This point has been made already several times, but it is important enough to make note of one more time. One of the biggest disadvantages that parents have in the advocacy of their children is their emotions. Professional educators will rarely get angry because even though they are dedicated professionals, they simply have less invested in any given decision than do the student and his parents. Once parents give way to their anger in a meeting or in a letter, they immediately reduce their chances of successfully advocating for their child. Imagine the following scenario:
A student with Barth syndrome (BTHS) in a 6th grade public school, has missed several days of school recently because he has not been feeling well. Despite his exhaustion, he has asked his parents to take him into school for his last period English class and so he could see some of his friends on the bus ride home. When he comes in the house later, he is depressed and refuses to talk. He finally tells his parents at dinner that his teacher said to him in front of his classmates that since he had missed so many classes, he should miss the discussion today to sit outside the classroom in the hall to make up the quizzes he had missed. He has an IEP that specifies that he will be allowed to use a computer to type his responses because he cannot sustain handwriting for long without his hand becoming painfully tired. His computer, however, has a virus and is being fixed, so he did not have his computer with him.
His teacher said, “Well, you are allowed to use a computer, but you are not allowed to simply miss the quizzes given in this class. If you don’t have your computer, you’ll just have to handwrite like everyone else in the class. Please sit outside and let us know when you are done.”
He was able to write for five minutes before his hand ached. He sat in the hall and tried to write a few more times until the class ended. He knew he had failed the three quizzes, and he felt entirely defeated.
“I should never have gone into school today,” he said.
At this point, any parent (any decent person!) should be ready to explode in anger. This teacher not only had been terribly cruel, but also had clearly violated the student’s rights as they are protected by federal law. It would be understandable if the parents were in the principal’s office screaming at 8:00 am the next morning, demanding that apologies be made and that disciplinary measures be taken against the teacher. Such a tactic, however, will only lead the principal to consider first how to protect the teacher from irate parents.
Consider, on the other hand, the following course of action on the part of the parents:
They assure the child that he has been unfairly treated and that they will speak to his school about the matter first thing in the morning. When he goes to bed, the parents vent their anger to each other, to friends, and to the Barth Syndrome Foundation Listserv. They let off a lot of steam and hurt in safe ways. Then, when their anger subsides a little bit, they use their energy to write a calm letter to the principal describing their version of the events in school that day as well as their child’s reaction. They leave out any references to their incredible anger. They refer to their student’s IEP and ask the principal to look into the incident. They write a letter to ask if it would be possible for their son to receive an apology for his treatment, and they ask if the principal could offer assurances that the child will not have to suffer such treatment again. The next morning, they hand deliver the letter directly to the principal and politely ask her to give them a response as soon as she is able, for the matter is serious and important to them. They thank the principal her for her time and leave the school, allowing her to read the letter at her leisure.
Such a tactic gives the parents the greatest chance of winning the sympathy of the principal. By stating the facts clearly and by leaving their anger out of their communications with the school, the parents keep the principal from going into defensive mode. Furthermore, by not attacking the teacher, the parents also allow for him to learn that his treatment of the child was unacceptable. Possibly, the teacher will come to understand the nature of BTHS better after the incident. Possibly, he will be made a better teacher from what he learns. These are certainly best-case scenarios, but what is certain is that if the teacher feels attacked, he will do little but defend himself. If he feels the need to defend himself, he will not be able to listen to the other side of the story, and he will not learn anything from the incident. And the student will be the one most hurt if this is the case.