Don’t Hire An Attorney For Special Education IEP Meetings
When you have a child in special education whose needs are not being met, your frustration may lead you to hire a special education lawyer or advocate. Despite laws such as IDEA and Section 504, which guarantee the rights and educational opportunities of students with disabilities, many students and their families remain woefully underserved by the Special Education system. Even when a robust IEP has been written, many school districts are noncompliant with student IEPs and fail to provide adequate supports, instructional accommodations, and services that students need and are entitled to. In many of these instances of IEP non-compliance and failure to meet a child’s needs, frustrated parents often turn to a lawyer or special education advocate.
Why Not to Hire a Lawyer, and Why to Hire a Special Education Advocate Instead
While hiring an attorney may seem like the most obvious or effective option, a lawyer has limited means for dealing with a school district outside of filing a lawsuit, also known as a due process complaint. If you hire a lawyer, your child’s school district will actually refuse to meet with you directly and will only communicate through your respective lawyers.
Instead, hiring a special education non-attorney advocate will be far more effective in getting the school district to acquiesce to your requests and comply with IEPs. Non-attorney advocates are knowledgable about the law, but are also educators and expert communicators who seek to work with the district, instead of fight against it, to arrive at the best outcome for students.
Special Education Law
Federal laws, specifically the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, entitle all students with disabilities to a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE). Students with disabilities are essentially a protected class of students who have guaranteed rights to education services, according to the Federal Government.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is more broad and was designed to allow students with disabilities to have equal access and opportunity to learning as students without disabilities. Special Education law is notoriously vague, so many parents understandably do not know their rights and those of their children, nor how to proceed when their children aren’t receiving adequate special education services.
Special Education Process
The process of obtaining special education services for your child is complex and can take months from start to finish. Children with disabilities are afforded special protections, and parents have unique rights and obligations at various points of the process. However, parents frequently do not understand what they can and should be doing at every step, and when a district is failing to uphold their child’s needs, rights, and best interests. A non-attorney advocate can advise you during any and all parts of the IEP process, ensuring your child recieves the high-quality education they’re entitled to.
What Can a Non-Attorney Advocate Do?
A non-attorney advocate can do everything a special education lawyer can do in terms of filing a due process complaint and representing families at hearings.
Non-attorney advocates can actually do more than lawyers, as we can:
- speak to educational best practices
- help develop your child’s IEP
- communicate directly with teachers and administrators
- attend IEP meetings and annual reviews
- act as intermediaries between parents and the school
- assist with critical documentation
- obtain an alternate school placement
The Special Education process, including the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), can be convoluted and confusing. Special Education utilizes its own terminology, acronyms, and procedures in which most parents are not well-versed. A special education advocate can guide you through the IEP process to ensure that your child’s rights are upheld and that they receive the appropriate services at the appropriate intervals, with built in assessments to monitor progress.
A non-attorney advocate can also help you obtain an alternate school placement, whether a private school or another public school in or out of district, at the cost of your home school district without going through a due process hearing. An effective non-attorney advocate will assert your child’s legal rights and articulate their instructional needs. Critically, a non-attorney advocate can speak to not only what is most appropriate for your child, but why and how this should best be implemented via placements, instructional methods, and related services such as speech, occupational, and/or behavioral therapy.
Why Pay for a Special Education Advocate?
Non-attorney special education advocates bring a variety of skills and experiences to the table, enabling us to effectively obtain necessary services, supports, and accommodations for students with special needs. Special education advocates have strong interdisciplinary backgrounds to advise parents about the best course of action, point them towards appropriate resources, and liaise with schools and teachers to find the most effective solutions for students.
Special Education Advocates Bring Valuable Skills to the Advocacy and IEP Process:
- Organization & Documentation
- Knowledge of Child Development
- Educational Best Practices
What Can an Attorney Do?
Unlike non-attorney special education advocates who can speak to best practices and deal directly with administrators to make and implement changes to IEPs and placements, lawyers are shut out of working through the school system administratively. The main and only flex by an attorney in a special educational situation is the ability to represent a parent or family during a due process hearing as a lawyer. A due process complaint, also known as a request for an impartial hearing in New York State, is essentially what most people refer to as suing a school district for failing to uphold the rights of a student receiving special education services.
