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School Records and Reports: Journals of the Journey

By: Deidre Hayden, Winifred Anderson, and Stephen Chitwood

As a parent of a child with disabilities, you have special interest in knowing what is contained in your child's school records. This is true because of the significant information these records offer you about your child and also because of the emphasis schools place on these records when making educational decisions. If any information in your child's records is inaccurate, biased, incomplete, inconsistent, or just plain wrong, this material may well result in inaccurate decisions regarding your child's right to special education services. For these reasons you must know how to obtain, interpret, and correct these records and how to use them effectively in school meetings. This chapter will guide you through the corridor in the special education maze pertaining to school records.

Obtaining your child's records from the local school

Schools are required by federal and state laws to maintain certain records and to make these records available to you upon request. The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also known as the Buckley Amendment, and IDEA establish the minimum requirements school systems must meet in maintaining, protecting, and providing access to students' school records. These requirements are described in the remaining pages of this chapter. State laws will sometimes go beyond these minimum requirements and provide parents with additional rights to review, modify, or seek other changes in these records. For this reason, you should obtain a copy of your own state's school records law by contacting your local director of special education.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and IDEA require that every school district have a written policy governing the management and confidentiality of records. Further, the policy must include a procedure for parents to gain access to confidential records. The term "parent," as used in these Acts, is broadly defined. It includes natural parents, guardians, anyone acting as a parent in the absence of the natural parent, and foster parents. Divorced or noncustodial parents have the same rights as custodial parents with respect to their child's school records unless a state law, court order, or binding custody agreement declares otherwise.

Getting copies of your child's school records should be virtually automatic. While federal law does not specifically require school systems to provide parents with copies of these records, in practice most school systems do so upon request. Begin by asking the school principal about the location of your child's various files or records. These will include a cumulative file, a confidential file, and, sometimes, a compliance file. The principal will have the local school's cumulative file, which you will want to see and copy. Often the cumulative file contains little more than a profile card with personal identification data and perhaps academic achievement levels, some teacher reports, and report cards.

Also accessible to parents, the confidential file may be kept at your child's school, or in a central administrative office where the special education program offices are located. The file is called confidential because access to the information is limited to certain individuals. Your child's confidential record includes all of the reports written as a result of the school's evaluation; reports of independent evaluators, if any; medical records that you have had released; summary reports of evaluation team and eligibility committee meetings; your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP); and, often, correspondence between you and school officials.

Some school systems keep the report of eligibility meetings, correspondence between the parents and school officials, and other similar documents in a separate compliance file. The contents of the compliance file demonstrate that the school system has complied with timelines, notification, and consent regulations under IDEA. In addition, schools may also maintain a separate file regarding discipline issues involving long-term suspension or expulsion. A good bit of detective work is sometimes required to understand your school system's individual filing system!

Once you know the location of the records, how do you best proceed to obtain copies of these files? If you want to get a copy of your child's records through the mail, you will most likely be required to sign a release of information form. This can be obtained by calling or writing your school principal or special education director. Other school systems will send records upon receiving a written request for release of information from parents. For this service, a school system can charge you only for the cost of reproducing and mailing the records, not for personnel time or other costs incurred by the school system.

Another way to obtain a copy of your child's records is by appointment. A telephone call to the appropriate office requesting a mutually convenient time for you to review and to make copies of the records often results in a school professional being on hand to guide you through them and to answer any questions. Again, your only expense will be the reproduction costs.

You might ask, "Wouldn't it be better if I go into the office unannounced to see the records?" In fact, there are several reasons why a surprise visit may not be the best strategy:

1. Perhaps you are concerned that if you give the school system prior notice, someone might remove parts of the record and then replace them following the appointment. Although isolated cases of schools removing material from files have indeed been reported, the good faith of both parents and school systems is needed in this area. Should problems develop, several procedures enable you to challenge and request removal of records of questionable value to your child. These procedures are described later in this chapter.

2. Even if you do visit the office unannounced, school personnel are not required to show parents their children's records on demand. Often, however, they will accommodate you in an emergency. School systems are required by the Buckley Amendment to make records available within forty five days. Most systems respond to a parent's request within two to five days.

