20 Important Tips to Good Advocacy

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I’ve recently had to come to the terms with the reality that’s there is only one me, there are only 24 hours in a day, and each lifetime is a unique thing that will never happen again once it has ended. I realized that I had made so many personal sacrifices to single-handedly pursue KPS4Parents’s mission with very little hands-on support (though tons of emotional support, the value of which I truly appreciate) because of our limited resources, that I was going to eventually put myself in harm’s way if things didn’t change.

This organization was never meant to be a “one-man band.” It started out with two of us; our founder, Nyanza Cook, and me. However, in 2006, Nyanza became ill and I took over her caseload. She remained ill and I took over the organization. She’s okay now and remains the chair of our board of directors.

In 2006, I had 40 kids on my caseload and several of their cases went to due process and on to federal court appeals after that. My daughter was in 5th grade and I was involved with Girl Scouts. I have no idea how I survived the 2006-07 school year. My pace was frenetic at the time, something I just can’t do anymore.

KPS4Parents is now undergoing a reorganization to account for the changes that have happened since we first opened our virtual doors in 2003. Next fiscal year (starting July 1, 2012) will begin our tenth year of operations, which is hard to believe.

The changes we’re making are necessary to adapt to the changing needs of our clients, blog followers, and the public education system as its evolution starts to finally build some momentum. It’s only a matter of time, now, until technology finally takes hold of public education the way it revolutionized large-scale business and industry 30 years ago.

Not that technology is a panacea, but what enterprise-class computing technologies have done for corporations like Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart in terms of operational efficiency makes me weep for our students caught up in public education agency inter- and intra-departmental warfare over resources, failures of stakeholders to communicate with each other, and public education agency personnel inadvertently duplicating each other’s efforts unnecessarily and/or neglecting things that are important.

If all public education agencies were connected through a common ERP, the world would be a different place. The data collection would be incredible and that data could be analyzed and used to figure out what struggling schools are facing in order to identify appropriate remedies, but also to identify the schools that are succeeding in spite of these same obstacles in a good-to-great analysis.

The cost savings from cleaning up the administrative side of public education alone would justify the implementation of this type of technology. But, the bigger benefit is the information we’d have to not only deal with the challenges faced by individuals schools, but also student groups with unique needs, such as children of homeless families, children learning English as a second language, and children with disabilities.

But, I digress. The point is that the world is rapidly changing and we need to adapt to it. More specifically, our client’s needs are changing and the tools available to us now to better meet their needs?are things we need to put into place.

We also need expert volunteers to help us lay the foundation for the decade that will follow our 10th anniversary. No more “one-man band”; we need a full band.

This means that our current clients are going to occasionally experience some “turbulence” as we make changes here and there, until we’re done with the major stuff. It can’t be helped. But, what’s coming will be worth the hassle.

I keep thinking of it like when a really terrible on-ramp or off-ramp on the freeway is re-done by the highway department into one that is bigger, better organized, and has proper turning lanes. Everyone curses while the construction is being done but they’re totally stoked once it’s finished.

I hope our changes aren’t as frustrating to our clients as a freeway upgrade. From my end, it’s going to be a lot of work. But, here’s what I’m thinking, and what all of this has to do with how I work a case: we need other people out there doing what we do.

There are not nearly enough people working in special education advocacy and every advocate has his or her own degree of competency at advocating for students. Every advocate also has his/her own style, but there are certain methods and approaches that we’ve come to realize are particularly effective.

There are no professional licenses or credentials for advocates. It is an unregulated profession. As such, there are no professional standards to which lay advocates are required to adhere, which is troublesome for a field that exists to hold others accountable to their respective professional standards as an aspect of enforcing the requirements of the IDEA.

It’s awfully hard for me to find people who understand the psycho-educational aspects of special education as well as the regulations. We’ve learned from experience that there is a total disconnect between best practices borne out by scientific research in educational methodologies and special education law, which represents a huge gaping hole in public education policy and practice.

So, in an effort to educate other people looking to advocate effectively for special education students and increase the impact of our knowledge and experience for the greater good, I’m spelling out how I typically work a case. Feel free to replicate my formula in your own work, beginning with new client intake. Tweak it to fit your circumstances, and post comments below to let us know how thing are working out (questions are welcome, as well).

