Robert M. Tudisco, Esq.
In advocating for the educational rights of children, I have found that legal representation is not always necessary in the traditional sense. In many instances educating parents and older students as to what their rights are and how to effectively safeguard them, can avoid the need for formal representation. Even when litigation is inevitable, a prepared client can make my job much easier down the line.
In the interests of spreading this message, I have come up with four simple rules that parents should keep in mind. I call these rules the four ATEs of effective student advocacy. More specifically they are EvaluATE, EducATE, CommunicATE and AdvocATE. Keeping the four ATEs in mind can go a long way toward maximizing your child's educational opportunities and minimizing obstacles along the way.
A full and comprehensive evaluation is the cornerstone of insuring that children's needs are met by their local school district. Unfortunately, this is far too often taken for granted. It stands to reason that a parent can only advocate for the needs of their children if those needs are properly identified and articulated. I cannot tell you how often parents contact me and tell me that their local Committee for Special Education (CSE) is not meeting their child's needs. I then ask "what do you think they aren't doing" or "what is it that they have failed to determine." More often than not, the answer is more complaints about the current Individual Educational Program (IEP).
Parents need to understand that they have the right to request a full evaluation of their child from the local school district at no charge to them. Furthermore, if they believe that the evaluation that the school district has conducted is either incomplete or in error, they have the right to request an independent evaluation done by a specialist outside of the school district. In many cases this independent evaluation can also be obtained free of charge. Whether or not this has been done, parents should also explore having their own evaluation done by a specialist of their choosing.
The significance if an independent evaluation cannot be stressed enough. In the event that the parents disagree with the rest of the IEP team, there is no better way to establish it at a CSE meeting than to show, with clinical evidence, how their child's special educational needs are not being met. Furthermore, if at some point down the line, the position of the family and that of the district cannot be reconciled, the parents are entitled to request an impartial due process hearing. In most cases, these hearings are essentially a battle of experts. Not having expert reports and/or testimony to support your position can be fatal to your argument. Unfortunately, your child will suffer the consequences.
If your local school district doesn't have your child evaluated, they are violating the law. If they won't agree to an independent evaluation, then by all means, do it yourself. The law provides that if you can establish that your evaluation is valid and that the school should have done it, you may be able to recover the cost.
The next step to effective advocacy is to educate yourself. Educate yourself in two ways. First and foremost you should educate yourself on the disability that your child has been diagnosed with. Secondly, you must educate yourself on what your rights are as parents and the rights that your child has under the law.
As much as most parents wish to help their struggling child in these circumstances, it is troubling to find that many are still in denial or ignorant about their child's condition and consequently their needs. I cannot stress how important it is to cast aside any preconceived notions about disorders that you have heard about in the news or elsewhere and learn about your child. Learn what their educational needs are and why. It will help you understand your children and to fight for them if you need to. There is a very big difference in arguing for something and arguing for something and being able to effectively articulate why your child needs it. That is true for any disorder, whether it is AD/HD, bi-polar disorder, dyslexia, Asperger's Syndrome, depression or any or all of the above. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. Find out about local support groups in your area. It is also very helpful to find out about others in your position who have children with needs similar to your own and how they have helped them get an appropriate education.
Once you understand the disability, you must also educate yourself about your child's rights under the law. There are federal as well as state laws and regulations that set parameters for what the school district must provide to your child. Learn what these are. Learn about the special education process. Learn what an Individual Educational Program (IEP) is and what is required to be in it. The U.S. Department of Education and its counterpart in your state will provide you with much information. Each have mailing addresses, phone numbers and elaborate web sites, all for the purpose of educating parents and students about their rights and obligations in receiving educational services. Take advantage of these resources. They are free and readily available.
Once your child has been properly evaluated and you have educated yourself, you must put this information into practice. Communication is the most important of these four rules. I often see two sides of the spectrum. I meet parents who are disgruntled because they didn't know any better and got bullied by the school district and are unhappy with their child's performance. On the opposite end, there are those who have had bad experiences and are looking for a fight. Neither is an effective method for protecting your child.
I believe that 75 to 85 percent of student advocacy is diplomacy, or the way people speak to each other. Don't assume that your CSE knows what your child needs simply because they are special educators. By the same token, don't assume that they have some vested interest, or gain pleasure in seeing your child struggle. It is important to put personalities aside and do what you must for the sake of your child's education. This is much easier said than done. It is however, crucial to ensure that your child gets what they need. I believe that a parent must have the ability to effectively communicate with emotion and not be a slave to it. There is a very big difference between being effectively assertive and being argumentative.
Do not be confrontational, but let the school district know what you want and why your child needs it. Let them know that you understand what your child's rights are, without threatening to sue them. All degrees aside, no one knows your child better than you do. If you understand their needs and can document them, you will be successful in the long run.
Being a successful advocate does not mean that you will win each and every time. I guarantee that there will be times when a school district will disagree with you despite your following these four rules. They will not win out in the long run, however, if you have effectively advocated for your child. Effective advocacy prepares for lost battles and makes the best of them.
For instance, there is usually no official transcript at a CSE meeting. However, I always recommend that parents follow up the meetings with a letter summarizing what took place from their point of view, in as much detail as possible. That letter should be placed in your child's file. If the school district does not respond to the letter, you may argue later on that they agreed with your assessment of what took place. You can then argue that at an impartial hearing or while litigating at some point in the future. If, however, the school does not agree with your assessment, they will reply with a letter of their own which will also go in the file. What you are doing here is building a record and controlling the CSE process.
Being an effective advocate for your child does not necessarily mean arguing. It means protecting and advancing their position, by the most effective means possible. Don't lose sight of your objective by getting caught up in the fight. Effective advocacy is about results. Maximize your child's potential by maximizing their educational opportunities. Remember the four ATEs of effective advocacy and hopefully you will minimize the battles along the way.
© Copyright Robert M. Tudisco and ADDcopingskills.com
Robert M. Tudisco, is a practicing attorney in New York and a freelance writer. He is also an adult diagnosed with AD/HD. Robert is a partner in the law firm of Marino & Tudisco, LLP, and dedicates a growing portion of his practice to advocating for special needs children and adults with AD/HD. Robert welcomes questions and/or comments at his website www.ADDcopingskills.com.