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A Parent’s Nasty Email: Cry for Help or Reality Check?

by Pete Wright

I received the strangest email the other day, and I don’t know why.

The email was a very curt response from a parent (I’ll call her Thelma) to a teacher. The teacher made a third request for a permission slip. Thelma responded with three sharp sentences, some words IN ALL CAPS, every sentence ending with !!!!!.

I couldn’t help it. I had to respond to Thelma.

I told Thelma that I didn’t know why she sent a copy of her email to Wrightslaw. It was painfully obvious that she was not familiar with the advocacy model that we teach in our training programs and in the Webex Special Ed Law & Advocacy Training program on CD-ROM. I felt I had to give Thelma advice, even though she probably wouldn’t appreciate it.

Your tone with the teacher was nasty and increased the odds that there will be more problems between you, the parent, and the staff at your child’s school. When this happens, you will have no one to blame but yourself.

Right or wrong, you need to assume that this teacher was sending a helpful reminder that the slip needed to be turned in. You slapped her in the face.

What could happen if you wrote something different, like this? “Many thanks for sending the email reminder about the permission slip. There are times when we need as many reminders as we can get, so we appreciate your extra effort. The slip is in Charlie’s bag and I hope he remembers to turn it in to you. Thanks again for your help.”

My advice is that if you change your style, this may lead to improved relationships. Take it or leave it. Good luck.

I didn’t expect to hear from Thelma again — unless she wrote to unload on me.

Believe it or not, Thelma sent an email to thank me for the advice.

I guess my email was a cry for help. That email became a “Reality check” after I read your answer.

I sometimes feel like I am trapped up against the wall with my son’s school Thank you very much for your comments. I will immediately change my tone and definitely look into your CD ROM Training.

Have a very nice day and many thanks again for your time and response.

I thought I saw the course begin to change. I just had to respond.

I told Thelma that when Pam and I send an email of the type I sent to her, the recipient often reacts by attacking and criticizing us. Sometimes people write to say that they heard the message and are changing course.

Given Thelma’s positive response, I thought she would enjoy the Susan Bruce’s story. You’ll enjoy it too if you didn’t read it when we published it in a newsletter last year. From Victim to a Mighty Force (The Numbers Do Not Lie) is at

In 2006, Susan sent an email in which she “ranted” (her words) about her children’s school system. When she received our auto-response, she replied with “Thanks for another door slammed in the face of my child.”

Pam answered Susan, and suggested that she stop playing the victim and do what was necessary to become an effective advocate for her children. That’s exactly what she did! Although we heard nothing from Susan for more than a year, she sent an email a few months ago, describing how her children are doing and what she is up to.

Susan is now a Regional Education Coordinator for her state Parent Information Center, PRO-Parents of South Carolina, Inc. You can read Susan’s story, From Victim to a Mighty Force: The Numbers Do Not Lie at:

In our training programs, we emphasize the importance of keeping your emotions under control and treating others politely, regardless how nasty someone may be acting. You must always play the role of Ms. Manners (who merged with Peter Columbo) and ask lots of “5 W’s + H + E questions” (who, what, when, where, why, how, explain). When you are focused and polite, school staff begin to view you differently. You are now Ms. Manners with a touch of Mother Theresa.

And, as we explain in the Rule of Adverse Assumptions (see Chapter 21 in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, our special education survival guide), you must assume that you will have to request a due process hearing, and that you cannot testify at the hearing. How can you prevail? You must write polite letters about events that occurred, what you requested, and what you were told. Your letters, written at the time events happen, make a powerful paper trail.

I wished Thelma good luck.

Thelma responded again. She said she was committed to getting training to be a good advocate for her young son. I wonder if Thelma will send a Success Story one day.


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30 Comments on "A Parent’s Nasty Email: Cry for Help or Reality Check?"

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Sharon L.
11/07/2010 8:50 pm

KarenB – An apology will help but probably not fix it. I have done this as well. It is very emotional when it is your child and you find that the school tricked you. The best way to keep this from happening is to get a DRAFT IEP ahead of time and a final DRAFT IEP when you believe you are complete before you sign. This way you can see if there is any confusion or misunderstanding. I have had the school actually change the wording from what was discussed at the meeting and the final… Read more »

Sharon L.
11/07/2010 8:46 pm

Sue This is a great story. Keep up the good work. By the way it was Theodore Roosevelt not Franklin.

