By: Morgan Schroeder, Fall 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern
An IEP is an individualized education plan, and thousands of students across the United States currently have one in place with their schools. This individual plan is used to create educational goals for students who struggle in school or have a disability that affects their ability to learn. Creating this plan requires the time and attention of many school officials, the parent and student, potentially doctors and specialists, and of course, attorneys. All children in the United States have a right to a free public education, and many laws also protect students against discrimination in education based on disability. This means schools often have an attorney present to both protect the school’s interests and make sure these rights are being implemented. However, a parent can also benefit from being represented by an attorney. Parents want to make sure that their children are learning and improving, but an IEP includes many provisions that a parent may not completely understand. The parent may be afraid to ask questions, or provide input into the goals because they are not an expert in education. Maybe they don’t want to question what the school is saying because they believe the school is doing what is best for their child. Or perhaps they don’t know the full extent of their child’s rights or what other options are available. This is where an attorney can be very valuable to a parent, and can help protect their child’s right to receive a quality education.
A strong attorney-client relationship is essential to creating a successful and useful IEP. The parent needs to trust their attorney, and understand how the attorney can help them in this setting. With this trust, the parent will be more willing to divulge information about their child, discussing their child’s strengths and weaknesses inside and outside the classroom. The attorney’s role will depend on the client’s needs. If the parent addresses their concerns to their attorney, the attorney can speak up at the IEP meeting on their behalf, asking questions and making suggestions. The attorney can draft provisions that incorporate the parent’s questions and concerns to ensure they are reflected within the IEP. The attorney can review what the school has written and make sure everything that was agreed to is included. And the attorney can make sure that the school follows through with what was agreed to.
Something that really surprised me about the IEP meeting I recently attended was the contrast between the school’s attorney and my team that was representing the parent. The school’s attorney was very quiet throughout the meeting. It seemed like it was probably mandatory for her to be there, but she didn’t contribute to the conversation very much. It probably is not typical for a parent to be represented by an attorney, but my team was constantly chiming in with our opinions on different provisions to help our client. Perhaps the attorney had helped write the IEP draft that we were reviewing and she felt the teachers and the parent needed the opportunity to speak more than she did. This difference helped demonstrate to me the many different roles an attorney can take within an IEP setting, and that an attorney’s role really depends on their client’s needs.