3. A school office, like any office, is run most efficiently when the needs of the people working there are taken into consideration. If you arrive unannounced and ask for services that involve the time of office staff, you can interrupt important routines and schedules. By asking for an appointment you continue to build the bridge of mutual respect and consideration needed in effective educational advocacy.

Records open to parents

Once you have gained access to your child's records, does this mean you can see any and all records pertaining to your child? Just what records is the school system legally required to show you?

Under the Buckley Amendment, schools must show parents all records, files, documents, and other materials that are maintained by the school system and contain information relating to their children. This includes all records referring to your child in any personally identifiable manner-that is, records containing your child's name, social security number, student ID number, or other data making them traceable to her. Excluded from the records schools must show you, however, are the following: (1) notes of teachers, counselors, and/or school administrators made for their personal use and shown to nobody else (except a substitute teacher); and (2) personnel records of school employees.

These exclusions often cause parents concern. Frequently, parents whose children are evaluated by school psychologists want to see their children's test papers. Psychologists sometimes refuse to show parents these papers, claiming the tests fall within the personal notes exemption or that the tests are copyrighted and cannot be disclosed to nonprofessionals. According to the Office of the General Counsel, U.S. Department of Education, test papers (protocols) completed in psychological evaluations and maintained in personally identifiable form are educational records under the Buckley Amendment. Therefore, upon your request, psychologists must show you the test papers and other materials completed by your child during her evaluation. To protect the future validity of the tests, however, psychologists cannot give you copies of these materials. Similarly, parents often feel they should be able to examine the personnel records of their child's teacher to assess the teacher's academic qualifications and experience. But these records are exempt from such review under the Buckley Amendment and are not open to parental examination. (Note: If either the raw scores from your child's evaluations or the qualifications of your child's teachers become issues in due process hearings, you may obtain this information either from the files or from direct examination of witnesses during the hearing.)

Examining and correcting your child's records

Even when you have your child's records in your hands, you may wonder what you've got. The language of the educators, psychologists, educational diagnosticians, and other school professionals often appears unintelligible at best and nonsense at worst. If this is the case for you, all you need to do is ask someone to help you. The law requires school personnel to explain the records to you when you do not understand them. Or you may take a friend or a knowledgeable professional with you to help review the records and explain confusing parts. When you do this, however, you will be asked to sign a form giving that person permission to see your child's records.

As you review the records, you may find places where information given about your child or family conflicts with your own assessments. If left unchallenged, this material could lead to decisions about your child's educational program that are not in her best interest. To prevent this from happening, you can follow two paths. First, you can informally ask the principal or the director of special education to delete the material, giving your reasons for the request. Often school officials will honor the request and no problem arises. If difficulties do develop and they refuse to remove the requested material, your second approach to correcting the records is the formal hearing.

When you ask for a formal hearing, you should do so in writing, with a letter addressed to the school principal or the school official designated in your school's written procedures. Be certain to keep a copy of the letter for your files in the same way you will want to keep track of all correspondence with the school. The hearing you request will involve a meeting between you and school professionals, presided over by a hearing officer. The hearing officer in this case is usually an official of the school system who does not have a direct interest in the outcome of the hearing. The purpose of the hearing is to allow you and the school system to present evidence about the school record in dispute and to let the hearing officer determine who is right.

Under the Buckley Amendment, the school must schedule a hearing on any disputed records within a reasonable time, and you must be notified of the time and place of the hearing reasonably in advance. What is reasonable in your school system will be spelled out in your local school or state board of education regulations. These same regulations will also explain: (1) your right to have someone, even an attorney, assist or represent you at the hearing; (2) the length of time the school system has to make its decision after the hearing; and (3) the requirement that the hearing officer include in the decision a discussion of the evidence and the justification and rationale for the decision reached.

Since the hearing officer at a records hearing can be a school official, parents might feel that the proceedings are not fair. Although unfair decisions have been rendered, more often than not the hearing officer will act impartially in deciding the issue. Even if parents are denied their request to have a record removed, further actions may be taken to reduce the negative impact of the disputed report.

The most effective way to handle this problem is to amend the record by attaching a written explanation of your objections, detailing why you believe the material is inaccurate, biased, incomplete, or otherwise inappropriate. Because the school must, by law, keep your statement with the record, everyone who sees the record will be informed of your objection to its contents.