11/06/2010 8:28 pm

I came across this article today (Saturday), 2 days AFTER I blew up at my child’s teacher on the telephone. I had just discovered that my son (who is 6 years old, with Down Syndrome, and who has regressed from speaking in sentences in both Chinese and English to a vocabulary of 10 words) is not getting the speech therapy that my husband and I thought we agreed to at the IEP meeting (it was on the IEP, but under “related services” which the teacher explained meant the therapist working with the entire class). Following my explosion… Read more »

11/06/2010 7:15 pm

Our school system needs a big nudge along with the congeniality. Was it FDR that said “Walk softly but carry a big stick?” There was never a question the teachers were on our son’s side, but they could not speak out. They were told prior to the IEP meeting how it was going to go. So we had to arm ourselves with knowledge of the law – the big stick – and be extremely firm in the meetings. We also hired a great advocate here in MD named Mary Jo Siebert. This year the p.s. rep. wanted to move… Read more »

11/06/2010 10:11 am

Madeline, You are probably one of the good teachers that none of us have any concerns with. I have been fortunate to say that my LD children have had many of those (thank goodness). These are the kind of teachers that if they were all like that you would not even have to have an IEP they just know how to deal with all children and use different teaching methods. My son is now in college (dyslexic) and struggling however he was lucky enough to have a great business teacher that taught in multiple ways, auditorily, kinesthecially… Read more »

11/06/2010 10:06 am

Susan, I take a tape recorder to all my IEP meetings so I don’t have to remember everything that was said. I also have found that if people are recorded they tend to be more professional and more things get done. You are right, it appears that the schools do not care about disabled children but so what. You have to keep trying for your child. That is the only way to get things done. Bring in advocates or professionals and an attorney if need be. Remember if the school says they won’t do things… Read more »

11/05/2010 10:37 am

As a teacher and a home support provider (so I am sitting on both sides)- I so appreciate being treated respectfully – I (and I may speak for many teachers) are really trying our best- as are parents- it is an ‘up against the wall job’ on both sides- as teachers we have enormous amounts of paperwork, data, reports meetings for the general teaching duties, and as special educators it is double- we are required to do all that a general ed teacher does, and then more for each student we are assigned- in many schools we do not have… Read more »

11/04/2010 11:05 pm

Pam/Pete – This is good timing b/c I am in the midst of a battle w/ my son’s school. I attended one of your trainings last spring and read your books. I have documented all of our mtgs and conversations, been overly accommodating to the school, allowed them every opportunity to make things right. The bottom line is that they continue to ignore the laws, refuse to change the IEP [we are in mtgs today and tomorrow] to make them accountable b/c they say my son cannot progress “b/c he has good days and bad days.” … Read more »

11/04/2010 8:42 pm

It sounds very much as though yor program for dealing with advocacy for challenged children, is indeed a guide for living. No one regardless of circumstances wants to be attacked, they would much rather be sweettalked, I would love more information about your courses, cost etc.

11/04/2010 7:44 pm

“Thelma’s” situation reminded me again, that often the parent’s have undiagnosed, untreated disorders as well. The children don’t have a chance unless aparents are gently pursuaded to partner with somebody.

DAVID: You are so correct. I live where they operate as they please, with total disregard for laws and student rights. They operate the school to juvenile justive pipeline as slick as you please, (based on blind faith.) ……………………….. In the justice system they are referred to as the “bread and butter.”
I might have to go live with Thelma.

09/28/2010 2:10 pm

To Birnitha…and anyone else who’s already lost their temper!!

