What Can Parents Do if They Can’t Hire an Attorney?

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Our son is 15 and is repeating 9th grade. He has learning disabilities and has an IEP. We did not think he was making progress in his special education program, so we had him evaluated by an independent psychologist. The psychologist compared his current test scores with his scores on earlier evaluations. We were distressed to learn that his IQ scores had dropped.

The goals in his IEPs haven’t changed for years. The recent evaluation shows he hasn’t learned basic academic skills. He is not being educated.

I read an article on your website that describes our son – about the Matthew Effect.

We are stuck! We don’t have a lawyer to help our son. What can we do?

Don’t believe for a minute that the only parents who “win” are those who have lawyers to fight for them.

In school matters, having an attorney can polarize the situation. When the situation is polarized, school staff hunker down, pull their wagons in a circle, and prepare for a battle. The child does not receive the help he or she needs. When an attorney speaks for parents, the school is often afraid to develop a new or different program for the child. They are afraid that the attorney will use this to prove that the program they were providing earlier was not appropriate.

BUT … parents who are not represented by attorneys “win” every day. 


Parents who “win” learn effective advocacy strategies.

1. They organize their child’s file.

2. They do research about their school district and who has decision-making authority. Tip: This person is often an school administrator who does not know the child.

3. They learn to keep their emotions under control.

4. They learn to negotiate.

If you are persistent and polite, and you use the advocacy skills and strategies described in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, you will be in a strong position when you negotiate with the school.

5. They learn how to ask the right questions that can open the door to quality special ed services.

6. They know they must build and maintain healthy working relationships with school personnel.

7. These parents learn how to use objective test scores to monitor their child’s progress.

8. They create graphs of their child’s progress or lack of progress (so easy to do when you use the “Chart Wizard” in a PowerPoint, spreadsheet or word processing program).

9. These parents create paper trails.

10. They write polite letters to their child’s team and other school officials to document the questions they asked, requests they made, and what they were told.

Your goal is to get quality special education services for your child … without legal representation.

  1. I think all of that advise is great. However, I disagree with promulgating that getting legal representation “polarizes the situation” and causes a staff to refuse to provide services that a child validly needs…it depends on the lawyer.

    There are many attorneys that represent children with disabilities and their parents that have good, solid relaltionships with the educators in their practice area. And, there are plenty of them that will take on cases at no charge to families who cannot afford legal fees.

    I think we do families and their children who are struggling with disabilities, by creating fear of advocacy. Parents can keep good files and create paper trails. However, it can be very difficult for them to take on a government bureacracy that is literally only a phone call away from legal advice at any time.

  2. Your school should and must develop a Personal Curriculum for your child. It is your right and the right of your child (starting in 7th grade) for the General Education and Special Education personnel to make a plan that fits the current curriculum and your child’s needs to succeed in school. There should never be “a battle” anytime, whether an Attorney is present or not. People HAVE to remember, it is an INDIVIDUALIZED Education Plan, not a plan for anyone else except the child. We have developed many Personal Curriculum Plans to accommodate the IEP and this has led our students to succeed in high school-from taking the MME to graduating WITH their class and a high school diploma and beyond. Forget the attorney, and seek out a Special Education Advocate…most of us know the law and know how to “uncircle” the wagons…….

  3. Understand that public schools in the US have been under siege for a long time and are asked to work miracles with fewer resources and funding. If you are in a Southern state, that means doing more with next to nothing so providing your son with extra help may mean another child gets less. Sorry to say that but this is reality. You may need to consider moving to a place where the special ed resources are deeper. Don’t blame the schools, get active with your state legislature and advocate for better funding, like we used to have.

  4. These are great suggestions for parents. As a Special Education Advocate, I help parents navigate through this process that can often be overwhelming. Many times, parents don’t know what questions to ask, or how to interpret some of the evaluations and assessments. When parents notify the school that they are bringing an Advocate, the climate at the IEP meeting is definitely more tense until everyone realizes that our intent is to create a sense of teamwork and collaboration. Because I have 20 years of teaching experience and am a parent of an autistic child, I have sat at both sides of the IEP table and have an understanding of the challenges and desires of all involved.
    While the use of an attorney may create a defensive posture on the part of the school district, an advocate can be less threatening and extremely helpful.

  5. Parents have the right to have advocates provided through their local advocacy agency, guidance and support from fellow special needs parents., do research on line. The fact is that an IEP must be followed. The issue of concern, for me, is that their son’s goals have not changed in years. Either the district feels their child has not improved in years or someone is not doing their job. The fact that the child’s IQ has dropped signifies his skills/knowledge base has not improved since the last IQ test. Now the question is – what has he/the teachers been doing in school all this time. Before a formal meeting, attempt a casual conversation, bringing up these points, within the school building team. If not successful, then go to to the district and for state mediation> All you need are the facts and the law to substantiate your point.

