I don’t agree with the school’s evaluation of my daughter. What do I do?

The school suspended my son for “being physical,” but he has a disability. Can you help? 

The teacher moved my child to a different type of classroom and didn’t tell me. Can she do that?

These are real questions parents have asked me, and they’re likely familiar to special education teachers. For the past 12 years, I have worked with young children in a wide variety of settings from New York to Colorado, where I’m now a preschool inclusion teacher. My passion lies in advocating and supporting young children with disabilities.

These questions make me feel anger — not with the families, but with the procedural safeguard notice, a document mandated by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act that’s meant to inform families of their rights at least once a year.

The more I look at this document, the more frustrated I become. In theory, parents have the answers to their questions, but in reality, these notices are unreadable, impractical, and intimidating. Procedural safeguard notices require such high level reading skills that they alienate families from participating in their children’s education, forcing them to take a backseat to educators and state officials.

To help, I have spent countless hours counseling parents on their rights, directing them to reliable websites, providing “cheat sheets,” and connecting them with advocacy groups. Some parents seek further support by reaching out to family and friends, utilizing prior knowledge, and, on occasion, engaging the services of a lawyer.

I consider these parents to be the luckier ones. For thousands of families, supplemental resources are unavailable, too intimidating to access, or just as confusing as the procedural safeguard notice itself.

When parents sign to acknowledge that they have received this notice, the implication is that they also understood it. This is a false assumption. According to a 2014 assessment, only 13% of U.S. adults score within the highest reading levels. Yet a newly released study showed that in my state of Colorado, the procedural safeguard notice is written at the reading level of someone with a graduate or professional degree — in other words, 19-plus years of formal schooling.

Colorado isn’t alone in this problem: This same study showed that nearly all state procedural safeguards are written at a college reading level or higher.

Consider the following examples, pulled from the discipline section of two of these documents. The first is from Colorado:

To the extent that they also take such action for children without disabilities, school personnel may, for not more than 10 school days in a row, remove a child with a disability who violates a code of student conduct from his or her current placement to an appropriate interim alternative educational setting (which must be determined by the child’s individualized education program (IEP) Team), another setting, or suspension. 

The second statement, addressing the same topic, is from New Jersey’s procedural safeguard notice, which is written at an 11th-13th grade level:

Can the school district remove my child from his or her current placement for disciplinary reasons? 

Yes. School authorities can suspend (remove) your child from his or her current placement for not more than 10 school days at a time for any violation of school rules if nondisabled children would be subjected to removal for the same offense. 

Colorado’s procedural safeguard notice falls into the most difficult readability category. New Jersey’s document, which is one of the most accessible, is somewhat more straightforward. Yet it is still three to five grade levels higher than the recommended reading level for these documents.

When I have spoken with state special education officials about my concerns, they have pushed back, saying procedural safeguards cannot be legal without being highly technical and jargon-filled. I’ve been told that school staff, like myself, must take responsibility for ensuring parents understand their rights.

School personnel certainly can and do spend a significant amount of time helping families understand their rights. However, I’ve come to believe that the current documents perpetuate a system in which parents lose their sense of autonomy and competence. By putting the responsibility on me to explain safeguards, it elevates my position to that of an “expert” and reduces parents to mere guests in their child’s education.

As people who should be equal members of our IEP teams, how can I help parents feel valued if they must defer to my knowledge? And what might happen if my knowledge is wrong?

I know exactly what can happen. Ten years ago, as a new special education teacher, I attended my first preschool-to-kindergarten IEP meeting in New York City. Full of nervous anticipation, I was greeted by a representative who informed me that the IEP meeting would consist of just the two of us. No general education teacher, administrator, parent advocate, none of the professionals who had evaluated the child for her placement, and … no parents.

Bewildered, I inquired about the family’s whereabouts. Surely we could reschedule? The representative waved off my concerns, nonchalantly stating the parents were out of the country but, “That’s fine. I’ll just get them to sign later.” When I tried, meekly, to protest, she became annoyed, saying that if I didn’t do the meeting that day then she had no time for it the rest of the year; it would be my fault if the child did not have a school placement.

This powerful woman was as convinced of her knowledge as I was suddenly questioning mine. So I deferred to her. I stayed. Together we placed a child in a non-neighborhood school, in a specific setting, with a specific plan, without the parents ever offering their input or even reading the document (as it was never translated into Spanish).

I think about that child and her family to this day. How many more families are being taken advantage of because they do not know their rights? How many are receiving the bare minimum of services, the wrong services, or no services at all because they are unable to advocate for their child?

Despite the progress that years of advocacy have made for the rights of children with disabilities, procedural safeguards have been left largely unexamined. Not only have states failed to improve their readability, they have become significantly worse.

We can help change that. We already know what improves readability, including utilizing plain language, glossaries, Q&As, tables of content, using visuals instead of text in some cases, and other strategies.

It is time for us to hold our state education agencies responsible for creating a more user-friendly procedural safeguard. If we continue to accept these documents as they are, if we continue to allow state agencies to push responsibility down to school staff, then we continue to perpetuate a system of disempowerment for our families.

Brenna Aversano is an early childhood general and special education teacher in Colorado. She is currently a third-year doctoral student at CU Denver in the Educational Leadership for Educational Equity program.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.