Special Educators Must Advocate for Children: the CEC Professional Standards for Advocacy

In 2011 I wrote a pair of articles for the Newsline of the Federation for Children with Special Needs describing the legal framework and offering some practical guidelines for public school teachers who wish to advocate for children with disabilities within their districts.  Teachers in that role must wrestle with several sources of resistance and limitation, including their own natural reluctance to engage in potentially adversarial interactions with colleagues and/or administrators; the possibility of subtle or not-so-subtle disciplinary repercussions; and the inevitable extra time and energy it requires to advocate effectively – becoming familiar and comfortable with the applicable rights and procedures, educating oneself about alternative solutions, learning to work with diplomacy amid one’s peers, and so forth – none of which extra time and energy is likely to be compensated in one’s paycheck.

An excellent article has just been published by the Council for Exceptional Children (“CEC”) that describes and expands upon the professional responsibility of special educators to advocate for the students who are their charges: Advocating for Students with Disabilities at the School Level, Peggy J.S. Whitby, et al., Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 45, No. 5, pp. 32-39, May-June 2013.  (Note that this article is currently available only to CEC members through CEC’s website.  We are told that the full text of the article is available without cost to CEC members and for purchase to non-members.)

The professional standards described by CEC for special educators are generally considered as defining “best practices” in the field, whether a teacher is a member of CEC or not.  While the ethical standards promulgated by a professional organization like CEC do not have the same authority over the work of a professional as do statutes, regulations or the decisions of licensing agencies or courts, it is expected that professionals will know and abide by those standards.

The CEC standards governing special educational providers include responsibilities proactively to advocate for the children they serve:

  1. Continually seek to improve government provision for the education of persons with exceptionalities while ensuring that public statements by professionals as individuals are not construed to represent official policy statements of the agency that employs them.
  2. Work cooperatively with and encourage other professionals to improve the provision of special education and related services to persons with exceptionalities.
  3. Document and objectively report to one’s supervisors or administrators inadequacies in resources and promote appropriate corrective action.
  4. Monitor for inappropriate placements in special education and intervene at appropriate levels to correct the condition when such inappropriate placements exist.
  5. Follow local, state/provincial, and federal laws and regulations which mandate a free appropriate public education to exceptional students and the protection of the rights of persons with exceptionalities to equal opportunities in our society.

Council for Exceptional Children, What Every Special Educator Should Know: Ethics, Standards, and Guidelines 296, 304. 6th Ed. Revised 2009.

Advocating for Students with Disabilities at the School Level offers detailed suggestions to help teachers carry out their responsibilities under these standards and should be widely disseminated not only among its target readership – the teachers to whom the advocacy standards apply – but also among parents and advocates.  The very existence of the CEC’s professional requirement to advocate and the standards that apply can itself serve as an advocacy tool: a special educator can, as the article suggests, refer to the standards in defense of her advocacy for a child, keeping copies at hand to show to anyone who questions the teacher’s right to speak up (though saving the moment of delivery hopefully for a private moment with one’s administrator or supervisor to defuse the possible embarrassment of a public confrontation) or even posting a copy on the wall or desk of the educator.  A parent can use the knowledge of these standards to remind a friendly teacher that while private expressions of support and guidance to parents are appreciated, they may not be enough to fulfill their professional obligations to a child and that real support lies in actively – albeit diplomatically – speaking out on that child’s behalf in the halls and meeting rooms of the school.

Like special educators, other school professionals such as speech and hearing providers, occupational therapists, school psychologists, school counselors, social workers, school nurses, and physical therapists all have professional standards defining best practices for their fields.  A list of websites where those standards can be found and a selected description of standards applying to those professions that urge providers to actively protect and advocate for the children they serve is attached here: Professional Standards of Selected Professional Disciplines.

Robert Crabtree is a partner in the Special Education & Disability Rights practice group at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong, LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

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