Fighting At School Over An IEP

Last Fall, my girlfriend and I went to her son’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. We have gone to those meetings since he was in second grade. He is now in 8th grade. He repeated one of those years. (He had a “do over” of a grade because his Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Predominantly Inattentive Type (ADHD) prevented him from adequately learning the material.) By now, these meetings are generally old-hat.

Thanks to some very helpful teachers and a lot of trial and error, we found the right combination of medication, assistance and structure at home and school. These are specific to him (we will call him John) and do not necessarily apply to others with ADHD. Hence, there is a need for an individualized plan. At each subsequent IEP meeting, we simply rubber-stamped the winning formula. That is, until this year.

We already knew that the school had unilaterally dropped some of the key measures called for in the IEP. His first quarter grades reflected that: he flunked a class and most of the other grades were below what he is capable of achieving.


Right from the start, I knew we were in trouble. The staff told us in extensive, glowing detail that he is an intelligent, polite, mature, respectful boy. The praise went on and on.

Eventually, their point became clear. They believed that John had “matured” past his “bad habits” and no longer needed much if any extra support at school.

Before continuing, let me add a word or two about ADHD. Now, to my knowledge, there is no known, definitive etiology or causation of ADHD. However, I can say what it is not. ADHD is NOT:
• a bad habit,
• immaturity of character,
• a disrespectful or impolite attitude,
• something that one simply “outgrows,”
• a set of behaviors initiated voluntarily,
• a flaw in one’s personality,
• due to dependency needs,
• borne from boredom,
• a desire to get attention.

Granted, some people with ADHD may also have dependency problems, be disrespectful, or display any of these other attributes. That is separate from the disorder itself.

Now, back to the meeting. The school’s stance that day was something like this. John has a delightful personality and a strong drive to learn. He is smart and very well liked by his teachers and the other students. John does not use distractibility to get attention. Consequently, there really was no need to continue to have an IEP in place for him.

From their point of view, his symptoms of poor attention were “bad habits” that he could unlearn through normal classroom instruction.

This is a very tempting line of reasoning to use with a parent. We were both glad to hear that John is very well liked and has no misconduct in class and is a smart, mature fellow. It would have been easy and soothing for us, I suppose, to go that one-step further and agree that John’s ADHD was a thing of the past.

However, their reasoning was, I believed, casuistry.

I responded factually. John had failed one class and underperformed in most of the others. His underperformance, I believed, was primarily attributable to the school no longer abiding by the IEP.

His symptoms, which meet the DSM criteria for ADHD, are that John:
• often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork;
• often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks;
• often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork;
• often has trouble organizing activities;
• often avoids, dislikes, or doesn’t want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework);
• is often easily distracted;
• is often forgetful in daily activities.

Using words such as “mental disorder,” “neurological inability to sustain his attention” and “disability,” I described his problems. Finally, I pointed out that ADHD does not politely step aside for well-liked, well-mannered, well-motivated children.

It would be nice to say that the meeting then became a reasoned discussion of ADHD and the interventions most likely to help John. That did not happen. The school staff held firmly to their argument that he did not need specialized assistance. Just as strongly, we held to our conviction that he did need the help.

The situation seemed grim. A few times in the past, we had tinkered with the plan. John, through no fault of his own, was the one to suffer for it.

At some point, I became angry, very angry. Conscious anger at that intensity is an unusual and uncomfortable emotion for me. I felt they were being disingenuous and had motivations other than John’s best interests. I remember being rude, cutting people off in mid-sentence, biting my lower lip-hard, to the point of pain-to prevent myself from saying more. My self-image does not include such emotion and behavior. Consequently, most of the meeting is now a blur behind a veil of repression. The best that I can say for myself is that I never devolved to abusive language or ad hominem attacks.

The meeting began with three school personnel. Soon after I got angry, one of them got up and closed the doors to the room. A short while later, that same person left the room. Soon, many people were in the room. At some point, the principal entered.

The meeting continued in this fashion for a while. Towards the end of the hour, their tactic changed. Now the mission was to get John ready for entry into high school. They said that the high school did not make the same accommodations for ADHD as the middle school.

John’s mother tactfully replied that she would fight that battle next year if need be. In the meantime, she wanted to focus on what his current needs are and what the middle school can do to assist him.

They offered yet another line of reasoning against the IEP. This time they suggested that the IEP encouraged John to be dependent upon staff for prompts, etc. If there were no IEP, they argued, he would not be dependent. The inference being that he would somehow learn for himself how to attend to the classroom material.


Just then, the principal once more listed John’s many good qualities. She said he was a delight to have in the school. She remarked that every time John saw her in the hallway, he made a point of saying something pleasant to her. She said that he was much more mature than when he first arrived at the middle school.

I thanked her for her kind words about John. Nevertheless, I pointed out that none of what she said discounted the facts that he has ADHD and requires an IEP.

She countered by asking, “Don’t you want him to grow up and be an independent, successful member of society?”

The ensuing assault by my teeth upon my lower lip was savage and enduring.

They further objected that the teachers do not have the time required to comply with his current IEP. His mother pointed out that the IEP is a legally binding document. They would have to find the time or we would seek legal remedies.

As I said, a lot of the morning is obscure in my memory, but I think that was the turning point in the meeting. We now moved on to some hard negotiations about what his IEP would include. In the end, the IEP was satisfactory to us. The meeting adjourned. The principal and most others in the room left without saying good-bye.

At the very end, one of the staff noted that seven months remained of the school year. He assured us that by then they would “cure” John’s condition and he would not need an IEP in high school.

All of our previous experiences with the elementary and middle schools were very cordial and helpful. It is difficult for me to identify what brought about the school’s reluctance to acknowledge John’s ADHD and their obligation to assist him. Regrettably, we are giving a lot of consideration to bringing an attorney to the next meeting.

Our city’s school system, like many in the country, is going through a severe budget crisis. There have been cutbacks in the number of teachers and other staff. The city has also enforced salary reductions. That is about the only reason I can fathom for the change in attitudes of the school staff. Even so, the monetary costs associated with John’s IEP are nominal and do not seem to fully account for the resistance we encountered that day.

Alternatively, perhaps they go to trainings where they get incorrect information about ADHD.

Whatever the case may be, here is a link to a copy of the IEP that we eventually formulated.

For further reading, has a wealth of information about Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.