Litigate first, ask questions later.


Today I have an outside consultant coming in to assess a student. This visit is a result of a ‘litigate first, ask questions later’ attitude that seems to be more common than it used to be.

Now that I have been in the classroom for a number of years, I have observed a handful of families who have deleterious relationships with the school district. These parents view the school district as an enemy and act accordingly.

This is as baffling. If parents feel that the ‘district’ is corrupt and incompetent, how can they possibly trust us with their child for up to 40 hours a week?

And yet, these parents continue to send their kids. They complain and they demand and they litigate and they get other parents riled up…but their kids keep coming. Interestingly, these parents are often quite pleasant to the classroom teacher. They even make conversations feel conspiratorial, as if we are on their side in their fight against THE DISTRICT.

The problem is always THE DISTRICT.

THE DISTRICT wouldn’t give my son an iPad.

THE DISTRICT allowed my son to fail his math class even though they were supposed to give him 1:1 support.

It is all the big bad DISTRICT’S fault. And THE DISTRICT is easy to hate because it is more of an idea than a group of actual people.

This isn’t to say that THE DISTRICT never makes a mistake. However, I think it is reasonable to assume that school staff generally makes an effort to do what is best for students.

Although some relationships have suffered irreparable damage, others may be salvageable. I think there are three things you can do to try and start the healing process:

  1. Reestablish trust. –Call when you say you will, follow through on your plans and promises, and adhere to the student’s IEP. Make sure you honestly listen (don’t just hear), consider, and respond to parent concerns and requests.
  2. Be clear, transparent, and honest through constant communication—If the student had a bad day, let the parent know. Similarly, share student successes whenever you can. Give constant feedback relating to student progress including things that are working and things that aren’t. Honestly seek feedback from the parent on how to improve your interventions—remember, they know the student best!
  3. Make a human connection.—Don’t communicate exclusively through email. Tone and information can be easily misconstrued through text. Invite the parents to come in to meet. Encourage them to attend conferences. Call home to celebrate a success or openly discuss an issue. When THE DISTRICT becomes more about people than an idea, parents tend to soften up a bit.

If parents have pitted themselves against THE DISTRICT, then we can’t truly be part of a team together. The person who suffers the most from this broken relationship is the student. Parents and THE DISTRICT must mend these relationships in order to do what is best for students!


4 thoughts on “Litigate first, ask questions later.

  1. I find this observation interesting because, as a special education teacher of more than 20 years, I have seen the opposite trend. When I first became involved in schools as a teaching assistant and then student teacher in the 1980’s, parents were filing due process against the system I worked for regularly. I saw wonderful things come from this parent advocacy – the closing of most segregated special schools, specialist supports brought into our neighborhood schools, and administration taking responsibility for students with special needs. I also saw a downside – mostly that “following the IEP” became about paperwork compliance rather than appropriate instruction, which diverted time and energy away from student needs. Fortunately, I see that trend moving in the opposite direction lately.

    15 years ago I moved to the small, rural district where I teach now, and was struck by the lack of parent advocacy in this town where everyone is related and no one wants to offend anyone with threats of litigation. Unfortunately, that often means that families are reluctant to speak up for their children and bring about needed change. Remember that parents continue to send their children to your district because attendance is compulsory and private and charter schools cannot break-even financially if they provide appropriate services for students with significant needs. Your system may just be going through a much-needed phase, and you may look back on today’s stressors as the catalysts for positive change.

    I hope so, because it seems you are a committed and caring teacher who needs to stay in our challenging field for the long-haul.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It does seem like we might be near the end of a wave of parents who are quick to contact lawyers in order to ‘fight’ for their child rather than talking things through. Much of it seems to be AT-based, and this is something that is improving as AT gets more and more common-place. Thank you for the comment and the encouragement!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Having been in this situation, I 100% agree with your analysis. In my case, a student decided midway through a school year (in a regular ed classroom) to boycott all schoolwork. His parents and the special ed department were notified, he was encouraged each day to complete work, and during his PPT we have him ON TAPE telling us that he “just did not want to do any work” and that I “was really nice and asked me every day why I had not completed my work.” The parents threatened to sue the school, and were extremely abusive toward me in email communications. The school settled. He was in my class again the following year, and the abuse worsened. I left my position in June 2011. Several of my former students are still in touch with me, and I know now that I actually did make a difference in their lives–if I had it to do over, I am not sure I would have left! Stick with it, teachers. You ARE making a difference in the lives of your students.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jeffreymhartman

    Litigation varies from district to district. It will be more prominent in districts that attorneys and advocates know are prone to mistakes. I taught in a large urban district for over a decade. Loss for compensatory education was outrageous (and still is). In defense of the parents, this district struggled to fulfill obligations and opened itself up to all kinds of due process cases. I’ll only defend the parents so far though. As a special education liaison, many of the grievances I saw were petty and irrational. They came from parents who approached the district with combative attitudes. My guess is these same parents were likely to sue anyone for anything, but assuming so might be unfair.

    Special education exists because of litigation. Much of what happens in special education is protection against further litigation. To see how very real the strife between parents and districts continues to be, work in a large urban district. Actually, don’t work in a large urban district, unless you’re a masochist. Instead, just talk to a special education director working in one. They sit in hearings almost everyday. Special education looks very different in different places.


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