Education Law Advocates, P.C.

Do You Need a Legal Check-up?

Education Law Advocates, P.C.
Education Attorneys

Do you need to consult with an education lawyer?  Would it be time - and money - well spent?  This article describes factors you might want to consider.

As a preliminary matter, however, consider the following.  First, an education lawyer cannot solve every problem that may arise at school.  There isn't a legal remedy for everything that goes wrong in life.  The law has its limits!  For example, you may strongly disagree with a teacher's decision to give your child a grade of "C" on an assignment instead of an "A."  Can a lawyer help you?  In most cases, probably not.  The law generally grants reasonable discretion to teachers to make decisions that fall within their area of expertise, such as grading an assignment or test.  (We are not speaking here of a situation where, for example, a teacher fails over time to provide your special needs child with the "appropriate" education to which she is entitled by federal and state law).  If you object to a grade, we encourage you to speak to the teacher about it and try to resolve it.  But if the sole dispute concerns a particular grade, we probably cannot help you.

Second, as a general rule, we encourage parents to resolve issues that arise at school informally, when possible, by dealing with the school folks directly.  For one thing, it's cheaper!  So keep the lines of communication open.  Don't let problems fester.  Be proactive.  That means preparing for IEP meetings, documenting important conversations with teachers and others, reading and understanding the school's evaluation of your child, asking questions, using independent experts, when necessary, following through on school meetings, and other such activities that we have written about extensively.  We believe that, in many cases, parents can empower themselves to get needed results at school without attorney assistance.

Third, get connected!  There are many resources available to you, apart from legal counsel.  Talking to other parents can be a very good source of help and information.  Check out websites and organizations that deal with your child's disability.  Join an email "listserve" as a way to ask questions and get ideas from parents, experts, providers and others.  Libraries and bookstores are full of books that will help you learn about the law, develop an IEP that works, understand standardized tests and psychological evaluations, learn more about your child's disability and proven techniques for helping her, and become a better advocate for your child at school.  You also can contact a non-attorney advocate who can help you get organized and prepare for an IEP meeting, and will attend school meetings with you.  Some advocates charge no fee!  Others charge a reasonable rate.  We want you to get what you need at the lowest cost possible.

Fourth, please understand as you read through the questions below, that we can provide general information only, which may not fit your particular facts.  For example, we generally encourage parents to try to reach solutions informally with their school first.  We think that makes sense in most cases.  But there are exceptions to this approach.  As just one example, a school district may be legally liable for providing "compensatory education" to your child because it failed to provide needed services in the past.  If you delay in taking action, you could lose important legal rights because a "statute of limitations" could reduce or eliminate your right of recovery.  Another example: Parents have only ten days in which to take action after receiving a new IEP and "NOREP."  These documents should not simply be ignored or, again, you may lose important legal rights.  These are among the many reasons that we are happy to talk to any parent initially for 15 minutes at no charge.  This allows us to get an initial idea of whether immediate action may be required and to advise you accordingly.  Feel free to contact us!

Keeping the above considerations in mind, here are our "Top 11" questions we think you should consider in determining whether you could benefit from consulting with an education lawyer:

1. Are you "clueless?" We know what it is like to be "clueless" about how the educational system works and your rights as the parent of a special needs child.  Some years ago, before we became education lawyers, we stood in your shoes with our own child.  It can all seem so confusing:  evaluations, "IST" meetings, IEPs, "504 Plans, disabilities, federal law, state regulations, "related services."  The list goes on and on.  We can help you sort it out, get focused, develop a plan, execute the plan, and follow-up.  Is it easy?  No.  But it's essential, in our opinion.

2.   Are you looking for more effective ways to get needed services at school? There are many actions you can take to become an effective advocate for your child that are completely under your control.  Getting organized, preparing for school meetings, documenting important conversations, developing a proactive, consistent approach, to name just a few.  Getting connected is also important.  Other parents and parents' groups can be a great source of information.  Electronic "listserves"  (on-line discussion boards) can help.  Websites dealing with education issues or your child's disability can help, too.  You also can put together your own "team" including, for example, a psychologist, therapist or non-attorney advocate, who can accompany you at an IEP meeting.  There's strength in numbers!  There are so many ways for you to connect with others, learn, and develop the skills you need to deal more effectively with the school.  We can give you a legal perspective and help you take the necessary steps to get the services your child needs.

3.   Are your attempts to work with the school getting nowhere? We are a great believer in maintaining a good relationship with the school, whenever possible, and resolving issues directly and informally.  But if your best efforts to obtain what your child needs at school are getting nowhere, it may be time for you to consult with an education attorney.

