Inside: When parents catch the school or IEP team making a big blunder, they often mistakenly think that this “gotcha!” will lead to IEP meeting success. Here’s why it usually doesn’t go that way, but also how you can use that information.

In the past 10 days, I have presented the same webinar three times to three different groups of IEP parents. And, as often happens, I see trends among IEP issues that parents are dealing with. The latest one that kept coming up is the “Gotcha!”

At the end of my IEP webinars, I always allow for open Q&A as time permits. And last night I got 4 of the “gotcha” type questions from parents, asking me how I recommend they proceed.

A young woman pointing her finger at the camera while advocating for IEP changes and a gotcha
A “Gotcha!” may make a parent feel validated, but probably won’t do much else.

So what do I mean by gotcha?

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Gotcha Meaning

Gotcha is a slang term for “I have got you.”

While I haven’t actually ever heard parents yell that term out loud to school staff (thank goodness!”) in this situation it usually happens internally.

The true definition of gotcha is:

said to mean “I have got you” in order to surprise or frighten someone you have caught, or to show that you have an advantage over them.

Cambridge Dictionary

The bold is mine.

Because this is typically what happens with a gotcha in an IEP situation. The parent finally has proof that their school has done something wrong and they feel that this information will give them an advantage in IEP meeting negotiations.

A man stands next to a car with the words gotcha on it, questioning the effectiveness of "Gotcha!" as an IEP advocacy strategy.
Unrelated, but I love that show “The Neighborhood which is why I chose this Gotcha Gif.

What type of proof for a gotcha?

It can be anything. It can be an email. It’s often just a conversation. Or, what happens most often, is that parents ask me to “Show them where, in IDEA, that it says…..”

Or, “Does the school have to do XYZ….” and they are looking for proof or legislation of some sort, to help seal their “Gotcha!”

I have seen several examples over the past 10 days. I will list some of them.

  • I have seen multiple examples that a parent had proof that the IEP was not being followed.
  • One parent was not provided a report that the school should have provided.
  • One parent had doubts about the service hours her child was receiving, and wanted advice on how to secure documentation on those service hours.

“I Guarantee I Gotcha!”

First, let me say that most of the questions I answered this past week were anonymous. And, they were presented to me mostly in isolation. By that I mean, I have no knowledge of this family’s history with their school district.

However, I’ve been a special education advocate since 2010, and this is something that I encounter these situations and sentiments many times a year. So while I may be offbase in my deciphering of recent situations, similar situations can and do occur. Often.

But let’s take the example of the IEP not being followed.

The situation was this:

  • Child has an accommodation listed in their IEP.
  • Accommodation was not fulfilled.
  • When the parent asked the teacher about this, the teacher said, “I asked STUDENT if they want to use this accommodation right now, and they said they did not.”

While this specific parent did not ask me this question, when I am given these scenarios, the phrase that usually comes next is, “Is that even legal?”

Whew. Ok.

So let’s take this scenario into la-la-land for a moment.

Let’s imagine for a minute, that I told you, “No, that is not legal. They must follow the IEP.”

Ok, great. So what’s next in the gotcha?

Presumably, the parent feels that they can use this information to leverage advantage over the IEP team in their next IEP negotiations.

Surely the school will be mortified that I caught them doing something wrong, and in an effort to smooth that over, I’ll get everything I ask for on the IEP. Right?

No, it just doesn’t work that way.

IEP Advocacy Strategy, Effective

Another Gotcha Example

Let’s talk about the next scenario–the parent who did not receive a report.

The question I was asked was: Parent did not receive xyz report. “Is the school required to provide the parent with that report?”

I explained that the answer was not to be found in IDEA. Perhaps she could look in FERPA, but to be honest I didn’t know the answer.

But let’s say we found the answer in FERPA. In fact, let’s ratchet it up, and say that they exact quote in FERPA says “Schools are legally required to provide parents with XYZ reports.”

Sounds like a slam dunk, right?

No, it’s still not.

And here’s why.

Go even another step further. Parent goes to the IEP meeting, and presents them with the FERPA wording that they are required to provide this report.

School says something (who knows what) and hands over the report.

The parent now has that xyz report.

Soooooooooooo……. now what? Seriously, now what?

pedro monkey puppet

How has that helped your child, their IEP, or meeting their needs?

Serious question. How has this helped your child? What is your end game?

Again, none of these parents indicated to me as much, but the whole idea of a gotcha is the feeling of having an advantage over someone.

An advocate friend said:

“gotcha” is about you (them) feeling better at the expense of not only the district, but most importantly the student.

B.E. , Special Education Advocate

Gotcha Negotiations

And here’s why that doesn’t usually work.

I’m going to go back almost 100 years to Dale Carnegie’s advice.

People do not like to be told that they are wrong.

Dale Carnegie

It’s true. If you haven’t read his book, at least read that chapter. This book is really old (1936), but many parts are still very relevant.

You can usually find copies in used bookstores for really cheap.

Anyway, in the book, Dale Carnegie describes several different situations where one party in an argument was undeniably wrong. The mountains of evidence were overwhelming.

