How parents can negotiate their child’s path through special education

Michigan Radio and Bridge Magazine collaborated to examine the challenges of special education services in Michigan schools. This is a report by Sarah Alvarez, of Michigan Radio’s State of Opportunity and Infowire team.

It can be a challenge to educate kids with disabilities, and it can also be expensive. So for the better part of American history, kids with disabilities were mistreated in schools or pushed into institutions. Now, special education in Michigan and every other state has laws and civil rights procedures to help kids with disabilities get what’s called “Free and Appropriate Public Education.”

With all those laws it seems like there should not be a lot of difference between school districts in the types of services available to kids with disabilities, or in their education outcomes. But in fact things like graduation rates, suspension rates and just general academic achievement for kids with disabilities vary wildly between school districts around the state. For example, these laws didn’t help Kayle Roose much when she needed it. She has a 7 year old son with a disability called “emotional impairment,” it’s a category for kids with mental illness.

Roose says her son was suspended 19 times, in kindergarten. The school district can’t verify this because of federal privacy laws. His special education status should have protected him from missing school this much. At the time, Roose didn’t know about the law, her son’s rights or just what she should expect. Since then, with the help of one of her son’s counselors from a social service agency, she’s become more of an advocate for him. But she still worries he’ll continue to have to deal with what went on in kindergarten.

“For another school or another person to open that file and say, 'Whoa, this kid has been suspended this many times?'” she says. “His school file follows him.”

Many parents are not at odds with their children’s schools, and there are, of course, plenty of dedicated aides, teachers, support staff and administrators working their hardest to provide the best education they can to every student. But Michigan’s education outcomes are not very good for kids with disabilities. For example, across the state, the graduation rate for these kids is 54 percent.

Disability rights lawyer Mark McWilliams jokes that his advice might be skewed, because “we only deal with problems.” McWilliams works at Michigan’s Protection and Advocacy Service, a free resource for people with disabilities.

His advice can be useful even to families perfectly happy with their special education services. All parents of kids with disabilities have a lot to know and navigate when it comes to education, leaving parents searching for tips and advice from other parents, special education officials and advocates on how best to get the services they think their child needs.

“Nobody knows your child more than you and nobody is going to make sure your child needs are met except you.”

That piece of advice comes from Kayle Roose. She says it was hard to push back against school decisions she didn’t agree with. But as she has become more comfortable advocating for her child, she says her relationship with her son’s district has improved. This “trust yourself” advice was echoed by every person interviewed.

Dawn Bentley is the Special Education Director in Livingston County. She says, “Parents are their children’s first teachers,” and they should approach working with a school feeling confident they have a lot to add.

“Be a professional parent”

That piece of advice is from a blog post by Karen Wang, the parent of a 13 year old with autism. It might sound like she’s telling folks to quit their jobs in order to be better advocates for their kids. Wang is a full-time parent herself, but what she means by the “professional parent” thing is that parents should treat professionals working with their children like they would treat their own co-workers, or other people they respect. Wang also tells parents to pick their battles, and says threats are often unhelpful.

It’s likely these relationships are going to last a long time, so Wang also says it helps to be constructive with criticism, not emotional. Dawn Bentley says in her experience it’s natural for parents of kids in special education to feel outmatched or defensive when working with schools, especially in IEP meetings. She recommends calling an advocate at the Michigan Alliance for Families or The ARC for some advice before the meeting. In some cases, an advocate may even be willing to go with you to an IEP meeting.

The advocates at these organizations are used to working with schools and parents to come up with a plan both can live with. Bentley says for many parents, just talking with an advocate before big meetings makes them feel more confident and makes meetings more productive.

“Know your rights. Ask questions.”

It’s easier to feel confident when you know what you’re talking about. Lawyer Mark McWilliams says parents should be informed about their children’s rights. You can call one of the specialists at his office, Michigan’s Protection and Advocacy Service, with a question. He says it’s always free and you’ll always have a person answer the phone, or give you a call back.

McWilliams also says parents really need to “fully participate” in what’s going on at school. That means attending IEP meetings, teacher conferences and just connecting with staff. He’s a lawyer, so this piece of advice feels natural to him, but McWilliams also says parents with concerns about school need to “keep everything, and document everything.” That dovetails with some more advice from parent Kayle Roose, “Just because it’s written down doesn’t mean they’re following it,” she says. “You need to follow up.”

“Connect without a problem.”

Every parent interviewed for this story about a champion that either helped them through a rough spot or just treated them or their child with kindness and respect. Most of these parents found these people within the schools. Mark McWilliams says even in the best situations there’s “a lot of conflict in this field. It’s just the nature of the beast.” One way to minimize conflict and get results for your child, McWilliams says, is to “connect without a problem,” or talk to a teacher, an aid, or a specialist who has been successful with your child. He says you can ask these people to document what they’re doing that’s working well, so you can have it for future teachers. You can also ask their opinion on who else in the school system they think will work well with your child.

“Student voice” is important

Some districts regularly include students in their IEP meetings, and in other meetings about services or education goals. Dawn Bentley says parents should ask if their children can be included in meetings, at least for part of it. Hearing directly from a student what they struggle with or what their goals are can be very powerful, says Bentley, and can help to motivate the whole team toward these common goals. Few teachers would dismiss a student directly asking for help, “You’d be in the wrong profession,” says Bentley.

Connect with other parents

Karen Wang says she learned so much about what services and which kind of an environment would work for her son from other parents, and also from adults who had the same challenges as her son and had learned from their experience. There are plenty of places parents can connect online or in person.

There are options

Switching school districts to find services for a child isn’t always easy, or even an option. Kayle Roose tried to make a move, all the way to San Diego, California, but the expense proved more than she could handle. She has regrets, because she loved the services her son had available to him in his school there, and he says he loved it too.

