Double Take: Parents need help to push IEP changes

Dear Dr. Wes and Ben: My sophomore daughter wants to be released from her IEP in high school because she doesn’t think sitting in a room for integrated studies an hour a day is helping her. I don’t really understand how it is either, and it will make her ineligible for graduating a semester early. What should I do?

Wes: I’ve heard this a lot recently. I don’t know whether something has changed in area schools, but I am hearing teachers, parents and students universally complaining about special education in junior high and high school. I actually had someone tell me that a school had the child evaluated, found resources at another in-district school, then said they couldn’t follow through because the school couldn’t afford it.

Somebody needs to reread the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), because that just isn’t how it works

So, I don’t doubt your account. But sitting in a study hall for identified kids has little to do with the real intent of an IEP, regardless of what you’re being told. IEP stands for Individualized Educational Program, and it’s named that because the plan must be designed so that your child can receive equal educational opportunities through services specific to her needs. It is not a class. It is not a room. One size does not fit all. Your kid’s IEP is a program, and your school district is obligated under federal law to provide the correct services to her. It is not optional.

So the first thing I would do is not take your child out of her IEP. That lets the school off the hook and adds nothing to your daughter’s education. Next I would purchase and read the book “From Emotions to Advocacy” (second edition) by Pam and Pete Wright. This is the best $20 you’ll spend on your child’s IEP. It’s 338 pages of key information that goes far beyond what I can suggest here and underscores what I have.

The book will also help you identify the resources your child needs. You’ll probably have to get a private psychologist involved to develop a viable plan. Even though the school is required by law to provide that service free of charge, you need to remember where that person’s paycheck comes from. When you’re trying to advocate for your child, you need someone in your employ.

Once you have your plan in place, let the school know it needs to provide the correct services and get that into the IEP. Be reasonable, but firm and do not be dissuaded by school officials. Think of them as a service agency with scarce resources or perhaps an insurance company. They’re not motivated to share those resources with you, because they will immediately become scarcer. So it’s up to you to get educated, set the agenda and, most important, require follow-through.

The next thing to do is retain an attorney. Sorry, I’m not kidding. Things have gotten so contentious in the area of special education that a lot of kids are in your daughter’s situation. Frequently the only way to get things moving is under advice of counsel. Even as I often find civil lawsuits distasteful, I’m personally over the sort of thing you describe, and I think families need to join up and form a “class.” Not the one where you learn, but the one where you take joint civil legal action. It’s worked on the coasts.

If any parents need more motivation to tackle this in their child’s best interests, Ben now offers us a moving personal account.

Ben: Honestly, I don’t have much practical advice to give. What I can offer is encouragement.

I had some experience with an IEP when I was very young. Most children are able to develop a good grasp on talking between the ages of 2 and 3; I was not like most children. My 2-year-old self struggled with verbalizing things that kids half my age could say easily. My parents decided that I needed help and got me help for speech development. After personal therapy and working with a special program for some time, my progress was evaluated. My parents closed out that IEP soon after, because my 3-year-old self had developed a vocabulary that isn’t usually achieved until eighth grade.

Needless to say, I support these services. It’s strange for me to think that through my struggle to talk and the help of my IEP, I actually ended up excelling as a toddler. I’m not saying that every Individualized Educational Program will lead to such a dramatic result, but I believe that when an IEP is actually individualized, it has a huge potential to benefit students in a way that would be otherwise unattainable.

Clearly, the situation of a teenager in public school is different than that of a 2-year-old, but Wes has provided some solid advice to help get your daughter’s IEP to the place you both want it to be. If my parents had dropped my services back then, I wouldn’t have the advanced IEP I have now, and I most certainly wouldn’t be writing this column. With that knowledge, I can only encourage you to make the effort to improve your daughter’s situation. You may be surprised at what happens.

— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Ben Markley is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to doubletake@ljworld.com. All correspondence is strictly confidential.

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