Part 7: Why Doesn’t the School Cooperate?


Some schools are really wonderful at serving children with disabilities. Others do a poor job, either across the board or only with particular children or situations. What are some of the reasons for this?

Sometimes the school does not understand the nature of the disability or the legal requirement. Perhaps the school’s approach may be colored by assumptions about social class or race. In these situations, you can sometimes educate the school, perhaps by outside expert evaluations, or by having an attorney or advocate open a discussion with the school. Use resources like the book From Emotions to Advocacy to help you present your point of view in a way that can be heard.

It can help to get legal advice, even for an hour or two, to make sure that what you are asking for is both reasonable and legally required. It is a losing battle and waste of time and money to focus on something that might be good for your child, but the school is not required to provide. If school personnel perceive you as hostile and aggressive, they are likely to dig in their heels. 

Sometimes you have gotten in a power struggle with an administrator. At times this can be resolved by taking the matter higher up to the Special Education Director or to the School Board. At other times, you may get the same response all along the line.

Sometimes filing for one of the procedures described in previous posts will bring the school to the table and make it more willing to start solving the problem. You should be aware that this is not always the case, even if you are legally in the right. 

Sometimes school administrators become so angry that you are challenging them and their power base that they “lock in” to their position. They may or may not check with their school attorneys on the law. Even if they do, their school attorneys may or may not understand the law in this area. Some school attorneys are very good on special education and disability law and some are not.

Also, defense attorneys have an intrinsic conflict of interest, in that they make much more money if problems become large and go to trial or a hearing. A good defense attorney should always think about solving problems at a low level and in the best interests of the clients. (I represent many organizations as a defense attorney, so I understand and wrestle with this tension in my work.) Defense attorneys have the temptation to tell the client that it is in the right, whether it is or not, and that it should go forward with defending the matter. The client likes to hear that it is right, and moving forward is very profitable for the attorney. So the defense attorney’s advice to the school district may depend on whether the attorney is truly a counselor, or instead sees his or her role as defending the district on every point no matter what.

The school district and its administrators are not spending their personal money. It can be easy to spend a lot of money defending their position if their pride is more important than the taxpayer’s wallet. Once administrators have convinced the School Board to go along, they have little accountability.

The school district may also be “playing the odds.” If it refuses to cooperate with parents, most often the parents are not going to go further. So it is cost-effective for the school district not to cooperate, even if administrators know the law is not on their side. The school district takes a bet that you do not have the funds to go forward, especially to a due process hearing. Usually they win this bet, and they win it often enough that it is a useful strategy, at least in the bureaucratic sense if not the educational sense.

You can challenge a school district successfully, but it takes patience, careful consideration of the approach, and the willingness to invest some of your own resources. 

Access to Justice for My Child with Disabilities
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Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations