Many people recognize a moral obligation to educate students with disabilities. In fact that moral obligation has been turned into special education law with which all public local education agencies in the United States are required to comply.
What is Federal Special Education Law?
All public schools that accept federal money are required to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA provides a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities that affect their progress in the general education curriculum.
The IDEA begins with a requirement that all students who are suspected of having a disability be assessed. The assessments must be in all areas of suspected disability, must be free from bias, must include different assessment techniques and must be conducted by professionals who are qualified to conduct assessments. If the student is subsequently found eligible for special education then the IDEA requires that the students be periodically assessed to determine their progress and the impact of their disability on their education.
Once the assessments are complete, the IDEA requires that a Team of people come together to discuss the student’s eligibility for special education. The Team includes the child’s parents, general education teacher, a special education teacher, a member of the district who can commit the district’s financial resources, a member of the school district who is knowledgeable about the district’s continuum of special education services, person(s) who are qualified to interpret the assessments, the student if appropriate and anyone else that the parent or school district think would be useful to the process.
If the Team finds that the student is eligible for special education because he or she has a disability that affects his or her progress in the general curriculum then the Team is required to draft an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The most important aspects of the IEP are the annual goals which the Team expects the child to meet and the service delivery information which specifies what type of specialized instruction and related service the child should receive and how often those services will be provided to the student. The IEP also contains information about the student’s current assessments, necessary modifications, special transportation requirements and more.
While this explanation might seem rather straightforward, the IDEA is a complex law that has many implementing regulations. It is often difficult for school districts to comply with all of the requirements. The IDEA therefore has many protections in place so that parents can get help enforcing the law if they believe that their child’s rights are not being protected pursuant to the IDEA.
What Can I Do If My Child’s School District Is Not Complying with IDEA?
While it is the school district’s responsibility to provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities, students with disabilities often benefit from strong special education advocacy. Sometimes this advocacy comes from the student’s parents and sometimes it comes from a special education advocate or a special education attorney hired by the parents.
Whether the advocacy is provided directly by the parents, an advocate or an attorney it is important that the person providing the advocacy start by trying to work out their differences with school district personnel. Disagreements often arise over the type or amount of services that need to be provided to a student with disabilities. Disagreements can also arise over the time frame with which districts conduct assessments or develop IEPs or with the assessments themselves.
If the parent, advocate or special education lawyer cannot work things out with the district then the IDEA provides specific steps that the parent can take to protect a student’s rights. If the parent’s complaint is procedural in nature and focuses on something that the district did or did not do then the parent can file a complaint with the state Department of Education. If the complaint is more substantive in nature, such as a disagreement over the type or amount of services, then the parent can seek a mediation or due process hearing. Since the IDEA is a federal law, the parent always has the right to file a complaint in Federal District Court as well. Is homeschooling an option for you?
Special education law was developed to protect the rights of students with disabilities and to make sure that districts give them an equitable education. The history of special education law is intertwined with civil rights laws and it is both a moral and legal obligation for school districts to comply with special education law requirements.
Special Education Programs: The Continuum of Services
Special education services students with a broad range of disabilities. In order to appropriately educate all of these students public schools have developed a broad continuum of special education programs that are designed to meet their needs.
How Schools Decide What Special Education Services to Offer Individual Students
Before students can consider specific special education programs, they are required by law to provide initial diagnostic evaluations for students. The purpose of those evaluations is to assess the student’s current level of performance, the student’s disability and how that disability impacts the student’s progress in the general education curriculum.
Once the assessments are complete the student’s Team convenes to decide whether the student is eligible and, if so, to write the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The Team, commonly called an IEP Team, is made up of individuals that have important personal knowledge about the student such as the student’s parents, teachers and assessors and individuals who have important knowledge about the district’s continuum of special education services and resources. Together, the IEP Team discusses the possible services a student should receive based on his or her individual needs. Once the Team drafts the IEP (and it gets the required parental consent), the school district is legally obligated to provide the special education and related services specified in that IEP.
Special Education Facilities
Special education is offered in various facilities depending on the nature of the service required. Some services are provided in the general education classroom. Some specialized instruction and related services are provided in separate classrooms. These services are known as pull out services.
Special education services for the most seriously involved students may take place in separate public schools or state approved private schools if circumstances warrant. Federal special education law has a strong preference for educating students in the least restrictive environment possible which is the general classroom. However, sometimes students have involved physical or emotional disabilities that make that unfeasible.
If special education services are being provided in a separate classroom or building, it is important that the facility be comparable to what general education students receive. For example, special education classrooms should not be in converted broom closets in the school’s basement while all other classrooms are upstairs with lots of room and windows. Ironically, if many non special education classes or services are held in basement broom classes then it is also okay to have special education classrooms in those spaces. The law seeks equality not superiority for special education facilities.
Special Education Programs
Special education programs must be individualized to meet the needs of the students. That means that even if there is a behavioral resource room or a substantially separate classroom that primarily educates students on the autism spectrum, IEP Teams must carefully consider what specific services each student who is eligible for special education should receive in order for that child to make progress in the general curriculum. That said, suppose you have two fifth graders who have very similar disabilities on the autism spectrum.
Each IEP Team must consider how many hours of specialized instruction each child needs, whether it should take place in the general education classroom or in the substantially separate classroom and whether either child needs related services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy or psychological counseling and if so in what amounts. The IEP Team must justify any time that a disabled child spends apart from his or her nondisabled peers. Therefore, it is not enough to say that an autism class exists and all children with autism should participate. Specialty classes for all children
In order to meet the needs of every special education in the district, most school districts offer a continuum of special education services. This often includes special education teachers and related service providers who provide instruction in the general education classroom, special education teachers and related service providers who provide instruction in resource rooms and substantially separate programs that are designed to meet the needs of students with similar disabilities who are unlikely to be able to spend much time in the regular education classroom.
Special education programs exist to meet the needs of some of our country’s most vulnerable students. However, these students are often the ones who can greatly benefit from high quality special education programs.