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My Child's Special Ed Program Failed - What Can I Do?

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"My daughter has made little or no progress after years of special education. All her IEPs contain vague subjective goals and objectives. If our case goes to due process, is the school liable for not providing an appropriate education? Or, is this the responsibility of the parent who signed the IEP?"

From Wrightslaw

The school is responsible for providing your child with a free appropriate education.

A free appropriate education (FAPE) is an education from which your child receives meaningful educational benefit.

Educational Benefit

To assess educational benefit, you must use data from objective tests - this is why we included two chapters about Tests & Measurements and the Bell Curve and a chapter about SMART IEPs in our book, From Emotions to Advocacy - The Special Education Survival Guide.

Vague Goals & Objectives

In due process cases, schools try to defend poor IEPs by claiming that the parent "fully participated" in the IEP process and agreed to these vague goals and objectives.

However, the job of providing an appropriate education belongs to the school. Since the school doesn't want to accept this responsibility, they try to shift the burden onto others. The easiest person to blame is the parent.

If the school gives you an IEP that includes goals and objectives that cannot be measured objectively and IF the school says you must "take it or leave it" (drawing a line in the sand) and IF from your perspective as a parent, something is better than nothing, here are some strategies you can use.

Tactics & Strategies: When You Disagree with the IEP Team

Disagreement on IEP

If you are presented with an IEP that you believe is not appropriate for your child, you should say that you donít think the IEP provides your child with enough help or the right kind of help - that your child has not made progress. You should be polite but firm.

Tip: Think how Miss Manners would handle a difficult situation and use this to guide you.

When the team asks you to sign consent to the IEP, using your ballpoint pen, on the hard table top, write the following statement ON THE IEP "I consent to this IEP being implemented but I object to it for the reasons I stated during the meeting."

Then sign your name.

Do not be surprised if someone gets upset and says you are not allowed to write on your child's IEP - that it is a legal document. This is not true - you can write on IEPs. (The person who objects may not know this.)

You are a member of the team and a participant in the process. The law requires you to make your objections clear. The IEP is the best document to use when you need to make your objections clear.

If someone tries to stop you, continue writing. If someone tries to pull the IEP away, continue writing while pressing down very hard with your ballpoint pen. If they yank the document away, continue writing as the IEP tears.

Stay calm and cool. Take your copy of the IEP (or whatever is left), stand, say "thank you, I guess the meeting is over." Extend your hand to shake theirs. Gather up your tape recorder and leave.

Tape Recording Meetings

If you anticipate problems, you should tape record the meeting. The recorder should be out in the open. For more advice about how to tape record meetings, read the chapter about Maintaining Control in School Meetings in From Emotions to Advocacy

They have a problem - youíve told them that the program is not appropriate for your child. You advised them of this in writing on the IEP and you consented to the program. It should be implemented.

Write a Thank You Letter

When you get home, write a nice thank you letter. Re-state your position - that you consented to IEP being implemented because "something is better than nothing" and that an inadequate program is better than no program. However, you still believe that this program is not appropriate for your child.

Advise that you have consented to the implementation of the IEP and you assume that (despite Mr. X ripping it out of your hands), the school will implement it. Transcribe your tape of the IEP meeting.

If you take these steps, the school will want to avoid a due process hearing.


Your key pieces of evidence are the tape, the transcript, your letter, and the IEP.

In our articles about writing letters, we tell parents to make several assumptions:

a due process hearing will be necessary to resolve a problem;
all school personne will testify against you;
school personnel's recollection of the facts will be opposite of yours; and
you cannot

If you cannot testify, how will you tell your story? You will use your tapes, transcripts, letters, and the torn IEP. Good evidence.

This actually happened  in one of my cases. When the parent began to write on the IEP, the special ed director yelled that the IEP was a "legal document" and the parent was not allowed to write on it, then tore it out of the parent's hands as she was trying to write her objections on the document.

The case settled quickly.

Pam adds -

These problems (schools offering poor quality services) are similar to the problems people have with their managed care health plans and HMOs. HMOs don't want to provide expensive services for serious medical problems. The HMO staff hasn't been trained to treat serious medical problems.

Yet, some patients do succeed in getting expensive "experimental" procedures approved (this is kept quiet by both sides).

You want the school to give your child the help she needs. Sometimes you can persuade them to see the problems and solutions. Sometimes they will give you what your child needs because they want to avoid bigger problems.

This is why tactics and strategies are useful in helping parents get the services their children need.

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Wrightslaw: Special Education Legal Developments and Cases 2017, by Pam and Pete Wright
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Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, by Pam and Pete Wright
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Wrightslaw: All About Tests and Assessments
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