Don’t give up! Go back and start being nice. Apologize for your rudeness. Tell them you had tunnel vision and didn’t know all the laws. Ask them all to try and start fresh! Like I said, it took me 2 years, but just a week ago the vice principal heard about people using the handicapped parking spots when they, nor thier children, have any disability. The very next day she stood at the door by the ramp and “informed parents about the students that need to use… Read more »

09/28/2010 2:02 pm

I appreciate this article so much. My child’s first IEP meeting started with the usual people including the school Vice Principal and my daughters speech therapist. When the meeting started I could tell that they expected me to be nasty. (I had run my mouth about the bad things I’d heard about the school’s special needs at the salon 2 weeks earlier, and the V.P. was there. I didn’t know it, and she heard it all. It wasn’t until after the meeting did I realize it.) As the speech therapist began with “Well, speech… Read more »

03/28/2009 4:53 pm

How many individules do you represent with Disabilities in Public Schools in the annual meetings yourself? Are the schools in the district that YOU live operating with the Rights of these students well in hand?
I am aware that after 35 years it seems appauling that attorneys are making incomes over the education rights of children for that parents who can pay from pocket, and the students who are violated in ways that are abhorant under the Law are not represented by attorneys in many district public schools. The condescending tone where a parent who is confronted with Public School District… Read more »

12/15/2008 4:11 am

I don’t think my child needs special ed. services. She is 8 and in 3rd grade. Every time I turn around though, the school finds something wrong with her. Initially they were “very concerned” with her poor printing skills. The O.T. report came to me a few weeks ago, and was nothing more than a classroom observation. Not only did it not give any examples or observations of her printing skills, it wasn’t signed, and it was a classroom observation that was filled with how inattentive my daughter was during class. Now, they’re all over… Read more »

11/25/2008 7:10 am

LISA, Your frustration is understandable. When you spoke of the audiologist, I remembered a situation I had. The principal of my kid’s school would lean back in a chair, feet propped up on table, surfing the internet on a laptop and rolling her eyes every time I spoke, DURING the IEP meetings. This blatant disregard would make me SO angry, until I saw it for what it was. There were district people at my meetings, she was trying to damage my credibility so that the “propaganda” she had spouted to the district people would be true,… Read more »

11/24/2008 9:09 am

I found this article inspiring. I must say I am between acting like mother teresa and Ms. Nasty. Although, some individuals are helpful, others are so nonchalant regarding their responsibilities for accountablitiy. It is so frustrating and truly I am overwhelmed.
For instance, my daughter has borderline hearing loss and sensativity in her left ear. Although the school has 30 calendar days to fit her with an FM Station, the audiologist I finally spoke with was so nonchalant and flippant, with inferenced expression of basically when I get there. She refused to answer my questions of when, how AND she… Read more »

11/04/2008 9:25 am

Even though I’m not a parent of a special education student, I am a special education teacher. I appreciate the tone that you set for communication between parent and teacher. I look forward to learning more from you.

10/06/2008 3:21 pm

Thank you for gently reminding me of what is most important. Although I am angry with my district over recent events that have attempted to take the focus off my son’s needs, I am empowered by Thelma and Susan and what they have learned. I will stay the course with positive communication, as my son’s mother, as an IEP team member, as an advocate for others in my current work, and as the first Executive Director of PRO-Parents, the organization Susan now works for. I was feeling worn down and frustrated, almost believing… Read more »

10/04/2008 10:01 pm


Hi Sue: Yes to your questions. The program will be held at the Hilton San Diego Mission Valley in San Diego on February 17, 2009. People can save $25 if they register before Jan 19, 2009.

For more info including the registration form, please go to

Take care,

10/04/2008 9:47 pm

Dear Pete and Pam:

Parents are often faced with this difficulty because there has been such a long history of noncompliance by the school districts. Too often, they have wasted many years verbally complaining and not putting their specific concerns in writing in a detailed but friendly manner. I wish all parents were given a copy of your Letter to a Stranger by whomever first helps them figure out that their child has a disability.

Thanks for all you do.


09/10/2008 9:27 am

I like your description of Columbo/Miss Manners! I’ve described my tactic as Miss Marple. She’s sweet and ancient and really shouldn’t be pushing the boundaries, but people have an awful time saying no to her.

After all, “polite” doesn’t mean “pushover.”