A lawyer can represent you at a due process hearing, but they can’t do much more, and you don’t need a lawyer to file a due process complaint. In fact, hiring a lawyer means that a school district will shut down the administrative process and ONLY work and communicate with you via the court system and lawyers. When you hire an attorney, the district considers itself legally at risk, and will therefore not allow you to speak directly with administrators, teachers, and other relevant professionals to come to an appropriate solution for your child.
Limitations of Hiring an Attorney
One legal advice article makes the misleading claim that you may want to hire a lawyer “if the school district has an attorney.” While this advice seems well-intended even though is too general to be truly informative, it is deceptive because the school district obviously has a lawyer. However, in a typical special education situation, public schools will never bring their lawyer to an IEP or other meeting. A district will only involve their lawyer in the special education process if you have brought a due process complaint and/or hired a lawyer yourself.
According to New York State’s IEP guidance, lawyers are not included in IEP and other Special Education meetings, and there are no provisions for them to be included. This is because lawyers cannot be part of the IEP development process unless and only if you have already gone through a lawsuit and won, which is a costly and time-consuming process.
It is not a foregone conclusion that hiring a special education attorney will automatically win your case or guarantee that you achieve your goals. Many people mistakenly hire a lawyer thinking that the lawyer can sue a school for tuition reimbursement or similar claim; legal services are frequently misrepresented as a panacea for all issues within the special education system, which is simply not the case.
Can I Represent Myself at a Due Process Hearing or IEP Meeting?
As a parent, you can represent yourself throughout the special education process, including in the case of a due process filing and hearing. While this is allowed and feasible, most parents are not experts in education advocacy or special education law and you should therefore hire or consult a professional if your child’s case is complex or if the school has been noncompliant or combative in the past.
Lawyers Are Not Educators
Lawyers are legal specialists, but are not educators and often have minimal experience with actual special education recipients, practices, and settings. While a lawyer may have the legal expertise to sue and get school districts to put things in writing, non-attorney advocates can accomplish the same goal. The difference is that a lawyer likely doesn’t know which services, supports, or placements are most appropriate for your child, nor do they know when a school is adequately following through with high-quality instruction.
Non-attorney advocates are education specialists who are not only well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the IEP process, but understand best practices, methods, curricula, and supports in education. Advocates keep up with the literature and evidence-based best practices in all areas of education so as to provide the expertise to most effectively advocate for our clients.
Costs of Hiring a Lawyer vs. Non-Attorney Advocate
Like all legal and other professional services, the cost of hiring an attorney for special education advocacy will vary widely depending on where you live, the quality and reputation of your lawyer, the complexity of the case, and other factors. A good attorney can charge a high hourly rate, and legal fees can climb upwards of $500 and $1000 per hour in major metropolitan areas. In fact, I have seen cases where families pay up to $250/hour to be represented by minimally-trained paralegals who have far less experience than most non-attorney advocates.
Additionally, many special education attorneys have a retention fee or other upfront charges that make hiring one out of reach for many parents. Since many special education cases can take months to work through and resolve, most families cannot afford or justify the high cost of hiring attorneys to support their child’s case.
Non-attorney advocates charge, on average, far less than attorneys. Any high-quality advocate will likely provide a free initial consultation via a phone call or zoom, and will honestly assess your case and chances of achieving your desired outcomes.
Districts often provide free advocates at parents’ request. These free advocates may not be bad, but are unlikely to be experts and don’t have the necessary time to invest in your case. Paying for a non-attorney advocate instead of a special education attorney is not only the most effective choice, but the best value for your money.
Hire A Non-Attorney Advocate for the Best Outcome
Special education advocates want students and families to win; lawyers want districts to lose. This singular difference in perspective demonstrates each approach, respectively. Lawyers will easily burn through tens of thousands of dollars in billable hours just to “win” against a district, when a more effective non-attorney advocate can spend fewer hours convincing the district that implementing a more mutually agreeable IEP for a student will lead to better outcomes for everyone.
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