How to approach your IEP…

Prior to one of my son’s IEPs I was asked whether I would be attending in the capacity of his father, or as his lawyer.  Although this happened a long time ago, I still puzzle over how I could be expected to divorce myself from the role of father.  I mention this because, like all special education attorneys, I am frequently asked by parents how they should conduct themselves at their child’s IEP meeting and the simplest answer is to be your child’s parent, not their lawyer.  Although I always strongly encourage parents to learn as much as possible prior to an IEP and to be aware of potential problems, I believe it is important that the parents not conduct themselves in an unduly guarded or adversarial fashion i.e. as a lawyer.

Although far removed from reality, there is a perception that the formulation of an IEP is a collaborative process between parents and school district staff.  However, despite the requirements of state and federal educational law, the IEP which will be offered to a disabled child is typically determined either explicitly, or implicitly, by district staff prior to the IEP meeting with the parents.  In terms of the latter, an IEP is often determined simply on the basis of what is available within the district.  Despite this reality, it is important for parents to participate in the IEP process by answering questions and articulating their concerns.  Otherwise, the school district will later claim that they were not aware of parental concerns and thus did not have an opportunity to address them.  Unfortunately, I have seen many cases where the parents, often worn down by years of being ignored by the district, and unwilling to participate further, are blamed for the inadequacies of an IEP even though special education law places the primary responsibility for offering a FAPE upon the school district.

In terms of basic IEP “do’s” and “don’ts” , because of the potential importance of the IEP meeting I recommend that inexperienced parents obtain legal counsel prior to attending the IEP meeting though I rarely recommend that an attorney attend the actual meeting.  There are a number of reasons for this which I share with parents prior to the IEP meeting.  Although I typically recommend that the parents audiotape the IEP meeting, it is important to appreciate that it is the IEP document itself which stands as the document of record, not an audio recording.  For this reason it is critical that the parents make sure that all of their questions and concerns are reflected in the IEP document.

Even if the IEP is not completed, parents should insist on being provided with a copy of what has been written by the District prior to leaving the meeting.  Since it is not uncommon for parental input to not be included in the IEP document, or items which were not discussed to be subsequently added, the parents should ask that the IEP minutes be reviewed prior to the termination of the meeting.

Finally, although parents normally feel a certain amount of pressure to consent to an IEP at the conclusion of the meeting, there is no requirement, or deadline, for when they must do so.  As with most things, time for reflection and consideration is warranted.  Also, if a different classroom placement has been offered it is essential that the parents observe that potential placement before agreeing or not agreeing to it.  Descriptions of classroom placements provided at IEP meetings are often incomplete and frankly, inaccurate.  I have yet to attend an IEP meeting where district staff described an offered placement in anything less than glowing terms.