The Challenges of Special Education in San Mateo County, and How Legal Aid is Addressing Them

Blog author Iliana Arbeed

Blog author Iliana Arbeed

Recently, I accompanied Legal Aid attorney Michelle de Blank to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting for a six year old boy I’ll call “Jonathan.” Jonathan has ADHD, a disorder that hinders his ability to learn in a large classroom setting despite his average cognitive capabilities. Although he struggles at school, many children like him flourish with appropriate intervention and assistance in the classroom.
 
Students with disabilities are guaranteed a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA includes provisions for an IEP, under which a team of individuals involved in the child’s care and education convene to set educational guidelines based on the child’s individual needs. To qualify for an IEP with special services under IDEA, a child must have one of the thirteen disabilities listed in the statute.
 
Since IDEA’s enactment in 1975, the number of children and youth (aged 3-21) diagnosed with learning disabilities has steadily increased. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 13% of all children and youth enrolled in public school in 2015 had disabilities that qualified them for IDEA services. Learning disabilities are even more prevalent among children who experience some degree of trauma or poverty, which affect nearly all of Legal Aid’s clients.   
 
Even if children qualify for IDEA, school districts do not always provide them with the services they need to make it through school. Thus, Legal Aid steps in to ensure that school districts are doing their job in providing the appropriate services to their students with disabilities. A significant portion of that work involves making sure that parents’ voices are heard throughout the IEP process, so they do not have to struggle to feel involved in their child’s education. Our attorneys ensure that each parent is educated about their child’s rights, and their concerns presented and taken seriously during IEP meetings before any decisions are made.
 
Since the majority of Legal Aid’s clients are not English-speaking, they are less able to access information about the laws that protect their children, leaving them at a disadvantage during IEP meetings. Even at meetings where an interpreter is present, there remains a barrier to direct communication that creates a feeling of detachment from the process, preventing parents from raising questions of their own. For example, in the meeting I attended, I noticed repeatedly that the interpreter could not keep up with the discussion through no fault of her own, and failed to communicate everything that was being discussed. More often than not, it felt as though Jonathan’s mother was not even there. Thankfully, Michelle’s ability to speak Spanish allowed her to communicate directly with Jonathan’s mother, enabling her to be more involved in the process.
 
Even if they do not face the added challenge of a language barrier, many parents remain silent during IEP meetings while other parties decide the best course of action for their child. With so many voices and opinions at these meetings—between the child’s therapist, psychiatrist, teachers, and health care providers—it  can be difficult for any parent to get a word in edgewise. During the meeting I attended, the mother did not voice her consent to the IEP or her personal insight about Jonathan’s condition until prompted and encouraged by Michelle.
 
Even if they disagree with the outcome of an evaluation or IEP, parents often feel pressured to sign special education agreements without voicing their concerns. Without legal advocacy, many parents are observers in their child’s education process, when they should be participants. Understanding the importance of early intervention in special education, Legal Aid attorneys like Michelle work closely with parents to ensure that students with disabilities in San Mateo County are not underserved.