Anne’s Advocacy Formula:
  1. Have the parent(s) fill out an intake form that provides critical information (contact info plus student’s grade, handicapping condition, school, the problem in a nutshell, etc.).
  2. Provide an authorization for representation and release of information so you can attend IEP meetings, speak on your client’s behalf, request records, etc., as well as a service agreement that describes the scope of work and billing terms (if any).
  3. Don’t do anything until you have the parent(s)’s signature(s) on your service agreement and the authorization for representation & release of records.
  4. Once you have a signed service agreement & authorization, give notice of representation to the school district’s special education director. I always go straight to the top. I’ll work with the school site people as part of the process, but I communicate with the special ed director for the most part and always in writing.
  5. Include in your notice of representation your intent to audio record every IEP meeting. Some people think this is bad form and it’s taken as a hostile gesture, but I have no idea why they think this. The only people who should take issue with being audio recorded are the ones saying things they don’t want recorded. If they’re doing their jobs, they shouldn’t care. Competent, responsible people want?an accurate record to be kept and audio recording keeps a verbatim record of what was said so that people don’t have to rely on memory alone. How can that possibly be a problem?
  6. Request a copy of any and all student records. Whether it becomes necessary to read every little thing they give you depends on how things go. I usually start out with reviewing the most recent IEPs and assessment reports, then digging deeper if things start to go south. The point is to get the records and hang onto them in case you need them. These days, I request that they be provided to me in PDF format and give districts user IDs and passwords for our secure cloud server, where they can upload them. I get them faster than if they were photocopied and mailed, save trees, and prevent unnecessary photocopying and postage expenses.
  7. You should have already interviewed the parent(s) before agreeing to represent the student in question, but once you’ve reviewed the records, you probably will want to interview them again, particularly if you notice any discrepancies between what the parent(s) has/have told you and what you’ve read in the file.
  8. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS communicate with the school district in writing. Anything said over the phone never happened, unless you lawfully audio recorded the conversation.
  9. When attending IEP meetings, function as a diplomat and mediator. Try to facilitate resolution, not go in guns blazing looking to kick someone’s ass. Don’t concern yourself with winning an argument; concern yourself with making sure your client is educated according to best practices and the regulations.
  10. Understand that, most of the time, when school people refuse to do something, it’s because they don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t know how to honor your request, or are being prevented from doing their jobs by someone within the district who outranks them. Ridiculing the ignorant doesn’t help; you have to educate people on what they don’t know. Kill them with kindness no matter how clueless they are. You have to be the expert or at least know a qualified expert who can provide the IEP team with responsible guidance.
  11. Pick your experts extremely carefully!!! I can’t emphasize this enough. There are plenty of people with advanced degrees out peddling their “expertise” but way too many of them have just learned to speak in an authoritative tone of voice without actually doing the hard work of coming up with legitimate answers and their opinions are for sale to the highest bidder. NEVER use someone like that. Reputation is a huge thing when selecting an expert.
  12. If you don’t understand the science of special education assessment and IEP creation, consult with someone who does. Never go into a child’s IEP meeting and try to BS your way through the technical aspects. Admit when you don’t know something instead of trying to act like you know everything.
  13. If you aren’t sure how something is regulated, ask the school district for clarification of the regulations as they apply to the situation in writing. The burden is ALWAYS on the district to render a free and appropriate public education and how that is supposed to be done is per the regulations, which they should know (but often don’t). Let them put their lawyers to work for your client to answer your legal questions. If they give you a questionable response or no response at all, ask your questions of your State’s department of education. Expect the government to explain its duties to its constituents. Just keep your “BS-o-meter” on its highest setting and research anything that sounds fishy.
  14. Learn how to conduct legal research. You can access the federal implementing regulations of the IDEA by clicking here?(see Part 300). Your State should have its own implementing regulations online, as well.
  15. Learn how to research the scientific literature. This is harder than researching the law because most of the literature is published in professional journals that are not free to the public to access. Right now, I have the advantage of being enrolled in a university for my master’s degree, which gives me access to hundreds of thousands of published works through the university’s library. Most journal articles are published online and my student fees cover my access to them through the library’s website. If you don’t have a resource like this, you may want to speak with the experts you use, particularly if they teach at a college or university with similar library access. They may be willing to help you research the current literature.
  16. Never advocate for what is “best” but, rather, what is “most appropriate” for a student. Special education students are not entitled under the IDEA to the best possible education; they are entitled to an appropriate education that gives them the same basic floor of opportunity that all the other students without disabilities are given.
  17. Never raise your voice, make threats, call people names, or otherwise act like an a-hole to anybody, ever. This goes back to reputation, only rather than being about your experts’ reputations, this is about yours. If the school people want to be jerks, let them, particularly if the audio recorder is running. Rise above it, let it roll off, and don’t let them get under your skin. Sometimes, that’s the only thing they’re trying to accomplish and they aren’t worthy of the satisfaction you’d give them by flipping out, if that’s the case.
  18. Draft professional correspondence. Clerical errors are inevitable but do your best to create documents that are clean and have no errors with spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Keep things as organized as possible and support any allegations with evidence organized into individual exhibits, particularly when filing formal complaints. Basically, try to be more professional and thorough than the school people have been. It raises the bar when you make the record with more dignified documents than what the school district has produced and it seems like it’s human nature for people to come back with even more professionally prepared documents in response to yours. You’re trying to make things better, so this is generally a good thing. Set the example for what quality work looks like, in both substance and form.
  19. Understand that perfection is unattainable. Aim for an “A+” outcome but realize that the public school system is not held to an “A+” standard. If you get anything above a “D” outcome, you’re probably doing a decent job.
  20. Don’t let yourself get so sucked into the drama that you become emotionally overwhelmed, burn out, and quit. What we see as advocates is horrible but lying awake at night dwelling on it only makes you upset; it doesn’t change what’s happening. If you get too emotionally overwhelmed, you can’t change it at all. It’s okay to get fired up and motivated; letting your spirit get broken or becoming hysterical at IEP meetings is not okay at all.

