If you have kids with special educational needs, chances are you feel overwhelmed by the massive amounts of paperwork and documentation. From the beginning of school to the time your child either graduates or "ages out" of entitlement to special education services, the accumulation of IEPs, evaluations, progress reports, correspondence (including emails), notes, journals, samples of your child's work and medical records can fill an entire file cabinet.
While you might be tempted to throw out those papers, that would be a mistake. Even the oldest documents can sometimes help you make a case for increased or alternative services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Because it is vital to understand the importance of different documents and how to organize them sensibly, these guidelines will help you manage all of your child’s documents and paperwork. Always remember: When in doubt, don’t throw it out!
Do familiarize yourself with your child's school records
You should have copies of all of the documents the school has--and also make sure that the school has copies of key documents in your possession that you feel explain your child’s profile and the services s/he needs. (A district normally will not be held accountable to act on information it doesn’t have, as in a report that you withhold from the district.)
Visit the school or special education office every once in a while to review your child's student records. Find out about the rules and regulations in your state for accessing those records. In general, all states must provide access under a federal law called the Buckley Amendment, and most states also have their own provisions that mirror or expand the rights under Buckley. Typically, you have the right, with reasonable notice, to see your child’s records (defined as any document that pertains to the student and/or is identifiable to the student, but not including personal notes of teachers that are not shared with others), wherever and by whomever they are kept. You also have the right to have copies provided to you, usually with some small charge for copying. You also may have the right to ask that a certain document be removed and, if your request is denied, may have a right to appeal that decision.
Do document events as they occur
Events can be documented in a journal that you keep, in a letter or email that follows a meeting/conversation asking the recipient to correct you if your record is inaccurate, or in any number of other ways. Because your notes, emails and letters may be used someday as evidence of what happened or what was said on a given day, you should be objective in the words you use. Avoid characterizing other peoples’ motives or behavior; instead, just describe what they did or said.
Documenting events can be important for several reasons. One reason is that you may have to tell your child's story to another person, such as an evaluator, an advocate/ lawyer or a hearing officer, in order to get help. Documenting events when they occur (or as quickly thereafter as you can manage) will help you tell the story accurately. A second reason is that documents can help clarify understandings you reach with people—particularly with service providers or school administrators. A third reason is that documents that are written when something happens support you when you need to prove that the event happened the exact way you say it happened.
Do record agreements
Some documents are designed to record understandings reached with others. The most formal example of this is a contract signed by the parties who agree to its terms. (An IEP is a contract. It records an agreement reached between parents and school systems that govern the types of services to be delivered to a child for a specific period of time; the location of those services; the daily/weekly amounts of such services; and the identity of service providers. And it is signed by each party. Even though one might expect that courts and hearing officers would always enforce the specific obligations of a district as they appear in an IEP, that does not always happen. Sometimes adjudicators will conclude that even if a promised service was not delivered, no remedy will be ordered as long as the student made effective progress despite that breach, i.e., “no harm; no foul.”)
Even without an "official" agreement, you can create your own document to help prove that an understanding was reached. Here's an example: Your special education director tells you that the school system will hire an expert on inclusion techniques. You'll be given the chance to meet with the expert about your child. Follow up this conversation with a friendly letter to the director. In the letter, thank her for taking the time to discuss your concerns about the classroom and describe your understanding of the steps she promised to take. End your letter by asking the director to respond immediately if you have misunderstood anything. While this letter may not "prove" that the director said what you claim she said, if she doesn't send back a response, there's an implication that she did say those things.
Do chart all test results
Keeping track of all test results can help your child. Has your child been tested repeatedly over the years, with steadily declining results? You may want to create a chart of test results to show this. However, realize that as you do this, different types of standardized tests may appear to aim at the same types of information but actually measure quite different skills (e.g., reading fluency in one test as opposed to reading comprehension in another) and tests that do aim to measure the same thing may differ significantly in the ways they are administered (e.g., timed or untimed).
Do organize documents based on your lawyer’s needs
When parents ask an attorney or lay advocate for advice on their child's rights under IDEA, the first thing the adviser must do is review all the relevant documents. Special education lawyers will usually ask you to send copies of all your child's documents in chronological order before you meet. This gives the lawyer a chance to read them and get a full picture of your child and what has been done for her in the special education system.
Unless the lawyer or advocate asks, don't try to organize your documents by category (IEP's in one file, evaluations in another, correspondence in another). The most efficient way for the lawyer to understand your child's history is to see the development step by step. If some documents don’t have dates on them, do your best to determine when they came into existence and use a post-it to show the date. Also, in the chronological assembly of documents, place any IEP in the stack at the date of the team meeting that generated that IEP.
Because your documents may have to be introduced as exhibits at a hearing or in court, don't write comments on them. You can make notes with post-its. Also, you should give the lawyer a school year-by-school year chronology of the events that have led you to consult with him or her. This doesn't have to be extremely detailed, though you cannot make a mistake by giving information. Shoot for an outline that gives some perspective on what led to your child's current situation.
Finally, you should give your lawyer or advocate a list of all the key people who have been involved with you or your child. Include their full names, addresses, and phone numbers if possible.
Do not throw away important documents
The following list describes some of the key documents that you will see over the course of your child's special needs education. Be sure to keep all of them. (Some very organized parents keep one single chronological set of clean and readable documents on a shelf somewhere and make copies from that set to use in whatever way they need to use them in their advocacy. This way, they know they can always replace a document that gets lost.)