Besides amending the disputed record, you can take several other steps when you believe your requests to correct the records have been improperly refused. First, you can file a complaint with your state education agency following the procedures described in your state's school records law. Second, as soon as possible after the incident, you could also send a letter of complaint to:

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) Office, Family Policy Compliance Office U.S. Department of Education 600 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20202-4605 Phone: (202) 260-3887

This office is responsible for enforcing the Buckley Amendment and will look into your complaint.

A final action you can take in some areas is to sue in court. Since most recent court decisions deny individuals the right to private suit under the Buckley Amendment, you should consult an attorney to see if such action is possible where you live. All three of these options require significant time before action occurs. Therefore, if you use them, you should also amend the record in anticipation of having it removed later.

Finally, you should examine your own state laws regarding your rights to review, to control access to, and to correct your child's school records. State laws may provide parents with more rights in this area than does the Buckley Amendment. To determine if this is the case, you must first obtain and examine copies of the laws and policies regarding records in your state. Again, these laws and policies should be obtainable from your superintendent of schools or other designated officials.

Controlling who sees your child's records

The Buckley Amendment prohibits schools from disclosing your child's records to anyone without your written consent. The only exceptions are:

  1. school officials, including teachers, in the same district with a legitimate educational interest as defined in the school procedures;
  2. school officials in the school district to which your child intends to transfer (before the records are sent, however, you will want to review them and challenge their content, if necessary);
  3. certain state and national education agencies, if necessary, for enforcing federal laws;
  4. anyone to whom a state statute requires the school to report information;
  5. accrediting and research organizations helping the school, provided they guarantee confidentiality;
  6. student financial aid officials;
  7. people who have court orders, provided the school makes reasonable efforts to notify the parent or student before releasing the records;
  8. appropriate people in health and safety emergencies such as doctors, nurses, and fire marshals.

With the preceding exceptions, schools must have your permission to release material from your child's records to anyone other than yourself. When requesting release of the records, the school must tell you which records are involved, why they have been requested, and who will receive them. Likewise, if you want someone outside the school system to see your child's records, you will be asked to sign a release granting such permission. All these precautions have been instituted to protect your privacy and that of your child.

When your child reaches eighteen or goes to post-secondary school

When your child reaches the age of eighteen or enters a post-secondary educational institution such as a vocational technical school, a college, a university, or trade school, most rights to records previously available to you are transferred to your child. The only parts of her record your child will not have the right to see are your financial records and any statements or confidential recommendations your child has waived the right to see. This means if you wish to see the school records of a son or daughter who is eighteen or who is attending post-secondary school, he or she must first sign a waiver permitting this action.

IDEA gives parents of children with disabilities special consideration when transferring record rights. The law grants states the authority to develop individual policies which take into account the type and severity of the child's disability and the child's age when transferring record rights from parents to their children. Thus, if your child with disabilities has reached age eighteen or is about to reach eighteen and is in secondary school, you should ask the director of special education if your state has a policy that allows you continued access to your child's records. If not, you and school personnel may want to develop a waiver form which your child can sign allowing you continued rights to review, to control access to, and to seek changes in those records.

When you move

In today's society, people are always on the move. Your child's school records, of course, will move with you. To be certain your child's new school receives only relevant and current records, you should examine the records and identify specifically the material you want forwarded. Most school systems will honor your request and send only the information you want released. Should the school wish to send material you want withheld, you can initiate the hearing procedure described earlier to prohibit its action. In any case, before you move, always review your child's school folder. You will want to eliminate the irrelevant, inaccurate, and dated material or attach your critique to those records you believe should have been removed but were not.

Because of the importance of your child's records in determining special education eligibility, you should review and correct them annually, whether or not you move. You should also be certain you have a duplicate copy of all the material in the official files. Then, if the records are lost, as they easily can be in a large school system, you will have copies to replace them.

A final note: Thick records

Classroom teachers have been heard to comment, "When I see a thick set of records of a child new to my class, I know trouble is coming." This is another reason for your diligence in reviewing your child's records annually. Many reports, especially those written several years previously, give little if any information that will be useful in current decisions about your child. A careful weeding out of irrelevant documents can help to avoid the thick record syndrome.

