Reading Your Rights 

This process is nothing more than a bureaucratic game of "cover your butt." It allows school administrators to say, "Of course we informed the parents of their rights. See? There's their signature."

The safeguards give parents the right to see school records, to participate in educational planning for their child and to receive notice of any proposed changes in their child's program. The procedures also place limits on a school administrator's ability to discipline these students for misbehavior. Schools must hold a hearing to decide if a child's behavioral problems are a "manifestation" of his disability before disciplinary action can be taken. And the safeguards provide parents with steps to follow — including appeals, hearings and civil court action — if they are dissatisfied with the school's decisions about their child's education.

All this is as it should be. Every child is entitled to an appropriate public education, and it is a proper role of government to ensure that right.

But here's where it gets strange. Parents must receive a copy of the "Procedural Safeguard Requirements" each time a child is referred for evaluation or reevaluation; when parents are notified of a meeting to develop or revisit an Individual Education Plan (IEP); when they request a due process hearing; and whenever they are notified of a disciplinary action. The document itself requires this. For some children, this might occur once or twice a year; for others notification may be required eight, 10 or 12 times a year, or more.

Unfortunately, the document is 23 pages long, single-spaced and written in complex, legalistic language certain to stymie the most literate of readers. Here's one sample sentence, from page 13:

"If, subsequently, a child with a disability who has a behavioral intervention plan and who has been removed from the child's current educational placement for more than 10 school days in a school year is subject to a removal that does not constitute a change of placement for disciplinary removals under 34 CFR  300.519, the IEP team members shall review the behavioral intervention plan and its implementation to determine if modifications are necessary."

You couldn't make that stuff up if you tried. Imagine you're a parent sitting in the school office because your fourth grader has misbehaved. Maybe you had to take a couple of hours off from work. You're probably a bit irritated with both your child and the school. But before you hear about the problem, the principal or counselor hands you a 23-page document. Most of it reads just like the paragraph above. "Please read this over and sign it," she says.

Now suppose you've struggled through to page 13 while you wait. How many times would you have to study that one sentence before you know whether or not the school is properly following procedures?

Many — parents who care about their children and want the best for them — simply won't be able to make sense of this document. Even cum laude college graduates will have trouble digesting 23 pages of such gobbledygook.

This process is nothing more than a bureaucratic game of "cover your butt." It allows school administrators to say, "Of course we informed the parents of their rights. See? There's their signature."

Surely there's a better way to protect the rights of special education students. Why hand parents a huge, indigestible, legalistic document? The basic rights described in those 23 pages could be summarized in a few simple statements on a single sheet of paper. Why not tell parents, "You have a right to see your child's school records," or "If you disagree with the school's decision, you can appeal?"

For parents who need further clarification or guidance in exercising their rights, schools can appoint and train ombudsmen from among their staff. They can have a copy of the full 23 pages available for anyone who wants to read them. They could even give each parent a set of the procedural safeguards once each year, on the first school visit.

Virginia schools now expend untold reams of paper, along with copying expenses and staff time to follow the letter of the law, while its intent and spirit go unfulfilled. And knowing the educational bureaucracy, it's unlikely that we'll be doing something more sensible any time soon. So if a change in this process is to be made, parents will have to take the lead. Parents of special education students have fought a long battle to protect the educational rights of their children. Wouldn't it be great if those same parents demanded a short, clear, simple explanation of the rights they have worked so hard to establish? S

Paul Fleisher is a veteran teacher in the Richmond Public Schools and author of more than two dozen books for children and educators.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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