Jenica Sandall was attending conferences and reading about special education years before her son reached elementary-school age.
By the time he reached kindergarten, she knew that Dean, who has Down syndrome, would get a better education, socially and academically, if he learned alongside students in a general education classroom. But officials at her local district in Kitsap County, she says, pushed to place her son in a segregated special education classroom for kindergarten.
“You’d think that in this situation you would be the authority on your kid … but that’s not how it is,” Sandall said. “They just automatically assumed he couldn’t do it, without any data to prove that.”
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
But Sandall persisted. She paid an advocate to coach her on what she should say in meetings with district officials. On the advocate’s advice, she memorized parts of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, also known as IDEA, and invoked the law successfully to keep her son at his neighborhood school, where he receives extra help from a paraeducator.
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The process was frustrating, and time-consuming for a full-time nurse and mother of two, Sandall says. But she considers herself lucky.
“For every one of me there are probably 10 families that don’t have the time to go to conferences and read books,” said Sandall. Since districts handle special education placement on a case-by-case basis, her success in keeping her son out of a segregated classroom doesn’t mean success for other families in similar situations.
“With the limited time I have, what are some ways parents can try to improve the system for all students?” Sandall asked Education Lab, which is answering reader questions about special education for the latest round of its Interesting Questions series. “What are some simple ways I can contribute statewide advocacy for special education?”
Education Lab spoke to a handful of advocates and Washington state officials to find out. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it can help get you started. If you feel we missed something important, write to us in the comments.
“There are so many legislators that have no idea about these issues,” said Sarah Butcher, a longtime parent advocate and vice chairperson for the state’s Special Education Advisory Council. She recommends taking her or him out to coffee. Years ago, Butcher herself had never engaged in policy before she started speaking to her local representatives about the importance of social skills and mental health in schools. Now she’s the co-founder of a statewide coalition that drives legislation on that front.
Some other examples of parents making meaningful changes to legislation and policy? State officials and Butcher point to a 2018 law involving screening for dyslexia and a 2015 bill that puts restrictions on physically restraining or isolating students. Both were the result of parents banding together with educators and other stakeholders to raise concerns with lawmakers.
One pro tip from Carrie Basas, the director of the state’s Office of Education Ombuds: When talking through any conflict you have, whether it’s at the district or state level, “Say your interests and concerns rather than your position.”
2. Keep sharing your story at School Board meetings and with advocacy groups. There are lots of organizations that engage with special education policy, but don’t market themselves that way. Some organizations compile a list of bills related to education so you can keep track of them from afar.
Here are a few organizations that Butcher and Basas recommended:
“That is the strongest lever that parents have,” said Butcher. The committee provides recommendations directly to the state superintendent’s office, and by law most of the members have to be individuals with disabilities or parents of special education students. You can email the council at SEAC@k12.wa.us.