In special education, the most challenging cases schools face aren’t necessarily the ones involving students with the most intense disabilities. Instead, schools might have the greatest difficulty managing cases involving the most demanding parents. Tense relationships can develop between the schools that attempt to provide for students and the parents who insist that what the schools provide is never enough. Progress can get stymied as the parties bicker. However, sometimes the students at the center of these flurries end up with better than average IEPs. Some adage about squeaky wheels would apply here.
Highly involved parents get disproportionate attention by the virtue of being demanding. These parents establish reputations that might follow them throughout their children’s school careers. School officials handle such cases with extra care. The school members of IEP teams give special attention to the wording of documents and have heightened insistence about the correct implementation of services. Nervousness over the possibility of due process leads to the creation of IEPs that indulge the whims of parents. In an effort to avoid conflict, schools can end up creating model IEPs.
This level of commitment to quality should be available for all students with IEPs, regardless of their parents’ relative involvement. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t. Schools scramble to appease persistent parents. With absentee parents, schools might succumb to complacency. School officials meet with frustration when attempting to correspond and collaborate with parents who would rather not be bothered. Calls to home go unanswered and unreturned. Certified mail gets returned undelivered. IEP teams have to meet without parents. These meetings can be little more than perfunctory formalities. Understanding that parents won’t be paying attention, teams might create generic IEPs so team members can move on with their respective days.
The imbalance in attention can disproportionately affect poor students. Schools serving impoverished communities often see less parental participation in IEP creation than schools in more affluent communities do. While multiple factors fuel the imbalance in opportunities between blighted and wealthy schools, parental attention to special education protocols widens the gap. This simply compounds the dearth of opportunities for students in underfunded schools.
Even in schools serving economically depressed communities, the most vocal parents are more likely than absentee parents to secure the best crafted and most carefully implemented IEPs for their children. What tends to happen in any school is these parents unintentionally take attention away from other students. Administrators and teachers focus on the sensitive cases while merely making time for less urgent cases. The attention shift isn’t just in the details of the documents. The less urgent cases actually can suffer as the more urgent ones consume school officials.
As cases become heated, school officials become immersed in documentation, possibly in preparation for mediation or due process hearings. Only so many hours exist in a workday. The layers of paperwork and protocol generated in sensitive cases quite literally devour the time available for school employees, causing them to have to delay more routine maintenance of other cases. Planning and preparing for instruction can get interrupted. Teachers can get called out of their classes to attend emergency meetings to deal with sensitive cases. Special education teachers frequently find they spend grossly imbalanced amounts of time and effort on just a handful of the students on their caseloads.
Parents can’t be blamed for this, however. They are entitled to want the best for their children. In many cases, parents have to be vocal and insistent because schools would otherwise fail to provide adequate support. While parents influence the actions of school officials, they aren’t the ones selecting to disregard less sensitive cases. School officials prioritize out of fear of legal sanctions. The root of this fear really is the special education law that allows parents to seek damages for mistakes made by schools. Ideally, schools would be able to provide for all students with special needs without being harangued to do so. With the myriad constraints schools face, the ideal can be out of reach. Complicating this are parents who demand something beyond the ideal.
For as time and resource consuming as this might be, school teams should create every IEP as though an attorney will be reviewing it. Scrutiny of this level—especially in the early grades—might simultaneously prevent later conflict with parents while ensuring effective programming for students. An early investment in program design could pay dividends for all parties involved. If solid programming and stable relationships are formed early, schools might not have to operate under educational triage later. Those squeaky wheels shouldn’t be the only ones getting grease. Actually, they shouldn’t have to be squeaky in the first place, but that might be chasing an ideal.