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Using Low-Tech Tools to Create Paper Trails

"If it was not in writing, it was not said. If it was not in writing, it did not happen." -- Pete Wright

Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy includes chapters about paper trails and documentation. You learn how to use logs, journals and calendars, a Problem Report, how to write good letters, and how to write the "Letter to the Stranger." In this article, you learn about paper trails and documentation.

You will find more articles about letter writing in the Advocacy Library. You should also check the Paper Trails & Letters Page

Good records are essential to effective advocacy!

When you deal with a bureaucracy like the Internal Revenue Service or your state tax department, you know that you need to keep detailed records. Many parents do not realize that their school districts are bureaucracies too.

Keep a record of your contacts with the school. Your log should include telephone calls and meetings, conversations, and correspondence between you and the school.

writing pad Keep copies of all letters, reports, and consent forms.

Train yourself to write things down!

If you have a dispute with the school, your contact log is independent evidence that supports your memory. phone datebook

Make your requests in writing. Write polite follow-up letters to document events, discussions, and meetings.

Documentation that supports your position is a key to resolving disputes early. Your tools are simple:

  • Logs
  • Calendars
  • Journals

Documents Support Memories and Testimony

As Pete says, "If a statement is not in writing, it was not said."

If you have a dispute with the school, you should assume that you will testify about your recollections. Memories are unreliable and influenced by emotions. If your problems boils down to your word against the word of a school employee, you are not likely to prevail without proper documentation.

However, if your recollections are supported by a journal, contact log or calendar that describes the problem or event, you will be in a stronger position. Your journal or log should be contemporaneous -- that is, written when the events or incidents occurred.

If you can produce a letter that describes what the school agreed to do or refused to do, your position will be stronger.

 If the school asks you to sign a consent or permission form, get a copy for your records. Your copy establishes what you agreed to.

Documents Answer Questions

Documents provide answers to “Who, What, Why, When, Where, How and Explain” questions.

  • What services or supports did the school agree to provide?
  • What services or supports did the school refuse to provide?
  • What reasons did the school give for their refusal?
  • Who attended the meeting when these decisions were made?
  • Why was the parent not advised about this meeting?
  • When was this meeting held?
  • When did the parent receive the IEP in the mail?
  • When did the school inform the parent about this change in program and placement?
  • Explain how the new IEP was implemented.

Logs, Journals and Calendars

Your Contact Log

Use a log to document all contacts between you and the school. Your log should include telephone calls, messages, meetings, letters, and notes between you and the school staff. Figure 1 is a contact log for telephone calls.

Figure 1 Contact Log: Telephone Calls
What you wanted  
What you were told  

Your log is a memory aid and will help you remember what happened and why.

Your log is a record of:

  • Whom you met or talked with
  • When the contact occurred
  • What you wanted
  • What you were told

Figure 2 shows how to log in a phone call you made to the school.

Figure 2 Contact Log: Telephone call from parent to school
Who Emily Jones, Guidance Counselor. 555-1212
When 09/30/16, 9:15 am
What you wanted Requested information about accommodations that Mark will receive when he takes state achievement test next week.
What you were told Mrs. Jones will put information in an envelope. I will pick it up at the school after 4 pm tomorrow.

You can use a log to document problems too. Figure 3 shows how to log in a problem.

Figure 3 Contact Log: Telephone call from school to parent
Who Dr. Matthews, assistant principal. 444-1212
When 09/25/16, 10:15 am
What you wanted He left message on my office voicemail to advise that he suspended Chris from school again.
What you were told Did not speak to him. I called him at school 3 times today. He did not return my calls.
Notes This is 3rd time Chris has been suspended since school started 3 weeks ago.

Use the log to document conversations and meetings.

