One of the first things I have my clients do is round up all their documents regarding their child – medical records, specialist records, school records, notes from teachers, standardized test results, etc. I ask them to put them in reverse chronological order, with the earliest documents on the bottom and the most recent on the top.
There is a very good reason for doing this – it creates an excellent way for me, and for the client, to review their child’s educational history and how medical diagnoses and treatments affect their educational progress. We can each read through the file, or stack, or mountain, as the case may be, from bottom to top, and get a pretty comprehensive understanding of how the child has arrived at the point where the parent is seeking special education services, and my services as well.
We can see what the school has done, if anything, over time, which teachers were on the ball and which weren’t, and we sometimes, speaking as a parent, find out that we have fallen short from time to time as well. Having the documents arranged and collected in this manner is a real eye-opener.
This also helps highlight which documents are missing, and there will be some gaps. One of the things I do, early in my relationship with the client, is a document review. I check to see if there is a full set of grades, standardized test results, documentation supporting any special ed services, and so forth. There is very rarely a complete set, and that’s absolutely normal.
When that happens, it’s important to fill in the blanks by sending the school a FERPA letter. Further information on what FERPA means and what should be in the school records is here . Here is a sample FERPA letter, which can be altered to fit the child’s specific information:
City, State, Zip
Mr. , Principal
City, State, zip
Re: Name of student
As you are aware, my child is a student at Uncooperative School (or “has been found eligible for special education and related services and currently has an IEP”). In order for me to have a clearer picture of my child’s educational history, please either make available for review and photocopying or send me a complete copy of my son’s entire cumulative and confidential records.
Please be sure to include copies of all evaluations and actual test scores, any electronic communications, computer records or records stored on other media, and any personally identifiable records regarding my child. If there is a cost and policy about photocopies, please let me know immediately.
If you have questions about my request, please contact me at the number listed above.
Thank you for your assistance and quick response.
Cc: Name of, Lay Advocate
Name of, Special Ed Director
This letter must be signed by the parent, and it’s important to follow up on it. Usually the school will make copies and have the parent come in and get them. Sometimes they will only make them available and the parent has to come in and review the file and ask for specific copies. Other times they may refuse to make copies, and the parent should bring a camera or hand scanner and get copies that way.
It is often the case that the first letter does not do the job. Some records may have been sent off to the regional office of education, some records are purged annually and are no longer available, and very often schools do not include the emails which mention your child. In that case, I follow up with FERPA letters to the special ed folks, the regional office of ed., and a letter to the school which mentions missing documents and asks for a further search (and copies) or which nicely asks where these items might be.
Schools will not admit to having lost documents, and are often snarky enough to ignore the letter requesting additional or missing documents. It doesn’t matter – if you’ve sent a written request for the documents and/or an explanation, you have behaved reasonably and entered YOUR LETTER into the record. If you don’t get a response within 10 days, send a photocopy, clearly marked SECOND REQUEST (and add the second request date) all in red at the top in large print.
It can sometimes take six months before you can be sure you have exhausted every possible location where a document might be stored and before you are sure you have a comprehensive list of what’s still missing. That’s normal, too. Generally, the first two letters (first FERPA and first follow up) will unearth enough information to make it possible to move forward with reasonable accuracy and efficiency.
Keep copies of all the letters and emails you send, too. This saves time in finding addresses and contacts, and makes your records the best available should legal action become necessary down the road.
This dogged pursuit of every possible document relating to your child is the most valuable thing parents can do to assist themselves, their advocate, or their attorney in getting appropriate and timely services for a disabled child. There is a real wealth of information in longitudinal educational data – charts and graphs can be made showing lack of progress, decreasing scores over time, pinpoint areas of particular concern, show a puzzling relationship between class grades and standardized scores, and so on.
I have used this kind of information with consistent success and gotten real insight into the clients’ children, finding out things they haven't noticed in the face of more obvious problems. Visual presentations of data are winners in meetings, too – it’s hard for the school district to argue with their own data showing steadily decreasing abilities and scores. They don’t do this kind of reporting or analysis, but you should (or your advocate or other helper).
Your stack of paper will become pretty large, and lots of people are surprised by the eventual size of it. Make a copy of everything, put the originals away safely, and then keep the copies, in the order mentioned before, in a big, sturdy, three-ring binder with a divider for each year. Particularly important documents can be tagged with bright sticky notes so that you can find them easily in order to refer to them. You want copies, not originals, in your “working notebook” because you must not punch holes or make marks on your original documents, if at all possible – that’s why you store those elsewhere.
Bring your big, scary binder to each meeting until you have an IEP or 504 that you think is appropriate and complete. Over time, and with successful interactions with your school district, you will be able to retire the early information, since you won’t need to refer to it much. You can reduce your working binder to this year’s and the preceding year’s information, PLUS the complete set of standardized and special ed domain tests (and your visuals) and grades (and visuals). Remember, this is ALL current information to and from the school district and education personnel – your emails and letters, doctors’ note or letters, etc.
Do not, under any circumstances, give in to the urge to purge until your child has graduated high school, or if they have extended services to age 21, until those services expire. I guarantee you that you will never regret having collected, analyzed, and kept all this information.