When it comes to educating and supporting kids with mental-health experiences, some parents and school districts have more experience and greater expertise than others. Your child's IEP is a dynamic document that will change over time as he grows and matures. Tweaks and refinements to your child's IEP are a given. Any such adjustments can usually be addressed at the annual IEP meeting or when you request a “reopening” of the IEP. However, some parents may encounter resistance from a school district when the IEP is reviewed or when revisions or modifications are requested. This may be because the district believes your child's challenges to be exclusively behavioral issues, and the district remains firm in maintaining that they are meeting the goals and objectives of the IEP to their best ability. On the other hand, some parents may become extremely frustrated believing that the school district doesn't “get” how to educate the child who is bipolar.
It's not pleasant to feel like you have no choice other than to battle your child's education system. Defending your rights may be exasperating and very stressful. But if you are repeatedly dissatisfied with your child's education, you may feel compelled to take further action. Remember that your child comes first, and you are her greatest advocate.
School districts are obligated to provide training opportunities for the continuing education of teachers. They may also seek outside technical assistance and compensate professional, third-party expertise as necessary, such as hiring a consultant knowledgeable about bipolar disorder or contracting with a skilled facilitator to train parents and educators. Ignorance can be used as an initial excuse, but it is not an acceptable long-term excuse where lack of knowledge or experience is concerned.
However, this means that parents should not be passive and exempt from supporting their district. As advocates, parents can serve as resources concerning their child's strengths and needs, as well as directing the district to viable resources and expertise wherever possible. Where conflict between parents and a school district persists, and it is believed that proper implementation of the IEP goals and objectives is not satisfactory, recourse is available as provided by the IDEA legislation.
Some disagreements are more readily resolved than others. Oftentimes, it may simply be a matter of each side respectfully listening to what another one is truly communicating. However, some issues need outside help. At any point that conflict arises with regard to the education of your child—and you have been unable to resolve that conflict—you may make a written request of the school district for an impartial due process hearing. The areas that this type of hearing may address include these:
Your child's identification and evaluation
Your child's placement
Implementation of your child's IEP
Within thirty days of your written request, the impartial due process hearing is to take place. The school district is required to submit your request to the office of dispute resolution within five days of its receipt by the school district's office. (Mailing your request with some sort of delivery confirmation is always advised.)
The impartial due process hearing is conducted by an “impartial hearing officer” who is a “fact finder.” Impartial hearing officers come from varied backgrounds and positions. They may be former attorneys, psychologists, or education administrators. (Such individuals are employed by your state government's education office of dispute resolution.) The hearing officer gathers all the evidence from both parties and makes a ruling on the issues as presented. The hearing officer's decision must be issued within forty-five days of your original request for the hearing. You should know that it is not uncommon for there to be delays in scheduling. Also, the hearing officer may not be as prompt as you'd wish in making her final determination to settle a dispute.
During any school dispute, your child must remain in his current educational placement—unless she is a danger to herself or others. Once the hearing officer's decision is made, either party may appeal that decision before an appeals panel within thirty days. The appeals panel must render a decision within thirty days after the request for the hearing officer's decision to be reviewed.
Hopefully, issues concerning meeting your child's educational needs can be resolved at a local level. Still, further options exist if you continue to feel dissatisfied after exhausting local administrative avenues. As an additional protection for kids, IDEA provides that action may be brought in any state court of competent jurisdiction, or in any district court of the United States. Commencing such action in federal court is not restricted by any statute of limitations, but it is advisable to file as early as possible. (It may be that there are time frame limitations for filing a case in your state court.)
Filing a case is intimidating, anxious, and draining for all persons involved. But precedents can be set when court rulings create significant changes in education law. The power of your desire to foster fair and equal opportunities for kids with differences (including your own child) shouldn't be underestimated. Real and lasting systems change can occur as a result.
There may be parents or former educators in your area who are savvy about special-education law. If you are in conflict with your child's school district, they may be available to support you in school meetings as a parent advocate. Connecting with other parents who have “been there, done that” can really boost your confidence level.
The Right Outlook
Finally, prior to getting to the point of formal action, it's going to be helpful for your child's educational team to adopt your “prevention, not intervention” outlook. If you can get some or all of them on board, you may naturally be drawn to certain allies that see potential in your kid. Special-education law attorney Linda Fusco offers some tips that can help the student who is bipolar in the school setting:
Find a trusted mentor for the student who can help him process events and situations.
Encourage involvement in an extracurricular activity or team sport.
Keep the lines of communication open and share information about the student's medication, emotional state, and progress.
Train the school staff in the nature of the student's disability experience.
Create a safe school environment where the student can express himself and is valued and accepted.
Have one staff member assume the role of the contact person for all matters regarding the student to assure continuity.
And finally, refuse as a school team to let the school experience be one that results in failure, isolation, or distress for the student with bipolar disorder.
The feelings and perceptions your child forms about his school experience can not only affect his self-esteem, they can impact his desire to further his education or training beyond high school years. If you reflect back upon your own school experience, you know that these can be really vulnerable times, especially for kids who feel different or are labeled as underachievers. Such children need all the positive motivation, encouragement, and support that parents and educators can provide.