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

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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 Special Ed Law & Advocacy Training program download. 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 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 https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/advo.susan.success.htm

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 was formerly a Regional Education Coordinator for her state Parent Information Center, PRO-Parents of South Carolina, Inc. You can find Susan at Special Education Advocacy and Consulting. Read her story, From Victim to a Mighty Force: The Numbers Do Not Lie at: https://www.wrightslaw.com/info/advo.susan.success.htm

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.


  1. 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 IEP which we NEVER sign. WE always ask for a final copy without the signature page and one time they changed something. We politely pointed it out and they had no other option but to put it back the way they told us. It is a way to keep them as honest as possible.

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

  3. 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 with the teacher, I then called the staffing specialist, and I think I was a little more civilized with her. But I guess now, I should probably write a note of apology to the teacher, while still advocating for our child’s needs. Is there hope of redeeming this situation?

  4. 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 testing from spring to this fall in what we were sure was an effort to remove our son from his non-public spec.ed. placement. I tried on my own to negotiate with them but it wasn’t til I told them Mary Jo would have to come to all IEP’s that the p.s. rep.has stopped badgering us with her urgent phone calls that we meet ASAP to agree to testing.

  5. 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 and visually and my son thrived as did all of the other students. If all teacher could just incorporate these methods for ALL students they would be more successful.

  6. 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 they have to give you a prior written notice. Keep forging forward. We did not get everything we wanted but neither did the school. We did the best we could and it turned out ok overall.

  7. 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 para educators available for more than 30 minutes before or after the school day, barely giving us support to set up, clean up and get tasks, materials, adaptations etc. made for each child- We (most of us teachers) really want to see your child progress and we delight in all accomplishments! Lets collaborate more

  8. 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.” They also say that I am wasting their time to be re-writing the IEP b/c they don’t pay attention to it anyway. I finally lost my temper which did produce some results and am trying to work with them again in a civil manner. The bottom line is they don’t really care about my child’s future, only their pensions. Advice?

  9. 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.

  10. “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.

  11. 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 the spots & ramps”. I was thrilled. I didn’t even complain like I did last year and it was taken care of. lol I even posted praise on my FB page saying how grateful I was for the VP and another teacher’s response and solution. Work it the good way and it will work out good, just don’t give up! Try, try again!

  12. 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 was terminated because you missed 3 scheduled sessions in a row…”, I heard her cold tone. So I just said, “Yes, that’s right. It was all my fault. We had a lot going on at home. I’m really sorry about that.” The look on her face changed. Now, its taken 2 years, but now I even am on the V.P.’s good side. Niceness pays!!

  13. Pete,
    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 Employees whose employment includes the obligations of these Rights Protection is admonished by you for the emotional responce to the hostile climate for these students , their children, are mistreated by the DOE emplyed…how moral is that?hm

  14. 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 these attention issues, which I don’t observe at home. They say she is perfectly fine with one-on-one instruction. I just received an e-mail that they gave her one-on-one instruction for a S.S.test, Math test and 5 days to complete a writing assessment. She failed all but one. Any advice?

  15. 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, that I was the angry, belligerent parent. NEVER let anyone provoke (intentionally or unintentionally) a reaction out of you, it may be used as an excuse to not provide services. Send a nice follow up thank you note documenting what you requested and that you still have questions that need to be answered.

  16. 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 did not have my child’s audiogram. Why did I get frustrated? During the school day my daughter’s teacher reported my child was covering her ears and whining. My daughter is trying to communicate asking for help to no avail. Frustrating!

  17. 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.

  18. 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 that taking on an ugly tone might be an option in my moment of desperation – something I have always advised against! Then I clicked on the newsletter and saw the blog. Thank you all for giving me the fresh perspective I needed.

  19. 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.


  20. 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 stories are there for a reason!

  21. 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 thier teachers. I found a special reading time each day where we could read to each other. I have reading issue to so this practice helped me as well. It also let my children know they were not alone and were not freeks for being different. We played allot of board games where reading was required as well, and to help with math Dice, Board and Card games help allot to. I have been using these same techniques with my youngest who I describe in my above staement.

    Basically if you make it fun and you are spending that quality time with your child, who has to let them know that you are actually helping them learn? I found it most helpful with my oldest two as they where more cooperative then my youngest. She does not have the patience and she hates waiting to learn all the rules to games. she like to make it up as she goes. However it is still helping her as well. The hurdle I am crossing is the development stage of her is now hitting the pre-teens and the struggles and work are only about to get harder for her. At the younger ages is the best time to start, however it is never to late. The more time you have to offer the child the better as well.

    I hope this is helpful advice to all Joined Parenting with the Community Families.

  22. Janet,

    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 attorney will be appointed at no cost just to make sure that this person is not taken advantage of.

    If the school district knowingly violates IDEA or ADA law, they are the ones who get an attorney who will “protect” them from unreasonable parents who want their kids to receive meaningful educational services.

    There is no offender’s registry for those who repeatedly commit Educational Rape of our children. The school can still get an A grade even if they deny a special needs child a FAPE.

  23. 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 that he could not live on Cheetos for the day, but their response to that was “If we do it for him, we have to do it for everyone.” I am only asking for 30 seconds to warm up a hot dog or taquitos.

    I just need to know if I am asking too much of the school. What would you do?

    Thank you-

  24. 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 day last year in 2nd grade. This year for 3rd grade they are providing a scribe and reader (basically only accommodations) and virtually no “teaching” him to read. One of the only 3rd grade IEP goals is that he learn 1st grade site words. (note he should be in 4th grade).

    Help – his dad has approved all of this and his dad will not support any changes. The school is standing on his approval. Is there anything that I can do other than to try to continue to educate my son myself during the very little time that we have together?

    Thank you, Sue

  25. 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 services and they were denied just as my requests were denied. Hearing Officer took Special Ed Director’s word as Gospel and discredited my testimony. Someone please explain the justice system to me whereas a school district was found in violation of breaking federal laws and the legal system allows them to do so. laws.

  26. 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

  27. 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.

  28. 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 is to keep from waiting time administering a test to a child who may not be able to hear or see. I suspect my son can see/hear since he has been driving our car. This letter serves as my consent to administer the ADOS..

    Not only did I get a letter indicating that she had mis-stated this requirement but testing would begin within the week. It is my belief that the Admins in special services may have attention problems and can not address educational needs if they are focused on cooling parents down.

  29. 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 education (yes, I’m getting two M.Ed’s.. and yes, I am a full-time mom… Yes, I am crazy…). I understand both sides of the issue much more clearly now. I strongly believe that all general education teachers should have more education in special needs students than just the obligatory disability-a-week class that the college students are receiving now.

    By the way, I am thrilled that you have a blog up! I attended one of your training sessions back in 2006 with Wayne and Pat. It was one of the best training sessions I have ever attended, but I wish it would have been a two day session. Thank you both so much for all you do for special education!

    With much warm regards,
    Michelle aka “The Beartwinsmom”

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