The Advocate: Easing Parents IEP Concerns

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

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Back in the day, and I do mean WAAAAAAYYYYY back in the day when shorts were short, tube socks were cool, jumpsuits were only for girls, the belts were wide, the bi-level haircut reigned, Members Only jackets were sported by many, and little alligators were on the shirts, sweaters, and socks of those who were cool I was 17. The 1980's were the BEST time to have been an American teenager. Jack and Diane had nothing on the kids in my hometown in the heartland.

My brother and sister are eleven and twelve years my senior, so they were teens who enjoyed the late ‘60's counter culture and all that came along with it: Vietnam, Woodstock, The Doors, Janice Joplin, and all things psychedelic.

When I was enjoying experimenting with crazy eye shadows, mini skirts, and figuring out what college I may want to attend, they were settling down into life with spouses and children, jobs, play dates, career development, and paying mortgages.

I was their free babysitter for their rare nights out on the town. When you're a teenager with a social life. this can really cramp your style but when you're the baby of the family AND you're so much younger, your social life is no one's priority-or so it can feel.

As my senior year gained social momentum and life was looking totally bomb" as we used to say in my hometown high school which to this day has a zebra as the mascot, I got a bit more surly with my siblings and finally uttered that one word which would not only free me up from provision of free child care but would also unleash the party beast I always knew I was meant to be.

One night, I stayed out well past curfew and with good reason: the car died. My parents had purchased a white 1967 Dodge Coronet as a second car. Second cars weren't de rigeuer quite then, so we felt pretty blessed to have the extra wheels which we aptly named Moby Dick, the Great White Whale. None of the gear heads at the party could help me and I went so far as to call my dad's best friend-Kenny would NEVER tell on me-and he came but could not get the car started. So, he drove me home to face the music.

My parents were very Old School and their expectations were very high, which later on I would come to appreciate. While I was sitting on the gold-threaded living room couch waiting for the punishment to be meted out, it felt like I was sitting in front of a firing squad. Hey, I was 17. Kids of that age aren't always known for being completely rational.

The judgement was handed down: my life had been, in a single phrase, ended by my mother who sentenced me to being grounded for, basically, the rest of my life.

After a good night's sleep, I realized I needed a mediator and had several at my disposal but dared not call these people who had already trod the Path of My Parents. They had gone before me and apparently had so much fun doing so that the rules for my adolescence sure did feel a bit tighter than the rules for theirs. I thank their fun for my diminished fun. At any rate, I had dumped the provision of day care for them; I knew they'd never help me out of this kerfuffle of my own design.

I needed an advocate. Before I knew it, one of them had already called my mom and after much discourse about what was really best, gong on, or whatever, my punishment had reduced because of prior good behavior and "time served" as their resident rascal-wrangler for many years without pay and without [too much] complaint.

Man, they saved my bacon!

Advocates. They are there when we need them to support us, to intervene for us, to tell us what we need even when we don't realize we need it, or to omit what we do not need from our day if it's really of no merit to our development.

Advocates in the Special Education process are there for the same reasons. Their role as an entity seeking what is best for the CHILD is what causes them to be present at the Individualized Education Plan Team Meeting in the first place.

In my career, I've only worked with one Advocate and it came about because of, basically, semantics.

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As our team was drafting an IEP for the child, everyone had agreed on a particular tool for the child to use for which the district would pay. The tool would remain at school for the child to use during the day. The parents would seek out the same resource for use at home, but would pay for the device from their own funds.

In preparation of the final paperwork, the person who had written the documents had incorrectly worded a sentence triggering the most contentious discussions I had ever experienced, not just with this family but with ANY family to-date. When several of us tried to explain and take ownership of the situation, explain the mistake would be fixed immediately and new papers would be drafted, the parents had already decided to obtain an Advocate for the next meeting "and any subsequent meetings."

We were agog.

After a long debriefing of what we did, what was said, what both sides could have done better, we immediately sought counsel and council. So did the child's family.

We ALL wanted what was right, what was best, for the child.

In the hours prior to the meeting, the school team gathered to discuss the file, the paperwork, and to be positively united for the good of the child. We had been at the first meetings leading up to the revelation of the mistake and we would remain open and willing to have proactive, positive discussion on this day, too.

The family arrived with their Advocate. Sharply dressed in professional apparel and a brief case in tow, this trench-coated person appeared more like an attorney than a Regular Jane or Regular Joe.

As we sat around the table together (try hard to sit at a table with a round shape…as in Camelot, it makes everyone feel equal), the tension was thick. The Special Education Teacher started the meeting as usual by asking everyone to introduce themselves and tell what their role was in the school and how they were connected to the student . We had definitely polished our game but we had agreed to keep our demeanor as normal as we possibly could. She did a wonderful job of staying calm, stating the facts, presenting the paperwork WITH THE REVISION.

…and then it happened: my mouth started to twitch.

I could feel that it was ready to blow and I knew I'd better get myself under control or else I'd talk. Talking may not have been good at this point but there was something in my very soul that had to come out and before I could suppress it, out it came like lava from a volcano.

