Here's how parents can seek help resolving special education disputes

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
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Parents from all over York County have come forward about issues they have faced seeking special education for their children, but many were unaware of available resources.

Margie Wakelin, senior attorney for the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, said families with special needs students often feel isolated and don't know where to begin their search for support.

"They are already doing so much for their child," she said. 

While most schools would like to have counselors, social workers or other staff who can connect families with additional resources, that isn't always possible. 

But that doesn't mean those resources aren't out there. 

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From local and state advocacy groups to guides on how to resolve disputes with school districts, there are multiple options available to parents. 

"If I had known it was available, I would have done it sooner," said one anonymous parent who sought help from the PEAL Center. 

The PEAL Center is a statewide advocacy group for children and young adults with special needs. Through PEAL, the parent was able to secure an independent education evaluation for her daughter that secured her the right IEP, or individualized education program, for her cognitive learning disability. 

Parents can contact the PEAL Center by visiting pealcenter.org, calling 866-950-1040 or emailing info@pealcenter.org. 

Other statewide agencies include Disability Rights Pennsylvania and Wakelin's Education Law Center. She said both agencies give information to families that can help resolve low-level education disputes. 

The Education Law Center emphasizes giving parents the tools to become better advocates for their children, Wakelin said. Most parents of special needs students must be advocating for them all the time, she said, but having better strategies can resolve issues quicker. 

"They have the ability to resolve this," she said. 

Parents can contact the Education Law Center by visiting elc-pa.org, calling 215-238-6970 or emailing info@elc-pa.org. They can contact Disability Rights Pennsylvania by visiting disabilityrightspa.org or calling 800-692-7443.

A more local agency is The Arc of York County, which works with hundreds of families every month to support children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Advocate Jessica Boll said she acts as a "nonpartial party" when districts and parents disagree about what should be happening with a special needs student. 

"It's hard to see both sides," Boll said. 

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Parents can contact The Arc of York County on their website, thearcofyorkcounty.org, or by calling 717-846-6589 or emailing mail@thearcofyorkcounty.org.

For disputes that can't be solved with an advocate, the Education Law Center suggests several options depending on the issue. The center published a 2021 guide laying out all the options

For issues involving IEP meetings, the guide suggests parents seek an IEP facilitator to sit in on the meeting. Facilitators work for the Pennsylvania Office for Dispute Resolution; they act as a third party to solve problems between schools and families. 

If a school is not following a child's IEP, not following the laws or required timelines, or discriminating against a child because of their disability, the guide suggests parents file a complaint with the state Bureau of Special Education. Complaints can only be filed about incidents that have occurred over the past calendar year. 

For many other issues, the guide said, parents can request a special education hearing, also known as a due process hearing. 

"Pretty much any disagreement between the parents and the school district can be the subject of a special education hearing," the guide states. 

According to federal law, parents can place their child in a private school if their school district fails to provide proper special education, and the district must cover that tuition . However, Wakelin said parents may have to request a due process hearing to prove the district can't provide what their child needs. 

— Reach Erin Bamer at ebamer@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter @ErinBamer.