4.   Do you disagree with the school's decision concerning evaluating your child or providing special education services or accommodations to your child? Sometimes, a school will refuse to do an evaluation of a child for special education or other services that the parent requests.  Sometimes, the school will insist on doing an evaluation that the parent opposes.  Or sometimes the parent and the school will disagree over whether the child needs to receive special education or "accommodations."  When this occurs, and you cannot resolve the dispute, it may be time to consult with us.

5.   Has the school presented you with an IEP or "504 Plan" that you object to? Parents have only ten days to object to an IEP after the date shown on the "NOREP" (Notice of Recommended Educational Placement), or risk losing important legal rights.  If you object to your child's IEP, we recommend that you check with us.  And to try to avoid "surprises" during annual IEPs, we recommend that parents communicate with the school consistently and work proactively to identify problems and resolve issues before they become a "legal" problem.  An once of prevention!

6.   Has the school failed to provide the services specified in the IEP or 504 Plan? Sometimes, parents are satisfied with the services prescribed in an IEP, but find out later on that the school didn't provide those services.  Of course, we recommend that you keep informed about what is going on at school with your child, so that you can nip any such problem in the bud.  But if it happens, and you only find out about it later, your child may be entitled to "compensatory education" services to make up for what she missed.  In general, we think it is a good idea to consult with us in such cases.

7.   Is your child developing a pattern of disciplinary problems?  Is your child  moving towards expulsion? Disciplinary problems are usually symptoms of bigger, underlying challenges that your child may be having.  If you have a learning disability at school and can't understand what is going on in class, isn't it more likely that you will "act out."  So if disciplinary problems begin, you as the parent need to redouble your efforts to get the help your child needs at school.  Get involved.  If a pattern begins to develop, and you can't get the help you need, you probably should consult with us.  And be careful.  Sometimes. parents will wait until they receive an expulsion notice before they contact us.  Early intervention is the key!

8.   Is your child developing mental health issues? Different laws may come into play depending on the kind of challenge your special needs child is experiencing.  Some children may require an emotional support setting.  Some may end up in a "partial hospitalization."  Some may require planning through an "interagency task force."  Sadly, some children may verbalize hurting themselves or take actions in that regard.  In such cases, parents may find it helpful to consult with us to evaluate all options, including mental health treatment or placement options.

9.   Do you believe that a private school placement at public expense may be necessary? Sometimes a public school simply cannot provide the services a child needs.  Or sometimes they won't.  Your special needs child is entitled to a free, appropriate education.  If the public school cannot provide it, the school district may be required to pay for a private placemWe

10. Are you dissatisfied with the evaluation of, or services provided to, your "gifted" child?  "Gifted" children and their parents have certain legal rights under state law that do not apply to "regular" ed students.  A gifted child typically is one whose I.Q. is at least 130 and who has other demonstrated intellectual strengths.  The law recognizes that such children have special needs for an appropriate intellectual challenge at school in order to help them develop their skills and abilities.  If you are unable to resolve differences with the school concerning the evaluation or services provided to your gifted child, you may want to consult with us to assess whether additional actions can be taken to obtain needed instruction or services.

11. Are you concerned about the "unknown unknowns?"  Here's what we mean.  If you are about to walk across a swamp and you know it contains quicksand, you can look for it and walk around it.  But what if you don't know it contains quicksand?  Or what if you don't even know it's a swamp?  Unfortunately, the "law" can be a little like that swamp with traps you didn't even know existed.  So, for instance, sometimes parents will withdraw their child from public school intending to sue the school district later on to recover the tuition.  Only later they find out that, under the federal statute, they were required to give the district ten days advance notice before withdrawing their child from the public school and that their failure to do so may alone disqualify them from receiving any tuition reimbursement from the school district.  In all candor, we want parents to be able to resolve school issues without us.  (There will always be plenty of parents who need our services, no matter what).  But we also don't want parents to unknowingly waive important legal rights.  So if you are about to take an important step at school involving your special needs child, or if you are concerned about problems you are not able to resolve with the school, we encourage you to take advantage of the free 15-minute phone consultation with us so we can at least get a preliminary idea of whether there are any "red flags" that may require prompt attention.

Are there other factors you could consider in determining whether to check with an education lawyer?  Sure.  We can't cover everything in this short article.  If you have any questions, give us a call or send us an email.

Education law is virtually all we do.

ELA Education Law Advocates PC - Special Education Lawyers

The Culbertson Building
590 Snyder Avenue
West Chester, Pennsylvania 19382
Voice: 610.696.5006
Fax: 610.696.6590

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Education Law Advocates, P.C. skillfully represents parents and their special needs children in southeastern and central Pennsylvania, including West Chester, Lower Merion, Coatesville, Paoli, Downingtown and Upper Darby, and throughout the Philadelphia metro area, including Chester County, Montgomery County, Delaware County, Bucks County, Philadelphia, Lancaster County and Berks County.

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