  6. Good suggestions! Building healthy relationships with school personnel goes a long ways. But sometimes there are influential staff members who are incapable of healthy relationships with. We had a horrible school psychologist in my daughter’s previous school who oversaw her IEP. In that case we brought an advocate to the IEP meeting. Not an attorney but a law student, and she didn’t say a single word. Just having someone with us at the meeting gave us more confidence and made a difference in the way we were treated. We still ended up having to write the entire IEP ourselves (using the abundant resources from Wrightslaw). But having an advocate with us let the principal know we were not going to be bullied any longer by the school psychologist. You can do it!

  7. I have filed a complaint with the OCR in Pa. against the district and teacher who humiliated and intimidated my son who was in her Spanish class. For example she made him hold index cards up that said BR for bathroom, if he needed to use the bathroom, She required he not test in her room because he had a reader. And due to his Autism we asked to tape her lectures, and this was approved by the IEP team, but never happened. The school wants to mediate, but what compensation can we get? The school year is almost over, and he can never receive credit for the course at this point. ( had to drop Spanish due to his anxiety) We are on our own,,, could use a little advice! My son needs a foreign language possibly for admission to college, which is his goal. But he is afraid of this teacher, and she is an intimidator…

  8. My daughter has been out of school on a doctor’s note as of January 3rd. She is entitled by the state to 5 hours of home instruction each week. We have only gotten between 2 and 2 1/4 hours each week, and the home instructor comes whenever she pleases and its hard to schedule anything just waiting to see if she does or doesn’t come. Now she is supposed to return back to school on Feb 13 and she feels anxious and unprepared at all to return. The vice-principle has assured me her home instruction will continue after she returns, however, it really hasn’t helped her anxiety and apprehension about returning. Do we have any rights where this is concerned. Its really seems like nobody even cares about at the school. Its very discouraging and it doesn’t seem right.

  9. I have been utilizing Wrightslaw for over a year now. It has guided almost every single decision, letter, etc. Sometimes, the school district is just going to stonewall you and there is nothing you can do about it. I am a teacher. My son was diagnosed with autism at age 3. He is now almost 9. A new administrator came in and started violating many laws. I tried for over 6 months to work as a team with him to correct the situation.Each time he made it worse on my son.Finally go to the BOE and they have a meeting with me and the principal. He was given directives to follow to fix his violations.Then he retaliated against me by transferring me out of the school so I couldn’t be with my son.Then my son’s reeval was moved up and they removed his IEP. I asked for IEE, district filed due process against me. Holding my job over my head. Im pro se

  10. So my daughter was diagnosed as having autism at 4, rediagnosed by no longer having it at 8.The school has failed to give her an education till I put my foot down and made them.I did all the stuff you said above.Recently I had an 3 yr eval done I had outside opinion the school paid for.The lady said that my daughter has severe anxiety brought on by the school, they tossed her in big classes, mind you she has always been in smaller classes, and gave her 9 classes in one day,I asked school if possible to give her classes with less kids, or to out her in classes with some of her friends for her comfort to help the anxiety,so what the school did is moved her in diff classes with kids she didnt know and added to her class load, and mind you, they told me what they have is what she gets

  11. I agree with your article. Sometimes things do not improve despite the parent’s best effort. Our experience taught us to utilize every one of your suggestions. We were dealing with a power hungry all knowing principle with total control.who would not agree to try anything but what was already offered and not working.for years.
    We did our homework and heard horrific stories from families with unresolved issues that tried to sue. The county has an unfair advantage-deep pockets, tax payers money, nastyHarvard educated lawers on retainer and the ability to fabricate isuues about bad parenting with the help of other social services.Every case we heard introduced an element to discredit parents.. Our case was solved simply by allowing us to move to a school with a proactive knowledgable principle but not before we went to the media.

  12. I agree fully as I am always pleasantly polite and have come to understand that district personnel do want to see kids improve– it is a win win situation. I may be wrong. But, the goal for an attorney or advocate is to work himself or herself out of a job and insure that collaborative relationship are built between the parents and the school district and that the child is progressing with adequate goals. I have met too many parents ,who don’t meet the income guidelines for free advocates, spend too much money towards the cost of advocates or attorneys. Many realize that they only needed advocacy services for a short time but such was not revealed to them by the attorneys or advocates. Parents and district staff can make changes using a team approach.

  13. Wrightslaw has it exactly right! If you follow these steps, your son’s program WILL improve. It can be difficult, tedious at times, and is never as fast as we wish. But if you are “polite and persistent” or as I call it, “pleasantly persistent”, you will make progress. At the same time you will be building a team at the school, a team in which you are an involved and major member. That will increase your progress even more. My son is one of the success stories of using the Wrightslaw method. Check it out on the site!

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