Figure 4 Contact Log Entry: Meeting with teacher
Who Meeting with Mrs. Smith, social studies teacher, about Joey's grades and need for accommodations.
When 09/25/16 at 3:30 pm
What you wanted Want Mrs. Smith to provide the accommodations in Joey's IEP.
What you were told Mrs. Smith said she is stressed out because she has 15 special ed kids and no help. She doesn't believe that students need accommodations. Thinks they are unfair to other kids.
Notes Joey is failing social studies.

You can use a bound or looseleaf notebook as a log. Be consistent!

Tip! If you use an electronic log, be sure to back up your files on more than one computer. Print the log often.

Your Calendar

Many parents like to record their appointments in a monthly or "Year at a Glance" calendar. Calendars can provide good evidence about meeting dates and times.

If you document meeting dates and times in a calendar, write a description of what happened at the meeting in your journal or log.

Tip! Do not throw your calendar away at the end of the year!

Your Journal

Your journal is like a diary and should be clear and legible.

If you request a due process hearing, your journal may be important evidence in your child’s case. Your writings, journals, logs, calendars, and letters may be subpoenaed by the school district.

Assume that school personnel and their attorney will read your papers. Stick to the facts. Do not use the journal to report your feelings and frustrations.

When you write into your journal, write to the Stranger who has the power to fix problems. When the Stranger reads your journal, the Stranger will understand your perspective and want to fix your problems.

Your Problem Report Worksheet

Do you have frequent or ongoing problems with the school – frequent suspensions, homework problems, teacher problems? You can use the Problem Report worksheet to document ongoing school problems. If you have several Problem Reports about the same issue, this is evidence that your child’s program or placement is not appropriate.

Date:    ______/__________/_________
            Month       Date                  Year

Problem: ____________________________________________________


People involved: ______________________________________________

Facts (5 Ws + H + E)

What happened? ______________________________________________

When did it happen? ___________________________________________

Who was involved? ____________________________________________

Where did it happen? __________________________________________

Why did it happen? ____________________________________________

Who witnessed? ______________________________________________

What action did school take? ____________________________________

What action did you take? ______________________________________

Other facts: __________________________________________________


Tip! You have a right to a copy of your child’s IEP.

Writing to "The Stranger"

In Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd Edition, you learn how to write good evidence letters and persuasive “Letters to the Stranger.”

When you document problems and write letters, assume that your letters will be read by a Stranger who has the power to right the wrongs. After reading a letter from you, the Stranger understands the issues, knows what you want and why, and wants to help.

Who is the Stranger?

The Stranger has the power to make important decisions on your child's behalf. The Stranger may be be the director of special education or the school superintendent. The Stranger may be a hearing officer, Administrative Law Officer, or judge.

If you write a clear, logical, factual letter about your problem to the Stranger, a letter that persuades the Stranger to help, you will prevail without a war.

We call this technique "Writing the Letter to the Stranger." To learn more about letter writing, download and read these articles.

** Required Reading for Clients - Original "Letter to the Stranger," by Janie Bowman and Peter Wright. When you read the original "Letter to the Stranger" that was posted on the CompuServe ADD Forum in 1994, you will see how this concept evolved. A few years later, this article and other information from the ADD Forum became part of a Smithsonian Exhibit about online culture and communities.

The Art of Writing Letters
- Teaches you about two approaches to letter writing, the Blame Approach and the Story-Telling Approach. You will learn the differences between business letters and therapeutic letters - and why you should never send therapeutic letters to the school. We introduce the "Letter to the Stranger" concept that is a trademark of our clients.

12 Rules for Writing Great Letters - You write letters to request information, request action, provide information or describe an event, decline a request, and express appreciation. Learn how to write letters that make a good impression and get positive results.

In Summation

In this article, you learned to create paper trails by documenting contacts with the school - conversations, meetings and other events.

You can use low-tech tools -- logs, journals, and calendars. You saw how to use a contact log to document telephone conversations and meetings.

You will think about the powerful decision-making Stranger when you write descriptions of events, concerns and problems.

Revised: 01/28/19

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