Education attorney Shannon McMinimee has a rare, 30,000-foot view of Washington state’s school system.
Splitting her time between Seattle and her hometown in the Yakima Valley, McMinimee has spent the past nine months trying to negotiate services for children with disabilities in urban and rural districts with widely varying policies on reopening. Since last spring, she’s filed approximately a dozen legal challenges against school districts for failing to provide accommodations for students.
“They really run the gamut,” said McMinimee, an attorney at Cedar Law PLLC. In some cases, she’s had to fight for in-person instruction, and in others, she’s had to defend medically vulnerable kids’ rights to learn from home.
Though her clients are primarily families now, McMinimee has represented both sides. Her former employers include large school districts such as Seattle Public Schools, whose former racial integration policy she defended in a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
Last week, McMinimee shared advice for families of students with disabilities who may be struggling to navigate school during the pandemic. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are the first steps parents should take if a child isn’t getting the same services or is struggling?
A: If you haven’t already had one, ask for an IEP meeting. (IEPs, or Individualized Education Plans, are legally binding documents that show what accommodations a student with a disability is supposed to receive to meet learning goals.) Tell them that what has been going on is not working.
… Then talk with other parents about potential opportunities to ask for the same things together. Look around as to what’s happening in the community and see if there’s anything available that could be appropriately modified or tailored for your child and ask the school district to support your child doing that. Whether that’s spending some time at a Rotary or Boys & Girls Club, or providing a remote paraeducator who’s in your child’s class to help them.
Q: Who should be the first point of contact?
A: There are day-to-day things that the teacher can take care of. But if it’s not something you can work out with the teacher, the principal or assistant principal or vice principal is going to be the person that you talk with, unless you’re in a district where they send you to go talk to the director of special education.
Q: How should they prepare for conversations where they’re bringing up concerns?
A: If your child, whether they have a documented disability or not, has been engaged in behaviors of concern, whether that’s an outburst, suicidal ideation, or just inattention, inability to focus, turning off the iPad — you should be writing down what has happened. It doesn’t have to be long. You can tick off how many times a day something happens and then you present to the school. … You should approach with the desire to encourage people, to team together and think outside the box.
For students with disabilities, it is really important to understand that an IEP cannot be rewritten by the district just to reflect the reality of what it can offer. If your child had 90 minutes of one-on-one support before the pandemic, they can’t turn around and offer you 30.
Q: What kinds of accommodations are realistic to expect at this moment?
A: There are some things that school districts truly cannot do, but there are a lot of things that they probably could do if they did it a little bit differently. For example, if your child’s struggling with behavior at home during school hours. If the student was in school, they’d probably have a counselor or behavior interventionists come observe. You don’t have to have that person come to your house, but you could certainly set up a camera for them to observe your child remotely.
Parents might get the response, “If we did it for your child we’d have to do it for everybody.” Push back on that. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act means they should be individually looking at the needs of students.
Q: This time has been especially hard for English learners. What are their families entitled to?
A: You are entitled to an interpreter in IEP meetings, which means an actual person who is trained to provide interpretation services. It doesn’t necessarily mean a certified interpreter, but it can’t be your own kid, or a security guard at the school who happens to speak the language. You’re also entitled to have key documents translated into your home language.
Q: At what point should you consider getting outside help? Who can parents turn to?
A: If your child is suicidal and you’re concerned that they might harm themselves, if your child has regressed dramatically, if no one’s being creative or problem-solving with you, if your child is getting nothing at all from the service provider that they need and you’ve tried, and no one’s gotten back to you on those fronts, those are all good times to seek out assistance. Either in the form of an advocate or an attorney or other parents who have children with disabilities, who are able to go to meetings with you and take notes so that you can focus on having the conversation.
There is also the citizen complaint process at the state education department, although I understand they are overwhelmed right now.
Q: Who are those advocates?
Q: It’s been a difficult time for everyone in the school system. What has given you hope?
A: There have been many special education teachers and others across the state who I have seen think outside of the box. … Some of the rigid scheduling has gone away, and we’ve had circumstances where instead of making a student who has dyslexia sit through an hour of a remedial Language Arts class they’re not benefiting from, they’re getting 60 minutes of intensive tutoring from a district specialist on dyslexia.
I also had a district immediately come up and problem-solve for a young student who has bilateral cochlear implants. The sound coming through the computer was not coming through clearly, and as soon as the district understood how isolated she was, they came up with a plan to provide her in-person instruction back in September very quickly. The district also ordered masks that were clear, so she can read her classmate’s lips.