No One Has Time for a Lawsuit

By Lisa Kathman

There is nothing more dreaded than finding out that an advocate or lawyer is going to be in attendance at one of your meetings. In our area of Arizona, we have advocates with reputations for only loving the fight and seeing just how much they can get from a school district, which doesn’t always necessarily align with the student’s actual needs. Others are truly there to be a voice for parents who can get overwhelmed and underrepresented in the sea of special education policies and procedures.   

Let’s look at the definition of advocate:

advocate (noun; ad-vuh-kit): a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person

If you think about it, teachers and therapists advocate for their students every day. Those who went into the field of special education did so for a reason. We are passionate about students, and we are all advocates for what is in the best interest of a student’s learning. However, there is no bigger advocate than a parent for a child. The problem is that parents do not have our training in special education. So it shouldn’t be surprising that parents sometimes feel they need support to help navigate the world of special education.

 So then, why do we fear advocates?

 In my former role as lead SLP in my district, I got to sit in on many of these “hot” meetings.  When called upon to speak, it often felt like I was a defendant on trial. But instead of innocent until proven guilty, it felt more like guilty until proven innocent.

I literally worked in one district where a student received a purple leather rocking chair (that they never used once) as a result of one of these meetings because it was easier to give in to demands rather than fight them in court. This can be frustrating to school IEP team members, as it often feels like district administrators always side with a parent/attorney/advocate rather than the school team when push comes to shove to avoid a lawsuit. I asked a former special education administrator I worked with about this. Why? Why do districts do this when the school team knows the student and is truly recommending what they feel is in their best interest? He replied: ‘Easy – school teams, even with the best of intentions – rarely have the data to back their decisions’. He continued with this:

 “We are in a new era of school accountability, and there is an increased focus on holding public schools accountable. Nowhere is that more evident than in the special education arena, which is taking place in meetings in school buildings across the country. Parents are becoming more savvy and knowledgeable of their rights, and with this knowledge, they are asking questions of school staff in regards to the development of their student’s IEPs and the delivery of services that these plans outline for them. As educators, we need to make decisions that are based not only on our observations but, more importantly, on concrete data. Our decisions cannot be made in isolation or in the absence of data; rather, these decisions need to be made from reliable/multiple data sources. Lastly, other IEP team members (i.e., advocates and parents) must be able to come to the same decisions as the school-based team based on the data presented.” – James Driscoll

Usually, when an advocate is involved, tough questions are being asked, such as: 

    • Why did you select this goal?
    • How do the present levels align to the service time?
    • What did you base your decisions on?
    • What does your specially designed instruction look like? Why?
    • Can you show me your data?

These are things parents rarely think to ask, but they are critical pieces of information that are driving the development of the IEP and the services delivered (with or without an advocate present).  

One thing that can be helpful when sharing this type of information is the use of a decision matrix that shows the connection between the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP), goals, services, and accommodations/modifications. Below, we have included a Meaningful IEP Worksheet that we created as a decision matrix for SLPs and for special education teachers, but feel free to adapt to the specifics of your role!  

SLP Meaningful IEP Worksheet

Special Education Teacher Meaningful IEP Worksheet

When you take time to map out your thinking prior to the meeting, it is awesome because:

    1. It takes the emotion out of your recommendations
    2. It makes you less reactionary in meetings  
    3. It removes subjective statements that start with “I think” 
    4. It scaffolds your thinking as you’re explaining instructional recommendations to the team

When an advocate is involved, what it really boils down to is having the concrete data needed to back your statements. 9 out of 10 cases that go through due process are a result of poor communication and poor documentation of the meeting. If your team is using data to guide their conversations, and clearly documenting team decisions on a Prior Written Notice, you will be way ahead of the game. Also, the questions you may be asked will not be scary, and you will be confident going into any meeting, advocate or no advocate.

Lisa Kathman
Lisa has been a speech-language pathologist since 1997. As an SLP, Lisa has worked exclusively with pediatrics in home health, clinics and in schools. She was formerly the lead SLP in the largest school district in Arizona, and is passionate about mentoring other SLPs, graduate students and clinical fellows. Lisa is the co-founder of SLP Toolkit (www.slptoolkit.com) and Bright Ideas Media (www.bethebrightest.com), an ASHA approved continuing education provider. Lisa currently serves as a member of the ASHA Continuing Education Board.

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