When the Partnership Breaks Down

The only way a child with special needs is going to be fully successful is with the cooperation of parents, school personnel, service providers, and, of course the student. Hopefully, things run smoothly and everyone is satisfied with the child's placement and progress. However, parents of a child with a disability know that bumps are likely to pop up along the road to academic success.

It's comforting to know that our education law has built-in protections to see that the necessary services are available to children. State regulations must, at the very least, meet the minimum federal regulations. They can be more, but not less, than the federal regs.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, was reauthorized in 1997 and the new regulations have been published. (Note that Appendix C has become Appendix A.) Parents easily overlook this appendix which provides very practical answers to frequently asked questions regarding the law.

If your child isn't successful in school, he/she has the right to be evaluated and, if needed, have special services provided. You're entitled to ask for an evaluation to determine why your child isn't successful. Watch out for school officials using the phrase, "She or he will grow out of it." Children do not outgrow disabilities.

If you learn the basics of the law, and you use careful documentation procedures, you can truly be empowered as an important member of your child's education team. You should also know that your active participation in all educational decisions is expected under the new law.

You also need to be aware that schools may not use "the budget" or "conserving resources" as a reason to withhold services. This information is important under the new law, as school districts can now co-mingle special ed funds and regular ed funds, whereas before the two had to be accounted for separately.

This is good news and bad news. The good news is that districts which are making a positive effort to bring children with disabilities into the regular classroom with the needed supports and services for each child will have more flexibility when it comes to paying for those items. The bad news is, it can offer a district without that intent a way to perhaps shirk its responsibility to children with disabilities by just placing them in a regular ed class without providing the training, support, and expertise the teacher may need to be successful. So the good districts may get even better and the poor districts may have even less accountability.

It's up to you, as a parent, to get everything promised in writing and follow up on a regular basis to see if those promises are fulfilled. If your child is receiving special education services, this is accomplished through a well-written IEP (Individualized Education Program).

Hopefully any conflicts you have can be resolved on a local level, ideally within the school itself. If the first step doesn't work proceed on to the next level, always documenting what you are told. Remember, time is never, and I repeat never, on the side of the child. You have only 12 years to get that public education. Those years go by very quickly.

If you believe words are falling on deaf ears, there are several logical steps that will almost always lead to successful resolution of a problem:

  • You have gone to the teacher who cannot offer a resolution.

    If your child is receiving services under IDEA, or accommodations under 504, I recommend calling for a meeting of team personnel directly involved with your child's education. It's been my experience, that at this point, any issue can be resolved if the team is focused on the needs of the child and the appropriate supports needed by the teaching staff are in place.

  • If there's obvious disagreement at a team meeting, then write a Letter of Understanding and make an appointment to personally visit with the Director of Special Education. Take along any input from the teacher and pertinent testing or medical records.

    If your child hasn't received any special services, you may request the school- based assessment team meet to review the progress or problems. Ask for a timeline, or it can take a year for this team to try a number of interventions before referring to Special Ed for evaluation.

  • If they say "there's no problem," and you know your child is not progressing as their peers are, take any input from the teacher and any pertinent records, i.e. medical or psychological records, directly to the Director of Special Education.

    If such a meeting isn't possible, or would be too long in coming, send a copy of any documentation you have collected along with a letter of concern to your State Department of Education. School administration can give you that address and phone number. You can also find it on the net. Include any "Letters of Understanding" you have written to local personnel. Hopefully, the State can intervene and may offer mediation.

  • Mediation is strongly encouraged, but it's important to know you don't have to accept mediation. You have to use your judgment on how long you've been trying to resolve the differences, how much more time your child can afford to be without services, and whether you believe the district will act in good faith following through on recommendations that come out of mediation. Mediation is supposed to take place promptly, and I would ask for a timeline on it. It certainly can be a way to clear up many misunderstandings, as long as the district is willing to carry through on recommendations and you are willing to carry through in your supportive responsibilities.

    My experience, so far, has been that if both parties were really acting in good faith, you wouldn't have to have gone to the State in the first place. Hopefully with the new IDEA guidelines the decisions of mediation will be more binding.

  • If you do not feel mediation might resolve the issues you have the right to file a formal complaint with your State Department of Education. They can give you the guidelines for filing. Usually it's a fairly short letter stating explicitly that you are filing a formal complaint against your school district on behalf of your child. State in a numbered list exactly what your concerns are. This keeps you focused. You do not want to generalize in this letter. It also enables the state to address all concerns precisely as you list them. Include copies of all correspondence, evals, IEP's, 504's, pertinent medical evaluations, etc.

    The clock starts ticking as soon as the State receives your complaint. By law, they have 60 days to resolve your complaint, although in my experience they do it much more quickly than that. They will recommend mediation and should advise you, however, that you do not have to accept mediation. They should advise that you may postpone the complaint, drop the complaint, or ask for an investigation which means the 60 deadline for resolution goes into effect.

  • It is important to include all your issues in the initial complaint, as any new issues added later can start the 60 day clock ticking all over again from the beginning.

Hopefully, by following healthy, effective communication procedures and keeping good documentation you will never have to file such a complaint. However, the complaint process is still viewed as a friendly way to resolve issues drawing on the technical assistance and expertise that State level personnel possess. It doesn't involve lawyers or any legal expenses. The only cost is paper and return-receipt-requested postage.

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2007, June 8). When the Partnership Breaks Down, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Last Updated: February 13, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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