How to Get School-Based Supports for Your Child

Getting the right school supports can prevent child welfare involvement

Interviews by Cynthia Zizola, Shakira Paige, Ray Watson, Keyna Franklin and Melissa Landrau

Many parents at Rise have described how their child’s school denied their child testing for educational disabilities or supports to help a child learn in school, even when the child was clearly struggling. Then, when problems escalated, the schools called child protection.

There are organizations and people who can help parents get the help they need, when they need it. In NYC, Advocates for Children provides advice and legal aid to ensure that low-income families have access to quality education for their children. Promise Project helps low-income families properly evaluate their children for learning disabilities and get the services they need.

We spoke with Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children; Lillian Murphy, senior project manager at Promise Project; and Lorenzo Torres, supervising education coordinator at Promise Project to find out about children’s rights and the IEP process.

Q: As a parent, what steps should you take when you see your child struggling in school? 

Torres: A child might be behind in one subject or struggling in general, or the child might be acting out if he or she is not able to do some of the work. 

The first thing that parents can dois to request an intervention that the school can provide to any student who is struggling, like small group instruction or one-on-one help with reading. A parent can request an intervention through the teacher or through the special education team at the school.

If the school doesn’t offer you an intervention or if the intervention isn’t helping, then you might want to ask for your child to be evaluated for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) through your school’s IEP team. An IEP lays out the services and supports that children who have a disability need to succeed in the classroom, like technologies that can allow them to participate in lessons and accommodations that will help them focus and learn.

Moroff: IEPs are not just for academic issues, either. They are for students who are struggling with any aspect of the school experience, including emotional and behavioral challenges. 

Not every child who is struggling is going to need an IEP. There may be other things that can be put in place, like school policies to deal with behavioral needs. But if a student has a disability that is leading to those behavioral struggles, then the process should be the same as it would be for a kid with a learning disability. 

Q: What is the IEP process?

Torres: The IEP team usually includes: the parent, a special education teacher, a general education teacher, a school district representative, your child (when appropriate), and someone who can interpret the results of an evaluation (usually a school psychologist). The team may also include speech or occupational therapists, a social worker, an interpreter, or a family friend.

The team decides if a child is eligible for an evaluation, discusses the evaluation results, and decides whether a child is eligible for an IEP. They also decide—with the parent and child—what services and supports the student should receive as part of the IEP.

Parents can request an evaluation for an IEP as many times as they want. If there’s no response from the IEP team to your request for an assessment, go to the school principal. If the teacher, the IEP team and the principal do not respond, parents can submit a written request to their Committee on Special Education (CSE) chairperson. In NYC, there are different CSE offices depending on the child’s school district. 

It’s important to remember that if you make any request, it has to be done in writing. If there’s no paper trail, there’s no proof that you requested something.

If your child has an IEP but you’re seeing no change in your child’s performance, you can request a new IEP evaluation.

Q: Why is it sometimes so difficult to get a school to agree to an evaluation or IEP for a child who is struggling, or take so long to get an evaluation and supports in place?

Moroff: Sometimes families and schools just don’t agree. A family may think that their student needs supports and services that the school doesn’t think the student needs, or the other way around. It can take a while to sort through that. 

There are also times that schools don’t have the funding immediately available for a particular support or service and are hesitant to ask their district or the Department of Education for help figuring out the funding. But it should be the case that the DOE will help them figure out how to pay for the services the student needs.

There are timelines that each district needs to follow that limit the wait between the request for evaluation to the evaluation itself, and the wait to meet together to discuss services and put them in place. Schools have 10 school days from the time the initial referral is made to get consent to evaluate from the parent. After that, they have 60 school days to complete evaluations, hold the meeting and put services into place. There are some exceptions to that rule, but that’s the working timeline. We want parents to know their rights so that they can notice when there are timeline violations.

Q: How might a parent’s finances affect a child’s chances of getting the right supports?

Moroff: The simplest answer is that families with resources often hire lawyers. Lawyers and advocates know the system and know how to help a family assert their rights. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s why organizations like Advocates for Children exist. We provide low-income families with educational legal assistance, host parent trainings, run a helpline, and do large-scale litigation and a lot of policy work to make sure all students have access to a quality education.

Murphy: If you are a family who has a lot of resources, you can also pay for a private neuropsychological exam. 

Torres: Neuropsychological evaluations are more comprehensive than the typical school psychoeducational evaluations and include an in-depth assessment of the child’s skills and abilities linked to brain function. They also provide recommendations for the types of interventions that may be effective, given the student’s specific strengths and weaknesses.

Murphy: The Promise Project provides full neuropsych evaluations to low-income students who may have an undiagnosed or underdiagnosed learning issue. 

Torres: We also educate parents as much as possible on what their rights are. 

Moroff: If you can’t work out a conflict with the school even when you assert your rights, reaching out for assistance is often a good idea. Really, it’s never a bad idea to talk through parental concerns with a specialist.

Q: What if the public school system isn’t able to offer your child the help needed to address a disability. Is it true that the DOE can pay tuition for a private school?

Moroff: The DOE may end up paying for private education if it fails to identify an appropriate placement within the public school system within the timeline, or when there is no program that could possibly meet the needs of that student. It has to be a school that specializes in working with students with similar disabilities and similar educational needs. 

Q: Have you seen parents get caught up in the child welfare system when they haven’t been able to access help for their child? Why is it important for parents to seek support early on?

Moroff: We definitely have cases where child welfare is called by schools when parents and schools don’t agree on supports and services a student may need. I can’t give you an answer to how often, but it’s often enough and always troubling. 

If a family is actively working to arrange what they see as appropriate support for their child, even if they’re not seeing eye-to-eye with school staff, I believe that more often than not, ACS workers will see that for what it is: parents concerned about and caring for their children and simply not agreeing with the school.

Still, when parents are confused by the IEP process, having trouble navigating it, or simply not seeing eye-to-eye with school staff about what their children might need in terms of special education supports, it’s always a good idea to be proactive: to learn your rights, to understand the options, and to speak with someone at a place like Advocates for Children who can help you sort things out and figure out the best way to move forward and support your child. It can be overwhelming and confusing, but the answer is almost never to disengage or ignore a child’s needs.

Access guides and resources related to students with disabilities and special education from Advocates for Children.

Call the Advocates for Children helpline at (866) 427-6033.

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