- Individualized Educational Programs (IEP's) and other official service plans. In addition to IEP's, you may have Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs). These are service plans that govern early intervention programs for children before they are old enough to receive special education services, or plans that are written by agencies other than the local school system (such as a department of mental health).
- Evaluations by the school system and by independent evaluators. Depending on your child, these can include educational, psychological and/or neuropsychological, speech and language, occupational therapy, physical therapy evaluations and others.
- Medical records. You probably don't need to keep all medical records with your child's IDEA documents. Keep only those that relate to the disability or disabilities that affect your child’s ability to learn or to access school programs and facilities.
- Progress reports and report cards.
- Standardized test results. School systems often administer standardized tests to all students. These tests can provide a helpful comparison to the progress reports written by your child's teachers.
- Notes on your child's behavior or progress. These include notes from you to the teacher, from the teacher to you, or journal entries between you and your child's service providers. Sometimes notes from a concerned teacher tell a different story than the formal report the teacher develops at the request of her supervisor when the team convenes.
- Correspondence. Save any correspondence between you and teachers, special education administrators and evaluators. Don't forget emails. Print those out and include them in your correspondence file. Also save correspondence from the school system that's addressed to you or to all special education parents describing issues that affect your child. This may include letters describing new programs, changes in programs or services, school system policies for children with special education needs or budget issues.
- Notes from conversations and meetings with school personnel, evaluators, the child's team, or other interactions relating to your child's program or needs. Be certain to take excellent notes at key meetings or bring someone with you whose only task is to take notes. These notes can help enormously when months later, you try to remember exactly what various people said or what agreements were reached.
- Documents relating to discipline and/or behavioral concerns. These include notices of detention and suspension (both in and out of school), letters describing the concerns of service providers or school administrators about behavior, records of behavioral assessments, and records of behavioral plans for addressing behavioral issues.
- Formal notices of meetings scheduled to discuss your child. When you get a notice like this, note the date you received it. Sometimes the question of whether a school system has met time requirements is important under IDEA. It is also sometimes a good idea to keep copies of the envelopes in which such notices arrive. Check the date of the notice or letter and the date of the postmark. It could be significant if the postmark is later than the date on the notice.
- Samples of schoolwork. You don't need to keep every scrap of writing or drawing that your child produces, but it can be helpful to keep examples each year. You can compare these to show how much progress has been made in different academic areas. Be sure to put dates on those samples.
- Invoices and cancelled checks. Save the ones from services that you provide for your child's educational development. For example, if you hire a speech and language pathologist for an hour of therapy each week to supplement the school system's services, keep a record of any payment. Eventually, you may be able to seek reimbursement for this expense if you can prove that it was necessary because the school's services weren't allowing your child to progress effectively.
- Public documents. These help explain how your school system works with children like yours. They include newspaper articles featuring special education administrators, school committee members or superintendents talking about reorganizing special education programs, cutting expenses or new teaching approaches.
Do not keep drafts of documents
Except in rare cases, you don't need to--and should not--keep the drafts of documents. These drafts may lead to confusion if you ever need to seek services for your child through the due process system. This is one area where you can, and most often, should lighten your document load. An exception may be when you need to tell the story of a school district’s step-by-step responses to your requests for services. Drafts of independent evaluations should almost never be preserved as they merely provide school attorneys with material for cross-examination at a hearing, distracting hearing officers from the central issues.
Do not typically use mail for the delivery of notices and letters
Should you use certified mail with return receipt requested when you send letters or notices to the school system? Sometimes this is necessary, but more often, this just adds unnecessary delay to the delivery of the letter or notice. It is much better to hand-deliver the document and ask for a receipt. Remember also that in most courts and administrative forums, a letter mailed in ordinary first-class mail is presumed to have been delivered within three days of its mailing.
Do not forget to keep a journal
It can take years for parents to realize that they should have kept better notes of meetings, telephone calls and important events in their child's educational career. If your young child has a disability in need of special education, get ahead of the game by developing this habit now. Your notes may be important later when you need an accurate description of what key people said at a meeting or in an evaluator's office.
Some parents keep a journal with dates, short descriptions of events or conversations and the names of people who were involved. This doesn't mean you need to include every tiny detail of your child's life, but a well-kept journal can help you explain to others (or to yourself) how you arrived at your current situation.
Try to record the following events: dates of meetings with school personnel, dates you received key documents, dates you sent or delivered key documents, dates you gave school personnel important information, dates that your child spent three hours trying to do a 15-minute math assignment and dates on which your child was suspended or disciplined. As noted above, keep your entries objective in tone and content, and be sure to avoid characterizing or attributing evil motives to school personnel.
Do not overlook the importance of taking excellent meeting notes
Should you tape team meetings? Do you have the right to tape them? The answer to both questions is probably not. Under the laws pertaining to discrimination on the basis of handicap, you may have the right to tape a meeting if it is necessary to accommodate a disability (for example, if one or both parents have a language processing disorder). You may also have the right to tape a meeting if it is conducted in a language other than the parents' first language. Generally, the right to tape a meeting has not been determined to exist under IDEA.
Ordinarily, if you ask in advance to tape a meeting, the school system should let you do so as a courtesy, and will usually tape the meeting themselves in that case. You need to consider, however, that having a tape recorder may inhibit the participants and create a feeling of nervousness or even hostility at the meeting. Consequently, it is better if someone takes excellent notes.
It is critical to organize and save your child's special education records. Documents and records track events as they happen and help you tell your child's story accurately. Additionally, documents can clarify the understandings you reach with special education service providers and school administrators, as well as provide support if you need to prove that an event actually happened. While it can take time, energy and space, saving meaningful documentation can significantly help your child.
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