Parent Input and Participation is Not Optional under the IDEA
Updated: Mar 7
Congress's intent under the IDEA is clear regarding parent input and participation in the IEP process
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a landmark, civil rights law that recognized and affirmed the rights of students with disabilities to be afforded meaningful education benefits alongside their nondisabled peers. The IDEA also provided enforcement mechanisms, often referred to as procedural safeguards, for parents to seek enforcement of their rights concerning their child's education. Upon enacting the IDEA, Congress found that "strengthening the role and responsibility of parents and ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home" makes the education of students with disabilities more effective.
Unfortunately, the promise does not always live up to the practice and, too often, parents find themselves in an adversarial relationship with their child's school. This is clearly incompatible with what was meant to be a collaborative process between the parents (and students), school staff, and related specialists. Some parents even have difficulty making sure they are properly noticed and invited to their own child's annual IEP meeting. In fact, the Florida regulations require that the IEP team consist of the parents of the student. Note that parents in this context is plural, so the schools cannot exclude one parent or show preference to one parent over the other, unless a court order requires otherwise.
Florida's education regulations go even further by stating that the role of parents in developing IEP's includes:
Providing critical information regarding the strengths of their student
Expressing their concerns for enhancing the education of their student so that their student can receive FAPE
Participating in discussions about the student’s need for special education and related services
Participating in the determination of how the student will be involved and progress in the general curriculum, including participation in the statewide assessment program and in district-wide assessments
Participating in the determination of what services the school district will provide to the student and in what setting, and
Participating in the determination of which course of study leading towards a standard diploma the student will pursue, to include a course of study leading to a Scholar or Merit designation.
The procedural protections enable parents to have an equal voice in their child's individual education plan (IEP)
Although every parent receives a copy of the notice of procedural safeguards (Florida's version is 20 pages) at the start of an IEP meeting, many parents are still left under-informed about their rights under federal law and the state regulations. Congress was prescient in providing a number of built-in mechanisms to safeguard parent's rights under the IDEA. Florida's version of these procedural safeguards are dense, but critical to holding schools accountable during the IEP process. The procedural safeguards cover a broad portion of the IEP process from the initial evaluation and eligibility, discipline of students with disabilities, access to student records, independent education evaluations, and placement of students with disabilities in private schools.
However, one of the most important safeguards is the requirement of prior written notice (PWN) for any proposal or refusal to "initiate or to change the identification, evaluation, eligibility determination, or educational placement of your child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to your child." This means that the school cannot unilaterally make changes to the IEP, including the services or placement of the student without properly notifying parents. The PWN prerequisites go even further.
Under the Florida regulations, the prior written notice must:
Describe the action that your school district proposes or refuses to take
Explain why your school district is proposing or refusing to take action
Describe each evaluation procedure, assessment, record, or report your school district used in deciding to propose or refuse the action
Include a statement that you have protections under the procedural safeguards provisions in Part B of the IDEA
Tell you how you can obtain a copy of a description of the procedural safeguards if the action that your school district is proposing or refusing is not an initial referral for evaluation
Include resources for you to contact for help in understanding Part B of the IDEA
Describe any other choices that your child's individual educational plan (IEP) team considered and the reasons why those choices were rejected, and
Provide a description of other reasons why your school district proposed or refused the action.
Perhaps, most essentially, the federal and state laws provide an enforcement mechanism for parents for violations that includes dispute resolution, facilitated IEP meeting, mediation, state complaints, and due process hearing requests.
The takeaway is that parents are coequal members of the IEP team and should not be denied an equal voice at the table
Nevertheless, even when parents are properly informed about their rights, it can be an intimidating experience to sit at the IEP table. Typically, all of the other members of the IEP team are school staff and related specialists. Parents may not fully understand the highly technical explanations of their child's evaluations or know what questions to ask of the school's experts. Conversely, a parent's input and participation at the table may be minimized or confined to a statement in the "parent input" section of her or his child's IEP. Historically in civil rights contexts, following the letter of the law is not always the same as honoring the spirit of the law.
For these reasons, the schools should recognize an affirmative duty not just to merely meet the most minimal requirements of the law, but to actively ensure parents are treated with due respect and dignity during the IEP process. Ultimately, the decisions made by the IEP team should be the result of meaningful discussions and consensus and not merely the dictate of the IEP chairperson or administrator. Parents of a child with a disability encounter hardships on a daily basis. Erecting barriers to parental input and participation in their own child's education should not be another hurdle they have to overcome.