TAMPA — If you're the parent of a disabled child, you've probably experienced the Individual Educational Plan meeting.
It can be long. It can be emotional. And if your child has multiple needs, there might be a lot of experts around the table, all pulling together to set goals and chart her or his future.
Can you make an audio recording to review later or to play for your spouse?
Not if your child attends school in Hillsborough County.
The school district, with 29,000 students in exceptional education, does not allow an electronic record of what the experts say about your child.
Is Hillsborough unique?
Not at all, said Tom Gonzalez, the district's longtime attorney.
But some lawyers and advocates who represent exceptional student education families say the prohibition does not exist in other districts where they practice.
Advocate Claudia Roberts, who works in seven Central Florida districts, said Hillsborough is the only one where parents cannot record.
St. Petersburg lawyer Mark Kamleiter, whose law firm employs Roberts, said he has probably worked in 35 districts and has never been denied the right to record except in Hillsborough.
He might have heard of a case in the Panhandle in which a lawyer could not record, he said. "But I cannot be sure of that."
State law gives districts the authority to set their own policies, Gonzalez said. In Hillsborough, the ban covers all communication between a parent and an educator.
Gonzalez thinks it's a good policy for two reasons.
First, he said, it is important to protect the integrity of the final IEP report, a legal document that outlines objectives for the student and spells out the services the district will provide.
A record of the conversation could be used to argue for actions that were not included in the final plan, Gonzalez said.
What's more, he said, recording a conversation can inhibit participants from talking freely about students who might have complex needs.
"People tend to talk and act differently when they are discussing a topic," he said. "They may be more guarded."
Parent Janet Atkinson, who serves on an advisory council for the district, said she can understand Gonzalez's point of view. Years ago, she won permission to record IEP meetings for her son, who is 21 and has cerebral palsy, autism and seizures.
"As long as you told them, you could record, but no one liked it," she said. "I know when I'm being recorded, I'm nervous."
Parents sometimes discuss personal and highly sensitive issues at the meetings, she said. "You want to be able to say, 'This is important. Let me tell you about our life.' "
But Kamleiter contends the no-recording policy puts parents — and, by extension, their children — at a disadvantage.
"When school administrators, psychologists, guidance counselors and teachers are not being recorded, they tend to be very loose with what they tell parents," he said. "They frequently tell parents that they do not have a right to this or that, when the opposite is true."
Kamleiter recalls the case of a 20-year-old Hillsborough student with Down syndrome.
The student's father was a surgeon who couldn't get away from work, even though the district offered to reschedule the meeting at a more convenient time.
His mother was so intently focused on the conversation around her that she could not take detailed notes. What's more, "the parents wanted the recordings so that they could sit with their developmentally delayed son, play parts of the recording to him and help him understand the discussion and the decisions."
Later, when the couple challenged the district in court, the two sides had vastly different memories of what had been said.
There are exceptions to the no-recording rule, Gonzalez said.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a parent with a disability — a hearing loss, for example, or a cognitive disability that makes it difficult to understand what is being discussed — can ask permission to record.
But the district can say no as long as it provides another suitable accommodation.
Another issue to consider, Gonzalez said, is that if the district allows the parent to record, district officials will want to make their own recording, too.
"Most school districts simply ask for 24 hours' notice of the intent to record, so that they can set up their own recording equipment," Kamleiter said. "We never object to such preconditions."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]