Advocates, who are not lawyers and do not need special certification, help parents learn what choices they have in their child's education. They sit in on school meetings to develop or change the Individualized Education Program legally required for each disabled child. Some advocates also help parents file due-process claims in state court when they think the law is being violated.
Many, such as Orlando advocate Pam Lindemann started out advocating for their own children.
Exact numbers of advocates are not available, but Kamleiter said they outnumber the about two dozen Florida attorneys who focus exclusively on special-education law.
"I used to believe they're [school administrators] out to screw parents. That's not the case. It's the system," said Lindemann, whose daughter, now 15, has cerebral palsy. She said she wished parents didn't need the help, but "there's a huge need." Lindemann has also trained about 60 people to serve as advocates in the past three years.
One of her clients, Heidi Haines Handley, called Lindemann her "personal hero."
"If you have never been to an IEP meeting, you have no idea how intimidating that they can be, even for a very confident person," Handley said. "Everyone should have an advocate to go with them."
An Arizona case illustrates the importance of IEPs. The Verde Independent reports:
In December, following four days of hearings in October, Administrative Law Judge Eric Bryant ordered Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District to reimburse the parents of an autistic student $60,267 for private school tuition.
In short, the judge found that C-OC failed to provide the student with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The appropriate education is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The judge's ruling was based primarily upon the district's failure to follow an Individual Education Program (IEP), which is required for each special education student. An IEP team makes decisions concerning the student's IEP. Changes are not supposed to be made to the IEP without the IEP team, and the student's parents, being involved in those changes.
The student enrolled in C-OC in August 2009. According to the Office of Administrative Hearings document, the student's IEP called for her to be in a self-contained classroom setting full-time with individual and small group instruction in functional academics. Instead, the district placed the student in a regular classroom with supports and some instruction from the special education teacher.