IEP Advocacy Moves for Parents – Part 2


**Most of the content from this article was taken from Special Education Savvy available on Amazon in March 2021** 

In IEP Advocacy Moves for Parents - Part 1, I shared a few of the more basic strategies that parents can use to advocate on behalf of their children with unique learning needs.  But the reality is that sometimes, in spite of our best efforts to collaborate and negotiate, our children are still not receiving the education that we think they deserve. We’re left feeling defeated and wonder if pursuing the issue is even worth our time and energy. The answer is almost always yes. Our children are worth it. They only get one ticket for this ride called Life. There are no do-overs. 

Parents, when it comes to IEP advocacy, you are never powerless. There is always another approach or a next step to consider. For those looking for more advanced moves, this overview was written for you!

Ask for Written Notice

Thankfully, school districts cannot make major decisions about your child’s education willy-nilly. They must always notify parents first in writing, whenever proposing or refusing to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a child or the provision of FAPE to the child. This procedural safeguard is referred to as Prior Written Notice (PWN) and is one of my absolute favorite advocacy tools to use. 

Basically, when a parent makes a request and it is denied, you have a next move:  Ask for written notice. Not only is the school district required to document the request that is being denied, but they also need to explain why. Written notice includes a list of the evidence/data utilized, a description of other options that were considered, and any other relevant factors that influenced their decision. So it’s not as simple as a district saying, “Nope,” and moving on. 

To illustrate, if they’re insisting that your child doesn’t need the 1:1 aide you’re asking for, the school needs to back up their viewpoint with an explanation and evidence. If they’re saying that your dyslexic child doesn’t require the highly structured multisensory reading program that you requested, they need to provide supporting documentation. If they’re denying your nonverbal child the augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device that her private speech therapist recommended, they must justify their decision in writing. 

PWN ensures that parents are never left in the dark when it comes to what’s happening with their child’s education. Whether the district proposes a change at the annual IEP meeting or mid-year, written notification is always required.

Speaking from personal experience, big decisions are made at IEP meetings ALL THE TIME and written notice is never provided. Or, districts will include it within the IEP but it falls short of the criteria specified in IDEA. Not only will requesting written notice send a powerful message about accountability, it will become an important part of the paper trail if you ever decide to file a complaint.

Independent Education Evaluation (IEE)

An evaluation conducted by an independent medical, developmental, or educational expert can be extremely helpful in your advocacy efforts. If you disagree with the results of the evaluation that your school district performed, or believe that it was incomplete, you’re entitled to request an IEE at public expense. If they agree, an IEE would be conducted by an expert of your choosing that is not affiliated with the school district, and the school district will pay for it. At any time, you could also pay out of pocket or use your private insurance to pay for an independent evaluation and then share the reports with the IEP team. 

The IEE is one of my absolute favorite advocacy techniques, but I find that most parents have no idea that the option even exists. An evaluation by an appropriately credentialed professional might yield an official diagnosis which could open the door to more services in school. Or, the evaluator might recommend a specific reading program, a communication device or other types of assistive technology, the frequency and intensity of related services, and the most appropriate educational placement based on their findings. So, now all of a sudden you have so much more than just your own subjective opinion about what your child needs. If the expert substantiates what you’re requesting for your child, your argument just got a whole lot more powerful. 

Two quick caveats…a school district does not have any obligation to follow the recommendations within an IEE report. Their only legal obligation is to “consider” the information.  Also, if the school denies your request for an IEE, they would have to file for due process against you to show that their evaluations are sufficient. You can learn more about IEEs here

Facilitated IEP Meeting (FIEP)

The Facilitated IEP meeting is now an option that is available in many states. Basically, a neutral third party attends the meeting with the goal of fostering positive communication and productivity. They ensure that all voices have a chance to be heard and then offer suggestions in an attempt to reach a compromise that everyone can live with. The FIEP strategy is most useful when the IEP team is stuck on a particular issue and cannot move forward. Each state handles the process a bit differently. I recommend visiting your state’s Department of Education website for more information. 

