Parents: Beware of IEP Meeting Red Flags! (Part 2)

advocacy

This next violation is SO COMMON that it’s rare for it NOT to come up at the meetings I attend. If it’s happening when parents bring an advocate with them, I can only imagine the frequency with which it’s occurring otherwise. 

Red Flag #2: Not having the required IEP team members in attendance.  

Parents, raise your hand if this has ever happened to you… 

You’re about halfway through an IEP meeting for your child and you’re asked, “Is it okay if Mrs. Smith goes back to class now? She has kids coming in a few minutes.”

Sound familiar?  

The problem is, it’s a loaded question. 

If you say, “Sure, no problem!” you’re putting the integrity of the rest of the meeting in jeopardy, which is not in the best interest of you or your child. But, if you say, “No, it’s not okay,” you risk sounding like a total jerk.

Basically, parents cannot win. I think it’s incredibly unfair for them to be put in the situation in the first place. It’s a lose-lose proposition. And it’s not okay!    

What Does the Law Say?  

The list of required IEP team members is clearly spelled out in the IDEA and its accompanying Code of Federal Regulations at Sec. 300.321(a):  

(a) General. The public agency must ensure that the IEP Team for each child with a disability includes—

(1) The parents of the child;

(2) Not less than one regular education teacher of the child (if the child is, or may be, participating in the regular education environment);

(3) Not less than one special education teacher of the child, or where appropriate, not less than one special education provider of the child;

(4) A representative of the public agency who—

(i) Is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities;

(ii) Is knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and

(iii) Is knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the public agency.

(5) An individual who can interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results, who may be a member of the team described in paragraphs (a)(2) through (a)(6) of this section;

(6) At the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate; and

(7) Whenever appropriate, the child with a disability.

 

Pretty straightforward, right?

As in the scenario above, what I often see is a relaxation of these guidelines, with teachers and/or related services providers “popping in” to give their input and then “popping out” to get back to class. In my opinion, IEP team members should not be rotating in and out of meetings. And parents shouldn’t be put on the spot and asked to waive their right to a proper IEP meeting. 

The overwhelming majority of parents really want to be agreeable. We WANT to have a good relationship with our school team and we WANT to please. We WANT to go with the flow when we’re asked to excuse an IEP team member prior to the meeting or mid-way through. But, each time we’re asked to do so, a piece of us feels uneasy about it. Our mama bear instincts are activated and we wonder, Is this what’s best for my family?  

So what’s a parent to do at that moment?

I wish I had an easy answer. Because if you go against the grain and say no, be prepared for the consequences. It’s completely unjustified, but I’ve experienced increased tension in the room firsthand. It’s a subtle, yet perceptible shift. Perhaps you’ve just made life a little more difficult for a teacher who planned to get back to his classroom, and now he’s stressed. Judging by the anxious look on his face, coverage hasn’t been arranged and the students will be arriving back to an empty classroom. Or maybe now you’re in your head, completely overthinking it and this narrative isn’t accurate at all. Regardless, it feels pretty crummy either way. And the discomfort is totally avoidable!

Why Does it Matter?  

The heart of the IEP meeting is the problem-solving portion, which typically takes place in the second half after everyone has contributed their input. This is the juicy time spent collaborating, bouncing ideas off one another, and working together as a team. It’s where the individualized plan for specialized instruction takes shape. It’s where the magic happens. Without the full team there, the job is not going to get done properly. 

It’s like a baseball manager deciding not to field a full team for the second half of the game. Can you imagine? Hey Joe, let’s just let two of the outfielders skip a few innings here, and then the second baseman can skip a few innings there. And yeah, we should be okay without a catcher for the bottom of the 9th. We can fill him in on what happened after the game. It sounds totally crazy, right? A manager would NEVER allow it because each member plays a very specific role that’s essential to the overall performance of the team.

The same logic applies to an IEP team.

What if a question comes up about emotional regulation, that the OT who just “popped out” would have been the perfect person to answer? What if a new grading strategy is being brainstormed and the opinion of the Gen Ed teacher who just went back to class would have really helped? What if a parent finally remembers what she wanted to ask the special education teacher, but they’re no longer there to answer the question. There are way too many potential “what ifs” for my comfort level.  

What Does “Representative of the Public Agency” Mean?

