School employees generally try to do their best for students with disabilities. Most of them came to the field to do some good, but face many barriers in trying to do so. They also make honest mistakes.
The barriers facing school employees begin far beyond the walls of schools. Special education has had funding issues at the federal and state levels for decades. Districts with the greatest overall budget problems often have the largest special education populations. Special education law is complicated and unforgiving, and schools struggle to keep up with it. Timelines test them and force staff to hurry. Special education teachers have more responsibilities than their training usually covers. The act of trying to educate students who struggle to learn is inherently difficult. The job burns people out and they leave, creating an environment in which schools lack experienced staff. These aren’t excuses. These are realities.
Amid these realities, schools make mistakes. Teachers, therapists, and administrators usually don’t deliberately deny services to students with special needs, though this certainly does happen on occasion. More often, school members of IEP teams simply come up short of their intentions. They lack the resources to adequately provide for students, or the individuals charged with providing services are pulled in too many directions to effectively implement IEPs. When team members are awash with competing responsibilities, the potential for mistakes and negligence rises.
Just because a school faces barriers and school employees are strained doesn’t mean they should get a pass on failing to implement IEPs. They have an obligation to collaborate with parents to create appropriate IEPs and to implement these with fidelity. While parents should understand that school employees struggle to provide what the IEP demands, they need not accept negligence.
What follows is a set of common mistakes made by school members of IEP teams. Parents can use this as a rough guide for filtering for possible errors and misgivings on the part of the school team. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it should serve as a place to begin critically examining how the school team is performing.
- IEP goals that aren’t measurable
This mistake might have more to do with a special education teacher’s writing skills or understanding of protocol than with any resource strain the school is experiencing. A teacher might recommend sensible goals, but these might be worded in a way that renders them immeasurable. If the goals aren’t measurable, the team can’t effectively gauge progress. Strong goals should name the student, cite a condition for the goal (under what circumstances it should happen), describe the skill to be performed or the content to be mastered, and give criteria for performance. For example:
Strong goal: Given a list of 25 words from the 2nd grade Dolch sight word list, Jeff will pronounce at least 20 words from the list without error in 5 consecutive trials by (date).
Weak goal: Jeff will improve his sight word vocabulary.
- Vague or generic specially designed instruction
Similar to issues with immeasurable goals, this mistake affects the usability of the IEP. Specially designed instruction should be tailored to the specific student. The IEP should specify where it will take place and how often it will be needed. For example:
Strong specially designed instruction: One additional class period of extended time in a resource room for mathematics tests that include constructed responses.
Weak specially designed instruction: Extended testing time.
- Insufficient transition component for students at either 14 or 16
Schools sometimes struggle to plan adequately for student transition. In some cases, the transition section of an IEP can be left sparse for a student who should be considered for services. At age 14, a discussion of transition must be part of the creation of the IEP. This can happen earlier, but it must be in place for students turning 14 during an IEP term. For students turning 16 during an IEP term, specific transition services must be described. In particular, for students 16 and older, the IEP should include stated transition outcomes, present performance levels in relation to these outcomes (these should include reading and math levels, but also performance on transition assessments and interest inventories; performance in relevant and specific areas such as knowledge of personal information might be needed), goals and objectives in support of outcomes, and detailed services that will support goal progress.
4. Outdated or inaccurate present levels
Present levels of performance should be within 6 months of the IEP meeting date. Exceptions can include students who have been absent for long stretches. Otherwise, IEPs should showcase recent performance data, even if the IEP is written in between evaluation years or if the student isn’t likely to show much growth between testing periods. All assessments used should be appropriate for the student. Recent anecdotal information should accompany the new levels, replacing or supplementing previous information.
Parents must take time to review present levels to be certain these are individualized. Teachers pressed for time might copy and paste text from IEPs of other students. Parents should check to see if names and pronouns are consistent throughout documents.
5. Incorrect dates or outdated documents
Related to the item above, parents should check IEPs for correct dates. An IEP term should be a full year minus a day from the IEP meeting date. Exceptions can be made for students scheduled to graduate within the term or for upcoming evaluations. The date programming is to begin should be agreed upon by all team members and shouldn’t allow for any lapse in service from the previous IEP. Parents should keep track of timelines on their own to ensure schools don’t allow documents to fall out of compliance by overlooking them.
- Unauthorized changes in related services
Related services such as physical therapy shouldn’t change without parental consent. Therapy levels can’t increase without an evaluation, but therapists can decrease them between evaluations. They can’t do this without discussing the matter with parents. A related service can’t be added or deleted at whim. Parents should check the related service section of a new IEP against the previous IEP for any differences the team might not have addressed.
If a statement of need exists in an IEP or evaluation, the IEP should address this through specially designed instruction or a related service. For example, if a need in communication is noted, the IEP should include some provision for speech. Similarly, anecdotal information about problematic behavior should be a trigger for a behavior plan.
- No discussion of ESY
Although extended school year services typically are reserved for the most disabled students, a conversation about the appropriateness of these services must happen for all students. Teams must verify whether or not a need exists. IEP meetings shouldn’t conclude without such a conversation. The IEP must reflect the decision of the team regarding eligibility.
- No discussion of placement options
Placement typically remains stagnant for students who receive special education services. However, the point of scheduled evaluations is to determine if services continue to be necessary and if the level of services continues to suffice. Every IEP meeting should include a conversation about whether or not services need to continue at their current level or at all.
The IEP must contain an explanation of why specialized services are necessary. Progress or participation in the general education curriculum must be noted. The degree to which disabling conditions affect progress or participation must also be noted. The IEP must reflect how much time the student will spend outside of the general education environment. School members of the team should be reviewing all of this with the parents at each meeting.
Placement options are a crucial part of any discussion of discipline involving a student with an IEP. Parents should be mindful of any placement options being considered during disciplinary proceedings.
- Documents not in native language of parents
The school must provide documents in the native language of the parents, which is increasingly easy to do. Interpreters must be available for meetings and phone calls as well. With interpretation services widely available, schools have little excuse for not providing these.
- Team members absent from meetings without parental consent
IEP team members only can be excused from IEP meetings if the parent is notified beforehand of the pending absence and gives approval. If the parent doesn’t approve, the meeting must be rescheduled. Emergencies do happen, but the team can’t move forward without the consent of the parent.
- No procedural safeguards notice
The school must inform parents of procedural safeguards, which are rights outlined by special education law. These rights are described in a document schools must provide to parents (typically around 30 pages). For any parent new to special education, these are vital.
- Insufficient notice for meetings
Schools must formally invite parents to special education meetings. They must offer a range of participation options. Meetings sometimes must be held unexpectedly and immediately, but in most cases, notice should be sufficient for parents to make arrangements for attendance. Parents also should have sufficient opportunity to review documents, in particular, to read evaluation reports prior to IEP meetings.
Just as schools might face time and resource constraints that limit the ability to address special education mandates, parents might face interruptions and distractions that pull attention away from some of the nuances of special education documents and relationships. Some of the mistakes mentioned above might be just that—mistakes. Parents need to be diligent in checking for these and willing to diplomatically bring them to the attention of school officials.