Former Member of the Executive Board of OCLDA.
After retiring from a school district where I had been employed as a psychologist, I searched for another meaningful activity.
As I began a private practice of assessment for youngsters and adults, I discovered that 90 percent of my practice concerned problems young people had learning in school. After giving my report of their young person’s current level of functioning to the parents, I was asked to present my report to the child’s school.
The very first school meeting I was asked to attend was not at all the way my former district conducted IEPs. And I called the parents’ school staff’s attention to my perceptions. I was told by that staff that that is the way they always conducted IEPs and despite the objections I raised, the school staff proceeded to violate the special education laws as I had known them.
That experience taught me that it was imperative to learn the legal facts governing special education and I sought information from the Team of Advocates for Special Kids (TASK). TASK offered classes on legal requirements and procedures. TASK presented the class with the “California Special Education Programs: A Composite of Laws,” and encouraged us to read it In addition, TASK publications were mailed to those who had membership in TASK. I joined and found they very helpful. My misgivings about the first IEP I had attended were correct and through TASK I learned the next steps to take to assist the parents to obtain services for their child.
Again and again TASK staff emphasized that an advocate had to be familiar with all aspects of special education law, and should use this information to work constructively with school staff and parents to support the learning of the child.
As a psychologist, my primary focus was on the child in question, his/her strengths and weaknesses for learning, the appropriateness of the school program which often determined the progress the child had made.
The third aspect of my concern was the perspective of the child’s parents that had led them to seek out an evaluation for their youngster. Some of the children referred to me had been assessed by their school staff and other youngsters had not been evaluated although their parents had asked for assessment from their school.
An Advocate is a person who “Pleads the cause for another” (Webster’s New Collegiate dictionary); in contract to an Attorney who is defined as a “Legal agent qualified to act for suitors and defendants in legal proceedings.” (as cited above).
An advocate must have knowledge of the laws in cases of special education matters, but can only plead for the parent/child rights. When the school staff and the parents cannot reach agreement, the advocate may advise the family of their rights to a Mediation or a Fair Hearing. Depending on the complexities of the disagreements between the family and the school, the advocate may suggest that the family seek legal counsel. If, in the opinion of the advocate and the family, the matters are less difficult, Mediation may be attempted first, and the advocate may present the matter(s) for a mediator’s consideration; legal counsel may not be needed.
In summary, the first issue an advocate must consider is the learning abilities of the child, his/her school progress, the youngster’s health, vision and hearing skills, and a family history of his/her development.
The second concern for the advocate is the purpose for which the parents are seeking assistance outside of the school. Are their issues legitimate according to the special education laws that govern California?
The third concern for the advocate relates to the child’s school staff and the measures that the school has taken to address the concerns of the parents for their child.
Although an advocate is not an attorney, I have found it helpful to consult others, evaluate the issues presented by the parents, and then judge whether the parent/child issues do indeed appear to present an arbitrary situation that cannot be agreed upon by the parents and the school so that legal assistance must be considered.
The State of California has provided a system for resolving such disagreements. A family may seek assistance from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, free of charge, to provide Mediation and if resolution cannot be reached at that level, McGeorge will then provide a Hearing Officer to adjudicate the case. If resolution is not reached at that level, the family may proceed to the Civil Court system.
Advocacy, hopefully, can contribute by resolving disagreements between the parents and school staff. The advocate needs to be well informed to be able to work constructively with the families and the schools.
Orange County Learning Disabilities Association, P.O. Box 25772, Santa Ana, CA 92799-5772. 714-547-4206.
Team of Advocates for Special Kids (TASK) 100 West Cerritos Ave. Anaheim, CA 92605, 714—533-8275
California Special Education Programs: A Composite of Laws, California Department of Education CDE Press, Sales Office, P.O. Box 271, Sacramento, CA 95812-0271. Or to order, call 1-800-995-4099. May cost $20.00.
Special Education: Rights and Responsibilities. Community Alliance for Special Education (CASE) and Protection and Advocacy, Inc. (PAI). Southern California Area Office, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 902, Los Angeles, CA 90010.
Wright, Peter, W.D. and Wright, Pamela Darr. Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, Harbor House Law Press, Hartfield, Virginia 23071.
Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Dr. Shohet is no longer available for testing or for advocacy. We were hopeful that her chemotherapy treatment for her leukemia would be successful. But that was not to be. Dr. Shohet passed away on October 9, 2003. She is an irreplaceable lady who will be terribly missed by us all.
Jacqueline M. Shohet, Ph.D. Psychologist