"My name is Mary Orwin (at the time) and my role with ______ is as the General Education Teacher. It is my responsibility to implement the goals and objectives of the IEP after we work together to develop them based on collected data from a variety of assessments and anecdotal information while taking into consideration the necessary modifications and accommodations as I plan lessons with Common Core objectives. I have a question for you, [Advocate]…" I think I felt my team trying to Jedi mind-trick me into shutting my mouth but the Force is strong in this one. I continued on, "Are you open to me taking notes and asking questions as we move through the process because I really want to learn from you today. I'm not kidding. I think we all do."

Tension eased, at least a little bit.

At that point, conversation became a little more friendly, a little more focused on building the IEP, and at one point, helping the parents to see what had legitimately happened with the writing of the document. We had all agreed that it was imperative to, going forward, implement a system where we would have team members proofread the documents so as to avoid any issues going forward.

I started asking people about their experiences with Advocates. As expected, both positive and negative stories were shared; however, more often, the outcomes were positive. One thing was common: the Advocate shouldered a presence which could be perceived as acrimonious at the meeting's onset.

My pal Linda Pittman taught Special Education for many years in a variety of settings. While her expertise is with Down's Syndrome and Hearing Impaired students, Linda's three-plus decades of cross-categorical classroom teaching left her with few surprises by the day she retired.

Linda shared a story about an Advocate having been retained by a family and it was unsure if the meeting would end happily or with hostility. When Linda was introduced to the Advocate, they immediately recognized each other from another setting and the meeting went in a much friendlier direction. Ms. Pittman believes that parents do, occasionally, retain the services of an Advocate to intimidate school districts into doing what the parents want-not what is necessarily needed or best for the child. She said, "A good Advocate will certainly be on the child's side but can also diffuse tension in the parents causing them to remain calm and be less combative. An Advocate is there to make sure parents concerns are being taken seriously."

Now THAT is good information.

On the flip side of that proverbial coin, I chatted with another teacher pal who lives in a state far, far away from me. She had a very difficult experience with an Advocate who, she cites, was not there to do what was right for the child but to do whatever was the parents' bidding. The meeting ended in such a way that she obtained legal protection for herself "just in case" anything further were to arise.

This is NOT good for kids.

Linda Pittman is well known for being a child's BEST Advocate-she knew her job was to educate and to advocate. We, as parents AND TEACHERS need to remember that WE ARE THERE TO ADVOCATE FOR OUR STUDENTS. Linda was not there to do what was easiest for the district-she was there to what was good, right, and necessary for her student. THAT is what a GREAT teacher does!! She reminded me that a little bit of compassion is necessary because being the parent of a kiddo with special needs is NOT an easy thing. People with neuro-typical kids don't have to fight with their child's teacher to do things which parents with kids with special needs do. Could you just imagine the fights districts would have if bathrooms were inaccessible to kids without disabilities? What kind of ruckus would arise at school board meetings if "typical" kids could not access playground equipment? Compassion during the thought process, people. That is all.

According to the website Parents Have The Power To Make Special Education Work a few considerations are:

  • Make notes about your issues/questions/child's needs which you believe are being left unmet by the proposed IEP.
  • Realize there not all states have credential requirements for Advocates per se, so vet candidates carefully knowing there is no national standard (as of yet) to be sure they are informed, aware, and have the connections relevant or suited to your family's situation. In my own experience, I have seen families retain attorneys to act as Advocates but the attorney openly admitted they did not have a full working knowledge of Special Education law. The lawyer was a well-intentioned family friend who practiced a different facet of law.
  • Section 300.512(a)(1) of IDEA specifies that the ability of parties to be represented by non-attorney advocates at due process hearings is determined under State law. Review the laws in your state.
  • Check out the Yellow Pages for Kids from Wright's Law
  • Remember, a lawyer can serve as an Advocate but an Advocate, unless they're a lawyer, is not a lawyer.
  • Advocates can charge a fee or on occasion there are organizations who offer Advocacy services free of charge.
  • Advocates need to be versed in the various formal assessments used in Special Education, what they measure, why and when they should be used.
  • Advocates need to know how to read assessment reports/test score data.
  • Advocates need to have a solid understanding of services provided as Special Education services in schools (P.T./O.T., Speech Language, Resource Room. Self-Contained, Autistic Impaired, etc.).
  • Advocates need to be aware of the disabilities recognized and qualifiers for those disabilities as well as the implications of the disabilities.
  • Advocates need to have a solid working understanding of the IEP process and paperwork.
  • Advocates need to know the lingo-IEP, FRPA, ADL's, BIP's, EI, AI, CI, HI, OHI, etc. Believe me, there's a lot to know!
  • What experience or credentials does the Advocate have?
  • Is the Advocate willing to present references upon request?
  • Does the Advocate belong to any professional organizations related to Special Education?
  • Does the Advocate know anything about transition plans?
  • How much do they (or don't they) charge?
  • Why did the Advocate choose to become an Advocate? Do they have personal experience with a child with special needs?
  • Does the Advocate belong to any Advocacy related professional organizations such as the National Special Education Advocacy Institute? (I'm not promoting one organization over another)

There is a tremendous amount of information to be considered when you are retaining the services of an advocate. Much like you search for the best doctors and other care providers for your child, doing your homework for a great Advocate will take a minute, but you are well-versed in researching the best for your child.

In the case of my meeting mentioned earlier, a great IEP was developed, signed, and implemented for the benefit of the student. More importantly, we learned that if we are open minded about Advocates being present at the meetings of our students, positive outcomes can, and do occur which only causes our children to have more positive educational experiences.

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