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Parent Observations v. Student Confidentiality
by Pete Wright and Pam Wright

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"Do I have a right to observe the class before agreeing (or not agreeing) to a placement for my child? The special ed director said I cannot observe the class because of
confidentiality issues with the other children."

Pete says:

I have represented kids with disabilities since 1978. In all these years, I have never had an instance where a school denied a parent, or the parent's private sector expert, the opportunity to observe a potential placement.

Observe classroomThe school board attorneys with whom I have worked over the years have always permitted observations by parents and the parent's outside experts.
 
When a school administrator takes this position, it creates an appearance of two things (both bad):

(1) that the program is clearly not appropriate and the parent will quickly discover this, and

(2) that the school is attempting to keep important information from parents.

I think many Hearing Officers and Administrative Law Judges would view a refusal to allow an observation as grounds to find that the proposed placement was not appropriate.
  
Public School Students & Privacy


The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Owasso v. Falvo establishes that students have no expectation of privacy.
 
You are likely to have more success if you ask questions. Ask the special ed director to assume that she was moving to a new town. She planned to place her child into a private school school in the new town.

Would she visit the school, observe the class, and talk with the teachers?

Would the private school allow the parent of a potential student to observe the program?

Of course.

How can the standard be different in a public school, or for children with disabilities in special ed classes?
 
Feel free to share my email with your special ed director. If you ask two lawyers for their opinion on an issue, you will get at least three answers. Suggest that the special ed director run this issue by the school board's attorney.

Pam says:

Many parents say they have problems with school administrators who refuse to allow them to observe their child's classroom or proposed placement. By taking this position, administrators create an atmosphere of secrecy and mistrust -- and use silly reasons to justify their actions.

I don't think any reasonable person would support the special ed director's position on this issue. Take a step back and think about this from a common sense perspective.

Parent Participation in Child's Education

If parents cannot observe their child's classroom because they would see other children, then parents could not go into the school for other reasons - to help supervise on field trips and to help teachers with holiday parties. Parents would not be able to pick up their children from school because they would see other children.

Under the guise of protecting student "rights to confidentiality," parents would be forbidden from participating in any school activities.

Do parents participate in other activities at your child's school? Do parents pick their children up from school? If the answer to these questions is "yes," then this not does support the special ed director's position that she has to protect students' privacy.

In a 1995 case about drug testing of student athletes, the U. S. Supreme Court found that public school children have lower privacy expectations than other people because they require constant supervision and control.

In a 2002 case about privacy of education records, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that students do not have the right to privacy when students grade papers. That case was Owasso v. Falvo - the decision is on Findlaw.com

New Policies & Procedures Limit Parent Observations

December 2012: Chuck from Texas writes -

I believe this topic needs to be updated. I see more schools putting policies and procedures in place to limit parent observations.

These procedures include:

  • limiting the length and number of visits
  • requiring a request to the principal before a visit
  • requiring a conference with the teacher to determine a day and time

In some cases, the school will not allow observations during instructional time.

In one case, the school required the "observation" take place after the students left.

The school says the rationale behind the policies is the need to limit disruption to instructional time. State regulations address disruptions. Attorneys tell schools that this is easier to defend.

Pam responds:

Hi, Chuck. You wrote, "I believe this topic needs to be updated." I agree but where would you start?

I think these “policies” are developed by administrators who want to limit parent contact and parental involvement. I’m not aware of any law that supports them.

Parents report that they are not allowed to observe or visit their child’s classroom, or they must agree to stringent limits (e.g. 30 minutes once a month after notice xx weeks in advance).

Parents are told that “the law” requires schools to deny parent requests to observe their child’s class because this would violate the rights of other students. The only law that deals with confidentiality is Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). FERPA regulates education records, nothing more.

Parents report that paper is taped over glass windows in doors of special ed classes to “protect student privacy.” Parents report that they are not allowed to attend school events (e.g. holiday parties, field trips) because this would violate the privacy rights of other students.

Are the parents of non-disabled kids having the same problems? I don’t think so, but don’t know so.

Bottom line: Courts have held that school children have very few “privacy rights.” Children with disabilities do not have greater privacy rights than nondisabled kids.

From my perspective, these policies are at odds with IDEA’s requirements re: parental participation – or the spirit of the law. NCLB also includes requirements about increasing parental participation, not discouraging or forbidding it.

Since there is no legal justification for these policies, where to start?

Parent Involvement Policies in NCLB


The No Child Left Behind Act may help.

Schools that receive Title I funds must meet with parents to develop a parental involvement policy and must distribute the policy to parents and the community. Parents of children who attend Title I schools shall have access to school staff, opportunities to participate in the child's class, and to observe classroom activities. (20 U.S.C. § 6318)

The school must hold a meeting every year to tell parents about the parent involvement policy and their right to be involved in their child's education.

Parents have a right to access to teachers, opportunities to volunteer and participate in your child's class, and to observe classroom activities.
(Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind, page 39, 58-59, 80, 194-198)


If the child attends a Title I school, parents have a right to inspect instructional materials used in the curriculum. (Title X, Section 1061) (Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind, page 39
)

Request School Board's Policies

I think Pete's suggestion about asking the special ed director to request guidance from school board counsel is a good idea.

Another strategy is to write a letter to the special ed director, explaining that parents in other schools and/or school districts are allowed to observe classrooms. Request that the special ed director provide you with the school board's policy that prohibits parents from observing their child's classroom and / or a proposed placement.

If your school receives Title I funds, request a copy of the parent involvement policy that the school is required to develop.

Resources

Answers to Questions about Parent Observations, Privacy and Confidentiality - In response to requests from the Education Law Center, the U. S. Department of Education clarifies parental observations of their children in classrooms under IDEA and student confidentialty under FERPA.

Learn more about privacy and education records

Learn more about No Child Left Behind.

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Revised: 12/11/12
Created: 03/13/06



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