strategy is planning and executing these acts. With this in mind, we turned to our attorney to advise us on the overall strategy.
Sun Tzu advised his readers to pick their battles: “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” so we focused on the most important issues of our son’s education, not minor procedural violations. Sun Tzu also advised: ”All warfare is based on deception,” so we were careful not to broadcast our moves before it was necessary. As Sun Tzu wrote: ”All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”
Our strategy evolved with specific steps to take, such as doing certain evaluations and classroom observations to strengthen our case. We kept our information private until it was time to share it. We began to refer to the experience as the special education chess game. Here are some examples: first we would make a move (send a demand letter), then the school district would make the next move (ignore the letter). Or we would have an independent evaluation performed and the school would then have to convene a Team meeting to discuss it. We would send a discovery request to the school and then the school served us with their discovery request. Each move required a counter move that we anticipated and planned for. The key to success was to regard these moves as part of our overall strategy rather than as individual tactics. Our attorney explained that a hearing officer would want to know that we had taken all the appropriate steps in the process.
Our attorney also advised us to keep our emotions in check as we pursued this path. We realized that venting our frustration at Team meetings was not a good tactic, so we presented our evidence in a business-like manner. We realized that negative emotions are very draining, so we preferred to stay focused on what we could do to build our case and succeed in our efforts. As Sun Tzu wrote: “Those who are skilled in combat do not become angered.”
As the chess game progressed, Sun Tzu advised us: “To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.” We began to see cracks develop in the presentation by the school. These cracks involved inconsistent accounts by many people of what had actually happened, or not happened, in our son’s educational experience, and claims of professional credentials that we had documented proof did not exist. As Sun Tzu wrote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” We knew we were on the high ground with the school’s history of noncompliance and our documentation.
Sun Tzu’s final lesson for us was that there can be unexpected developments in any dispute and that it is important to remain flexible and be ready to shift gears when necessary. For example, we had scheduled a pre-hearing conference at the Department of Education to present our case to a hearing officer. The school’s director of special education and the school’s lawyer would also present their case. We were about to leave the house to attend the meeting when the phone rang. It was our attorney’s paralegal who informed us that the school had canceled the pre-hearing conference at the last minute. A new conference was scheduled a month later. We accepted the change and used the extra time to do more research and strengthen our presentation. As Sun Tzu wrote: “Military tactics are like unto water… just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.” Be ready to adapt to unexpected developments and look for ways to turn them to your advantage.
Successfully resolving a special education dispute requires a cool head, detailed planning, and a strong psychological attitude. A book written 2,500 years ago helped us to succeed in these areas, and it can help you too!
Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves