If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
– Sun Tzu
The single most common complaint I hear from special needs parents about their school is lack of transparency and lack of communication. Teachers appear clueless to how vulnerable a parent feels entrusting their disabled child to a stranger knowing they lack the fundamental ability to report back when something is wrong. Administrators treat information about programs, services, and supports like they are top secret and share purely on a “need to know” basis. Strangely, they almost never feel that parents “need to know.” District lawyers demand confidentiality clauses in settlements, fearing other parents may learn what resources are truly available. Tired of the cloak and dagger secrecy, it’s time to get a little cloak and dagger yourself. Allow me to introduce you to “Footprinting.”
For six years I served as project director of one of the country’s most successful high tech task forces. It didn’t hurt in fighting hackers and thieves that in my youth I had been a budding hacker. It was there that I learned one of the fundamental tenants of hacking, and have since learned it is one of the fundamental rules of life. Know your enemy’s weaknesses and your own strengths and you become formidable. Like Schoolhouse Rock taught us all “Knowledge is Power.”
Two quick pieces of advice. One, if you listened to my 2nd Podcast you know how important organization is to keeping sane in special ed land. You are about to gather huge amounts of information. First, create a place for it both electronically and physically. Second, as any Survivor fan knows the power that comes with knowledge rapidly diminishes when it is shared. If you find the special ed “immunity idol” don’t blab it around, keep it to yourself until it is time to play it.
Footprinting is nothing more than a fancy way of saying the starting point in any attack is learning everything you can about the enemy. When facing as daunting an enemy as a large, taxpayer-funded, public school district as a solo parent you need every advantage you can grab. The prior sentence tells you the two biggest weaknesses of our enemy. They are “public” and they are “taxpayer funded.” Both of those things make it really hard for them to keep secrets. So let’s get started.
Without blowing your cover you can gather a lot of information about your school district from publicly available sources. Here are just a few:
- The District’s and School’s websites – This will have their calendar, administration and staff directories, student handbooks, parent handbooks, discipline policies and more.
- The School Board’s website – There are many Federal and state “sunshine” and open meeting laws, like California’s Brown Act. These require the process of spending tax dollars be open and transparent. The agendas and minutes of board meetings and the accompanying documentation (like budgets, contracts, and expense/reimbursement data).
- Public sources – Google your school district, school, and the names of all the major players. Check the backgrounds of district staff, attorneys, and board members on LinkedIn. Stalk them on Facebook. Look for scandals, other complaints, past positions that may give you leverage. Also, check your state administrative hearing records. If your district seldom goes to due process, that’s important to know.
- Other Parents – With all this information at hand, it’s time to get social. Reach out to other special needs parents and ask about their experiences with your district. What dirty tricks or lies did the district use on them. What programs, services, and supports were offered. Districts like to play special needs parents against each other, making them feel like there is a limited pot of resources and the more other kids get the less is available for your child. That’s not the truth and it’s not the law. Lack of resources is not a justification or defense to denying a student a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
Coming Out – One, two, and three can be accomplished without ever revealing yourself. Four runs a greater risk of getting back to the school. Ultimately, every town is a small town. When you’ve tapped all public sources it’s time to step out of the darkness.
- First, request and secure your own child’s records. Your legally entitled to them and once a district knows you are coming for them valuable information may disappear or change (No, I’m not paranoid. I’ve seen it happen many times). Make a complete copy and maintain the originals as you received them. For evidentiary purposes, this preserves the chain of custody.
- Make formal record requests under either the Freedom of Information Act or your states Public Records Act. Ask for copies of all settlement agreements, attorney bills and invoices, contracts with non-public schools and non-public agencies, and policies and rules governing your area of dispute. Narrow the time frame, and keep as specific as you can without giving up potentially valuable areas of inquiry. Request “access” to examine, not copies, or you may face a scary bill for costs.
You’ll be amazed at the feeling when you walk into your next IEP armed with a deep insight into your district. But, remember not to gloat or tip your hand. Keep that idol in your pocket until it’s time to play it.
Because knowledge is power.