Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools Article Share

IOA Member Feature

by Chuck Howard, IOA Executive Director

IOA members Armando Peri and Dawn Clement, ombuds with the Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools, recently shared an article on the valuable role they serve in connection with the special education process, which is subject to federal legal requirements.

These K-12 ombuds engage in extensive outreach efforts to help parents and others learn more about the special education process and are often asked to explain in understandable language the various legal requirements and procedures. They also serve as an informal resource for parents to share their concerns and to help them develop options for special education strategies. 

Experienced ombuds will recognize how similar this work is to what they do, but they may not have considered the potential for having K-12 ombuds in the school districts where they live. Creating more K-12 ombuds programs in school districts would help parents, staff, and schools better address conflict and remain focused on educational, including special education, issues. 

If you are interested in learning more about how you might assist in creating a K-12 ombuds program where you live, review our K-12 Ombuds Toolkit and contact the IOA Executive Director, Chuck Howard, at [email protected].

K-12 Ombuds Toolkit

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Outreach, communication key duties of local special education ombudsman

Designating a local liaison, or ombudsman, can help increase parental participation and reduce gaps in understanding about special education.

Armando Peri, Jr. is the ombudsman for Fairfax (Va.) County Public Schools, where he and other staff serve as facilitators to increase parents' understanding of and their rights within the special education process.

The IDEA charges districts to create and preserve constructive relationships between parents and schools through open communication, ensure parental involvement in planning and decision-making, and provide parents with information on their rights, protections, and responsibilities. 20 USC 1450 (11).

Many of these duties are supported by the ombud.

"There are two schools of thought on the role of an ombudsman," said Peri. "One is an advocacy role. The other school of thought is an organizational ombudsman, an individual who helps provide strategies on how to navigate the system."

Fairfax established the ombud position in July 2018 to encompass all programs within the district. In 2019, the district expanded the office to include an assistant ombud for special education, Dawn Clements.

"Roughly a third of our calls are related to special education," said Peri.

Clements is primarily responsible for supporting parents who have special education concerns, said Peri, adding that she entered the role with knowledge and experience in special education. She previously served as a special education teacher, school-level department chair, and procedural support liaison.

Peri said the assistant ombud assists parents who may be looking for more understanding on the special education process, who may be questioning whether an IEP is being followed properly, or who may not feel heard or like "their opinions are valued."

Ensuring parents are informed and have access

"We are contributing to an environment where we're trying to give people more voice and access to share their concerns ... to work toward a solution," he said. "The goal of our office is to provide an informal avenue."

Peri said districts should regularly conduct outreach.

Fairfax's ombud office continues to conduct outreach be it at in-person events, such as PTA and community meetings, or through the district website, printed pamphlets, or social media. He said the office has worked with 1,200 community members in the nearly three years since its inception, providing the community a safe place to get insights and strategies to work toward positive outcomes for students and families.

"In most cases, parents are going through the special education process for the first time or ... they have had limited access to the process," said Peri. "It is very important for us to be welcoming to parents."

Districts should assist parents in developing skills to participate effectively in their child's education and support parents as participants within partnership seeking to improve outcomes for students and families. 20 USC 1450 (11)(E) and 20 USC 1450 (11)(F).

Communicating the special education process

"Any district should really be considering how effectively they communicate the legal language in so many of our special education documentation," said Peri. "If you look at an IEP, it is written necessarily with a lot of procedural and legal language to ensure that a child has access ... However, that language is not always accessible to those seeking services, particularly for those who speak a second language."

The IDEA provides for activities to support parents who may have limited access to services and supports, due to economic, cultural, or linguistic barriers. 20 USC 1450 (11)(G). Peri said districts may ask, for example, "how do we effectively support their understanding of these very important legal documents?"

While understanding legalese is not the only communication concern parents may express, according to Peri. Another concern may be the frequency at which the parent receives student progress reports.

"We certainly have parents who wish they had more communication on their child's progress," he said. "That is a big ask for our teaching personnel."

Presently, special education programs across the country are experiencing staffing shortages and having to do more work with less staff.

"In a perfect world, we would have more staffing," said Peri. "[But] knowing how busy all our special education staff is, I think giving time for them to be engaged to parents is important."

In lieu of a district-level ombud

Peri recommends districts consider employing a parent liaison who has "an intimate knowledge of the special education process" and can be someone parents can go to with questions -- "someone whose primary purpose is supporting the parents through the process."

Johnny Jackson covers special education issues for LRP Publications.

May 11, 2021

Copyright 2021© LRP Publications

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