This list could be longer, but these are the most important concepts (in my opinion, anyway) to good advocacy. At some point in the not-to-distant future, we’re going to be offering training to advocates and the above points will factor into the instruction once we do. They’re a good place to start, for now.

There may be some other professional training you need in order to master all of these things. You could take paralegal courses to learn how to conduct legal research. You may need some college courses to master researching the latest literature in educational science.

I also recommend courses in psychology and child development. If you can’t take classes, at least read books and other respectable authorities on these topics. College textbooks are great resources, even if you never take the classes, and are based on the research literature.

Mediator training can also be highly constructive to the IEP process, where your goal is to achieve a document worth enforcing; successfully keeping justifiably furious fathers from lunging across the table at IEP meetings and throttling the nearest tax-fattened bureaucrat is important. Mediator training can help you keep the discussions civil and constructive as you’re advocating for appropriate student outcomes.

Understand the amount of responsibility you’re assuming when you agree to advocate for another person’s child. You are being invested with a tremendous amount of trust by people who are often in crisis. Don’t leave them with the impression that you were preying on them during their most vulnerable moments for an excuse to go grind an ax with the public education system or for financial gain. Go in with a pure heart, a sharp mind, and an adequate skill set or you could easily do more harm than good.

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2 thoughts on “20 Important Tips to Good Advocacy

  1. Catherine Reisman

    Thanks for a great post on advocacy – just wanted to note, it is correct that there is no professional licensing of advocates. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (“COPAA”) does have a completely voluntary Code of Ethics (written by special education advocate members), available at http://www.copaa.org/membership/advocates/791-2/. Disclaimer: I am on the Board of Directors of COPAA – but that is an unpaid, volunteer position. COPAA gets no benefit by advocates voluntarily observing the Code of Ethics.

    1. Anne M. Zachry Post author


      Thank you for the expert feedback. COPAA does have its voluntary Code of Ethics at the link you provided. I hadn’t thought to include it before. Not quite the same as a license, but better than nothing at all. Advocates can choose to either adhere to the COPAA guidelines and communicate their adherence to these guidelines to their clients and the LEAs with which they work, or create their own guidelines and abide by them in a similar fashion.



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