Special Education Advocacy: Time to Lawyer Up?

Are you frustrated with the special education maze? Do you feel powerless at those meetings with principals, speech pathologists, and psychologists? Will a legal rights special education advocate solve your problems or make them worse?

Unfortunately, lawyers and special education advocates are sometimes necessary to assure the special education services your child needs to be a successful student. However, they are not always necessary and some parents and educators feel that in some situations, advocates can make a situation worse.

Before parents commit to the time and expense of a lawyer, they should consider the following:

First, learn all that you can about the special education process. There is an overabundance of information about special education rights and responsibilities. Websites such as www.wrightslaw.com offer easy to use web pages that can turn an overwhelmed parent into an effective collaborator with the school team. In addition, each school system is required by federal law to provide parents with information regarding special education rights.

Second, parents are often the best advocate for their child because they know their child better than anyone else. Parents are sometimes in a better position than advocates to learn what elements are at play in a school that may be helping or hindering their child’s progress. Knowing about the teachers, other students, and events in a school can be helpful in asking for the right kind of assistance. Communication with the school can be the best form of advocacy. Advocacy doesn’t have to be controversial.

Third, consider learning from other parents. Other supportive parents can help you negotiate the maze. A word of caution is necessary here. Avoid parents who seem to have sour grapes. Parents who complain about personalities and make claims that the school has done nothing for their child are often not the best advocates. Seek out parents who have demonstrated strong advocacy skills without alienating the people who are in the best position to help their child. Believe it or not, school teams respond very positively to people who can support a position without threats, name calling, or becoming overly emotional.

It has been my experience that when lawyers and advocates become engaged, walls go up and the process actually slows down. Why? School personnel who might otherwise volunteer valuable information or your cause, suddenly become afraid to talk to you. They don’t want to get sued or caught up in some protracted legal process. Advocates also have a learning curve with your child and school. It takes time for them to learn what you already know about the school and your child. Working around the advocate’s schedule can also be time consuming.

If you’ve considered these options and still feel powerless, consider contacting your school board. Many school systems offer free advocacy services for parents. You may ask why they would do this or if you can trust their advocates. Well, it is actually in the school system’s best interest for individual school teams to make the most appropriate decision regarding services. Although an advocate may be employed by the school system, their job is to help parents and teams keep a working relationship that effectively meets the needs of the student and avoids unnecessary litigation.

Finally, if everything has gone wrong and you feel that you do not have a working relationship with your child’s school, it may be time for a professional advocate or lawyer. Look for an upcoming article on How Best to Use a Special Education Advocate.

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