Parental Rights in Special Education

Start understanding what rights parents and caregivers have in the special education process-- and how you can start building stronger relationships with parents!

What rights do parents have?

Far too often, parent rights are reduced to a sheet of paper shoved at them at the beginning of the meeting or a letter from an angry lawyer. Parent rights, however, are at the heart of special education and a stronger understanding of them can empower parents and save teachers from blunders.

Special education exists primarily because parents fought for it. Their children were being excluded from schools and denied an education and they fought through the courts to get the rights of their children recognized. The federal law that exists is the result of their unending advocacy–and as a result it provides them rights that others parents do not have.

In  general, parents in our educational system have the legal right to remove their children from public schools but not to shape what their children learn in public schools and what services their children receive. Parents of students with special needs have far more rights than, for example, the parents of English Learners or low-income students or gifted students. The federal IDEIA law (formerly IDEA) that governs special education is unique in education in the rights it gives parents.

Here is a partial list of their rights:

  • Parents have the right to request assessment for special education for their student. AKA if a parent believes that their child needs more support it is their legal right to request services. (Fine print: They have to request it in writing and the school is required to respond, not to assess).
  • Parents have the right to know about and sign off on all formal assessments BEFORE they are given to their children (that assessment plan might seem meaningless, but parents can say no to any assessment or request others).
  • Parents have the right to deny services for their child. A school cannot give or change a child’s special education services without written permission from a  parent.
  • Parents have the right to be meaningfully included in all legal (IEP) meetings about their child.
  • Parents have the right to request written copies of all IEP document up to five days prior to a meeting.
  • Parents have the right to request all written communications and materials about their child (aka your school emails as well as their child’s formal record).
  • Parents have the right to request additional services for their child (fine print: schools have to consider the request but the related services only have to assess if they believe it is warranted).
  • Parents have the right to deny any related services for their child.
  • Parents have the final say on their child’s program — including hours (Fine print: schools don’t have to agree– but an IEP is not legal until a parent signs it).
  • Parents ALWAYS have the right to refuse to sign an IEP and to think about it (Fine print: If you are a parent, this is the ultimate power move. Schools are legally required to adhere to timelines. You are not. It gives you back power in meetings. Take your time).
  • Parents have the right to bring schools to due process and mediation– they NEVER have to agree with the school.
  • Parents have the right to request alternative evaluations and to ask the district to pay for them (Fine print: This is a district issue, not a teacher one. Districts can fight back on paying).
  • Parents have the right to request alternative placements for their children.
  • Parents ALWAYS have the right to representation at meetings whether that is a lawyer or their best friend.
  • Parents, provided there is advance notification, have the right to record meetings (Fine print: Normally this is audio and schools can push back– but audio is pretty standard).

Get the picture? Parents have a LOT of rights.

If you haven’t ever had the joy of an advocate at your meeting or an outraged parent in your office, you are lucky. If you have, you know how brutal both can be, so save yourself some headaches:

  • Involve parents at every step. 
  • Meet with parents and talk about their concerns before ever opening an assessment. Never drop a random form on a parent.
  • Talk to parents before every IEP meeting. (Fine print: You can’t tell a parent before an initial IEP whether a child qualifies, but you can still talk to them and build that relationship and line of communication).
  • Don’t blindside a parent in a meeting. Just like you, they hate it. Talk to them before a meeting!
  • Listen to parents. It is REALLY hard for parents to share their concerns during an IEP meeting– if instead of meeting with your doctor, you had to sit at a table with a team of twelve doctors all discussing your unfun medical issue, would you feel comfortable speaking up or just lie low and wish you had spoken afterwards? You need to talk to them before meetings and understand their worries, their concerns, and hopes– don’t just ask them at the end of the meeting when they are overwhelmed.

Notice a theme? Listen to parents. Talk to them. Don’t blindside them.

The biggest blunder you can make as a special education teacher is failing to build your relationship with families (the second is being lousy at your job).

Treat them as the experts on their children that they are– the advocates that they are– and never, ever assume that you know more or better for their child than they do.