Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
Protecting the Legal and Civil Rights of Students with Disabilities
|Special Education Advocates Training, and Certification|
The Importance of Special Education Advocates
COPAA operates on the belief that every child deserves the right to an equal and quality education that prepares them for meaningful employment, higher education and lifelong learning, and full participation in his or her community. The key to effective educational programs for children with disabilities is collaboration -as equals- by parents and educators.
Given the complexity of the network of federal, state and local laws, and intricate regulations and policies governing special education, it is understandable that many parents require the assistance of an individual who has knowledge or special expertise to ensure that they have an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the education of their child. Parents often face a situation in which emotions run high, and large teams of school officials outnumber parents at IEP meetings. In addition, a complex legal framework must be navigated by parents who have unequal access to information, which makes securing the services of a professional essential for many families. Yet, finding an Advocate who has knowledge of the law, best practices, and the individual child’s needs can be confusing, and individuals interested in becoming professional Advocates are often unsure how they can become trained. COPAA recognizes that finding an effective professional Advocate can be the difference between meaningful parental participation, and failure to protect the parent and student's legal rights. COPAA urges parents as consumers of professional Advocate services and individuals interested in becoming an Advocate to be informed as to the current laws and regulations surrounding professional Advocates.
Authority for advocates to attend IEP meetings and participate in the IEP process is found in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), in both the federal statutes and regulations. Under 20 U.S.C. §1414(d)(1)(B)(vi), the IEP team may include “individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child” at the discretion of "the parent or the agency.” (emphasis added). Under 34 C.F.R § 300.613(b)(3) of the IDEA regulations, parents have the “right to have a representative of the parent inspect and review the records.” (emphasis added).[i]
Requirements for Regulation or Credentialing of Advocates
Currently, there are no federal or state legislative or regulatory guidelines addressing the educational or credentialing requirements for an individual to serve as an Advocate, nor to inform the practice of “special education advocacy.” It is, therefore, essential that parents are as informed as possible when selecting a professional Advocate.
Skills, Knowledge, and Training
There are many entities throughout the nation which provide training to parents and professionals on special education law, rights, and responsibilities, including but not limited to: COPAA (through its Special Education Advocate Training SEATTM Program, our annual conference and webinars, and internal networking and support provided to our members); law schools (e.g., William and Mary’s ISEA Program); Wrightslaw; YourSpecialEducationRights.com; the National Disability Rights Network (formerly Protection and Advocacy); Parent Training and Information Centers (PITCs) and Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs); Public Interest Law Centers, and; a number of Family Resource Centers. Much of existing training focuses on understanding how to advocate for one’s own child and/or on the foundations of special education and related law. However, there is no uniformly agreed upon format or requirement to provide training for professional special education advocates.
In an effort to develop the profession of special education advocacy, during 2005 – 2009, COPAA engaged in a multi-pronged, national effort to produce a model curriculum for SEAT TM under a partnership with the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles (CHLA) University Center for Excellence, University of Southern California. The SEATTM Program is distinct from the training provided by (Parent Information Training Centers (PITCs) and related advocacy organizations, to prepare non-attorney advocates to assist, advocate for, and when appropriate represent the interest of families/students to access FAPE, within the guidelines set by states for non-attorney advocates. The SEATTM Program is the only training program of its kind in the country.
In 2008, as part of this National Advisory Board led project, COPAA and CHLA jointly published the Core Competencies of a Special Education Advocate. Having such common standards helps define the field and recognizes that there are many avenues to obtain the information, knowledge or experience, which is important to assure wide and equitable access to the profession.
In 2008, the COPAA Advocate Committee, with input from our unparalleled peer to peer national member network, published the Voluntary Code of Ethics for Special Education Advocates.
COPAA continues to offer the SEATTM Training each year, and we have trained hundreds of Advocates through this nationally recognized program.
In addition to the COPAA SEATTM Training, there are many other reputable training providers specifically tailored for special education advocates, such as our colleagues at Wrightslaw, The College of William and Mary, and the University of San Diego to name a few. Advocates are encouraged to fully explore training opportunities and the credentials of trainers to find a program (or programs) of interest. Special education advocacy occurs under a variety of conditions, settings, oversight, state and local regulations, etc. Aspects of an Advocate’s responsibilities or expected knowledge that may be relevant in one state, setting, or subject may be irrelevant in others. Each individual advocate makes the determination regarding the type, nature and extent of training that he or she will undertake.
The following represent types of training generally available for a profession:
Certificate of Completion – A form of recognition awarded by the training entity for participation and/or for meeting minimum occupational course or curriculum requirements.The COPAA SEAT Program provides a certificate of Completion.
