Why Do You Need an Advocate?
Authur: Dan Coggshall
My daughter’s first IEP meeting was a disaster. They sat my pregnant wife and I down in chairs made
for kindergarteners and began to tell us everything that was wrong with our amazing daughter. They
used terms like “zscore” and “standard deviation” and presented us a document full of acronyms, like
LRE and PO, and abbreviations like “grp” (because the two extra letters in group were apparently too
much to write).
I was confused and I was sad. They kept saying we were part of the team, but everything we said was
dismissed. They kept saying “IEP” which I knew meant individual education plan, but they were clearly
trying to put our daughter in the same program they put every other kid in.
My wife and I tried to explain where we were coming from. We tried to share our daughter’s unique
gifts and challenges. We tried to get her the program we knew was right for her. But, we didn’t speak
the language. We were too emotional. We were too angry. They had a rebuttal for everything we said.
They had wording that made them bulletproof. This was one of the most significant days of our lives.
This was a regular Tuesday for them.
I consider myself a pretty smart person. I went to college. I’ve worked in education. I’ve negotiated
contracts. I’ve made myself an expert on all the medical aspects of my daughter’s syndrome. But, I was
totally lost coming out of that first meeting.
I became determined that it would be different the next time. I read every book I could find. I poured
through websites. I joined support groups. I attended training’s. In this process, I realized two things:
1. Unless I devoted all my waking hours to it, I would never have time to learn everything there is
to know about educating children with disabilities.
2. I would never be able to turn off the emotions when it came to my own daughter.
I realized I needed help. I realized I needed an advocate.
Special Education law allows parents to include anyone with special knowledge of the child on the IEP
team that makes decisions about the child’s education. This could be a neighbor, a tutor, a volunteer
from nonprofit, or a professional advocate who makes his or her living helping parents of children with
disabilities navigate the special education system.
Unlike lawyers, who bring with them high fees, long delays, and opposing lawyers, advocates can sit at
the normal IEP table and work within the team to represent the needs of the child with disabilities.
Why did I need an advocate? Why do I think you need an advocate, regardless of your unique
situation? Here are five reasons:
1. You are outnumbered. At almost all meetings, the parents are outnumbered. It’s not unusual
for it to be one parent up against four or more people from the school district. Sure, everyone is
supposed to work as a team and I have heard some great stories of truly collaborative teams(just as I’ve heard stories about unicorns), but it’s usually you against them. One voice against
four is really hard.
A good advocate is an extra voice on your side in the meeting. A good advocate can bring
balance to a meeting and provide backup. With an advocate present, the school personnel will
be far less likely to try to gang up on you or take advantage of you.
2. The people from the school know more than you. This is their job. They know the
acronyms and the policies. They almost always write the documents you are reviewing. They
talk about things before the meeting and come in with a plan without you. You are working
just to get up to speed on what they know.
A good advocate can help you keep pace because an advocate can walk in knowing the things
you don’t know. A good advocate speaks the language and knows the rules.
3. The people from the school know less than they should. Just because it is their job,
doesn’t mean they are good at it. Very few people who work for the school have read the
applicable special education laws. More than likely, they did not study the pertinent Supreme
Court cases. What they know is what they’ve been told and what they’ve seen. They know the
way “they” do things not the way they are supposed to do things.
A good advocate has read the law. A good advocate has seen special education implemented in
other places and has seen how it’s supposed to happen, not just how it happens in that
particular school. A good advocate can come to the table with ideas and solutions balanced
with an understanding of the law to call the school personnel out when they are breaking it.
4. You love your kid too much. It’s hard to make a point and cry at the same time. Emotional
pleas in the movies often win the day and end in slow clapping. Emotional pleas at the IEP table
usually involve a lot of blubbering and end with awkward silences. Worse, yelling and name
calling can destroy any good will the team has toward you.
A good advocate cares about your kid, but can talk dispassionately in order to coherently work
on your child’s behalf. A good advocate stays calm when tensions rise and a good advocate
can help you avoid the embarrassing blubbering.
5. Lawyers are expensive. We all imagine that all we have to do is threaten to sue and the
school district personnel will be shaking in their boots. It doesn’t work that way. When you
threaten to sue, they smile inside because they know that (a) they have lawyers on the payroll
and (b) you don’t. Lawyers are expensive both in terms of time and money. If you’re child is in
an inappropriate placement, can you afford to wait two years and pay twenty thousand dollars?
A good advocate can work quickly and can do so for a lot less money law degrees,
paralegals, and those leather office chairs are expensive! Even better, a good advocate can help
you negotiate more than the district is required to do under the law. Far more can be
accomplished in an IEP meeting than in a due process hearing.
For all those reasons, I knew I needed an advocate to help secure the correct setting for my daughter.
We were able to work with my team and find solutions to ensure she receives an appropriate education.
I also knew I couldn’t stand by while other parents tried to do it on their own and I decided to give up
all those waking hours so that I could train to become an advocate myself.
Our thanks to Dan Coggshall for authoring this guest blog
Dan has completed his course work with NSEAI (National Special Education Advocacy Institute), and is now interning with us here at Special Needs NJ
Have you been where he was? Lost and confused over the “ABC’s” of Special Education? Outnumbered by school personnel in an IEP meeting (just you against everyone free for that period)? Do you feel your son or daughter is not in the “best” possible environment or program for their “needs?” Do you need help navigating the murky waters of Special Education and your child’s diagnosis or disability?
Many say that a parent is the best advocate for their child. While this is true in many situations, in the IEP meeting this many times is NOT the case. Your emotions are in charge, they don’t understand the guilt, and mourning you are experiencing over the fact that you are even there! That your child is struggling and you feel it’s your fault. You’re to stressed over the 4-12 faces staring back at you to even be confident that you are hearing anything they are saying!
Don’t put yourself through another meeting like the one Dan has described, call for an advocate today! (973) 534-3402
You will receive a half hour consultation with an educational consultant, experienced in Special Education law and practices, who has assisted many families on this journey called the IEP (Individualized Educational Plan). We will hear your struggles, meet your child, review your evaluations and recommendations, formulate a plan, write letters to your CST (child study team), and hold your hand all the way through the process of obtaining the best possible placement for your child and their “Special Needs.”
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