As a parent of a child with learning disabilities, you have a special interest in knowing what is in your child’s school records. This is true because of the significant information these records offer you about your child and also because of the emphasis schools place on these records when making educational decisions. If any information in your child’s records is inaccurate, biased, incomplete, or inconsistent, this material may well result in inaccurate decisions regarding your child’s right to special education services. For these reasons you must know how to obtain, interpret, and correct these records and how to use them effectively in school meetings. This article will give you an overview of your rights to your child’s records.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
Schools are required by federal and state laws to maintain certain records and to make these records available to you upon request. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) establish the minimum requirements school systems must meet in maintaining, protecting, and providing access to students’ school records. State laws will sometimes go beyond these minimum requirements and provide parents with additional rights to review, modify, or seek other changes in these records. Be sure to obtain a copy of your own state’s and school district’s school records laws and procedures by contacting your school district’s director of special education.
Obtaining your child’s records from the local school
Getting copies of your child’s school records should be fairly easy. While federal law does not specifically require school systems to provide parents with copies of these records, in practice most school systems do so upon request.
Types of files
Begin by asking the school principal about the location of your child’s various files or records. These will include:
- Cumulative file. The principal will have your child’s cumulative file, which you will want to see and copy. Often the cumulative file contains little more than a profile card with personal identification data and perhaps academic achievement levels, some teacher reports, and report cards.
- Confidential file. Also accessible to parents, the confidential file may be kept at your child’s school, or in a central administrative office where the special education program offices are located. The file is called confidential because access to the information is limited to certain individuals. Your child’s confidential record includes all of the reports written as a result of the school’s evaluation; reports of independent evaluators, if any; medical records that you have had released; summary reports of evaluation team and eligibility committee meetings; your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP); and, often, correspondence between you and school personnel.
- Compliance file (some schools). Some school systems keep the reports of eligibility meetings, correspondence between the parents and school officials, and other similar documents in a separate compliance file. The contents of the compliance file demonstrate that the school system has met the timelines, notification, and consent regulations required by IDEA.
- Discipline file (some schools). Some schools may also maintain a separate file regarding discipline issues involving long-term suspension or expulsion.
A good bit of detective work is sometimes required to understand your school system’s individual filing system!
Getting copies of records
School districts usually require parents to sign a “release of information” form before they will provide copies of schools records. You can often obtain that form through your child’s school, or by simply writing a letter to the school principal or special education director, requesting a copy of school records. In many school districts, parents can go to the district’s special education offices and fill out a form to request their children’s records.
School districts usually provide the first copy of records for free. If they do charge a fee, the fee can be only for the cost of reproducing and mailing the records, not for personnel time or other costs. Again, check your local policies and procedures for your district’s process.
Records open to parents
Once you have gained access to your child’s records, does this mean you can see any and all records pertaining to your child? Which records is the school system legally required to show you? Under FERPA, schools must show parents all records, files, documents, and other materials that are maintained by the school system and contain information relating to their children. This includes all records referring to your child in any personally identifiable manner – that is, records containing your child’s name, Social Security number, student ID number, or other data making them traceable to her.
The following are excluded from the records schools must show you:
- Notes of teachers, counselors, and/or school administrators, made for their personal use and shown to nobody else (except a substitute teacher)
- Personnel records of school employees
Examining and correcting your child’s records
Even when you have your child’s records in your hands, you may wonder what you’ve got. The language of the educators, psychologists, educational diagnosticians, and other school professionals is often difficult to understand. If this is the case for you, all you need to do is ask someone to help you. The law requires school personnel to explain the records to you when you do not understand them. Or you may take a friend or a knowledgeable professional with you to help review the records and explain confusing parts. When you do this, however, you will be asked to sign a form giving that person permission to see your child’s records.
As you review the records, you may find places where information given about your child or family conflicts with your own assessments. If left unchallenged, this material could lead to decisions about your child’s educational program that are not in his or her best interest. To prevent this from happening, you can follow two paths.
- First, you can informally ask the principal or the director of special education to delete the material, giving your reasons for the request. Often school officials will honor the request and no problem arises.
- You may also write down your objections to a particular record and have that attached to the record.
If you strongly believe the report does not belong in your child’s record, and the schools refuse to remove the requested material, you have a right to a formal records hearing. Your state and local school district policies will tell you how to follow the more formal process for amending your child’s records.
Controlling who sees your child’s records
FERPA and IDEA prohibit schools from disclosing your child’s records to anyone without your written consent. The only exceptions are:
- School officials, including teachers, in your child’s district with a legitimate educational interest as defined in the school procedures
- School officials in the school district to which your child intends to transfer (Before the records are sent, however, you will want to review them and challenge their content, if necessary.)
- Certain state and national education agencies, if necessary, for enforcing federal laws
- Anyone to whom a state statute requires the school to report information
- Accrediting and research organizations helping the school, provided they guarantee confidentiality
- Student financial aid officials
- People who have court orders, provided the school makes reasonable efforts to notify the parent or student before releasing the records
- Appropriate people in health and safety emergencies such as doctors, nurses, and fire marshals
- Law enforcement and judicial authorities in certain cases
With the exception of the people listed above, schools must have your permission to release material from your child’s records to anyone other than yourself. When requesting release of the records, the school must tell you which records are involved, why they have been requested, and who will receive them. Likewise, if you want someone outside the school system to see your child’s records, you will be asked to sign a release granting such permission. All of these rules have been instituted to protect your privacy and that of your child.
When your child reaches 18 or goes to post-secondary school
When your child reaches the age of 18 or enters a post-secondary educational institution such as a vocational-technical school, a college, a university, or trade school, most rights to records previously available to you are transferred to your child. The only parts of the record your child will not have the right to see are your financial records and any statements or confidential recommendations your child has waived the right to see. This means if you wish to review the school records of a son or daughter who is 18 or who is attending post-secondary school, she must first sign a waiver permitting you to do so.
IDEA gives parents of children with disabilities, including learning disabilities, special consideration when transferring record rights. The law grants states the authority to develop individual policies which take into account the type and severity of the child’s disability and the child’s age when transferring record rights from parents to their children. Thus, if your child with disabilities has reached age 18 or is about to reach 18 and is in secondary school, you should find out, by asking the director of special education in your school district, if your state has a policy that allows you continued access to your child’s records. If not, you and school personnel may want to develop a waiver form which your child can sign allowing you continued rights to review, to control access to, and to seek changes in those records.
When you move
If you should move, your child’s school records will, of course, move with you. To be certain your child’s new school receives only relevant and current records, you will want to examine the entire contents of the folder and identify specifically the material you want forwarded. Most school systems will honor your request and send only the information you want released. However, you should note that many states require schools to transfer records about any disciplinary violation; you do not have the option of excluding that information.
Should the school wish to send material you want withheld, you can initiate a records hearing procedure to prohibit them from doing so. In any case, before you move, always review your child’s school folder. You will want to eliminate the irrelevant, inaccurate, and dated material or attach your critique to those records you believe should have been removed but were not.
Because of the importance of your child’s records in determining special education services, you should review and correct them annually, whether or not you move. You should also be certain you have a duplicate copy of all the material in the official files. Then, if the records are lost, you will have copies to replace them.
A final note: thick records
Classroom teachers have been heard to comment, “When I see a thick set of records for a child new to my class, I know trouble is coming.” This is another reason for your diligence in reviewing your child’s records periodically. Many reports, especially those written several years previously, give little if any information that will be useful in current decisions about your child. A careful weeding out of irrelevant documents can help to avoid the thick record syndrome.
More good information to have: how to analyze and update/revise your child’s records.