Formal Dispute Resolution 

After several unsuccessful IEP meetings, if you feel like negotiations have reached a standstill, you can utilize the collection of formal dispute resolution processes spelled out in the IDEA. They are designed to protect the rights of children with disabilities and their parents and come into play when a parent feels that their child’s right to a free and appropriate public education has been violated. If you think this is where your situation is headed, I encourage you to consult with an experienced advocate or an attorney, since your school district will be enlisting the help of their legal team. 

There is always a time and a place for litigation, especially if you feel like your child is being harmed in some way. But I do tend to view it as a last resort. My goal is always to empower parents to advocate using the IEP process before getting lawyers involved, if at all possible.

I highly recommend the IDEA Dispute Resolution Parent Guides and Companion Videos created by CADRE (Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education) to fully educate yourself about all of your options.  

State Complaint 

A complaint is an allegation that an education agency (school district) has committed a procedural violation of the IDEA. It can be filed regarding something that affected your specific child or a group of children if the issue is more systemic in nature. Complaints are submitted to your state’s Office of Special Education, which will conduct an investigation and make a determination. If the school district is found to be out of compliance, they will be given a corrective action plan. You can refer to your Procedural Safeguards booklet or your state’s Department of Education website for more instructions and sample templates that you can use to file.

Some common grounds for a state complaint include: 

  • Failure to have all IEP team members present at a meeting 
  • Failure to evaluate in all areas of suspected disability  
  • Failure to adhere to specified timelines  
  • Failure to provide written notice 
  • Failure to follow state guidelines for class size or classroom aides 
  • Failure to provide a service or modification specified in the IEP

Voluntary Mediation

When you and your school district cannot agree upon an important aspect of your child’s education, you have a decision to make. If it’s not a hill worth dying on, you’re better off relenting and requesting to reconvene in a few months to review progress. But, if the sticking point IS something that matters greatly to you, and you believe it will have a critical impact on your child, filing for mediation is an option to consider. If both sides agree to participate, parents and school officials will sit down with an impartial third party in an attempt to reach a compromise. Basically, mediation is a kinder, gentler dispute resolution process compared to a due process hearing. Mediators are arranged through your state’s Department of Education and free of charge. If it works, great! The mediator will draft a legally binding agreement on the spot, for all parties to sign. Even better, you just saved yourself the cost of an attorney, precious time, and the physical, emotional, and mental energy required to prepare for a court hearing and the appeals process. 

Here is a 28-page guide put out by Duke’s Advocacy Institute that goes into the mediation process in much greater detail. 

Due Process 

If mediation is unsuccessful, the next step is a formal due process hearing. Either a hearing officer or an administrative law judge will preside over the proceedings, which closely resembles a legal trial. Parents may represent themselves in a due process hearing, but I strongly recommend against it. You have now entered the advocacy big leagues. Enlisting the services of an experienced education attorney will give you the best chance of prevailing. 

Is there a time and a place for due process? Absolutely. Sometimes it’s the only way to secure the education your child is entitled to. But please go into it fully informed, making sure that you’ve carefully weighed the potential benefits against the drawbacks—namely the expenses that you will incur by retaining an attorney, as well as the cost of your time and emotional energy. Keep in mind that the appeals process is grueling and could take years. What will the ramifications be on your child during that time? or your finances? Your energy, mental health, and emotional well-being? These are just a few of the many factors to think about. For more about what to expect at a due process hearing, click here.  

Okay parents, now that you have a toolbox that is jam-packed with shiny new tools and strategies, I hope that you’re feeling more empowered. Effective advocacy is never a passive endeavor. You’re going to need to take courageous action. So get moving. Get in the game. You’ve got this! 

The IEP Parent's Guide
to the BEST School Year EVER!

A month-by-month checklist of Best Practices 

This is the guide you need
to step up your advocacy game. 

Simple, monthly action steps to keep busy parents on track all year long.
*Relevant for all grade levels and disability categories.*