The four step record decoder

When you have obtained the school's records, often a stack of documents an inch or more thick, what will you do with them? How can you begin to make sense of all this material written about your child? You have already organized your home observations of your child into the framework of the Developmental Achievement Chart; now you will organize the school's observations of your child by employing the Four Step Record Decoder. The decoder helps you organize, read, analyze, and evaluate your child's school records.

Organize

  1. After obtaining the complete set of records from the school system, separate the documents describing your child (teacher reports, psychological evaluations, social history, IEPs, etc.) from other documents or correspondence of an administrative nature (the minutes of an eligibility committee meeting, consent forms, etc.). The other documents and correspondence help you keep track of your contacts with the school system.
  2. Make an extra copy of the records. This way you will have an original and a copy you can mark, cut, paste, and use however it will help you.
  3. Arrange each set-descriptive reports and other documents in chronological order.
  4. Secure the pages in a folder with a clip or in a looseleaf notebook so that if you drop them you won't have to back up three steps.
  5. Number each report and make a chronological list that can be added on to as new records are generated. The list might look like the chart below.
Educational Reports of Susan Martin
  Report Date Reporting person
>1 Psychoeducational evaluation 5/3/97 Katherine Connor
2 Teacher's report 5/97 Cathy Porterman
3 Social history reports 5/12/97 Patricia Roberts
4 Psychiatric evaluation summary 6/8/97 Dr. Gerald Brown
5 IEP 6/14/97 Katherine Connor
6 Psychological evaluation summary 8/23/97 Dr. Ronald McPherson
7 Teacher's report 9/14/97 Dru Dunn
8 Psychologist's memorandum 9/14/97 Barbara Hager

Read

  1. Read through the entire record to get overall impressions and tones of the school's view of your child.
  2. In the margins of your working copy, put a question mark beside the statements or areas of the reports you do not understand or with which you disagree.

Analyze

  1. Now reread the reports and underline the phrases or sentences you feel best describe your child's strengths and those that describe your child's problems. Put an "S" in the margin opposite a description of your child's learning strengths; a "P" opposite the problems. When you come to a phrase or sentence reporting your child's learning style, write "LS" in the margin.
  2. Using a worksheet similar to the one below place these phrases or sentences about your child's strengths and problems within the developmental categories of movement, communications, social relationships, selfconcept/independence, perception/senses, thinking skills, and learning style.
  3. After each piece of data, put the source and date. Often you will find trends beginning to emerge. The same observation, said in similar language, may occur in several reports over a period of time.
  4. List recommendations made by each evaluator or teacher in the last section of the analysis sheet. Recommendations might include services needed, classroom environment, class size, type of school setting, recommendation for further testing, specific teaching materials, or equipment.
Four-Step Record Decoder
Data Source Date
MOVEMENT Strengths: Problems:    
COMMUNICATIONS Strengths: Problems:    
SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS Strengths: Problems:    
SELF-CONCEPT/INDEPENDENCE Strengths: Problems:    
SENSES/PERCEPTIONS Strengths: Problems:    
THINKING SKILLS Strengths: Problems:    
LEARNING STYLE Strengths: Problems:    
RECOMMENDATIONS:    

Evaluate

Using the question mark notations you have made in the margins and your overall sense of the records from your analytical work with them, evaluate them against the following criteria:

  • Accurate. Do the reports and portions of the records correspond with your own feelings, perceptions, observations, and assessments of your child?
  • Complete. Are all the documents required by the school system for the eligibility, Individualized Education Program (IEP), and placement decisions available in the file? For example, medical report, social history, psychological examination, educational report, and others as may be required by your local or state guidelines.
  • Bias Free. Are the reports free from cultural or racial bias? Do they take into consideration the effect your child's disability might have had upon the outcome of the results of the tests?
  • Nonjudgmental. Do the reports reflect a respect for your child and your family? Do they avoid the use of language that judges rather than describes? Examples of judgmental statements include: "She is fickle." "He is incorrigible." Examples of descriptive statements include: "She is inconsistent in stating what she likes and dislikes." "He will not respond to directions to stop disruptive behavior."
  • Current. Are the dates on the records recent enough to give a report of your child's present behavior and functioning? Records generated within the past three years are generally useful for making good decisions. Older ones should be used with caution.
  • Understandable. Is the language used meaningful, clear, and understandable to you? If technical terms (jargon) are used, have they been defined or made understandable to the nonspecialist? (Example of an unclear statement: "She appears to have a psychological learning disability, calling for treatment involving a moderation of the special focus on interpersonal sensitivity she has received so far." What does that mean?)
  • Consistent. Is there consistency among the descriptions of your child given by each evaluator or teacher? Or do you find contradictions and differences of opinion? Considering the record as a whole, does it make sense and lead to the given recommendations?

