How Can an IEP Team Work Together if Key Players Won’t “Play”?

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Have you ever attended an IEP meeting that began well, but suddenly turned to complete chaos?

My child’s long awaited meeting to determine eligibility went from fantastic to horrible in 5 seconds flat!

Although my husband and I signed the evaluation consent forms in October, it wasn’t until May that the team met to review the reports.

The meeting got off to a great start. The evaluation reports were reviewed, and eligibility was discussed. Note: During this discussion, an administrator left the room. The team quickly determined that my child did meet the state’s requirements for Autism Spectrum Disorder and that his medical diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome was educationally relevant.

No one objected to anything and the eligibility form was passed around the table for signatures. When it was returned to the LEA, it only had eight signatures. Eleven people were at the table.

Without warning, the meeting suddenly turned to complete chaos!

The administrator returned accompanied by her boss. Notes were being written and passed while other people were talking on the phone. The “team” members who disagreed remained silent and would not come forward but it was obvious who they were. The meeting was being tape recorded by both the school and us.

The IEP meeting ended with no resolution. The eligibility document that 8 team members had just signed was ripped up and thrown away!

My husband and I left the meeting shocked and confused.

How can an IEP team work together if key players won’t “play”?

I’m sorry you had this experience – it happens more often than most people think. When parents have this experience, they are shocked and stunned. They have no idea why the meeting fell apart with no resolution of the issue. This is not the way to enhance parent-school relationships. There are a couple of reasons why meetings fall apart. In your case, I think the reason is two-fold.

The majority of the team supported your request. A couple of people did not agree, so the school team did not have consensus in advance.

They found they had a problem on their hands and you were taping the meeting. Someone decided to resolve the dilemma by calling in the Special Ed or ESE director. Either this is the real decision-maker or they had a staff problem and didn’t know what else to do.

You need to follow up with a polite, factual, business-like letter that describes the background, the purpose of the meeting, who attended, the split between members, the principal coming in, what sounds like confusion, the call to the ESE director, the meeting ending with no resolution, and what you were told.

We call this the “Letter to the Stranger” because you are using it to make your case to a person who has decision making authority and whom you may not know. The purpose of the letter is to persuade the “stranger” that your request is reasonable so this person wants to right the wrong.

Writing a good “Stranger” letter takes time, determination and patience. If you can pull it off, it may well resolve the problem.

There is an article about “The Letter to the Stranger” that tells a story and gives examples. Read this article so you understand what you need to accomplish and who you are really writing to:

Read the articles on this page and also the sample letters:


  1. I had this problem with two schools. I am in Texas. Doesn’t this have something to do with money and the school looking “bad” in the communities? It costs them money the more children that have special needs and it doesn’t make them look good academically if they have too many special needs kids.

  2. You also need to contact your state office of Exceptional children. {Ohio} Because you had a consensus from the district the signature page should be re-signed and any and all modifications and accommodations should be immediately implemented. If you have the copy of the proposed I.E.P. it can be implemented without the signature page. A new meeting is not necessary. The signature page cannot be destroyed. This is highly illegal since the parents did not agree to the changes of destroying the document. You have a definite legal challenge to this very stupid attempt by an administrator to frustrate the process. By the way I am a licensed Intervention specialist in three states and have served as the special education director
    for urban schools in Cleveland, OH.

  3. Be polite at first, as suggested. The vast majority of times, this works.

    Get. Everything. In. Writing. Recording the meeting is BRILLIANT. Take pictures too.

    With this, you can step it up when you need to.

    Remind the school administration that an IEP is the WORD ON HIGH and must be followed unless it can be absolutely proven the requests will not benefit your child. It has to be that specific.

    I have gone in person to meet with the School Superintendent here and have called the Professional Standards Commission (the Georgia board which certifies teachers). You can also contact local media.

    This generated very fast results, but this is a Nuclear Bomb type approach.

    Still, once nuked, the school administration here has been a lot easier to deal with.

  4. After a meeting with the student assistance team members at my daughter’s school that her counselor and neuropsychologist attended with me it was agreed to arrange a 504 plan for her. We set a date to meet a week later, but the counselor and neuropsych were unable to attend this meeting. The principal walked in and told me that she had changed her mind about the 504 plan, and that they would just help her in the classroom as they saw fit, which was not at all. I called the district to complain, but by the time they returned my phone call there were only 4 weeks left of school. My daughter has one more year left there, so I am anxious to see what is going to happen.

  5. After many years of dealing with denial of services and ESY, we FINALLY prevailed. It took 3 ARD meetings to get there! At the first ARD meeting (went alone) the school offered 12 hrs. in Strategic Reading ONLY of 1:1 tutoring over a 4 week period for compensatory services for his Kindergarten year. We walked out in disagreement. 2nd ARD meeting, they offered to include in those 12 hours some math. Thanked them for their “willingness” to work with us, but respectfully declined and walked out in disagreement. 3rd ARD we took an advocate and another friend into the meeting. We ended that ARD meeting with 95 hrs. of 1:1 academic private tutoring and 18 hrs. of DIRECT OT therapy, plus 18 hrs. of DIRECT speech therapy. Another crucial point., we followed Pete’s recommendation and had made an educational achievement baseline for our child in 2007, and in between the 1st and 3rd ARD meetings we scrambled and got a cross-battery test and an achievement test performed. Results: IQ/cognitive abilities soared UP; Achievement went DOWN. Test scores don’t lie!! We let the district go on and on about how MUCH skills our son had achieved this term. Then we also used the “maintenance of critically learned new skills” to receive ESY services. it reminded me of my fishing days with my Dad when we would get a fish on our line and always yell, “Got One.”

  6. Pam gives you good advice on how to start with the school after what happened at the meeting. You do not say, but it sounds like at the end there was not agreement about whether your child was a child with autism. If that is the case, in your letter and in the next meeting you should ask why it is felt that he/she does not meet the autism criteria.
    You should also study the state criteria for who is an “official” decision making member of the IEP team. You can ask them to indicate whom in the room will participate in making decisions. Often some people present are not part of that group. When I worked for schools and attended IEP meetings, I was not a decision making member. If I signed the paperwork, I did not indicate agree or disagree for that reason.

  7. The “Letter to a Stranger” really works!! I’ve used this format a few times with my children’s school district and had very good results.

    Just three weeks ago, after an IEP meeting fell apart (we were discussing ESY for my twins and the special ed director told us that the “district had decided to offer ESY services only during four weeks in July because most other districts only offer a four week block of time for ESY services and this is what we’ve decided to offer to all children in the distict who require ESY services”. My husband and I, as well as my twins therapist (a clinical psychologist who has worked with them for a year and has tons of experience with kids on the autism spectrum) disagreed with the district but couldn’t get anywhere with them in the meeting.

    My “letter to a stranger”, which was cc’d to the building principal and the superintendent, calmly and factually discussed my twins disability, how it impacts their education, what was discussed at the meeting, and what we were told by the sped director…………….

    Within a week, we heard back from her that the district had decided to re-examine the offer for ESY services. Their second offer was MUCH better than the first. I’ve learned so much from Pete and Pam and their website and books—– I can’t thank you both enough!!!!

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