Advocating for Students with Disabilities at the School Level: Tips for Special Educators

Article excerpt

Advocating for students with special needs at the school- and classroomlevel is an extremely important role of a special educator. Special education professional advocacy guidelines are governed by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). Five professional standards identified by CEC that all educators must use in their advocacy are (a) working toward improving how government services are provided to individuals with exceptionalities, (b) working in collaboration with various professionals to ensure individuals with exceptionalities are receiving appropriate services, (c) maintaining objective and documented evidence of any inadequate services or resources afforded to individuals with exceptionalities, (d) ensuring appropriate placements are provided to individuals with exceptionalities, and (e) adhering to federal and local legislative mandates to ensure individuals with exceptionalities receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE; CEC, 2008).

In alignment with the CEC professional standards, special educators accept their professional responsibility to advocate for their students with disabilities; however, they also report a belief acquired through experience that personal and professional risks are inherent in doing so (Gartin, Murdick, Thompson, & Dyches, 2002). Figure 1 provides a summary of CEC professional standards for advocacy.

Advocating for a student can cause inherent risks for special education professionals (Peters & Reid, 2009). Researchers have found administrative pressures placed on special educators to act unethically in some situations (Gartin et al., 2002; Helton & Ray, 2006; Helton, Ray, & Biderman, 2000). Examples of things they may be asked to do include recommending inexpensive or existing services for students instead of more appropriate services that might not be readily available or have fiscal implications, conducting fewer assessments than the special educator believes are necessary for the student to receive a comprehensive evaluation as required by law, and limiting information provided to parents about their parental due process rights (Helton & Ray, 2006). Special education teachers have expressed concerns about advocating for students in the presence of their building administration (Fiedler & Van Haren, 2009; Murry, 2005) because they have been made to feel as though they are acting in opposition to their employer when advocating for students with disabilities (Gartin et al., 2002). Murry identified the following four themes surrounding advocacy risks in special education:

1. Discomfort engaging in advocacy.

2. Disciplinary response from administration.

3. Discomfort collaborating with colleagues they may have upset.

4. Time taken away from instruction.

Perhaps the greatest level of risk identified in the literature is the fear some educators have with regard to nonrenewal of their contract (Stone & Zirkel, 2010).

Although it is imperative that special education teachers learn to effectively and professionally advocate for their students, the skills needed to advocate are not typically taught in college course work or learned through practical experiences (Hanhimaki & Tirri, 2009; Husu & Tirri, 2001). It should also be restated that advocacy for the provision of an appropriate individualized education program (IEP) is the legal and professional responsibility of all special education teachers. Many researchers have encouraged teacher preparation and inservice professional development programs to include (a) more information on the CEC code of ethics and standards for professional practice (Fiedler & Van Haren, 2009; Hanhimaki & Tirri, 2009); (b) information on how to build and support teachers' beliefs that they are critically important agents of change in the lives of their students (Peters and Reid, 2009); (c) real-life examples of ethical and moral dilemmas faced in practice to support the development of preservice teachers' understanding of professional ethics (Husu & Tirri, 2001); and (d) information on how to advocate for the rights of disadvantaged populations, including individuals with disabilities (Peters & Reid, 2009). …