Writing an IEP Compliance Letter
This year I have decided to get my act together regarding my daughter's education, after she struggled for a year in a classroom environment that simply was not meeting her needs. I was hopeful that her new classroom placement this year would improve things significantly, and while it is somewhat better, it is nowhere near where it needs to be.
I've had to write her school district many letters, most involving things such as placement and transportation. But this was the first time I had to write a letter alleging noncompliance with her IEP, and I definitely learned a lot of lessons along the way. While I will focus on the subject of a well-written IEP that is not being implemented in this article, much of the information applies to any letter you compose and send to your school district.
The first lesson I learned is that writing IEP letters takes a lot of research and preparation. If you are not up for the task or need assistance, definitely do not hesitate in finding an advocate or special education lawyer to help you. Each state/region has at least one resource center for children with disabilities, and these centers can provide you with free assistance in helping you write your letter. The Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers at http://www.taalliance.org/ has a nice directory of these centers.
Before you can write an IEP complaint letter, you need to ensure you know at least the basics of special education law. I suggest you familiarize yourself with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is available at Wrightslaw at http://www.wrightslaw.com/idea/index.htm. Speaking of Wrightslaw, it is the place to start your learning about special education. Not only do they offer a great website, but they also have seminars and lots of books and other materials to help you learn about special education law. Start with From Emotions to Advocacy and continue through Special Education Law, both available at http://www.wrightslaw.com/store/index.html, and you will be well prepared to write your letter.
Once you are familiar with special education law in general, then you need to become intimately familiar with your child's IEP. Focus particularly on the sections on Accommodations and Modifications, as well as the Goals, and any other specific areas that are of concern. You should know your child's IEP like the back of your hand.
With my daughter, I mostly had a general sense that things were not working quite right at school for her. But I did not really know if the issue was her placement, her IEP, or the implementation of her IEP. After gathering some data, it became apparent that her IEP was actually quite good. Her classroom and teacher are also quite good. The problem is in the implementation of her IEP.
Here are some ways to help you gather data:
- Assess the appropriateness of homework assignments
- Determine if progress reports and other communications home are what you would expect
- Assess the material and achievement on tests and classwork that has come home
- Have multiple conversations with teachers, aides, or therapists by phone, email, or in person
- Visit the classroom and assess the situation directly
The last point is by far the most important. You need to spend some time observing the classroom and talking face-to-face to the team members. This is absolutely essential and should be done before you begin writing anything. Take copious notes, or ask if it is OK to videotape or record your visit.
Get Rid of Your Emotions
Seeing your child struggle in school is emotionally very challenging. Seeing your child struggle in school because her services are not being provided, her goals are not being addressed, and her accommodations are not in place is even more emotionally challenging. You need to give yourself some time to process these emotions.
Emotions do not belong in an IEP compliance letter. No matter how awful it is that your school is failing your child, your letter is not the place to pour out all of those emotions. I was heartbroken after observing my daughter's class, seeing her sit in the back of the classroom not integrated into the vast majority of the activities. But I had to get rid of this emotion before I could begin to address what is truly a black and white legal issue regarding her IEP.
I sometimes think it is best to write a first draft of your letter that you fully expect to throw in the trashcan. I've done it myself, and I have found it extremely helpful. I pour out all of my emotions, berate the school for being uncaring and unhelpful, and in general go on and on about how enraged I am that they are failing my child. This is great stuff to write about...in your personal journal or on your Facebook page (presuming no one on your team is on your Friend list). But it is not appropriate for your actual IEP compliance letter.
Get rid of all the emotion. Only then will you be ready to write your letter.
Think Like a Lawyer
If you've never read a law brief or decision, take a look at the Caselaw section of Wrightslaw at http://www.wrightslaw.com/caselaw.htm. Pick a case that is at least a little bit relevant to your issue, and take a look at how it is done.
If you are looking at a decision, the first section is the opinion, which summarizes the facts and the outcome quite briefly. It's always good to start your letter with a summary of what you know and your intended outcome. You need to tell them what they need to know right away. You can get into details later.
