My Son

My Son

Monday, February 28, 2011

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Cheerleader”

Unseemly IEP Team Member: “The Cheerleader”

Published on June 8, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

“The Cheerleader”

So, a parent of a child with special education needs arrives at an IEP meeting with a list of serious concerns. Not infrequently, their child is struggling, and the parents’ disagreements with the program are significant. There may even be severe academic or behavioral regression at the time of the meeting. Sometimes the parents have even retained an advocate or a special education attorney to represent them at the meeting.

I ask, is this the right time for a cheerleader?

An IEP cheerleader is a school district employee who takes it upon themselves to focus exclusively on what they see as the positives of the school in general, or the special education programs in the district in particular. Usually an IEP Cheerleader is not trying to cause harm or even to openly disagree with the parents. They are just remarkably upbeat people who are faithful to their “team.” In this case, however, the “team” is not necessarily the IEP Team, but rather, the school district itself.

Loyalty is nice, but for many of my clients, an honest assessment of how their child with special needs is performing would be preferred.

As I have mentioned before, in my experience as a special education attorney in Connecticut for over a decade, parents of children with disabilities are not fabricating their child’s needs for special education services. In fact, having to admit that their child is in serious need of help is difficult for any parent. Therefore, it is at best dismissive, and at worst insulting, to respond to a parents’ pleas for help with a sunny “really, he does that at home? We NEVER see him try to hurt himself here! He always seems so HAPPY!”

It would be useful if school district staff would take a moment to imagine what it must be like to be in the parents’ position, before they make assumptions, or even comments.

Like in any other aspect of life, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes can dramatically change the way you look at a situation. Unfortunately, The IEP Cheerleader seems incapable of such perspective.

The worst example of this I have ever experienced was a principal whose bubbly personality was only matched by her equally sparkly MASSIVE rhinestone teddy bear pin that said “HUG ME!” As she sat in that IEP meeting, with a plastered on smile and her pin glistening, my client shared the heartbreaking news of the serious mental illness which had swiftly taken over his child’s life, leading to the current psychiatric hospitalization. Even the school district’s lawyer looked on the verge of tears.

And yet the cheerleader, loyal as ever, chose to interject “we have a really WONDERFUL alternative program here for kids who have mental problems!”

I should have known that someone who was genuinely compassionate would not require a flashy pin to advertise it, but still…

It is difficult not to feel outrage when you are seriously concerned about your child’s special education program, and The IEP Cheerleader sugar-coats all that is worrisome and glorifies your child’s few successes. My only suggestion is to ignore this person; they are usually as harmless as they are clueless.

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