Special education, law, & social media
DISCLAIMER: This article was written by a parent for parents. This article is intended as a resource for families who are navigating the special education system in Connecticut or Westchester, New York. This article was written by a parent, not an attorney, and the views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and are not intended to provide legal support, advice, or assistance, nor is this article intended to replace the advice of a qualified special education attorney. Families in need of legal advice, support, and assistance should contact a special education attorney licensed to practice law in the appropriate state to discuss the specific needs of their individual student. Special Education Legal Fund does not endorse or make recommendations for special education attorneys to applicants or clients of the Legal Assistance Program or any other S.E.L.F. programs.
Special education parenting is hard. One of the hardest parts of parenting a child with particular educational needs is the isolation from other families, from your friends, and even from members of your own family. Very early on, before my son was diagnosed with autism, a family member said something to my husband that has stayed with me for the ensuing 15 years. She said that my son was the way he was – the sensitivities, the tantrums, the crying, the inability to self-soothe – because we had “made him that way” by catering to his every need. For families of children with needs, the specter of judgment looms large over their relationships with others, especially family and friends.
Social media, particularly Facebook, has changed this dynamic for many families. Families of children with autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, and a host of other developmental disabilities and challenges have found peers, connections, and often friendships in online forums for families and providers. Towns, counties, regions, and states often have specific groups for families in the specific area to connect with others seeking peers, knowledge, resources, and often just a shoulder to cry on.
Social media posts are very often harmless. What could be the harm in posting in a Facebook group about a need for a speech therapist, or a dentist who specializes in children with autism, or a hairstylist familiar with the needs of sensory-challenged kids? What could be the harm in posting about an incident that happened at your child’s school between your child and a staff member charged to protect him or her? What could be the harm in asking for advice from a community of like-minded parents about your child’s special education issues in your particular school district?
The answer, when it comes to issues relating to the law and special education, is plenty. Special education law is a particularly specific field of law. It is complex and multifaceted. There are countless rules, regulations, guidelines, and timelines to know and understand. I have seen lawyers that I know who practice special education law exclusively and for many years have to stop to look up a definition for clarity. Special education law is that complicated.
When a parent solicits legal advice in a online forum, almost always the advice they receive back is worth exactly what they paid for it — nothing. No special education attorney I know would provide specific advice on the Internet for free. No special education attorney or advocate should provide specific advice about a specific case in an Internet forum. Understanding a student’s situation, without a case review of the files related to the student’s particular special education case, is impossible; it’s certainly not possible to understand all the nuances of a case from a 2 sentence posting on Facebook.
In addition, posting a plea for legal advice on an online forum is very often counterproductive to what the parent is trying to achieve for their child, particularly if the school district sees it or hears about it. “I posted it to a parents only group” “I only posted it onto my page” “It’s a private post” “No one can see it but my friends” – once you have posted it online, you have lost control over your posting. Many groups are open to parents, but also open to teachers, staff, therapists, school administrators, and other players in the special education world. In quite a few districts the special education coordinators belong to all of the special needs groups and they can see everything that is posted and your name. Some school district administrators scroll through these groups specifically looking for the names of parents in their districts, particularly families in which there is or might be some kind of legal issue or conflict.
Now most of the stuff that parents post is fairly benign. but sometimes when parents post specific incidents regarding their child or solicit specific advice about a situation with their school district, it can be a problem. Disclosing specific details about a settlement agreement with a school district is a direct violation of that agreement and the posting can be used by the school district to void that agreement.
One final thing to remember is that, in special education, every case is different. Every child is different and every situation is different. Even children with the same diagnosis in the same school with the same teachers and the same administrators and the same lawyers can have vastly different experiences and outcomes. Just because something happened (or didn’t happen) for someone’s child that you heard about from a friend, colleague, coworker, or random person on the Internet doesn’t mean that that outcome is guaranteed for your child.
For parents of children in the special education system navigating the online world for support, here are a few tips to remember:
- Nothing is anonymous. Whatever you disclose online about your child is disclosed in a public forum.
- Any advice you get on the internet, particularly legal advice, is worth exactly what you paid for it.
- All Facebook groups have administrators and very often these admins can and will post your question anonymously in the group. If you need an extra layer of anonymity, tell the admin that your question is on behalf of a friend.