THE IMPORTANCE OF DOCUMENTATION
IN SPECIAL EDUCATION DISPUTES
by Michael Gehring, Esq.
McAndrews Law Offices, P.C.
When parents of students with disabilities interact with school district personnel regarding their child’s education, they often do so over the telephone, but increasingly do so via email. Such communication is important and appropriate. However, while it is important to keep a free and open flow of communication with a school district, it is equally important to leave a favorable “paper trail” of your interactions with the school district, so that your actions and conversations will later not be misconstrued, including in any later due process hearing.
Telephone conversations with teachers and other school district personnel are often an efficient and productive method of communicating with a school district. Thus, for example, a parent of a student who is having trouble in a math class may have regular telephone conversations with the student’s math teacher to attempt to resolve the problem. If this method works for you and your student’s teacher, there is no reason to not have such conversations. However, after the passage of time, the parties to the telephone calls may remember differently the substance and frequency of such calls. Therefore, you should periodically document your conversations via a confirming, non-confrontational, email. For instance, you could write: “Ms. Teacher, thanks for discussing with me my concerns over Billy’s progress in math. I appreciate that you agree that he could benefit from extra help, and I appreciate your offer to meet with him twice per week to go over his work. Please keep me updated on his progress, so that if the extra help does not work we can explore other options or have an IEP team meeting.” There is no need to document every telephone conversation with teachers or other school district personnel, but if something important has been discussed and agreed upon, that agreement should be confirmed in an email. Likewise, if a particular problem persists, that should also be followed up in an email. Such emails will later provide a clearer picture regarding the nature and progression of any educational dispute, and the school district’s efforts, if any, to address the problem.
Whenever sending an email, first review it thoroughly and make sure that it is accurate and constructive in tone. Remember, all emails between you and a school district are potential exhibits in a later due process hearing. Due process hearing are often decided, at least in part, by the Hearing Officer’s assessment of the reasonableness of the parents in dealing with the school district. Emails that are accusatory, abusive, overly critical, and reveal hostility between the parties may later hurt you in any due process proceeding. Even if you believe the school district is being difficult, it is decidedly to your advantage to be “above the fray” in any email exchanges so that any Hearing Officer will not perceive you as being uncooperative or difficult.
Perhaps even more importantly, engaging in abusive or hostile email exchanges will likely damage your ongoing relationship with your child’s educators, to the detriment of your child’s education. It is always better to attempt to work through any problems with a school district rather than resorting to litigation. Keeping your exchanges with the school district, including email exchanges, positive and constructive will not only “protect the record” in any due process hearing, it will also help ensure that educators working with your child seek to help your child and improve his or her program, which could prevent the need for a future hearing.
That is not to say that emails that you send should be overly or unnecessarily complimentary. While overly critical or harsh emails may hurt you, so may overly complimentary ones, or ones that understate the severity of a problem. For instance, if you are not satisfied with your child’s progress in reading, then say so, matter-of-factly and without invective or rancor. However, you should also avoid writing things such as: “Mary absolutely loves your class” if, in fact, that is not the case, or if that statement is an exaggeration in any way, for example, where Mary enjoys the class but is having trouble keeping up. A better way to make this point would be: “Mary is currently enjoying your class and very much wishes to succeed in it, and we appreciate your efforts to help her. However, she is struggling with the material and I am concerned that she is not making sufficient progress and would like to address this with you.”
Each situation will be different. However, the main things to keep in mind are: (1) document the substance of important phone conversations through followup emails; (2) keeping email exchanges positive and constructive will help promote a constructive relationship between you and the school district, to your child’s benefit; (3) remember that each email you send or receive may be an exhibit in a future due process hearing, and your demeanor, tone, and level of cooperativeness as reflected in those emails, may well prove important in any educational dispute; and (4) in your emails, state the facts and your concerns in a non-judgmental manner that does not exaggerate the problem, or, equally importantly, understate it.