Coming to the Table: Advice from an Attorney Turned Educational Advocate
When I was considering leaving behind my attorney suits and entering the field of special education advocacy, a good friend who has had more than her fair share of tussles with the school system told me, "Nobody hires an advocate if things are going well." That's probably true. Who would pay someone to represent them unnecessarily? No one hires a lawyer if things are going well either. I believe, however, that educational advocacy is different from law, and that difference is not rooted in the formalities that ensue once a court case begins, or the complexities of the matters at hand. It is rooted in the underlying interests of the parties which can drive the parties apart, and the common thread of the child that can and should hold those parties together.
To be smart about the way we approach advocating for children it is important to understand the underlying interests between the parties and what most disputes are about. An advocacy case - which is what I consider any matter that has not reached litigation - typically has two parties (the parents and the school system) who share what should be a common goal (the best interest of the child). More specifically, both parties should have the goal of providing the child with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). However, the parties are motivated to reach this goal by very different interests. The parents are understandably motivated by their emotions – their love for their child, and the school system is primarily motivated by the law, or put another way, job requirements. It is an uneven emotional playing field, and the parents will always have the increased burden felt with every decision made.
In contrast to a court case where the plaintiff and defendant are always on opposite sides of the table, in educational advocacy, the parents and school system need not be adversaries. They are working as a team, therefore appropriately labeled in many situations, the IEP Team. In this scenario, the interests of the parties are aligned. The school system, from the parent perspective, is providing FAPE to the child and the parents are accepting of what the school system is providing, believing that it is in the child's best interest. However, when these parties are not working well together, it can be easy to forget that everyone is working towards FAPE. It is in this scenario where the parents begin to feel that the school system is not providing FAPE and is not looking out for the best interest of their child. The child is no longer an aligning force between the parties.
With that background in mind, let's talk practically. Even during times of disagreement, the school system is required to provide your child with FAPE. That interest, that job requirement, is what can hold a very tenuous situation together, and you should bear this in mind when dealing with the school system. Your motivation, the love that you have for your child, can be a huge asset, or an enormous obstacle in dealing with the school system. You want to be aware of the school system’s interest so that you can champion your own.
The more you, as parents, can work with the school, the more it will feel like a team, and the more likely you will be to reach your goals for your child. Communication is key to every successful relationship. You likely will be dealing with most of the people on the IEP Team for several years – so indeed, it is a relationship and one that will last for a long time. And while the child’s interest always should take priority, people don’t want to help people they dislike. You can’t take the human element out of this process. This begs the question: How do you keep the rest of the IEP Team from disliking you, while advocating for your child’s best interest?
At this juncture, you may be thinking, “I don’t care if they don’t like me. I’m right and they’re wrong.” However, you can be right, or you can be smart. It is easy to devalue the words and needs of a person that you do not respect. Parents can earn the rest of the IEP Team’s respect, or lose their respect, depending on how they (and their advocate) conduct themselves. You are protecting your child by keeping your own emotions in check, so that the reaction from the other party is not to punish your child for your behavior. They can take it out on your child in subtle ways that will not give you much to hang your hat on in litigation, but that will be damaging nonetheless. For example, Suzy has an undisputed need for speech therapy. The county at the end of the IEP Meeting concludes that it will provide three hours per month. However, four or five hours would have been better. You are more likely to get those extra services when people want to help you.
Therefore, maintain goodwill and don't burn your bridges. Do not raise your voice and do not lose your cool. Don't be snarky, even if a comment from a teacher or administrator rubs you the wrong way, or they bait you. Act professional at all times. Following these simple guidelines will help the conversation maintain the professionalism that keeps the school system focused on its primary interest, which is providing your child with FAPE.
The primary way that parents can enhance communication between themselves and the rest of the IEP Team is to be responsive. This does not mean that you have to agree with them. Being responsive is extending professional courtesy to members of the IEP Team, just as you would with any professional. If you are asked to respond in a certain time frame, do so. For example, you do not have to consent to your child’s IEP, but you do have to respond one way or another in a reasonable period of time. If for some reason, you are unable to respond to a request, explain your reasons for delay, note that you plan on responding to their requests, and let them know when you plan to do so. Always document this type of correspondence in writing (email is fine) so that you have a record of it.
When you disagree, explain your position calmly, and always back up your position with a reason. To ask for something from the school system when you provide no reason for them to give it to you, makes no sense. Even by communicating your areas of disagreement or concern, you are fleshing out opportunities to be heard, adding wiggle room for compromise where it may have seemed like there was none, and helping your child. An amicable relationship is not one where everyone always agrees, but it is one where there is communication and courtesy. Remember, parents are part of the IEP Team, and you want your input to have meaning.
Your passion is your child, and his or her education is your priority. Put yourself in the best position to work with the schools so that they respect you. Oh, and one more thing. Dust off your suit. Take yourself seriously. The rest of the people in the room will too.