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Questions to ask attorneys or advocates about education issues

Are you ready to retain a lawyer to settle an IEP issue with your child's school district? If so, this article and the attached worksheet will walk you through the process.

By Linda Broatch, M.A.

Before you contact an attorney or advocate

It isn't easy to make the decision to hire an advocate or attorney to pursue mediation or file for due process with a school district. Most likely, before you thought about hiring an advocate or attorney, you experienced a series of frustrations in your attempts to secure the services you feel your child is entitled to under her Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Understandably, emotions run high when you reach an impasse with school or district staff over your child's learning needs. You may worry that the tense situation will spill over into your child's daily school experiences. But, precisely because your decision will have short- and long-term consequences for you, your child, and your family's relationship with the school, it's worth taking time to think it through calmly and systematically.

Considering how much time, energy, and money it may require to pursue formal mediation or due process, you may want to make a final review of your IEP process to date, before you call an attorney or advocate. This review may uncover new information about your rights and responsibilities or a new negotiating option open to you. On the other hand, it could simply make clearer your reasons for going forward with mediation or due process.

If you haven't already done so, you may find it helpful to:

Ask the director of special education in your school district what alternative processes are available to resolve the type of issue you face

  • What kinds of review processes, arbitration, or mediation are available other than formal mediation or a due process hearing?

Review the steps in your IEP process to date to make sure that:

  • The evaluation of your child on which the plan is based is clear, complete, and up-to-date
  • Goals for improvement reflect your child's current level of academic achievement and functional performance, and are stated in terms of observable and measurable behaviors
  • You know when to expect regular reports on your child's progress toward IEP goals, both academic and functional
  • You have provided the school with all pertinent information about your child, especially facts that the school doesn't have direct access to
  • The school has provided you with the required documentation of your child's progress
  • You have a good understanding of the educational program developed for your child
  • You have reviewed all of your child's relevant school records

Refresh your memory about the laws relevant to your child's situation

  • Are the services you are requesting for your child reasonable in regard to the law and the way similar cases have been decided in the past?
  • Do you have a complete, clear understanding of your rights as a parent?
  • Do you have a complete, clear understanding of your responsibilities as a parent?
  • Do you have a complete, clear understanding of the school's rights and responsibilities?
  • Would it be useful to hire a professional advocate or attorney as a preliminary step, to help you evaluate your chances for success if you pursue formal mediation or due process?

This is by no means a complete list of questions to ask yourself; the questions are just suggested starting points to review your process to date.

If you decide to engage an advocate or attorney to represent you in mediation or due process, use our worksheet "Questions to Ask Attorneys or Advocates" to help you organize your search.

While we are pleased to present information and resources, it is against our policy to recommend or endorse any one specific individual, product, organization, or website. Because parents know their child best, they are the ones who determine the appropriateness of a school or provider based on a match of their child's needs, their own preferences, and the program or services offered. These questions are intended only as guidelines in the decision-making process.

© 2008 GreatSchools Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally created by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.

Comments from readers

"I joined BTech this year, but due to some ill health and financial problems, want to discontinue my studies, but to get my certificates back, college asking to pay full 4-year fee. Is there any such law in India. Please help me out."
"School Districts have budget constraints. They limit resources to special needs children because they have to meet their budgets. Good special education law firms have both attorneys and advocates. If the School District knows that they will be held accountable, then they give the child what the law says he is entitled to receive. The Special Education Law Firm I work for in Lakewood, California has an annual fee program that includes all Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings and all other legal work with no additional charges. The School Districts give in to the squeaky wheel and let the other kids do without. Many teachers advise parents to get legal help because they see the children being short changed by the system. There are many good special education lawyers in Los Angeles and Orange Counties in California."
"Hiring advocate or attorney for your childs right in school"
"I disagree with the idea that lawyers and advocates should only be contacted when disputes cannot be resolved without litigation. You can contact a professional lawyer or advocate with knowledge of how to make IEPs successful collaborations, and your advocate or lawyer (or even a knowledgeable friend or teacher with mediation or alternative conflict resolution training) can make your IEP experience more successful in terms of reaching creative solutions in a collaborative and cooperative manner. The litigation model for conflict resolution does not work effectively enough for the vast majority of families or cases, as litigation is very costly in terms of time, emotional energy, and attorney fees. It is a much better idea to get the IEP your child needs in the first place. If you find that you are tense and fearing the annual (or more frequent) IEP meetings, find someone you trust to help you through it, and to attend the meeting with you as a member of the IEP team."