Education Law

When Do You Need a Special Ed Lawyer to Advocate for Your Child at School?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Federal law gives parents the right to have a meaningful say in decisions about their children’s special education. But sometimes they may need an attorney’s help to get the school district to provide the services their kids need.

Maybe your child is falling behind at school, and you don’t know how to get a proper assessment to see if the problem is a learning disability. Or if your child is already in a special ed program but isn’t making progress, you might be at a loggerheads with school officials about getting extra services or a different placement. Either way, you’re probably wondering if you can get results on your own, or if you need a lawyer to help protect your rights and your child’s future.

Do Parents Know Best?

Among the rights guaranteed in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), parents are entitled to participate and have a meaningful say in their children’s special ed program at every stage of the process, from preparing the plan for an eligibility evaluation to working out all the details in the annual individualized education program (IEP). Many parents are perfectly capable of acting as effective advocates for their children with disabilities. After all, they’re usually in the best position to know their kids’ challenges and strengths. And they’re strongly motivated to get the best results possible.

However, special education law is complicated and can be difficult to understand. Some of the wording is open to interpretation, and it may take knowledge of court decisions to argue your position with the school. In addition, states and local school districts have their own rules and policies for following the federal law. And if you can’t work out disagreements with the school, you may have to go to a formal hearing—or even court.

How to Decide When a Lawyer Can Help

All of this might be overwhelming for some parents, leading them to think they need outside help or advice from a lawyer. If you find yourself in that position, there are several questions to consider:

  • Do you have the time, energy, and abilities to do the research, go to the meetings, and act as a forceful, effective advocate for your child? If not, you may find it easier to have an attorney take control—or at least help at certain points in the process.
  • Does your child have complex needs? Whenever a student requires more services, or there are complicated placement issues, school districts may balk at the expense or trouble. An experienced special ed attorney has the knowledge and skills to handle these disputes.
  • Are you uncertain about the strength of your position? If you aren’t sure that you can prove your child qualifies for special ed or really needs all of the services you want, you might want to consult with an attorney who can evaluate your case. That way, you have more information before moving ahead.
  • Does the school district have legal representation on your case? If so, you may want to be on equal standing with your own attorney.
  • Do you have a good relationship with school representatives? If you do, they may become more guarded when you bring in a lawyer. But if you’re already having disagreements, an attorney isn’t likely to make things worse.
  • Can you afford to hire an attorney? Obviously, not everyone has the money to pay legal fees. You might be able to get help from some advocacy groups or nonprofits. Or, if you have some financial leeway, you could pay a lawyer just for advice or certain tasks (more on that below).

A la Carte Legal Help

Working with an attorney isn’t all or nothing. You may decide to hire an attorney to be your formal representative and handle the entire process, from getting the initial evaluation to approving the IEP. Or you may do most of the work yourself and consult with an attorney for advice at certain points along the way. A lawyer can help with specific tasks, such as:

  • getting all of your child’s school records, particularly if the district is putting up roadblocks
  • helping you prepare for eligibility or IEP meetings, including writing draft IEPs
  • attending the meetings
  • reviewing various forms before you sign them
  • researching specific issues that come up
  • negotiating with school district officials to work out disagreements informally
  • preparing for and attending formal hearings on disputes or preparing administrative complaints, and
  • representing you in court if you sue the school district.

Go to the main FAQ page on special education and the IDEA.

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