Legal representation: Just thinking about it seems so overwhelming and off -putting for many parents. How bad does it really have to be before you decide that you need the help of an attorney who can hold your hand (both literally and figuratively) through the IEP process? Well, I can tell you from experience that it has to be pretty awful to go to that extreme. I don't think any parents really want to believe they can't get what their child actually needs from the school district without legal representation, but it's sometimes the case.
When I started the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process — necessary for public school students in special education and related services — for my daughter, I got the shock of a lifetime. I initially had no legal representation and was essentially told that I didn't know what would be best for my daughter. I felt harassed, and even worse, I discovered that the school district could make decisions with which I might not agree. All of this could and would happen even though I had documentation from a neuropsychologist outlining exactly what educational accommodations my daughter needed to succeed in school. I thought it would have been fairly easy to get these accommodations in place. Well, it turned out I was very naïve. I learned quickly and painfully that I could trust no one within the school district to have the same level of dedication to supporting my daughter that I did as her parent.
I realized that I needed the support of an attorney versed in education law. I needed a strong, dynamic, no-nonsense attorney who could teach me how to listen, know what was possible and reasonable to expect, and calm me down when I could not get everything for my daughter that I had hoped to obtain. Having legal counsel gave me the chance to review all documents the school might provide before a meeting (although rarely was anything offered in advance). The attorney and I also reviewed what my daughter's doctor recommended so I knew what we were requesting. The lawyer sat between my husband and me. She quite literally had to be there for me to lean on and to explain what the pupil personnel director was offering in the way of accommodations.
When you make the decision to bring counsel, you must inform the school district ahead of time because it will then supply legal counsel to rebut yours. In my experience, the atmosphere does seem a lot more caustic and frightening when there are attorneys in the room. But that does not mean you shouldn't bring one. It's no picnic without one, either! For me, there really was no question that I was going to live with the anxiety of an unpleasant experience for my daughter's sake.
During an IEP meeting with legal representation, the attorneys joust legal points — your child is or is not entitled to certain educational accommodations. It's not set in stone, there is no recipe, and the lawyers definitely battle. I found that the words they used were often jargon that my attorney needed to explain in terms I could understand. After many such meetings, I got used to the language and the tenor of the atmosphere in the room and learned to expect it. I watched the discomfort on the teachers faces as they watched this scene unfold.
I found the strongest reason to have legal representation was that I was able to get more IEP benefits than I would have if I went it alone. Education lawyers are experts on what your child is entitled to because it is their job to know and understand the law. As parents, we can (and should!) become highly informed advocates for our children, but we just cannot have the same level of expertise as education lawyers. I also found that I learned how to advocate for my daughter through my attorney. After a while, I was able to go to these meetings with only my daughter, and she and I could advocate quite well. If we were unsure about something, we didn't sign any paperwork and scheduled a follow-up meeting. We were in control, mostly. We gained confidence and a better understanding of our rights. We had the strength and knowledge to walk out and consult our attorney by phone by the time my daughter was in 10th grade.
Of course, bringing legal counsel to an IEP meeting had some negative connotations, too. As I described previously, it made the meeting even more contentious than it already was. Having lawyers in the room escalated the meeting to a whole other level of importance, and the tension rose for everyone; it was truly palpable when you walked through the door. Another major con to considering legal representation is the financial aspect of this process. It is expensive from the very beginning, when the attorney accepts your child's case and you sign a retainer fee, to each time you speak on the phone and go to a meeting. There are education attorneys who are willing to work on a pro-bono or sliding scale fee basis. Contact your local Parent Training Information Center, bar association, or the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates for more information.
If you have a school district with a proven track record that will listen to what you believe are your child's needs, then I would go without an attorney. Remember, though, if the district does something with which you don't agree, you always have the right to bring legal representation. The old adage "You get more with honey than you get with vinegar" may be true in this situation. Avoiding the contentious situation of using an attorney may allow you to have better overall relationships with administrators and teachers, and this can definitely benefit your child. I think my daughter would have likely felt more supported by the district if there had been less or no fighting for the accommodations she needed.
I believe each family must decide what is best for its child. There is no easy way to walk into an IEP meeting. Whether or not you bring representation, you must know your legal rights. If you feel having legal representation is necessary, don't hesitate. It may be difficult, but it will help you get your child what she needs, and that's what really matters.