If you are a Georgia parent of a special needs child, you should be aware of what laws are in place to protect you and your child. Special education laws are aimed to enhance the educational access of students with disabilities and the Individuals with Disabilities Improvement Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) ensures all children with disabilities are provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE). 

The parent, at all times, is the manager of the child’s education plan.  The school-based team, including the parent, must advise each other and work together as a team to develop an appropriate Individual Education Plan (IEP) that fits with the requirements of the law and, most importantly, is tailored to meet the specific and unique needs of the child.   Parents are an integral and important part of the school-based team, and the law requires that parental input be considered.  

Parents have the right to review their child’s educational records, obtain a private, independent educational evaluation of the child, be notified in writing in their native language when the school proposes to initiate ANY change to the child’s IEP, and the right to mediation to settle disputes between the school and the family.  The IEP process must be collaborative and dynamic.  

From a legal perspective, if parents have concerns about a school’s actions, in-actions, or services those concerns must be put within the following framework: 1) The appropriateness of the services; 2) The appropriateness of how they have been and are being delivered; 3) and, the inquiry into all available data and interventions.  The crux of the matter, as always, is the best interest of the child and if the school has implemented an effective IEP and provided the appropriate services as required by the IEP.  If parents are concerned about procedural issues, those concerns must be tied to how any violations of procedural issues have negatively affected the child or disrupted the services provided to the child.  Legally, if there are procedural issues that have not been followed, they are not actionable until they have negatively affected the child or disrupted the services provided to the child.  Parents have the right to ask questions! 

How can an Education Law Attorney Help? 

An education law attorney can help families ensure that the process is implemented to involve parents in meaningful ways. The role an attorney plays in this process is as a legal expert, regarding the legal issues that surround the provision of Special Education services.  The IEP process (development and implementation of an Individual Education Plan) relies on information that is research based and data driven, and that is what the law requires.    

The reality is that schools often do not educate parents about these processes, or their rights.  Often, when parents seek answers or “waive the red flag,” nothing happens. Additionally, schools are not obligated in any way to allow non-attorney advocates to participate in these processes or meetings.  Schools will not allow a non-attorney advocate to speak for parents.  Parents need information and an experienced voice in these processes. 

Parent Testimonial:  Why Hire an Attorney?   

My name is Kirk Lunde, and I am the adoptive father of two complex sons. They were both diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Sensory Processing Disorder before they entered public school. When they started school in 2005, one in kindergarten and one in pre-k, their mother and I knew nothing… about anything. I have been dealing with “school issues” of all kinds since then.  

When people ask me the best way to “get the school to help” their child, my answer is instantaneous, automatic, and always “hire an attorney.” 

I understand this may appear to be an extreme answer. Isn’t there an easier way? Unfortunately, not very often and only if the parents are willing to dedicate countless hours to learning about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and even more hours dealing with the school.  An attorney who practices education law will know “the system” and should educate you in why the guardrails and hoops are in place and how to navigate them. 

A common question is, “how do I get someone to reply to my email or return a phone call?” The Georgia Department of Education (GA DOE) will tell you district employees should respond in a “reasonable amount of time.” That very vague time frame means something different to school districts than it means to the rest of the world. Special Education coordinators will say a response within two weeks is a “reasonable amount of time.” There is nothing in the law which obligates school districts to respond at all. The only way to consistently get a response from a school district within a day or two, is if an attorney contacts them. Attorneys command attention.  

Very commonly, Special Education administrators will say misleading things to parents, freely, often, and with smiles on their faces. Having an attorney on your side of the table will prevent that from happening.  

When you bring an attorney to a meeting, the school district will bring their attorney, so the school district has “equal representation.” You want the school district’s attorney in your meetings to provide accountability over the Special Education administrators. It helps the school identify areas where staff need more training. Hiring an attorney increases the effectiveness of each meeting, ensures action, and prevents delay.  

When an attorney represents a family in these processes, instead of frustrations, delays, and “misinformation,” working with the school district can be efficient, timely and honest.  

The short answer to “why hire an attorney” is because your children are worth it.   

The author is an Atlanta attorney who heads a special education team at Brian M. Douglas & Associates.

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