Federal and state law give parents the right to be a member of their child’s IEP team and to be “meaningfully involved” in the IEP process. I adhere to the belief that a parent can’t be an equal member in the planning process without the ability and opportunity to visit their child’s classroom (or proposed classroom) to see the environment and how their child is functioning in that setting. Unfortunately, some school districts take the position that such visits, particularly when the classroom is a self-contained special education classroom, are not permitted. They hide behind the cloak of “confidentiality,” contending that if a parent visits the classroom, the parent will then know the identity of other students receiving special education classrooms. This, they further contend, would be a violation of the other children’s right to privacy. This is a misguided position.
Federal privacy laws such as FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) protect educational records, not the identity of a particular student. Think about it — if the identity of students were protected, parents would never be allowed into a school building for fear that they might see a student who was receiving special education services. Likewise, parents would not even be allowed to pick their children up at school for fear that they might “see” a student using a wheelchair or being walked out to their car by an Educational Assistant. Obviously, this would be absurd — parents do pick their children up from school, and they occupy the halls and classrooms of school buildings every day. As someone said to me as we were discussing this issue the other day, “our school wouldn’t exist without the PTO and the hands-on help from parents in classrooms every single day.” In short, the argument that the privacy rights of students trump a parent’s right to visit their child’s classroom is a loser.
The bottom line is that if you live in a school district that permits classroom observations, by all means, get into the classroom and see what’s going on. Of course, you must not be disruptive and if you think that your presence in the classroom would bother or distract your child, then try to send someone else that your child doesn’t know (like an advocate, friend, outside therapist, etc.) But get someone into the classroom who can report back to you on what the classroom looks like and how they think your child is functioning in that particular environment.
If you have the misfortune of living in a district that prohibits parent visits to the classroom, ask a lot of questions about this policy. First, ask whether the policy is in writing. If so, ask for a copy of the policy. Second, ask whether the policy applies to all parents or just to parents of students with disabilities. If the answer is the latter, consider filing a discrimination claim with the federal Office of Civil Rights. Sometimes, just by asking questions, you may get the administrators with whom you are dealing to change their minds. Often, they cannot support the policy when questioned, and they may just give in and allow you to make the requested visit.
If you hit a brick wall and the district refuses to let you visit your child’s classroom, then make sure that the refusal is documented. Include it in your “parent concerns” during your child’s next IEP meeting, ask for the district to put their refusal in writing (you can achieve this by making the request by email so that you have the paper trail), or ask for a formal prior written notice documenting the reasons for the district’s refusal. This way, in the unlikely event that you ever end up in court, you will have proof of both your request for the visit and the school’s denial.
So, if you haven’t visited your child’s classroom yet this year, call the school today and schedule a visit. You’ll be glad you did!!!
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Erin is the mother of three wonderful children, including a 12-year old son with Autism. Once a practicing lawyer, she now advocates for the educational rights of students with disabilities. She is also involved in community and professional theater in Nashville.