My 9-year-old, Jack, is a wonderful fourth grader full of intelligence and humor and fantastic hugs. He is creative and loves to read and is a master at Minecraft. He is also autistic and a student who needs a good amount of help at school, which means he needs an IEP—an Individualized Education Program—to help him access the same curriculum at school that other fourth graders use.
Jack's IEP team had our meeting yesterday to hammer out the details of his plan for next year, something that the families of all special education students in Montgomery County do at least once a year. As my husband and I sat with Jack's team and breezed through our meeting, it occurred to me how much IEP meetings have changed for my family.
I vividly remember my first high-stakes meeting. Jack was going into kindergarten, and his team was deciding what services he needed. I had just realized less than a week prior that I actually needed to do work to prepare for the meeting and to advocate for my son.
I was completely panicked.
I spent hours the weekend before that meeting reading books about special education and reviewing the law, poring over evaluations and reports for phrases explaining what my child needed, and writing a fact sheet about Jack in an effort to present him as a living, breathing person rather than a stack of papers.
I did the same thing for most of the subsequent meetings I have attended between then and now. This last meeting was to plan for Jack's upcoming fifth grade year. Happily, prep time was much shorter than usual and the outcome was satisfying, full of collaboration and mutual admiration for my wonderful son.
Our meetings have nearly always been amicable, but they have not always gone so smoothly. This isn't unusual. Parents of special needs students trade IEP meeting anecdotes like they are war stories—and there is a really good reason why.
Nearly 12 percent of the students in Montgomery County receive special education services. That means thousands of students and parents go through this process every year. Although parents (and students) are, under law, equal members of the IEP team, in reality, the deck is often stacked against families seeking services. The system is full of obstacles and it is exhausting, expensive, and emotionally draining to fight it, especially if MCPS has decided it doesn't agree with what you want for your child. Oppositional IEP meetings seem to be the norm across much of the country.
My family has had it easy. We've only had to hire one attorney and two educational consultants to attend meetings with us over the years. Although I cried at nearly every IEP meeting for the first four years of Jack's schooling, my son had teachers who cared enough about him to cry with me. We've had to fight the MCPS system for supports, but the educators and administrators who worked with my son mostly supported us. I could go on, but I think you understand.
We've put thousands of dollars and dozens of hours into preparing for these meetings. Still, ours is the easy story. You probably don't want to hear the hard stories. You might have them yourself.
These emotionally wrenching meetings always left me tense and with chattering teeth, strained from my nervous jaw clenching. I often cried and always felt bad about outlining all of my son's deficits—a necessary exercise if you want a child to get services or accommodations. The meetings were at once extremely high stakes, with your child's very future hanging on the outcome, and mind-numbing, as up to a dozen people collaborated to create legal speak in a 25- to 35-page document outlining everything from present levels of performance to goals for next year's teachers to work on.
Last year, my son's team sat through four or five meetings to help us change his placement to a school where he is happier and to which he is better suited. Despite having a wonderful teacher, Jack was in the wrong environment and needed to be moved. His self-esteem was suffering to an alarming extent, and he was having a hard time finding his place in his classroom.
He started this year in a new school and it has been wonderful. Our meeting yesterday was the first and only one we have attended this year. I didn't have to hire anyone with a specialized knowledge of the law to advocate on my son's behalf. I didn't have to create an exhaustive list of things my son can't do. The teachers and I laughed about the funny things that he does. I didn't need to cry.
IEPs are a wonderful thing. They are essential to ensure the rights and education of students with disabilities. They are a huge part of the road to giving kids with autism and other disabilities their best chance at a happy, successful life. When done well, they are a tremendous tool to give all students the opportunities they deserve.
I am grateful every day that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act gives my son and others like him the absolute right to attend school and be educated. I am happy that I have learned enough to be able to navigate the system for my son until the time that he can do it himself.
I know that I can't always count on future meetings being easy. Schools will change, personnel will change, and Jack's needs will change. For now, I plan on enjoying the best while remaining prepared for the worst.