After that, a law brief usually contains several sections that include background information and arguments for and/or against the matter at hand. What's most important to note in these sections is the incredibly large number of citations, particularly listings of other cases and laws. Citations are very important. They are the indisputable facts in your case. While you may be citing caselaw and IDEA, more likely than not, many of your "citations" will be quotations from your child's IEP. It is these indisputable facts that will win your argument, and it is absolutely mandatory that you include them.
At the end of your letter should be a conclusion that sums up everything you stated within the body of the letter, tersely reiterating your demands. Don't be surprised if the school only reads the beginning and the end of your letter, so it is important to make these summary sections particularly precise.
Remember that rarely used bold fonts are your friends. As the school officials are skimming your letter, they are likely to read only the sentences you have put in bold. Every time you make a specific demand or summarize a specific point, make sure to put it in bold. For really important points, underlined bold is even better. Just don't overdo it.
Another one of your friends is quotes, specifically quotes from your child's IEP and IDEA. Quote everything exactly, stating where it came from. Use the little symbol for section (§) on your computer if you really want to look like a pro.
The IEP Compliance Letter
Your emotions are gone, you have a goal and a structure, and you know how to think like a lawyer. It's time to write your letter.
As mentioned earlier, I'm focusing here on a letter for a well-written IEP that is not being implemented. In this type of letter, you want to start at the beginning of the IEP and go through every line, asking yourself, "Is this being implemented?" If not, include that as a point in your letter. Make sure you quote what is in the IEP, and explain how it is not being implemented. It is also helpful to provide suggestions as to how it can be implemented.
Here's an example from my letter:
Karuna's IEP §10(b) specifically indicates in the section on Vision that Karuna requires "Preferential/flexible seating," and the section on Language Arts further indicates that she needs, "preferential seating within close proximity to teacher." Karuna has severe vision impairment with extremely limited distance vision. She is currently sitting in the back row of the classroom and is completely unable to see any of the activities that are presented on the white board at the front of the classroom. As many of the classroom activities are presented in this way (calendar, weather, numbers, spelling words, patterns, etc.), it is imperative that Karuna be moved to the front of the classroom, specifically the front right of the classroom, which allows her stronger left eye to view the white board. In the same section of her IEP, under "General Accommodations," it is noted that teachers are to, "Present objects and activities to Karuna's left side."
Here's what my example includes:
- A citation from her IEP, using the fancy section symbol, and then quoting it exactly
- An explanation of the rationale for why this is in her IEP to start with
- An explanation of how the school is not meeting or implementing this part of her IEP
- The demand, in boldface, to make it more obvious
Note the complete lack of emotion, accusatory language, and the reliance on fact and citations to make my argument.
It is particularly important to use these strategies when discussing the child's goals. It can be a difficult argument to make that the school is not implementing a goal. You need to explain how it is impossible for your child to meet the goal because of a failure to provide therapy, accommodations, or address the goal. For example, my daughter has a goal that involves using computer classroom programs with her switch. Thus far, the computers in her classroom are not wheelchair accessible and do not have a switch interface, so it is easy to argue that she cannot meet this goal.
A Few Final Suggestions
I asked for feedback on my letter, and the most common suggestion was to provide a timeline in my introduction and/or conclusion explaining when I expected the changes to be made. If you give them a month, they may take two, so make it a small but reasonable amount of time.
I also think it is important to be pleasant in your letter, and complimentary of things that are going well. Medicine tastes a whole lot better when it is given with a spoonful of sugar. Give praise where you can, and make yourself available for questions or comments. But also be sure that you are forceful in your demands, and make it clear that you expect action.
Finally, send your letter to everybody. Your child's teacher, case manager, principal, and the district or regional special education administrators should all get a copy. Your school will be much more likely to act if they know that their superiors are aware of the problem.
Good luck, and I hope that I have success, and you will too!