When the IEP Becomes a Sword…

A parent struggles to convince the IEP team, “It’s not working. He needs something different. He CAN’T go back.” The parent is advocating for an out-of-district placement, a potentially costly situation for the district. Meanwhile, the district administrator is concerned about least restrictive environment, arguing that the student is making sufficient progress.  For the parent, “sufficient progress” feels like a slap in the face. On the few occasions that her son even walks through the school doors, he spends much of the time hiding under his desk.

After implementing every strategy in his toolbox, the teacher feels stuck and unsure of how to support this student. Yet, he knows he can’t admit that especially now that there are attorneys involved. The conversation has shifted from “what can we do” to “what must be done.”  The IEP, once a tool, has now become a sword. Regardless of any good intention on the part of the school or the parent, the fight now takes priority, empathy is in the back seat, and the listening at the table dwindles. Decisions have already been made.

Situations like this always have layers of concerns and many variables that for whatever reason cannot or will not be spoken at the IEP table. I just don’t understand why it has to reach this level of crisis. Isn’t there more that can be done to be proactive, to spare these already vulnerable youth from more anxiety and frustration?

Unfortunately, all too often students have to fail before they get help: the data has to show that interventions have been unsuccessful over a period of time, the student’s behaviors have to be disruptive enough to be noticed, or the test scores have to show just enough discrepancy to meet eligibility for services.  By the time all of the data lines up just right, the problem has already worsened.

I refuse to accept that this is how it has to be.

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8 thoughts on “When the IEP Becomes a Sword…

  1. We fought for an IEP and then didn’t know how it should be written so it ended up working against our daughter and our ability to get her the services she really needed to support her disabilities. Inclusion has its pros, but truth is that most of the time our children feel like they are swimming upstream and it adds so much stress and anxiety for them when they feel like they have to act like all the other kids. And what of the other children around them? As the parent of one of the kids who needed regular restraint in the classroom, I had to wonder after hearing my child kick and rant about wanting to die what the other 7 year old’s were telling their parents at night. In the end, no matter how many advocates or attorneys we hired, our child advocated for herself best by becoming completely unmanageable to the point of no discussion. Still, even then the IEP was used “as a sword” as you so eloquently describe. Even in a therapeutic school setting the bar was set at grade levels below her ability and her behavior was cow-towed to with honey, baby, sweetie and cookie rather than more therapeutic skill building. I’d love to help pen a How-To book about getting a child an IEP from the standpoint of all the things I admittingly did wrong.

    • Lori- I can’t imagine what it’s been like for you to fight so hard, only to feel let down when the fight was “won”. I think we could all probably right a chapter in that How-To book. The IEP process is rarely neat and tidy. At least there are always opportunities to go back to the drawing board. Your daughter must be very brave. She advocated the best way that she knew how. I just wish it didn’t take so long for her voice to be heard. I hope that she is feeling heard more and more and that her teachers are beginning to learn more of who she is and all that she is capable of.

  2. You are right to mention data. There needs to be data along the way – and that includes data that the parent should be collecting. You say it is not working – how do you KNOW that? There is a discussion of whether the school has tried “everything.” Can that be documented? Have those interventions been tried long enough to know?
    “Sufficient progress” – can the school define what that is? Can they prove using data that the student is making progress to the point where they are gaining on their peers and not just existing?
    There is also legal precedent that a school cannot keep falling back on RTI as an excuse for not moving more quickly (particularly if they do not have a good system in place yet – academically or behaviorally)
    Finally, this parent also might consider the school as a whole. If the school is not meeting annual progress as a whole, it is likely the parent has some sort of choice for either extra services outside of school or to take their business elsewhere.

    • Data and documentation are tools, meant to inform decision-making and to keep the IEP team focused on a common goal. Strong, accurate data should bring objectivity to a situation and guide next steps. Unfortunately, there can be many issues with how the data is collected, how it is summarized, and how it is interpreted. In cases where there is conflict. data can become the ammunition.

      In the situation I described above, I was an objective party. I was not privy to all that occurred previously, what all was documented, which interventions were attempted and for how long. I just knew in that moment that this kid needed something different, and I worried that it was too late for him.

      The parents decided to place their son in a private school at their own expense, meanwhile fighting with the district to pay for the placement. Eventually, they gave up the fight and moved on to find a new team in a new district. They were tired of trying to prove what they already knew was needed.

  3. I’m still trying to keep an open mind with my sons. I am documenting and journaling the entire process so I can break it down afterwards and try to explain the challenges.

    The benefit we have is that we aren’t “stuck” there to help our son. He decided that he wasted to try public school and has ended up finding some comfort in the schedule and regularity, but at the same time has said he feels like he is just going through the motions every day, after only the first two weeks. The loss of content and meaning in his education is the only fear we have right now. The teachers, Ed techs, and speech/ot providers are all working great and seem to be trying as best they can to understand our sons unique personality, learning style, as well as comfort zone(s).

    We have been open and collaborative with the IEP team. We also have read up (from both parent and LEA point view) on the IEP process and the many various stories, mostly negative (but that is to be expected because when they don’t work, people are hurt, and pain turns into anger, pain, frustration, and subsequently action. And most people want to let everyone else know for a help and a warning and to feel some sort of vindication).

    So we were educated on the process and the law, and went in seeking no more than transferring his ISP from a neighboring LEA and to discuss what we were doing with him outside of the school so that his “team” was aware of what he was doing that may compliment or impact possible IEP goals or services. Knowing the possible issues with IEP meetings we had been sure to communicate as much information as possible up front, confirmed they had received all of the various records and files, etc.. More accommodating and collaborative than I am sure they are used to seeing.
    And for some reason, doing everything we could, over explaining things that could be misunderstood or taken wrong..
    We still had an awful IEP, we were lied to, and the entire meeting was railroaded by the “team” to avoid writing down decisions that had previously been made.

    If anyone has suggestions please let me know. I know they must feel threatened, perhaps by educated parents and a level playing field. But the adversity is causes among his “team” and the lack of trust that makes everything need analysis to make sure we are protected.

    • I don’t know all of the details of your situation, but I hear your frustration. WIth all that you did to prepare and to promote collaboration, you were left with disappointment and a lack of trust. I would encourage you to keep the communication open within the team and to speak honestly about your experience. Ask questions in a attempt to understand the other side, approaching them with empathy when possible. Usually, when one member of the team feels rotten about how things are going, you can usually find someone on the other side who feels the same way. Look for common ground as a place to build from. It takes courage to persevere through the process. I admire all that you are doing on your son’s behalf.

  4. Developing an IEP that is accurate and that really works is a definite challenge. Communication from both sides before the meeting is crucial. Sharing data before the meeting on a regular basis is crucial. The team consists of professionals around the table as well the child’s first teachers- the parents. All bring an important perspective. In my experience, sharing information early and often is good practice and goes a long way to developing a strong IEP. Also critical are good assessment reports that have been shared with parents well before the meeting date.

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