By Lesley Grimm
Get informed and get involved. That is the message being sent to parents of special education students in District 20. The district’s Community Education Council is stepping up efforts to educate parents. While the law guarantees all special education students a free and appropriate education, the onus is often on parents to make sure their child is receiving all of the services they need and deserve. “You have to advocate for your child. You can’t give up,” said Laurie Windsor, District 20 Community Education Council vice president. “Your child depends on you. You’re it.” Anne Chavarro is the District 20 second vice president and chairs the group’s special education committee. She said she hoped to improve the services some district children are receiving. “There are a lot of dropped balls that need to be picked up,” Chavarro said. “As special education parents, we need to stick together and get loud,” she later stressed. Chavarro and Windsor addressed parents at a workshop on November 1. They said they hoped the session would be the first of many workshops. “We’re hoping to have an ongoing dialogue,” Chavarro said. On November 1, the Community Education Council hosted Godfrey Rivera from the Metropolitan Parent Center of Sinergia. Sinergia is a community-based non-profit organization that links the families of children with disabilities with the services they need. “We’re here to help you navigate the system to make sure your child gets the help they need,” Rivera said. Rivera’s presentation specifically dealt with the “rights” of parents under federal law. He outlined the federal law that governs special education. It is entitled the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” or IDEA. IDEA guarantees each student a “free appropriate public education.” More than a dozen special education categories are covered by IDEA, including autism, learning disabilities and physical impairments. The law guarantees parents the right to be informed and involved at every step of the process, from their child’s initial evaluation through to creating their Individualized Education Plan or IEP. As part of IEP’s, parents can request regular progress reports. Parents are also entitled to prior written notice of all meetings concerning their child. Rivera encouraged parental participation in these meetings, saying this would guarantee that the information the district was basing its decisions on was fair and accurate. Furthermore, Rivera said having a parent present would help officials realize that they are dealing with a child “and not just a case number.” Rivera also outlined some of the safeguards that are in place. For instance, parents can request a second evaluation of their child free of charge. Options are available to parents if they disagree with the services their children are receiving, including mediation and impartial hearings. Rivera said that mediation should be the first course of action, followed by an impartial hearing. “Beware,” Rivera said. “The Department of Education has lawyers there to make sure you don’t get satisfaction. So be careful, and come prepared,” he said, referring to the impartial hearings. There are also timeframes built into the law to prevent lengthy delays. Once parental consent is granted, an evaluation must be completed within 30 days. If eligible, services must then commence within 60 days of parental consent for the evaluation. Rivera went on to caution parents. “What I’m telling you is how it should be gone. But by the time the law comes from Washington to your local school, it changes,” he said. IDEA only covers specific disabilities. Some conditions are not covered by this law, but students will still be protected under the civil rights law, Section 504. This law ensured that each child has equal access to an education. Under 504, a child is not entitled to an IEP and fewer procedural safeguards exist. For more information on the Metropolitan Parent Center of Sinergia and for links to other resources, go to their website at www.sinergiany.org or call them at (212) 643 2840.