Today I want to talk about the practical application of some advice you’ve probably already heard: “Get it in writing.” In other words, whenever the school agrees to do something you asked for, refuses to do something you asked for, or described how it will provide a service it has agreed to provide, you should try to get that in writing instead of relying on your memory or the memory of the school employee who told school district’s position. This is excellent advice, and you don’t need an official form or a mailed letter. For example, an email is a written statement because it is recorded in a way that some third party could later see the content of the message.
Unfortunately it is sometimes very hard to get school officials to give you a written statement. There are many reasons for this fact, including that school officials are very busy folks have a lot of drains on their time. Even when they have agreed to do something and want to help your child, they may not be able to find time to prepare a written description of what they already said. In that circumstance, I recommend that you write what I call a confirmation letter. The essential ingredients of a confirmation letter are:
• Thanking the recipient for the conversation
• Polite list of what the other person said
• Description of when the conversation occurred
• Request for clarification
Dear Principal Smith,
Thank you so much for your conversation on Friday, March 1, 2013. You told me that the school would be providing a math tutor during study hall and would be changing which gym class my child was placed in. Additionally, the school will not be providing additional occupational therapy time because the school did not feel it was necessary given the current levels of performance. Thank you again for taking the time to talk with me. If I have misunderstood you in any way, please let me know.
Sincerely, Concerned Parent
The most important part of this letter is that it is written towards agreement. In other words, you should describe the facts so that the person receiving the letter will agree that you have accurately described the conversation. Do not write a description that the district could think was spinning or twisting the facts. It does not matter whether someone from the school district responds to your letter because if the district later claims that you misunderstood the conversation, you can always note that no one said anything at the time you sent the letter.
In a confirmation letter, you should try as much as you can not to ask for things or accuse the school district of doing anything wrong. The purpose of a confirmation letter is not to change the school district’s mind but simply to show them that you are paying attention and that you are trying to engage with the school district. You should ask for what you think are appropriate services for your child, but the confirmation letter is probably not the right time to do so.
There are two benefits to writing a confirmation letter. First, your calm tone and ability to agree on the facts shows that you willing and capable of actively collaborating with the school district to prepare your child’s IEP. This is very important because judges will look for parents to collaborate with the school district whether the school district deserves collaboration or not. Second, if a case is in front of the judge, neither you nor the person you spoke with will remember the conversation clearly because the conversation will have been some time in the past. Further, both the school official and you will have strong incentives to remember the conversation favorably to your own side and the judge will recognize that when evaluating and deciding who to believe. By contrast, a written statement made at about the time of the conversation is very helpful for the judge in deciding what was or was not communicated or promised to you as part of your child’s special education plan.
April 19: I will be presenting “Understanding the Basics of Special Education Law” at the Art it Out Therapy Center in Marietta at 10 am. The presentation is free, but please RSVP to 770‑726‑9589.
Have your own event for children with special needs? Submit it here for inclusion in future events lists.