Parents of students with special needs may become frustrated with their child’s school district for any number of reasons. Feeling overwhelmed, they may look to a special education advocate to help them navigate the tricky legal waters of the educational system. A good advocate will help youyou’re your concerns addressed, but a poor one can actually get in the way of needed services. Here are some little-known facts to help you make a good choice.
1. Anyone can call themselves an advocate.
There are no training or certification requirements to become an advocate. While some parents may have a great deal of experience with their own child, they may not have any expertise with different disabilities. Ask your advocate if he or she has had any training or attended any courses in disabilities or law, and Google them to see how they have represented others.
2. An advocate is not the same thing as an attorney.
Some advocates may have experience with the law or some specialized training. They do not have the education or experience of a lawyer, and should not be your sole source of legal advice. You should not feel comfortable having them represent you in a due process hearing against school district lawyers. Special education law is complex, and constantly evolving, so you should ask how your advocate keeps up with these changes.
3. Advocates are not qualified to interpret evaluations.
Many advocates will charge clients to review evaluations. The only people who are able to accurately interpret evaluations must have the same types of credentials as the person who wrote the report, such as a licensed specialist in school psychology or educational diagnostician for an IQ and achievement assessment. You wouldn’t want an untrained person looking at your x-rays. If they don’t hold those certifications, charging to look at a report appears to be obscuring their competence
4. They have to get paid somehow.
You may be told that your advocate is trying to be a champion for children with special needs. In reality, this is a job, however well-intentioned he or she may be. If they can’t convince the school district to pay them, you will most likely be footing the bill. Many advocates will approach the school district during your case and ask for money to “go away”. Does that sound like they have your best interests at heart?
5. Your advocate will make more money if you go to a hearing.
Parents may be pleased with what the district offers during the mediation process. If you agree, take the offer. Ask your advocate to explain in detail why they recommend continuing on with the due process hearing. If they are promising you a big cash award, remember that they are not an attorney, and nothing is sure where the law is involved. Your best bet is to go with someone affiliated with a community service agency who does not have a financial interest in the outcome of your case.
6. Advocates often visit parent meetings and other trainings to find new clients.
This is similar to lawyers chasing ambulances. Beware of advocates who introduce themselves and ask questions designed to make you want to sue the school district. Beware of those who will breach confidentiality by giving out names of former clients and personal information and those who can’t provide you with some type of background information. Do you want to trust your child’s education to a complete stranger with questionable qualifications?
7. School district employees are often working in the best interest of your child.
While you may have had some negative experience with school personnel, educators are not universally evil or stupid. There are good teachers and poor teachers, just as there are wonderful doctors and terrible doctors. You can work together with the school to create a program for your youngster.
8. Your advocate may be getting in the way of your child receiving services.
If your advocate stops the IEP Team (ARD in Texas) Meetings, the school is prevented from offering your child the help he or she needs. Poor behavior in these meetings (shouting, cursing, talking over other committee members) gets in the way of IEP business for your youngster. Make sure the demands they make are in line with what your child actually needs.
9. Rudeness and bullying tactics often backfire.
Your mother was correct. You CAN catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Calling staff members names, making insulting comments, and acting in an unprofessional manner won’t help you make progress. In fact, it may hurt you when the tapes are entered into evidence during the due process hearing. Proper behavior will hasten the process of finding help for your student.
10. You know your child and his or her needs better than anyone else.
Don’t give up your voice in a meeting with school staff members. The best advocates will offer you advice during the team meetings, not remove your opportunity to speak. This is the best way to ensure that all your concerns are addressed appropriately.