Still, they could not be convinced of their wrongness. It’s just human nature.

Not only do they not like to be told that they are wrong, they are unlikely to change their thinking or agree with you that they are wrong.

Relating this to modern day events, how many people do we have in this country who still believe that the 2020 election was rigged? Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary? People do not like to be told that they are wrong.

Applying this to IEP meetings, pointing out that the IEP team is wrong is not likely to get you anywhere.

My friend Jenny, a special education advocate in Ohio, states it this way.

In my experience, it’s better to voice your concerns prior to the IEP meeting in writing, because then the district can come to the meeting with an answer to your concerns.

Then we’re keeping our IEP meeting child-focused, and ensuring that the child’s needs are met in a timely manner. That is what’s important.

And if you play “gotcha!” and just come to the meeting with a list of things you’re pissed off about and aren’t open to a conversation, then the parent, may go through this whole IEP process with blinders on.

And any advice they may have been given by anyone other than an attorney that specializes in special education may not be accurate.

JK, Advocate

A friend who is a parent attorney for IEPs (for a few decades), added this:

‘Gotcha’ reminds me of the fact that there is rarely a smoking gun. I’ve had 1.

LH, special education attorney

I would add that if you come to the meeting with a gotcha, and the gotcha doesn’t go your way….then you are further entrenched in the gotcha.

Why? Because now you’ve been told that you are wrong. And people don’t like to be told that they are wrong. Remember?

Now no one is focusing on the child and their needs. They’re all focused on being told that they were wrong, and fixing that.

Because many people have a strong need to be right. “Right fighers” is what Dr. Phil calls them. (yeah, I don’t care for him, but even a broken clock is correct twice a day)

Gotcha Means Nothing

In addition to what she has said above, I would add the following considerations.

  • When you walk into a meeting and your focus is criticizing the team, no matter how much evidence you have, it’s not going to be a collaborative meeting. It’s not.
  • If you have a crappy district or crappy IEP team, you have a crappy IEP team. Even when presented with mountains of evidence, crappy IEP teams do not admit that they are wrong.
  • I have personally witnessed a client who won overwhelmingly in Due Process. The child received hundreds of hours of comp ed. The Hearing Officer just hammered the district in the decision, pointing out all the things the district did wrong. The district still filed a federal appeal. (Dale Carnegie: People do not like to be told that they are wrong.)
  • Pointing out a school’s errors or flaws is not going to have them roll over and give you what you want. To the contrary, you’re probably just going to experience more gaslighting and denial, thus only seeding more mistrust.

But, the SCHOOL DID YOUR KID WRONG!

So surely something can be done with this information, right?

What to Do with Your Gotcha Information

I’m not at all suggesting that you ignore the information. Or give the school a pass on neglecting your child’s needs.

There are some things you can do.

Most importantly, stay child focused. I can’t say that enough.

If you have a gotcha that is taking up real estate in your head, ask yourself: What is my end game? If I win this gotcha battle, what’s my prize? And how will this help my child?

You’re going to have some thinking to do–and that is to take your focus off the school and their mistakes.

And put it on your child.

  • How did this mistake or error affect your child?
  • How did this incident affect your child’s progress?
  • Is your child’s progress affected by this at all? What I mean is–a child can be regressing or not making progress AND the school could have done something really crappy. It doesn’t always mean that one caused the other.
  • Is this one incident, or a series of incidents?
  • Do you have actual proof (in writing of some kind) of this incident? Without documentation, it didn’t happen. If you don’t, then you need to sing the Frozen song.
  • Rather than focusing on “Is that legal?” I would say, “How is this affecting my child and their education?”

Options Besides the Gotcha

I would take whatever information you have in documentation. I spent two entire modules on IEP data and documentation in my online training.

Once you take a good hard look at what you have, decide your next steps. Your next steps may include:

  • Listing the situation on your next IEP parent concerns letter. If you do this, I would also brainstorm solutions. Be collaborative and solution-oriented.
  • If you bring it up at the IEP meeting, stay child focused. Rather than accusations, keep it focused on how this affected your child, their progress and how they are able to “access and benefit from” their education.
  • Learn and use your complaint options. Keep in mind that pretty much any complaint options will require significant proof.

Parents have IEP complaint options. I would educate myself on each one, and determine if there is an course of action, or any recourse to be taken.

Just “calling them out” at the next IEP meeting is not a solution. Accept that this is very unlikely to bring you the results you desire. Because that is the hard truth of the matter.

Accept that the IEP process is not fair. Not only is it not fair, it is actually stacked against parents.

Accept that parents are the IEP Police. If you made it this far, read this sentence out loud: There are no IEP Police. Unless I file for due process or file a complaint, it is assumed that everything is going fine.

Lastly, work toward helping us change the system. Because change is desperately needed.

Final Thoughts: I have more quotes to come from those of us working in the field. This will be updated as needed.

Please read any of the articles that I have hyperlinked above. And I will include there below.

It may not be advice you want to hear, because it’s not fair. It’s not. But knowledge is power.

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