Parents of Children with Disabilities in Georgia Fight for Their Student’s Rights
June 13, 2020 (Georgia) — Over 160,000 children in Georgia’s education system have individualized education programs, or IEPs, which are written plans for students with disabilities. A student’s IEP is reviewed and updated at least once a year with their team, who are usually parents, school faculty and optionally, the student and a neutral facilitator.
These plans are nationally mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents new to special education often need additional resources to understand the IEP process and their rights, and sometimes during IEP meetings, parents are not always provided all of the options available to children by the school. Parents’ and students’ legal rights are outlined in IDEA, but without consulting outside resources or community support to navigate the process, many parents are conflicted.
Due to lack of resources, parents of students with disabilities are struggling to navigate the roadmap of Georgia’s K-12 education supports. Viviana Fernandez, a Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) advisory member, fought for two years for her son, Cameron, and his rights as a student to attend the school of his choice. Cameron, now 18, was the first student with Down syndrome to attend Britt Elementary School.
“...I truly feel from the bottom of my heart that Cameron is who he is today because he was included from the very first day, first of all in our family…and then after two years of a battle, in his elementary school,” Fernandez said.
“Unless you’re in the educational system, it’s almost like you don’t know what they’re talking about. Information is not volunteered to you necessarily; you have to know what to ask,” added Teresa Heard, parent advocate and GCDD council member.
IEPs also hold a role in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports (GNETS) system, a statewide program currently under litigation under a lawsuit filed by the United States Department of Justice versus the State of Georgia for being in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by funding, implementing and supporting a statewide, segregated school system for students with disabilities.
If a student is having a problem in the classroom, and becomes known as a “behavior kid,” then the focus becomes on the behavior and tactics move to compliance rather than adjustment. The “compliance” can easily mean a referral into the GNETS program, which can digress away from the goals of the IEP if parents are not informed and empowered.
According to Leslie Lipson, founder and principal of Lipson Advocacy, parents should strategize with the student’s IEP and not transition the conversation to GNETS. This can be done in three ways: 1) the goals in the IEP should drive placements and supports, such as inclusive settings; 2) outline the strengths students display in the community or family gatherings; 3) make their kids become involved in their community through extracurricular activities, receiving mentorship and more.
By sticking to those strategies, many students who are at risk of being transitioned into non-inclusive learning environments can stay at less restrictive schools with the rest of their peers.
Recently, there have been new initiatives meant to improve the IEP process, such as Georgia’s Student-led IEPs and Facilitated IEPs. Facilitated IEPs allow a neutral third party into the IEP meeting, whereas Student-led IEPS allow the student to advocate and get involved in their own IEP process from an earlier age.
Though there is still progress to be made, there are now in-school and community resources to help parents maneuver through the process. Along with resources for parents like Parent to Parent of Georgia, a mentorship program that is free and available to parents of kids with disabilities throughout the state, there are programs to allow the student to get involved as well, that prepare self-advocates to participate in their IEP processes and know how to advocate for what they need.
To learn more about the special education laws and organizations that can help the IEP process specific to Georgia, read more in GCDD’s Making a Difference Spring 2020 magazine.
About the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities:
The mission of GCDD is to advance social change, public policy, and innovative practices that increase opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families to thrive where they live, learn, work, play and worship in Georgia’s communities. www.gcdd.org