There are two times during the year that I get the most calls from parents of special needs students: (1) when IEPs are being developed in the spring, and (2) at the beginning of each school year when parents become concerned about whether their child’s school is following their new IEP. So in honor of school starting in Arkansas next week, I’ve decided to put together answers for a few of the most frequently asked questions that I receive from parents this time of year, particularly from parents who may be new to special education.
1. My child is having trouble in school. How do I know if s/he qualifies for special education?
You won’t know unless your child receives a proper evaluation. Not every student who struggles in school will qualify, and not even every child with a documented disability will qualify. In order to receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a child must need both special education instruction and “related services.” Related services are those services a child needs in order to benefit from special education instruction, such as physical therapy, mobility services, or counseling. A child must need both to qualify. For example, a child in a wheelchair who does not need special education instruction would not qualify.
2. My child doesn’t currently receive special education services, but I suspect s/he might have a disability. The school disagrees. What should I do?
As a parent, you have the right to request an evaluation of your child, and the school district must honor your request. Put your request in writing and deliver a copy to the principal, superintendent, and special education coordinator at your child’s school. The school will need your express consent to start formal evaluation procedures for your child. After you sign a consent form, the school has 60 days to evaluate your child.
3. My child’s school evaluated my child, but I don’t agree with the results. What can I do?
If you don’t agree with the results of the evaluation performed by your child’s school, you have the right to request an evaluation by an independent evaluator at the school’s expense. Do this in writing, and deliver a copy to the principal, superintendent, and special education coordinator at your child’s school. The school can’t ignore your request. The school either has to pay for the evaluation, or it can request a due process hearing before an independent hearing officer to determine if the independent evaluation is necessary. I’ve written more about due process procedures below.
4. We just moved to a new town, and my child is starting in a new school district. My child had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at her last school. Will her new school follow her IEP?
Yes, at least for a while. When a child with an IEP transfers schools, the child’s new school is required to provide services comparable to those provided under the IEP developed at the child’s previous school until such time that the new school can schedule an IEP meeting and develop a new IEP.
5. Can my child’s school change her IEP without notifying me?
Absolutely not. An IEP can be changed without a formal IEP meeting, but only with written consent of the parents. Some administrative issues, however, may not be addressed in an IEP, such as to which classroom teacher a student is assigned, etc., and those decisions could be changed without a parent’s consent. If you’re concerned about any changes the school has made regarding your child’s education, ask for an IEP meeting immediately to discuss the issue.
6. How do I go about making changes to my child’s IEP?
As a parent, you can request an IEP meeting at any time during the school year to discuss your child’s progress and what changes need to be made to your child’s IEP. The school is required to hold an IEP meeting at least once per year, which usually occurs in the spring and is often referred to as an annual review. However, you can request additional meetings at any time. If you and the school district can’t agree as to what changes need to be made to the child’s IEP, then either the parent or the school can request a due process hearing, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.
7. I’d like for my child to have an IEP, but her school disagrees. Rather, the school has requested that she be placed on a 504 plan instead. What’s the difference?
An IEP is developed for students specifically qualifying for services under the IDEA, which requires a need for both special education instruction and related services as discussed above. A 504 plan is available for students with disabilities pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a federal civil rights law protecting individuals with disabilities. Unlike the IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act doesn’t apply only to schools, bur rather applies to any program or establishment receiving federal funds. A 504 plan can provide for accommodations for students who don’t qualify for an IEP, such as a student who has a physical disability but does not need special education instruction. A 504 plan is much less formal and doesn’t provide as many protections to parents as an IEP. I always advise parents to request that their child be evaluated for IDEA services first, and if the child doesn’t qualify, then a 504 plan may be a good alternative.
8. My child’s school and I can’t agree on an IEP. We’ve had several meetings, but we’ve not made any progress. What can I do next?
When parents and a school district reach an impasse in the development or implementation of a child’s IEP, there are two options. First, the parents can request mediation, in which the dispute is mediated by an independent mediator. This option is free, which is great for parents, and neither party is allowed to have an attorney present during mediation. The mediator, however, does not make a decision in the case. He or she simply guides the parties to reach an agreement. Therefore, there is no guarantee that mediation will work, especially if the parties aren’t willing to continue to negotiate. Second, the parents can request a due process hearing in front of an independent hearing officer by filing a complaint with the Arkansas Department of Education. Unlike a mediator, the hearing officer will make a decision that is binding on both parties. A due process hearing is less formal that a trial, and though the parents are not required to have an attorney, it’s certainly beneficial to do so, as the school district will always have an attorney. The school district can always request mediation or file a due process complaint at any time as well, and though this isn’t uncommon, the majority of complaints are filed by parents.