It’s tricky to think of advocacy as a kind of marketplace bargaining, but that’s a great deal of what happens. You walk into the situation knowing your rights, knowing your limits, and then you negotiate what can and will happen. Americans, by and large, don’t have this skill. Negotiations are something we do with car salesmen, and the horror… Read more »

09/05/2008 9:04 pm

In responce to Sue, I can empathize with you I know how it feels, my oldest two are both in thier teens now and I have struggled that system for years since my son was 5, he is now 17. My daughter was 2 and in now 14 the secret I found, was if I could make friendship with the teacher I did, then every chance I had I would phone the school or go to the school and chat with the teachers,

In most cases I had huge success, I had a few road blocks with a couple of… Read more »

08/29/2008 8:30 am


Have you ever wondered why they call the course that you must take to go into the field of law enforcement “Criminal Justice”?

Our system allows the accused a number of Civil Rights. Attorneys defend murderers every day to make sure that they are treated fairly.

Justice is silent in Special Education. No one will ever read your child’s rights to you. Occasionally, school staff will slip you an unmarked sealed envelope at the end of an IEP meeting that contains the parent’s bill of rights. The proper label would be Yeah, Right!

If a person commits a big enough crime, an… Read more »

08/28/2008 12:03 pm

I just had a quick questions about school lunch policy and IEPs.I was told last year by our Special Ed site coordinator that she could not right Tanner’s special diet (GF/CF) in his IEP because it had nothing to do with is education. I simply asked if someone could warm up his main food item in his lunch box. Tanner has autism and has a lot of sensory issues. He will not eat something if it is too hot or too cold. He also is a very picky eater. I tried to explain to them… Read more »

08/26/2008 7:56 am

I am divorced, have full physical custody, share joint legal custody with my former husband. The school completely excludes me from everything and works/communicates only with my former husband. He does not even share parent concerns in the IEP and he signs whatever they tell him.

My son who is 9.5 years old has been in special ed for 4.5 years. At 82 percentile (based on age) in IQ he has remained at only 7 percentile based on 2nd grade for reading. Rather than helping him learn to read he played legos for most of the school… Read more »

08/19/2008 4:52 pm

I have been through the wringer in my son’s special education case for over 2 1/2 years. to make a long story short you cannot fight city hall. In the state of maine hearing officers hired by the maine dept of education make the final decision. My son’s case was appealed and the judge remanded over to hearing officer for comp ed – she was to determine the length of the stay put violation. She found no violation for 2006-2006 school year based on parent being unreasonable. My lawyer testified she went to Special Ed Director requesting… Read more »

08/08/2008 7:09 am

Bernitha: If you have behaved badly and polarized parent-school relationships. you can usually “rehabilitate yourself.”

Have you attended one of our training programs? We discuss this problem and strategies to improve relations because it’s not unusual for parents and schools to butt heads. If you haven’t attended a program, try. In the meantime, get our book, From Emotions to Advocacy and start from page 1. ~ Pam

08/07/2008 2:13 pm

Cry for Help or Reality Check came too late for me.

My tone has also destroyed the relationship between my daughters’ school and myself.

What I need to learn is how to take out my emotion when dealing with a system that is so uncooperative.

07/21/2008 3:39 pm

Having tried both ways, I can say that stating the facts in a nice letter has been the only thing that has gotten results.

We recently sent a thank you letter that still stated the information that I would have otherwise sent as an all caps mad letter. In this particular letter, we thanked the Director of Special services for explaining district policy about not allowing parents to sign consent for testing until the vision and hearing and vision screaming test have been done.

I have found this information in the district handbook and understand that the purpose of this… Read more »

07/21/2008 1:29 am

This is SO important (sorry for the all caps- insert laughing here). Parents and teachers need to understand that they are on the same team playing for the ultimate goal of the child’s success. As a parent, I’ve been blessed that (so far) I’ve had many collaborative IEPs. When I was a full-time teacher, however, the parents that I worked with did not understand their rights, and sadly, I did not understand their rights, neither.

Now I’m a parent of twins (one of which has autism), and I’m attending graduate school to acquire my M.Ed. in both reading and special… Read more »