Certification – A formal process for accessing knowledge: involves a fee, examination, and is time-limited. Generally requires re-certification, which may include re-testing, yearly fees and/or continuing education. The governing body administers the test, oversees re-certification requirements and handles any consumer complaints. From a consumer standpoint, individuals considering participation in certification should ask specific questions to find out the nature of the certification, the experience and process for board oversight of the certification, the makeup and experience of the governing Board, and whether the testing process is recognized and acknowledged as a valid method for determining qualifications. Certification industry standards require that the body overseeing certification be an independent governing body separate from the group that administers training or study guides, and that such governing board should be comprised of knowledgeable and experienced members representative of the field in which the individual is going to be certified, and be comparable in size with standard size of governing boards (i.e., 10 -20+ members). There should also be more than one avenue to achieve the knowledge necessary to pass the required exam. (for example, see http://www.credentialingexcellence.org/ncca for standards)
License – a written document granted by an organization or agency which is required to perform a particular skill or profession.
Licensing – a formal process, often mandatory and sponsored by a government agency to grant permission to practice a skill or profession.
Certificate of Advanced Study - certificates of advanced graduate study are offered by some institutions of higher education. These certificate programs are designed to hone critical thinking skills and personal knowledge of a chosen field, in addition to encouraging professional development. The certificate generally takes one to two years to complete, including a culminating cumulative exam or extensive project.
Course Credit - A course credit (often credit hour, or just credit or "unit") is a unit that gives weight to the value, level or time requirements of an academic course taken at a school or other educational institution.
Currently, there is not a nationally-recognized, independently accredited certification program for Special Education Advocates. Developing and implementing a certification process can take several years, and significant resources to create the national infrastructure necessary to run such a program well. Issues need to be addressed including independent governance, state variance, levels of certification, the unintended effect of the certification program (i.e., increasing the number of certified professionals, thereby removing a differentiator in selecting a professional) and other such factors that may raise risks of legal liability. Generally there are five principal areas that can cause concern in connection with the operation of certification programs: antitrust, negligence (liability to third parties), due process, defamation, and ADA compliance. Such concerns should not be a barrier to undertaking a certification process per se, but rather provide cautionary guidance in the design and implementation of such a program.
The Advocate Committee recognizes that there is a continual struggle on how to address the certification issue without limiting access to the available sources of effective and comprehensive advocacy training due to price. The issue of availability and cost of advocacy services greatly impacts underserved communities. In addition, extreme caution must be taken with a national approach towards advocate certification, given the many variations of advocacy approaches required in different regions of the US and the need to ensure that parents are not denied assistance from an individual with knowledge or special expertise regarding their individual child. Parents must be informed consumers as they review and determine the qualifications of an advocate to assist at IEP meetings, in mediation sessions, due process meetings, etc. Parental rights to receive assistance and support from individuals with special knowledge or training on the needs of an individual child must be protected.
Section 300.512(a)(1) of IDEA specifies that the ability of parties to be represented by non-attorney advocates at due process hearings is determined under State law. States have varying degrees of interest and activity in addressing advocate ‘regulation’ through state legislation and/or regulation. California, for example, introduced a bill (SB 462) in 2011 which proposed a voluntary certification process for non-attorney special education advocate who wanted to participate in IEPs or mediation sessions. The bill, which was defeated, would have required special education local plan areas to provide alternative dispute resolution training, and the Office of Administrative Hearings to administer a test, to any persons seeking certification in special education advocacy. On the other hand, Texas passed a bill (SB 709/HB 2056) in 2013, which permits lay (non-attorney) advocates to assist parents in due process hearings. The sub-committee will continue to monitor activities at the state level.
Professional Special Education Advocates can be invaluable resources for families. The vast majority of COPAA Advocate Members report that they are able to successfully resolve disputes between parents and their school districts without having to refer the matter to an attorney. A special education Advocate can empower parents and students with disabilities, repair the relationship between the school team and the family, and effectively enforce IDEA rights.
COPAA is proud to be the pioneer in the field of training Special Education Advocates, and to serve as an ongoing resource to professional advocates. In the absence of a national standardization for Advocates on which parents and advocates can rely, COPAA urges all consumers, parents and budding advocates alike, to diligently research the quality and reliability of advocate training opportunities. It is our hope that the explanations provided in this Statement will allow consumers to see that there is a difference between effective marketing and effective advocacy.
 Excluding a parent’s advocate from an IEP meeting or from advocating on behalf of a child could be a deprived of meaningful participation in the child’s education as required by the IDEA. If advocacy fails to bring about the desired lawful result and the parent decides to file for due process, the parent could argue denial of meaningful participation. Under the IDEA, a hearing officer may find a denial of FAPE due to a procedural violation if the procedural violation “significantly impeded the parents' opportunity to participate in the decision making process regarding the provision of a free appropriate public education to the parents' child.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(3)(E)(ii)(II) (emphasis added). If a school district excludes an advocate from attending IEP meetings or otherwise prevents them from representing families in the IEP process, the advocate may consider pursuing a claim for retaliation under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
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