The Imbalance Of Power
- OUR CHILDREN LEFT BEHIND
** WHAT YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW **
UPDATED JULY 18, 2004
JULY 21, 2004
THE IMBALANCE OF POWER
We recently wrote about the fear that virtually all parents carry into any situation in which they are advocating for their children [see "Fear Factor"]. Some readers have reminded us again that their fears are justified, but for reasons beyond those about which we wrote in our Home page article. They invited us to speak again about the balance of power in the IEP development process and how that balance justifies parents’ fears. We are happy to do so.
We believe it inevitable that Congress will continue to evaluate the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]. One clearly inequitable component of current IDEA law is the power school districts have to control the IEP development process.
Consider this example. We were working with parents to develop their child’s IEP and reached an impasse about what speech and language services were needed. The parents requested an independent evaluation. The special education staff person directing the meeting threw up her arms and said, "That’s it. The meeting is done." She immediately issued a verbal denial of the parent’s request for an independent evaluation and abruptly left the room with all the school staff in tow, leaving the bewildered parents and us looking at each other in disbelief.
The parents had to file a complaint, and the matter remained in limbo for months before it was resolved.
Now fast forward to a different, and quite opposite, approach by a school. We recently were in an IEP meeting for another student, who was being transitioned back to his neighborhood school. Before the IEP team could complete the IEP, the special education director running the meeting announced his intent that the student be placed in a segregated facility indefinitely. We immediately objected, arguing the IEP had not been completed yet, making any placement considerations premature. We asked for the IEP form so that the parent could sign the spot on the form indicating disagreement with the process and placement and then request a due process hearing. The special education director refused our request. We then left the meeting and the following day filed a written complaint challenging the placement outcome and the process used to conduct the meeting.
We subsequently learned that after we had left the meeting, the special education director went ahead with the other school personnel still there and filled in the missing and incomplete information. Neither the parent nor we had any input, nor were we contacted to have the meeting rescheduled so the parent’s input could be considered. [The ironic thing about this particular IEP meeting is that it initially had to be rescheduled because one school person did not show up at the originally scheduled IEP team meeting even though we, the parents and the other school personnel waited more than two hours for the missing person to show up.]
In our first example the school terminated the IEP meeting when a dispute arose. Neither we nor the parents had any authority or power to force the meeting to continue. In the second instance, when we followed the lead set in the first example and terminated the meeting ourselves, the district just went ahead and completed the meeting on its own after we left. No parent power, no parent authority, no parent equity could stay the school from exercising its unilateral power over how the IEP team meeting was conducted. The end result in both cases – at least initially – was that the school’s interests took precedence over the student’s interests and needs.
Consider, too, the current IDEA provision regulating mediation. As written, IDEA now permits mediation as a means to try to resolve IEP issues without the need for a due process hearing. If a parent rejects a request for mediation, IDEA mandates that a disinterested party familiar with the benefits of mediation must meet with the parent to accentuate its positive aspects. If, however, the parent requests mediation and the school rejects the parent’s request, there is no similar requirement that the district or school be instructed on the positive aspects of mediation. Our experience has been that the schools reject mediation far more frequently than do the parents. Of course, a school rejection of mediation only leaves the parents with the costly and time-consuming option of embarking on a full due process proceeding if they wish to ensure that their child’s educational rights under IDEA are protected.
These power inequities become more frustrating when one considers the unequal realities of IEP team meetings themselves. School personnel are paid to attend the meetings as part of their jobs. Parents have to take time off work to attend the meetings and might have to pay for child care while they attend. School districts use attorneys paid for with taxpayer dollars to prepare for and sometimes to attend IEP team meetings. Parents do not generally have access to lawyers or advocates to prepare for IEP team meetings and usually must pay to have the attorneys or advocates attend the meetings with them. School districts set the meetings to meet the time, space and scheduling needs of the school personnel. Parents must juggle job, family, child care and other responsibilities so that they can attend the meetings once scheduled by the schools. If a school person cannot or does not attend an IEP team meeting, the meeting is rescheduled if the person is deemed an essential member of the team. If a parent does not attend the IEP team meeting, the school likely will hold the meeting anyway and act without direct parent input at the meeting.
These situations highlight some of the procedural issues in which the balance of power favors the school. If parents want to try to correct any problems created by unilateral school activity or action, they must do so at great personal cost, including time away from home, job and family, cost of advocates or attorneys and other inconveniences.
We believe Congress wants a fair and efficient IDEA. Unfortunately, none of the recent IDEA reauthorization amendments or activities have focused on or tried to correct either the "fear factor" or the "imbalance of power" parents face every time they go into an IEP team meeting on behalf of their child or children. Whatever might happen with this year’s final IDEA reauthorization package, the special education process for 6.5 million students will not improve appreciably until their parents are less fearful, more equal participants in the IEP process. We encourage Congress to recognize and respond to this underlying reality.
Tricia & Calvin Luker,today's parentvolunteer@...
©2004 Our Children Left Behind.
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