When the school calls: Understanding individualized education programs


You might get a call, or more likely an email, from your child’s school proposing to evaluate your child for special education — an individualized education program, or IEP. Your heart sinks.

In that moment, your hopes for your child’s bright future are dashed.

Maybe you suspected your child had some struggles, or maybe you had no clue. But this is a good thing that the school is reaching out to you.

It’s complying with its “Child Find” duty under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the “IDEA”). What does that mean? A public school, which includes charter schools, has a legal obligation under federal and state law to locate, identify and evaluate a student who the school suspects may have a disability, and that the disability may require specially designed instruction, which means teaching your child differently based on his or her unique needs.

So step one is to go to the meeting and see what the school people have to say. That first meeting is to review existing data, that is, to discuss what teachers and you know about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and what areas need to be evaluated.

But be warned that when you walk into that room, it might feel like you are walking into a den of wolves. It’s likely some ungodly hour of 7:30 in the morning, and no one looks very happy. And you are scared.

This is your child they’re talking about, your very perfect and now imperfect child. But the good news is that if you are here because the school contacted you, then everyone is there to help you. They’re just tired because they do this often, and they have a long day ahead of them.

A legally compliant meeting, called a RED or MET1, will have lots of people: your child’s teacher, a school administrator such as the principal, a special education teacher, school psychologist, a special education administrator, and depending on concerns the school has, perhaps an occupational therapist, speech therapist and/or physical therapist. This list is not exclusive.

They’ll all be sitting there already seated as you are let in. You might feel like everyone is there to gang up on you, but they are actually there to help your child. These are the education professionals who make up your child’s multidisciplinary education team (hence, the “MET”) who will evaluate your child. This is your opportunity to ask questions and when they start using acronyms, ask them to explain them, like I did here.

You have a right to tape record the meeting, and you should because this is your child they’re talking about and it’s a daunting process, so you are not likely going to remember everything that is said. You will be given something called your Procedural Safeguards Notice, which is a 30-page booklet that explains your rights as a parent in this process.

The booklet is not user friendly. It just paraphrases the law and you’re probably not a lawyer, but even if you are, you likely won’t understand. Bring someone with you to this meeting for emotional support and an extra pair of ears; it can be a brother, sister, cousin or friend.

My sister got the call from school 20 years ago, and it was one of the scariest days of her life. But her son is now 26 and graduating ASU with a teaching degree.

Be thankful for early intervention through the school. The professionals and they are here to help — until they don’t — but that’s for future articles.

Editor's note: Hope Kirsch is a special education attorney with the firm Kirsch—Goodwin & Kirsch PLLC.