Dear Dr. Wes and Miranda: I saw your column on IEPs for athletic competition in “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” My daughter is in middle school and has emotional and learning disabilities that make it hard for her to stay engaged in school. One very bright spot is her participation in athletics. It gives her a sense of self-worth and fitting in. She is proud of it and her teachers agree that her academics have improved since she started volleyball.
We asked to have athletic participation added to her IEP to ensure she could continue, but the special-ed director told us “under no circumstances can that be dictated in an IEP, only an opportunity to participate is required.” The school never provided any documentation to prove this. I found multiple references online to “when athletic participation is added to an IEP,” and nothing saying it can’t be done. What’s going on here?
Miranda: I’m impressed with your tenacity in going after this issue. Some parents see school administration as a giant brick wall and give up. An IEP is an Individualized Educational Program after all (emphasis on the individualized). So the fact that they will not customize your daughter’s program to fit her needs seems a rather cruel irony. You daughter’s IEP should be directed toward helping her education in any way feasible and should improve her results in school. You said her teachers noticed the correlation between her athletic participation and her academics. Make sure the next time you go to the special-ed director, you take written recommendations from them.
Public Law 94-142 and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require IEP programs in any school that receives federal funding. I would start by going above the special-ed director, as s/he does not seem very accommodating. You can speak with the principal, and if that doesn’t work take it to the school board and ask for this rule in writing and why it was established (if it even exists). Notify your PTA and show the special-ed director and the school that you won’t back down. This isn’t a silly issue. It’s your child’s chance at an education they’re toying with. If you make your fight more public, you have the chance to really get to the school, and force them the change their ways.
Dr. Wes: A brick wall? That analogy makes you wonder if Miranda’s sat in on some of the same IEP meetings I’ve been to. And before local school district employees write in with praise or condemnation, this letter comes from a whole different state. Things are tough all over in the world of educational accommodation.
When we investigated this several years back, we learned that the opposition comes from state athletic associations that don’t want student-athletes with poor grades, and that they expect any problem with an identified students grades to be addressed in the IEP. There are two ways to read that. In the first, your child’s IEP should be written so that she succeeds with as close to normal a curriculum as possible, and in the least restrictive environment. If that’s done correctly, her grades should be good enough to meet the rather minimal requirements most states set for participation in sports. A less savory way to read this is as an encouragement for the IEP to be written to inflate the child’s grades by cutting the amount of work she’s supposed to do or changing the grading scale.
On one hand, I agree with the state associations that the problem should already be fixed before they have to deal with eligibility. On the other hand — and this is a pretty crucial hand — nobody has explained to me how a publicly funded educational institution that uses a property tax levy and state and federal funds, can claim that its athletic programs are immune from inclusion in an IEP, unless there is a specific risk to the child for participation. In fact, there is some case law that suggests they can’t.
So here’s the bottom line: If you ask the school to let your child levitate for 30 minutes a day because an expert says that’s going to help her learn, the school has to include levitation in the IEP. Or they can oppose inclusion through a whole system of due process going all the way to arbitration and even litigation. That’s true for any request you make for an IEP. The school isn’t free to “just say no,” or more correctly they can say “no,” and face due process. Hint: They’ll win on levitation. I’m not so sure on athletics.
I suggest the book “From Emotion to Advocacy” by Peter and Pam Wright and get into some smart and well-measured conflict with the school. Just remember that word Miranda used earlier: tenacity. You’ll need it.