Accommodations Don’t Have a Word Count: Clarity Trumps Word Count When Writing Accommodations

No laws or implementing regulations state accommodations must be written within a specific word count. However, pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, accommodations must address the unique needs of students.

In other words: Clarity and ensuring the unique needs of the child are met is more important than word count.

That’s Not How This Works

Parents: Use as many words and attend as many meetings as needed to ensure clarity in your child’s IEP or 504 Plan. If you receive pushback, ask your school district to provide you the law and/or implementing regulations that limit the number of meetings and words when it comes to developing IEPs or 504 Plans.

Limiting language and meetings isn’t how this works.

Educators: You’re required to follow IDEA and Section 504, while balancing the workload of planning for class, teaching class, grading work, attending IEP and 504 Plan meetings, and other responsibilities. If you’d like to decrease your time in IEP and 504 Plan meetings, consider approaching accommodation writing the same way you approach your students’ work. Would you accept a half-hearted attempt? What about a fragmented sentence? How about allowing students to ditch clarity? What kind of grade would you give to a paper with fragmented sentences, muddled thinking, and little structure?

Accepting writing in an IEP or 504 Plan that a teacher wouldn’t accept in class from students isn’t how this works, either.

For example, consider the two accommodations below:

School will provide monthly reading data to parent and meet with parent to discuss monthly data.

School will provide all reading data to parent at the end of each month and will meet with parent at the end of each month to discuss all reading data.

What’s missing? The word all (and confirmation that the meetings will occur each month).

In the case of the first accommodation, the omission of all became an open door to noncompliance and to a school district getting away with noncompliance.

Here’s how the first accommodation played out in real life:

Years ago, my son had an accommodation that stated the school would provide monthly reading data to me and would meet with me monthly to discuss the data. At the end of the school year, I was surprised when an independent evaluator’s data indicated that he’d regressed—even though the school had provided him a year-long reading elective during school and teacher-provided tutoring a few days a week after school. What happened? Given all the positive data, how could he have regressed?

I did a FERPA request and found out negative reading data was withheld.

When I tried to file a complaint, I was advised that the school had followed the IEP. Afterall, the IEP called for reading data and the school did, indeed, provide reading data. The IEP did not call for all reading data and thus wasn’t required to provide all reading data.

The omission of that one word led to a student regressing and heading toward high school with reading and writing struggles, and to dozens of adults wasting time on filing and responding to state complaints, and on IEP meetings that never should have had to have been held.

(Additional Reading: The Language of IEPs and 504s: The Importance of “All” and “Before”)

Your Right: Parent Participation

In the years after the all omission, I was criticized for the number of IEP meetings held, to the point that state complaints and due process decisions used the number of meetings to 1) portray me as difficult and 2) prove that I had accessed my right to parent participation. Yet, if you look at the fallout from the all omission and from subsequent similar omissions, the fact pattern shows 1) a school using wording to get off the hook for noncompliance and 2) a parent trying to ensure clarity and avoid noncompliance. Instead of at a minimum holding the writing of accommodations to the standard teachers had for their students’ writing, the IEP writing process was rife with people trying to push through meetings, push back on wording requests, and avoiding clarity.

In regard to the number of meetings, case law states that attendance at IEP meetings doesn’t equate to parent participation, nor does the quantity of meetings held. Deal v. Hamilton County Board of Education supports this:

The district court erred in assuming that merely because the Deals were present and spoke at the various IEP meetings, they were afforded adequate opportunity to participate. Participation must be more than a mere form; it must be meaningful. W.G., 960 F.2d at 1485; see also Knox County Sch., 315 F.3d at 694-95 (stating that school officials must be willing to listen to the parents and must have open minds). Despite the protestations of the Deals, the School System never even treated a one-on-one ABA program as a viable option. Where there was no way that anything the Deals said, or any data the Deals produced, could have changed the School System’s determination of appropriate services, their participation was no more than after the fact involvement. See Spielberg, 853 F.2d at 259.

The School System noted, at oral argument, that the Deals’ participation in the IEP process is evidenced by their contributions to the descriptions of Zachary’s present levels of performance and to the stated goals and objectives contained within the IEPs. The School System was unable to point to any evidence, however,  that the Deals contributed to the operative portions of the IEP-that their opinions were considered in determining the services that would be provided to Zachary. In short, nothing offered by the School System suffices to surmount the Golconda of circumstantial evidence adduced by Plaintiffs-Appellants to establish the existence of an unofficial School System policy of rejecting any requests for an intensive, one-on-one ABA program. This evidence includes the internal memorandum by Sandra Jerardi flagging Zachary’s education program as a “sensitive case with regards to school program and/or Lovaas,” as well as various comments from School System personnel, including a statement that “the powers that be” were not funding ABA programs.

Parents have the right to participate in the development of their child’s IEP or 504 Plan—no matter how many meetings it takes or how many words are required to ensure clarity and that the child’s unique needs are fully addressed.

If it takes 20 paragraphs of five sentences each to write one accommodation, then that’s what it takes.

Clarity and addressing the needs of the child, not word count, should be the main focus.

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