Karen Wang has lived in three different school districts just to find services for her son she’s happy with and a school culture where he feels respected and at home. There is so much variation in the services available to children with disabilities and their educational outcomes around the state it makes sense to know how your district stacks up.

There’s data here about how districts stack up on special education demographics provided by Bridge Magazine. The state also has lots of data on how districts perform with respect to kids with disabilities, although it’s not as easy to navigate.

Infowire fills the information gap and meets the news needs of families struggling to make ends meet. Get all Infowire alerts by texting INFOWIRE to 734-954-4539 or email infowire@michiganradio.org

About The Author

Sarah Alvarez

Sarah Alvarez is founder of Outlier Media, a journalism service that delivers data reporting and information to low-income news consumers over SMS and message apps. She is a former lawyer and former public radio reporter and was a 2015 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. She was assisted in this report by Kenny Jacoby, a University of Oregon journalism student.

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Comments

Tom House
Wed, 12/17/2014 - 2:00pm
This is an article with much useful information for the parents of students with disabilities. Unfortunately some of the research is poorly done, and some of the statements are quite misleading. Emotional impairement is absolutely one of the many categories of disabilities which could cause a student to be eligible for special education services. Emotional impairment is not always "mental illness" as the writer suggests. It is also true that there are laws which govern the conditions under which a student with a special education disability may be suspended. Those laws do not prevent suspension in all cases as the article seems to suggest. There are processes and steps which should be followed to insure that suspensions are not used for students with disabilities until other measures to address behavior problems are employed in an attempt to improve the behavior. When suspensions reach a certain number of days or when a pattern of behavior is shown, a Manifestation Determination Review is supposed to be convened. If violations of school rules or policies is determined not to be a manifestation of the disabled students disability, then the student may be subject to the same disciplinary consequences as his or her non disabled peers. Again the article will be very helpful to parents and other who should be advocation for students with disabilities, but it makes some assumptions that are not necessarily true.
Steve Smewing
Wed, 12/17/2014 - 9:18pm
When I saw the part with the multiple suspensions I wondered what the rest of the story was. Do not forget that the school has to ensure the safety of all students. I have been a pre-k and k aid and there were times that some children endangered others. In those times things had to be done to wake up the parents first, then the procedure for help could begin. It is hard to fight denial, along with bad parenting. When a child is able to rule the house at home it takes time for the child to fall in with the new environment, but they do with patients.
Barry Visel
Thu, 12/18/2014 - 9:43am
Just a few scattered thoughts: We raised three sons...one "normal", one with emotional and learning disabilities and one with Down Syndrome, I.e., learning disabilities. Having been through the IEP/Special Ed process with 2 of our sons, I've often wondered why we do this only for "special Ed" students? Seems to me all students (and parents and teachers) would benefit from the IEP process of developing specific learning plans for individual students. I would advocate for eliminating the word "special" from the process entirely and treating all students as, well, students...with parents and teachers required to meet regularly to develop Individual Education Plans. Also, the concept of K-12 "grades" begins to become meaningless, and the focus changes to learning outcomes rather than scheduled calendar outcomes. Regarding IEP meetings...ours were held during the day (teacher time on the clock), and it wasn't always easy for both of us to get there. Schools might be wise to look at students and parents as "customers" and adapt to meet customer needs. As a community relations manager for an electric utility, I met my customers on their schedule, not mine, often "after hours". IEP meetings are supposed to be "team" meetings, with parents being part of the team. Too often we went into meetings cold, without knowing what options were available, and without knowing what teachers would be proposing. Parents should be provided with both prior to the meeting (and parents should make known in advance what their expectations are as well). Parents should also know that if they are not happy with meeting outcomes or feel they need more information, they can adjourn the meeting to another time. School Boards...ours was clueless as to Special Ed offerings or the IEP process. They were happy to let the administrators deal with it. I'm not sure how to address that problem.
Barb
Fri, 12/19/2014 - 3:23pm
This article could have been more balanced. I sure wish it would have included comments from families who have felt that, at their school, the programs were exemplary and the staff invested many many hours, sweat and tears providing creative and individualized support for their children.
J. Harmony
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 8:25pm
Barb please let us know what school district you mention. I am interested in that school district performance.
Sat, 01/03/2015 - 8:33am
My daughter has learning disabilitiies and had a hard time in school the kids were always picking on her and were mean and she was abused she got her diploma from archway and the state of newjersey said she graduated from shawnee high school how could this be she never went to shawneee in newjersey was this a joke I am very up set by this as a parent and no one cares they gave her a fake diploma to top it all she has a cousin in florida and her cousin said there are no good school systems there then why are her kids doing better then my daughter she lied to me and my daughter my daughter is so upset and cries and yells all day ask the gifted cousins to do everything and leave me alone she says. My daughter is the only one in the family with special needs and is very jealous by this.before she found archway she was put in a hard core public school bcit to learn a trade in Medford they loved satan and were talking trash to my daughter my daughter didnt want to stay I made her because I didnt want her to run away and she was abused their she didnt take it to court because she didnt want to be blamed my daughter is mad her cousin cares more for the unborn then my daughter she is so mean my daughter feels like she lives in to worlds they want her to be like a baby andgrownup over night want her to act like she has special needs what do they want from her the answer is they want to keep her other days put her in a jezebel group home and her faith is in danger because she is a strong christian my daughter lost going to vr because of vera her cousin saying my kid is so smart and better then me now she is mad at the whole world and feels no one loves her or cares and she hates her self and says she feels like she needs to lose jesus and keep satan became all special ed kids are in to witchcraft movies and she feels like a loser that she cant be more like other people can you help.