    By completing your own Record Decoder analysis sheets, you will become thoroughly familiar with your child as seen through the closeup lens of her school records. The information in these records provides the basis upon which crucial decisions will be made concerning your child's education. The importance of organizing, reading, analyzing, and evaluating your child's school records cannot be overemphasized. Therefore, before continuing to the next phase of the maze, make sure the information in your child's file paints an accurate picture of her.

Evaluation troubleshooting

After you have reviewed your child's latest evaluation reports and examined past evaluations in the school file using the Four Step Record Decoder, you will conclude one of two things. Either you agree that the evaluation results are accurate, complete, consistent, and up to date; or you believe they are deficient in some respect. If you believe the evaluation materials are satisfactory, you move to the next corridor of the special education maze-eligibility determination. But what if you think the evaluation findings are inadequate? What steps do you take next?

You can select one of two paths in attempting to correct the defects you find with the evaluations. One path is informal; you informally ask school officials to remove the faulty evaluation from the record, or undertake additional evaluations, or add materials you provide to the file, or possibly just clarify for you the deficiencies you see in the evaluation findings. Should this approach fail, you can seek to resolve your difficulties through a more formal approach.

If your problem involves earlier evaluations that are now a part of your child's official school file, you can seek to amend the records through the formal process for correcting records described earlier in this chapter. If your concern is the inadequacy of the school's most recent evaluation, you can request that an independent evaluation of your child be made at public expense.

Both federal and state law provide parents the opportunity to obtain an independent evaluation of their child when they believe the school's evaluation is inadequate. An independent evaluation is one made by professionals not employed by the school system. Some local school systems maintain a list of professionals or organizations whose personnel meet the licensing criteria for conducting independent evaluations. Sometimes these evaluations may be conducted by the county or state departments of health or mental health. The steps you should follow to secure an independent evaluation are outlined in your state regulations. But remember! An independent evaluation paid for at public expense does not mean that you, the parent, can choose whomever you wish to evaluate your child. The evaluators must meet the licensing criteria of the school system.

Will school officials agree to pay for an independent evaluation? Not always. Before they can deny your request, however, they must hold a due process hearing and must prove to the hearing officer the appropriateness of their evaluations. Otherwise, the school system cannot deny your request for an independent evaluation. Remember! You don't have to prove that the school's evaluation results are incorrect before asking for an independent evaluation-you are entitled to an independent evaluation if you merely believe the school system's findings are inadequate. If school professionals don't wish to pay for the independent evaluation, they must initiate the hearing procedure to justify denying the request.

An alternative to the independent evaluation at public expense is the independent evaluation at private expense. If you can obtain an independent evaluation at public expense, why would you ever want to pay for one out of your own pocket? There are several reasons. First, you can personally choose the professionals who will make the evaluation. This often gives you greater confidence in the findings and allows you to select the specialist most appropriate for working with your child. Second, when you pay for your own evaluation, you can control who sees the results. When an independent evaluation is made at public expense, the findings must be considered by the school system in making educational decisions regarding your child. Further, the independent, publicly financed evaluation may be presented as evidence in a due process hearing. If you feel that the independent evaluation is also incorrect, you have no way to stop its being used by the school system or the hearing officer. In contrast, if you pay for the evaluation of your child, you determine how those results are used and who gets to see them. Thus, if you conclude that the results accurately describe your child, you may submit the results for consideration by the school system or a hearing officer. If you are n

Reprinted from Negotiating the Special Education Maze Deidre Hayden, Winifred Anderson and Stephen Chitwood Third Edition 1997.