How to Ensure Your Child’s Needs Are Understood by an SRO
SROs. IEPs. If you have a child in the public school system, you are probably familiar with both abbreviations. If your child is a student with special needs, you likely know better than most how important it is that school resource officers (SROs) are aware of and understand individual education programs (IEPs). For instance, if your child’s IEP includes guidelines and protections regarding how they should be treated if any disciplinary matters arise, it is a good idea that not only your child’s teacher but also the school’s resource officer know about those protections. The law is clear that IEPs are to be followed and enforced. However, this is not always the case.
According to a recent report by FOX Chattanooga, there are concerns that many school districts throughout Tennessee are not adhering to IEPs – and the state’s lack of oversight may, in the words of one parent, be making these contracts “obsolete.” Per the article, concerned parents and advocates claim that Tennessee “rarely reviews IEPs and has little motivation to review them because families don’t have the money to pursue legal action.” Former Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) assistant commissioner Theresa Nicholls shared with FOX Chattanooga that during her tenure, IEPs were reviewed through sampling. This process involved the TDOE reviewing a “handful” of IEPs from each district and using those samples to determine if compliance based on how the IEPs were put together, how they were written, and how they addressed student needs. According to Nicholls, this sampling system was faulty in part because only 10 IEPs were reviewed from each school district, regardless of the size of the district. Depending on the size of the school district, this number could represent fewer than 1% of the district’s IEPs.
Lack of IEP oversight not the only issue.
In addition to the state’s lack of oversight on IEPs, parents and advocates say that each county’s documentation process for IEP complaints may also be an issue. Some counties, for example, only record filed complaints. So, if a parent or guardian emails with a complaint regarding their child’s IEP, that complaint is not available. Complaints are often not recorded separately or in aggregate, which means that they can only be found via individual searches of student files. This makes tracking IEP complaints challenging, which in turn makes it difficult to identify and document any larger issues with IEP creation and compliance.
In fact, reportedly Tennessee is currently at risk of losing more than $328 million in school funding as a result of a federal report regarding the “misuse of funds for children with disabilities.” The funding, which is part of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is intended to support special education, low-income community schools, and migrant education. According to the report, the state “used the money inappropriately or didn’t provide documentation.”
Connecting your child’s IEP and your school’s SRO
While the lack of state oversight regarding IEPs can be disheartening for the parent or guardian of a child with special needs, there are things you can do to advocate on your child’s behalf with regard to SROs:
- Meet the SRO. If your child is a student with special needs, you likely already know the main players in their school – their teacher or teachers, administrators such as the principal and any vice principals, and the special education teachers and other professionals on their IEP team. However, have you ever met the SRO in your child’s school? Meeting with the SRO may help to ensure that they know who your child is and understand the parts of your child’s IEP that involve discipline and behavior management. At the very least, the SRO and school administrators will know that you are paying attention and are advocating for your child.
- Ask questions. Find out exactly how your child’s school, and the district as a whole, handles discipline. For instance, what is the protocol for dealing with a student who is acting out? Are students restrained? If so, how and under what circumstances? How and when are parents and guardians notified about such actions? Drill down and ask specific questions, and if possible, get these policies in writing. In all likelihood, these policies do not take into consideration the special needs of some students, including your child.
- Document everything. As the parent or guardian of a child with special needs, you are almost certainly already doing this. However, it bears repeating: Maintain careful, detailed notes on any meeting, conversation, email, or other contact – regardless of how small or “minor” it may seem – that you have with school or district officials, including the school SRO, regarding your child’s IEP, your child’s specific needs, any behavioral issues, and their education. Include names, dates, and times whenever possible. When submitting any type of IEP complaint, be sure to keep a record of it for your own files. These notes and records may play an important role if you need to take legal action at any point.
- Consult an education lawyer. If you do not already have an education lawyer who can speak to you regarding your child’s IEP, consider getting one. An attorney experienced in special education can ensure that your child’s IEP is in compliance with state and federal law. Your attorney can review district polices and any other documentation from IEP team meetings or discussions to make sure your child’s rights are protected, and can attend IEP team meetings regarding your child as well as IEP due process hearings. And, if the district or school is not complying with your child’s IEP, your attorney can take legal steps to force them to comply. Likewise, if your child is disciplined by an SRO outside of the protections outlined in your child’s IEP, you may be able to take legal action.
As the FOX Chattanooga report shows, the apparent lack of state oversight of IEPs in Tennessee may make it difficult to ensure your child is treated appropriately by their school’s SRO. Depending on the circumstances and the action taken, your child could suffer physical, mental, or emotional injuries. At the Law Office of Perry A. Craft, PLLC can help. We know state and federal education law, including IDEA, and we stand ready to fight to protect your child’s right to an education. Give us a call or complete our contact form to speak with an experienced education law attorney.
Perry A. Craft has dedicated his life to helping people in need. He has tried, settled, or resolved numerous civil and criminal cases in State and Federal courts, and has represented teachers and administrators before school boards, administrative judges, and the state Board of Education. Learn more about Attorney Craft.