An Education in Special Education (Part II)
This is Part II of our article on Special Education Services in the public school districts.
Part I discussed where parents should start if they suspect their children may require accommodations or special educational services from their schools. It also provided some basic information about the challenges and restrictions that are placed upon school districts in providing those services.
In this article we will provide a bit more direction and information on navigating the process of seeking accommodations and special education services. Of course all school districts in various states are different, so I will be speaking to the current requirements in Texas whose laws I am the most familiar. However it's important to note that many of these requirements are Federal requirements and are universal regardless of which state you are in. This cannot be said about private schools (this includes both schools that are for children with specific disabilities and religious schools) since they receive no Federal funds. Private schools are not required to provide any special education services for students who may need them. This does not mean that a private school can't provide special education services if they have the staff and facilities, it just means that they are not legally required by federal law to do so.
Also you should note that various levels of intervention that a school district may provide will be entirely dependent on the severity of the educational need and the resources available in that school district... and that school. As I mentioned in Part I, I may recommend in my assessment report that a child may benefit from social skills training however whether a school can provide that sort of training is entirely dependent on whether they have the appropriately trained staff to do so.
I Have A Report... Now What?
So, let's start from here: You have in your hand an evaluation report from your neuropsychologist with a diagnosis and a list of recommendations. You walk out of their office and you think, "Great... now what do I do?" (Well, if you walked out of our office you'd know what to do next because we'd explain what your next steps should be, but let's assume you didn't get your evaluation done with us).
Regardless of whether your child has a diagnosis of mild ADHD, severe Autism, or profound mental retardation, the steps will be essentially the same with regards to informing your child's school and seeking services and accommodations for him/her.
Contact the School
The very first step in this process will be to inform your child's school that your child has been diagnosed by a clinician who works outside of the school. This will involve sending a copy of the report and a letter requesting that the school review the information contained within the report.
Letter Requesting a Full Individual Evaluation (FIE)
When you provide the diagnostic report you should include a letter from yourself stating your child has been identified as having a particular diagnosis based on the evaluation that was done by the outside clinician. Include that you are requesting that the school conduct a Full Individual Evaluation (FIE) and that you wish for the school to review the attached report to determine whether additional testing needs to be conducted.
Prepare a letter. Sign it. Make a copy of the signed letter and the report.
So at this point you should have in your hand the report from the outside clinician and your letter requesting an FIE. Now what?
Well, now you have to provide those things to your child's school, but in a way that gives you proof that they received them. Because the clock only starts when there is legal proof the school received the report.
The Clock Starts Now... Maybe
If you read Part I of this article you should have ingrained in your mind the motto, "If it's not written down, it never happened!" So you can't just drop the report off at the school's office, or put the report in an envelope and send it regular mail, or email it to your child's teacher. None of those methods will provide you with legally verifiable written proof that you actually provided the school with the report and the request for an FIE. Texas schools are required by law to respond in writing within 15 school days of receipt of your request. Without legal documentation that the school received the report, you have no proof should you need to pursue a complaint with the Texas Education Agency (TEA).
Why is this proof of receipt important? Because sometimes the reports get 'lost.' If you have proof of receipt, then the school losing the report has no impact on their legally required 15 school-day response timeline. Without that proof, you have to start all over again.
The right ways to provide the school with the report:
Of course it goes without saying, make sure you keep a copy of the report.
• Bringing the Report in Person: Bringing the report to the school is probably the easiest method since most parents live close to the school. But you need to document that your provided your school with a copy of the diagnostic report, so you need to have the person at the school who receives the report sign a letter indicating they have received it. Do not leave without having that form signed. Without it you have no proof that you dropped off the report and therefore no recourse if they fail to respond within the legally defined 15 school days.
• Registered Mail: To document that the school received your report by mail you should always mail your documents by Registered Mail which requires the person who receives the package to sign for it. USPS then mails back to you that signature form as proof that the recipient received the report. It only costs a few dollars but it is priceless as far as it's legal value as proof you sent the report.
The wrong ways to provide the school with the report:
• Emailing the Report: We do not recommend emailing the report. While you can send an email with a "Read Receipt" requested, the recipient has the right to refuse sending a Read Receipt. Even if they do approve sending the Read Receipt there is conflicting information as to whether this is a legally binding method of tracking whether someone actually received something from you. So, we do not recommend emailing the report. You can, however, email a scan of the report in addition to sending it by our recommended methods above. In your email state, "Attached is an electronic version for your use. Please note a hard copy sent via Registered Mail on MM/DD/YYYY."
• Sending by Regular Mail: Placing your documents into an envelope and sending them by regular mail provides you with no proof that you sent it, and no proof that the school received it. Without that proof, you have no way of ensuring the school responds within 15 school days.
• Leaving at the Front Office without Signature: Dropping off the report at the front desk without getting them to sign proof of receipt is not recommended. Yes, the receptionist may be friendly, they may know you by name, they may be in your book club. Without a signature from them saying they received your documents you have no legal proof the school received the report and if it gets lost after you dropped it off leaves you with no recourse.
Response to Intervention (RTI)
Before agreeing to provide your child with a FIE or a referral to special education, the school may decide to first refer your child to the Response to Intervention (RTI) team [please note that this team may have a different name at your child’s school]. RTI is a method of trying to address academic problems using scientifically-based strategies. Some of these interventions may be the same ones children receive with special education, but at a less intense level. These interventions allow the school to try strategies to help your child without labeling him/her “special education.” For example, for a young child who is struggling with learning to read, the school may recommend intensive instruction in phonics (learning letter sounds).
Obviously providing training in phonics on Monday isn’t going to result in a drastic improvement in reading one week later. Most interventions take time to have an effect. While RTI provides the child with opportunities to benefit from helpful strategies without actually labeling the child as a special education student, there are criticisms. For example, there is no specific time frame upon which the school determines if an intervention is working or not. It could be 6 weeks, 6 months, or even a year. If the intervention(s) don’t work, then the child could possibly fall behind even further as time goes by. Second, learning difficulties can be caused by a variety of factors (an actual learning disability, problems with hearing or vision, inattention, memory problems, depression), yet RTI uses the same strategies regardless of the cause. In other words, RTI treats all students the same and does not take into consideration a student’s specific strengths and weaknesses. Without a comprehensive evaluation, it is hard to pinpoint exactly where the impairment in learning is.
What's important to note about RTI is that the school cannot legally delay performing a Full Individual Evaluation (FIE) on the premise that they want to wait to see if the interventions work.
Summing Up Part II
The end result at this point is that you should have a fairly good grasp of what you should and shouldn't do to start the dialog with your school about your concerns about your child's educational success.
Part III will delve more fully into the Timelines that the school has to respond to requests, and it will also discuss what is an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE) and how it functions.
Finally, Some "Dos and Don'ts"
Do: Know the process, and know you can appeal decisions
Do: Send all correspondences in writing
Do: Send all documents via Registered Mail
Do: Ask Questions; Seek Advice if you're not sure about something
Do: Alert your recipients that you know their legal obligations
Do: Demand all responses be in writing
Don't: Be afraid to disagree with the school's decision
Don't: Make any agreements over the phone
Don't: Send documents in regular mail or email
Don't: Let the school ignore you or use the 'we lost it' excuse