Sec. 300.321 (a)(4) above refers to the IEP team member who has decision-making power on behalf of the school district. You may also see this referred to as the LEA (Local Education Agency) which is a fancy term for the school district. Oftentimes a principal or another administrator fulfills this role, but it could be a case manager or even a teacher. 

Getting back to that list of “what ifs”… what if a weighty topic such as changing placement or acquiring an expensive piece of assistive technology or seeking an independent evaluation comes up? And there is no one present with the authority to speak up about the availability of the district’s resources? Welp, pop in your earplugs because the meeting momentum is going to come to a screeching halt. The IEP team is not going to be able to complete the mission that it was designed to fulfill.  

Parents, you should never hear a statement like this at an IEP meeting: “I’m going to have to check with my supervisor and get back to you.” But if I had a quarter for every time I heard something along those lines, my piggy bank would have exploded open a long time ago. Yes, there may very well be times when details have to be ironed out after a meeting concludes, but important decisions about a child’s education should be IEP team decisions. Made at the IEP table. With all members present. Period. 

What Can Parents Do About It?

  1. Be proactive. A week or so prior to the meeting, send an email to your child’s case manager requesting the attendance of the general education and special education teachers that you prefer (if your child has more than one) and all related services providers. Also, ask who the LEA representative at the meeting will be. This sends the message that you are an informed and educated parent. You are aware of your rights and you feel comfortable asserting them.
  2. Reschedule the meeting. If a required IEP team member isn’t present at the beginning of a meeting, you must decide if you feel comfortable going forward or not. If you have the flexibility in your schedule to do so, ask to reschedule. But if you’ve taken time off work to be there or if there is an urgent matter that needs to be discussed, you’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place. You can agree to have the meeting but state, “While I don’t feel comfortable having the meeting without the full IEP team, let’s try to cover as much as we can and then schedule a follow-up meeting if necessary. Please document this as one of my parent concerns in the IEP.” 
  3. Just say no. If you’re in the middle of a meeting, and you’re asked if you are okay with allowing an IEP Team member to head back to class, you must decide if you’re comfortable with it or not. If your instincts are saying that you’d really like them to stay, say that. Here is some language to keep in your back pocket, “While I would really love to say yes and I hate to inconvenience the teacher, I’m not 100% comfortable moving forward without the full IEP team.” 
  4. Don’t give consent. If you receive a letter in the mail asking for your written permission to excuse an IEP team member, but you’d really like them to be present, do not provide consent. You can send the letter back with the language in #3 above hand-written on the form. 

When to File a State Complaint

When a school district commits any procedural violation of the IDEA, such as the failure to have all designated IEP Team members in attendance at meetings, you have the right to request a state complaint investigation. But, that reaction is extreme when something like this happens for the first time. Before considering formal dispute resolution methods, I always urge parents to try to resolve their differences collaboratively first.

Simply inform the case manager (in writing) that going forward, you expect the full IEP team to be in attendance for the duration of the meeting. Once a district is called out by a parent on an obvious violation, they should make the necessary changes very quickly. Especially when it’s a provision of the law that is as clear cut as IEP Team attendance. If after several attempts at advocacy, you’re still not getting anywhere though, you have your procedural safeguards to fall back on. You can learn more about filing a complaint with your state’s Department of Education here.  

Is it Really THAT Big of a Deal?

Real talk….when I was a teacher and case manager, IEP team members would pop in and out on my watch. And I let it happen! To be honest, I knew a heck of a lot less about the law then compared to now, and I didn’t fully appreciate just how wrong it was. There was never any malintent, it was just how we always did things.

Not one parent ever raised a concern and I’m confident that the meetings I was a part of were pretty darn successful. So, is it possible to have a positive IEP meeting experience even if not everyone is there that should be? Yes, it is. BUT, a negative impact on the IEP process is also very possible. Do you want to take that chance when it’s your child’s education that’s being discussed? I sure don’t. 

Parents who tend to be people-pleasers, listen up… If you decide to reschedule a meeting or not provide consent when you’re asked to do so, please, please, please DO NOT FEEL BAD about it. You should never, ever feel guilty or uncomfortable about advocating for your child’s education. Especially in this case. Parents have an undisputed right under IDEA to attend a proper IEP meeting. Period. So, go ahead and speak up when needed. Lean fully in to your role as a knowledgeable, astute, and savvy advocate. 

Happy Advocating!

XO, MB

Click here to read about Red Flag #1: Imposing a Time Limit on IEP meetings

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