Managing your documents under IDEA: Part II - What documents should you create?
Why create any documents? One simple reason is that you may have to tell your child’s story to another person - perhaps to an evaluator, an advocate or lawyer, or a hearing officer – in order to get help, and documenting events as they occur will help you tell the story accurately and in good order. Another reason is that documents can help clarify understandings you reach with people – particularly with service providers or school administrators.
Yet another reason is that a note written at the time something significant has happened may help to support you when you need to prove to another person that the event happened the way you claim it happened. It sometimes takes years before parents realize that they should have kept better notes of meetings, telephone calls and significant events in their child’s educational career. If you are the parents of a very young child with a disability in need of special education, you can get ahead of the game by developing this habit now.
The notes you take may be important later when you need an accurate description of what key people said at a TEAM meeting, in the hall after a parent-teacher meeting, in an evaluator’s office when you were given a report, and so on. Some parents keep a journal or simply a running chronology with dates, short descriptions of events or conversations and names of people concerned. This does not need to include every tiny detail of your child’s life, but a well-kept journal or chronology can help you explain to others (or to yourself) how you got to the current situation if you have recorded key events and communications along the way.
Among other events, you should record dates of meetings with school personnel, dates you received key documents (notices of TEAM meetings, etc.), dates you sent or delivered key documents (e.g., “December 1, 2005 - hand-delivered our consent to the proposed school evaluations”), dates on which you gave school personnel important information (e.g., “January 6, 2006 – told Mary’s teacher that Mary had been spending 3 hours every night trying to do 15 minute math homework assignments”), dates on which your child was suspended or otherwise disciplined, and so forth. Some documents are created in order to record understandings reached with others.
The most formal example of this type of document is a contract signed by the parties who agree to its terms. (An IEP should be treated as a contract. It records an agreement reached between parents and school systems to govern the types of services to be delivered to a child for a specific period of time, the location of those services, the identity of service providers and so on, and is signed by each party.) Even without such an official agreement, however, you can create a document yourself that can help prove that an understanding was reached.
Suppose, for example, that you have a conversation with your special education director in which s/he says that the school system will hire an expert on inclusion techniques to consult to your child’s classroom and that you will be given the opportunity to meet with that consultant about your child. You should follow up this conversation with a friendly letter to the director thanking her for taking the time to discuss your concerns about the classroom and describing your understanding of what steps s/he promised to take. You should conclude such a letter by requesting the director to respond immediately if your understanding is incorrect in any way. Such a letter may not actually “prove” that the director said the things you claim, but if s/he doesn’t respond with a correction, there is at least an implication that s/he did say those things.
There may be other documents you could create that will help your child. Have there been years of repeated testing in which scores have declined steadily? You might want to create a chart of test results to focus the TEAM on that history. Have people working with your behaviorally involved child wondered what precipitates his/her aggressive outbursts? Keep a record of things said or done immediately before such explosions for a while – whether seen by you personally or reported to you. Perhaps you can help solve the mystery and focus service providers on developing a plan to work with those behaviors. (Note: There is a kind of evaluation called a “functional behavioral assessment” which is a more formal version of this kind of analysis. You should request that such an evaluation be performed if you become concerned that your child may fall into the disciplinary system because of behaviors that you believe are caused by a disability.)
Documents in the hearing process: preparing to meet your lawyer
When parents ask an attorney or lay advocate to advise them about their child’s rights under IDEA, the first thing the adviser must do is review all the relevant documents. How should you organize them? We ask parents to send copies of all their documents in strict chronological order before we meet so we can read them and get as full a picture as possible about who the child is and what has been done for him or her in the special education system. Unless the attorney or advocate asks you to do so, don’t try to organize your documents by category (e.g., placing all the IEPs in one file, all the evaluations in another, all the correspondence in another, etc.). The most efficient way for the advocate or attorney to get the picture and the history is to see the development step by step. Note that in the sequence of those documents, an IEP should be placed according to the date of the Team meeting that developed the IEP. Because any document might eventually have to be introduced as an exhibit at a hearing or in court, we ask that parents not write any comments on them. (You can point out particular items or ask questions by using sticky notes.) You should also give the attorney or advocate a chronology of the events that have led you to consult with him/her – not an extremely detailed description of every thing that happened, but an outline that will give the advisor a perspective on what led to your child’s current situation. Finally, you should give your attorney or advocate a list of all the key people that have been involved with you or your child, with full names, addresses and phone numbers if you can find out that information.
Documents in the hearing process: formal discovery
If your quest for services leads to a formal due process proceeding, you will have whatever “discovery” rights are available to parties under the rules in your state’s due process system. (Some states’ hearing procedures do not provide for any such formal discovery process at all.) Typically, those rules allow parties to have the opposing parties produce documents that are either relevant in their own right to the issues the hearing officer must decide or could lead to relevant evidence. Here are some of the kinds of documents we would typically ask school systems to produce in formal discovery:
- descriptions of proposed programs; - copies of the child’s proposed daily/weekly schedule under the proposed IEP; - copies of the daily/weekly schedules of proposed service providers; - copies of curricula, materials, behavioral plans, etc. that are used the classroom(s) where the child would be placed; - resumes and information about certification, training and experience of proposed service providers; - profiles of other students with whom the school system has proposed to place the student; - IEPs, with names blacked out, of those other students; - reports of any program or fiscal audits of the school system and of the particular program in which the school system proposes to place the child; - annual or other periodic reports the school system files with the state education agency concerning special education programs; - minutes taken by school system personnel at any key meetings about the child (particularly TEAM meetings).
It is a long road from the beginning to the end of your child’s school life. If your child has a disability, you will be hauling a wagon that grows heavier with documents every year along that road. I hope the guidelines I’ve given you here will help you keep, organize and use those documents in a way that will help you make the most of your child’s entitlements under IDEA.