Why use an advocate for special education?
The world of special education is quite technical and complicated, and as this involves your child, you want to get things right the first time. The nature of special education puts parents in a position of facing school districts and Regional Centers, who often try to fund as little as possible due to budget restraints.
Even though your child is entitled to a Free and Appropriate Education, and you want your child to thrive, school districts and Regional Centers do not have enough money to give the needed services to everyone. For this reason, parents face entities that have an inherent conflict of interest, having to assess your child and then recommend services while trying to save money. We will guide you through these interactions so that assessments of needs will be appropriate and lead to the right goals and services.
When do I use an attorney versus an advocate?
Advocates for special education cost less than attorneys, and they educate parents as the family goes through the process of intake, assessments, meetings, etc. Attorneys represent parents at due process hearings with school districts; advocates typically do not. (Advocates can represent parents at Fair Hearings with Regional Centers.) When you start your representation with SBCA, one of two things will happen:
- With our help, your child obtains the appropriate program, or
- We turn over the case to an attorney after the IEP process has been completed. Your case is now prepared correctly to be further pursued with legal representation. In other words, there will be no common parental pitfalls in your case history, enhancing your chances for a successful outcome.
When is a child eligible for special education?
A child needs to have been “found” to have a disability, AND the disability needs to interfere with the child’s education/learning. This is sometimes not consistent with a diagnosis from a medical professional or clinician.
When is a child eligible for Regional Center services?
A child needs to have been “found” to have a developmental delay substantially interfering with his/her functioning.
Who can/should refer a child for special education/Regional Center services?
Anyone can refer: parent, guardian, teacher, caseworker, etc. School districts and Regional Centers actually have an obligation to identify all children with a suspected disability. But, why wait? Put a request in writing for an assessment for all suspected areas of disability.
Does the school district have to assess once a referral is made?
Yes, you should receive an assessment plan within 15 days of receipt of your request for an assessment, outlining the evaluation plan and asking for your consent (signature). In addition to your signature, you can write on the assessment plan that you would like to receive the written results of the assessment at least one week prior to the IEP meeting and that will be audio-taping the IEP meeting.
What is an IEP meeting?
An IEP meeting is a meeting during which an IEP document, an Individualized Education Program, is generated. This meeting takes place at least once a year (if you request an additional IEP in writing, then another one should be held within 30 days) and/or as a consequence of a requested assessment 60 days after the assessment plan was signed by the parent. This IEP document, outlining the child’s needs and how these needs will be addressed, is a legally binding commitment for placement and services for the special needs child. There is an order to these meetings:
- Determination of the child’s needs through discussion of the assessment results or progress on the prior educational goals.
- Is the child eligible? (If no, the meeting ends here.)
- What goals need to be established to address the child’s needs?
- What placement and services will address the child’s needs?
What is an IFSP (sometimes called IPP) meeting?
Even though the timelines are different, an IFSP (Individual Family Service Plan) meeting is similar to an IEP in that it is an overview of needs, goals, services and accommodations/modifications required to help your child succeed (outside of the educational setting), offered through your Regional Center. This too is annual unless requested more often and is a legally binding commitment for placement and services.
Who is responsible for funding what services?
In California, before a child turns three, Regional Centers are responsible to meet all needs of developmentally delayed children.
After age three, and once a child is found eligible, the School District is responsible for funding services that address academic needs, and the Regional Centers are responsible for funding services that address self-help, behavioral and community integration needs. (Of course there is a lot of gray area and overlap). Children with learning disabilities are usually eligible for School District services only.
What should I do to prepare for and IEP/IFSP meeting?
Provide written (at least 24-hour) notice that you will be audio-recording the meeting, and make a list of needs that your child has in all areas of functioning, so these needs will be addressed through annual goals that can be drafted by the team during the meeting. Be informed about existing evidence-based interventions that would be right for your child, as school districts and regional centers typically do not volunteer that information. SBCA will be leading you every step of the way: in preparation, during and after these meetings.
What is the advocate’s role at the IEP or IFSP (IPP) meeting?
Advocates multi-task during the IEP meeting, but one of the most important things is to ensure that the child’s needs are reflected accurately in the IEP document, that appropriate, specific, and measurable goals will be written to address these needs (quite technical), which then will force the district or Regional Center to address reaching these goals by providing comprehensive services. In other words, if there is a need identified, there is a goal. If there is a goal, an intervention is required. We know how to push for certain goals that lead to certain services. We also ensure that if a school district to Regional Center does not cooperate, the lack of cooperation is documented accurately, so services can be pursued beyond the IEP/IFSP process.
Do School Districts/|Regional Centers take offense to parents having advocates represent them?
Most school districts and Regional Centers in the South Bay are used to advocates for special education being present at meetings. If they are not, it is part of our job to make district staff and service providers feel at ease and to be seen as someone with whom to collaborate. It is in your child’s best interest that all parties stay courteous to the maximum extent possible. Your relationship with the school district is a bit like “a marriage without the possibility of divorce”—we are going to have to make it work.
What is the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)?
This refers to the educational placement that your child is entitled to and that approximates the closest to typical functioning as possible, considering the child’s needs. For example: a preschool-aged child with autism will most likely fair better in a preschool with typically developing children as peer models with an ABA-trained aide accompanying him/her during the school day, than in a Special Education setting. The general education classroom would be the least restrictive environment (closest to how typically developing children are educated). A special day class (SDC), with only special needs children is more restrictive, less typical. Many times school districts push for special day classes versus general education settings with a one-to-one aide, as this is much more economical for the district. This is when we would use the term LRE to advocate for general education, the least restrictive setting.
Please note that there is no right or wrong here, and there are many facets to making decisions that are right for your unique learner. It is fine if you decide the general education classroom is not an appropriate fit for your child, but let that be based on important considerations, not because it is cheaper for the school district!
What is FAPE?
FAPE stands for Free and Appropriate Public Education, to which every child in the United States is entitled. The discussion and difference in opinions usually pertains to what is appropriate. Parents should use the word “appropriate,” rather than “best,” when pursuing supports and placement for their child.
How can I prove that a certain service or placement is appropriate?
The law says that interventions must be evidence-based, but by far the most effective recommendation for appropriate placement and services will be obtained through independent assessment and written opinion from an expert in the field, who has no interest in the outcome of the recommendation. Think about it. School districts and Regional Centers have an inherent conflict of interest: they will evaluate your child and then recommend what services are appropriate?! That is like asking a medical insurance company for the prescribed treatment option!
There are many knowledgeable experts out there who will generate an unbiased opinion to whom we can refer you. Many times parents privately fund these expert assessments. Depending on where you are in your journey with the school district or Regional Center, you may be entitled to reimbursement or funding of the expert evaluation by the district or Regional Center. We can help you navigate that.
How can I obtain my child’s records?
Provide a request in writing for any and all records pertaining to your child’s education, and the records, by law, will have to be produced within five days. You might want to specify a date on your request.
If you could give parents one piece of advice, what would it be?
Prepare for hearing, so you don’t have to go to hearing. In other words, create a paper trail of the evidence that you would submit for a hearing, document everything, and make sure you have proof of receipt! In our experience, this has been the best way to obtain the services your child deserves as quickly as possible.
What areas do you serve?
The greater Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
If you have any additional questions about how an advocate for special education can help you and your family, please contact SBCA today.