Prior Written Notice: Don't get PWN'd

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If you don’t know what “PWN’d” means, ask a student in your school who is into video games. If you don’t know what “PWN” means, ask your special education director. Every week, we field questions about IEP teams that are considering important changes to the services which a school or ESU will provide to a student with a disability. Prior to making those decisions, schools and ESUs must inform parents of the proposed changes or of their decision not to implement a change when one has been considered. This is referred to in the IDEA and state law as “Prior Written Notice” or “PWN.”

We have had an increase in complaints from parents and advocates alleging that schools have not properly provided PWN. We have also fielded questions from clients that indicate that there is a great deal of confusion about PWN on the school side.

Under IDEA regulation § 34 CFR 300.503 and Nebraska Department of Education Rule 51 § 009.05, local education agencies must provide PWN to the parents of a child with a disability within “a reasonable time” before the education agency:

1. Proposes to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a child or the provision of FAPE to the child; or
2. Refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a child or the provision of FAPE to the child.

Consider an example we see regularly—a young special education student with violent outbursts. As his or her school continues to address the child’s needs, the IEP teams might consider moving the child from the regular classroom into a behavior room to receive instruction. Under the IDEA, that would be considered a “change of educational placement” for that child. Therefore, prior to proposing that change to the family at an IEP meeting, the school must provide PWN to the child’s parents.

Under federal law and Rule 51, the PWN must include at least the following items:

1. A description of the action proposed or refused by the school district or approved cooperative;
2. An explanation of why the school district or approved cooperative proposes or refuses to take the action;
3. A description of other options the IEP team considered and the reasons why those options were rejected;
4. A description of each evaluation procedure, assessment, record, or report the school district or approved cooperative uses as a basis for the proposal or refusal;
5. A description of any other factors which are relevant to the school district's or approved cooperative’s proposal or refusal;
6. A statement that the parents of a child with a disability have protection under the procedural safeguards of [Rule 51] and, if this notice is not an initial referral for evaluation, the means by which a copy or description of the procedural safeguards can be obtained; and
7. Sources for parents to contact to obtain assistance in understanding the provisions of [NDE Rule 51].

We strongly encourage you to include a copy of the procedural safeguards any time you send out a PWN. Rule 51 also requires that “[t]he notice must be written in language understandable to the general public, and provided in the native language of the parents or other mode of communication used by the parents unless it is clearly not feasible to do so.”

The PWN form on SRS walks team members through each of these steps. NDE’s sample PWN form takes things in a different order, but also includes each of the necessary components. However, no form can help if team members don’t know when or how to use it.

All administrators (both general and special education) should think about providing some training and guidance to staff members regarding PWN. Your staff will be conducting final IEP meetings of 16-17 and preparing for annual and other meetings to begin the 17-18 year. In addition to ensuring you comply with the technical requirements of PWN, you should provide training on when the forms are required and good PWN (and general IEP) writing. We apply the philosophy of “if in doubt, send it out.” As for good PWN writing, you should focus on the areas where you are the experts, such as pedagogy, research-based programming, and data interpretation rather than inconveniences, cost, and negative comments about the child. Keep in mind arguments like “But it’s so expensive!” do not work to comply with the IDEA, so they should be left out of PWN to parents.

For your reference, here is a link to NDE’s “Special Education Monitoring Forms,” which contain PWN forms for the various needs of your IEP teams along with forms for other required notices. Again, these differ from the SRS form slightly and illustrate the point that what’s more important than the form is compliance with the requirements of the law.

Hopefully this refresher is helpful to you and your staff as you finish out the year and plan your in-service training for next year. If you have questions, we recommend that you consult with your school district’s attorney or call Karen, Steve, Bobby, or Tim.