School Observations: A Parent’s Right

Recently, a parent sent me an email asking whether a school district could significantly limit an observation of her son’s classroom. The school district was attempting to impose numerous restrictions.

An amendment to the special education law in 2008 solidified a parent’s right to observe, and an advisory from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) instructed school districts that they must follow the amendment. Legislators and the department have made clear that observations, whether by a parent or an independent evaluator, are critical in helping families and schools determine if a student is making effective progress. School districts can rarely limit or restrict observations.

Below I have provided the school district’s “requirements” and a brief analysis of whether its requests were reasonable and consistent with the law:

1) You must provide a detailed reason for the observation and tell us specifically what you seek to gain by observing.

A school district cannot impose this restriction.

The 2008 amendment provides that “upon request from a parent,” a school district must provide “timely access” for an observation. There is little room for interpretation. School districts cannot require parents to jump through additional hoops, such as providing specific or detailed reasons for the observation. A parent can simply state that they are trying to determine whether their child is making progress.

2) All observations are limited to 20 minutes.

A school district cannot impose this restriction.

The 2008 amendment instructs that school districts must permit access to programs that is of “sufficient duration and extent” to determine whether a student is making progress. The DESE advisory states that the average observation runs from 1 to 4 hours, and time should be decided on an individual basis. For one student, in a Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) decision, a hearing officer ruled that observation could last a full, continuous school day (Mansfield Public Schools – BSEA #13-07030).

Similarly, in Weymouth Public Schools – BSEA # 09-1335, the Bureau of Special Education Appeals allowed a parent’s request to observe for 13 hours over four days. In the Weymouth ruling, the hearing officer relied on the DESE advisory and found that the school district’s 60-minute observation limit was unlawful, as the duration and extent of observations should be determined on an individual basis.

3) You must sign a confidentiality agreement.

A school district can impose this restriction.

It is likely reasonable for a school district to require a confidentiality agreement. Special education law allows school districts to restrict observations to protect other students’ confidential or personally identifiable information.

While this does not mean that an observer cannot access the classroom, schools can take reasonable steps to protect information that a parent or an independent evaluator might observe about other students.

The law only allows school districts to limit observations in two other circumstances — to ensure student safety or the program’s integrity. A school district cannot claim that an observation will be “disruptive” without evidence, as all observations will cause some level of disruption.

4) All observers must be accompanied by the special education director, who is unavailable during the time of day you want to observe.

A school district cannot impose this restriction.

If an observation during a particular time of day is necessary to determine whether a student is making effective progress, school districts must accommodate the request. Arbitrarily assigning one staff person or administrator to accompany observers creates unreasonable restrictions on parents and independent evaluators. In the Mansfield ruling, hearing officer William Crane found the school district’s arguments about similar restrictions unpersuasive.

Receive updates by email

Subscribe to the newsletter.