We have a terrific coterie of LDS lawyers in Chicago, and some of us occasionally get together under the auspices of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society for lunch and a speaker or presentation or something. Yesterday about ten of us went to the offices of Equip for Equality (the Illinois protection and advocacy system for people with disabilities) for a continuing legal education presentation on special education law. This was not something any of us needed for our actual practices, although a couple of those in attendance have children with special needs and thus had a personal interest in the subject. But as lawyers we often get asked questions about all sorts of things at church, and it’s nice to know a bit about the big picture of issues like this. I personally was interested mainly because I have a younger brother who is autistic (although he’s long out of high school), and also from my friend and coblogger Tracy M. talking about these things with respect to her own experiences. There is no way I can replicate the full presentation here, so I’ll just hit a few of the high points.
The primary sources of law in this area are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Special education is specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. It applies from age zero to the day before a child’s 22nd birthday or until high school graduation, if that is sooner.
Some questions to ask in determining whether a child might need special education: Does a student have difficulty in school academically or behaviorally? Does a student need tools or services to understand materials or teachers in school? Does a student need help to get into the school or use school equipment? Does the school staff understand the student’s needs? Is the student’s behavior impeding his/her learning or the learning of others?
Eligibility: The term “child with a disability” means a child with intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, speech or language impairments, visual impairments, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or specific learning disabilities, and who, by reason thereof, needs special education and related services.
Steps of the Eligibility Process: (i) request an evaluation from the school, (ii) sign consent for the evaluation (usually at a “domain” meeting), (iii) participate in the evaluation (the school has 60 school days to complete the evaluation), (iv) attend an eligiblility meeting, and (v) create an IEP.
What is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?
- Legally binding
- Like a contract, but not exactly (parent cannot sue based on breach of contract if child does not meet goals; however, parent can file due process request or pursue other conflict resolution options)
- Describes present levels of performance
- Details goals and objectives/benchmarks
- Details related services, supplementary aids and services, and transition services
- Held at least annually
- IEP team: parents, not less than one regular ed teacher (if child may participate in regular ed), not less than one special ed teacher, representative of local education agency (i.e., the district), an individual who can interpret the instructional impication of evaluation results, others who have knowledge or special expertise (such as an attorney; parents can bring an expert to the meeting), and whenever appropriate, the child with a disability.
- Team members sit around a conference table
- Meeting is informal, although everyone signs in
- Can feel intimidating to have so many school staff attending
- Parents should feel free to voice their concerns
Placement Change. The IEP Team will discuss the student’s placement. If a change in placement is recommended and the parent does not agree, the parent has protections that must be invoked within 10 calendar days:
- Request mediation
- Request a due process hearing
- Invoke “stay put” to keep the student in the last agreed-upon placement until the conclusion of the hearing or mediation
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). To the maximum extent appropriate children with disabilities . . . are educated with children who are not disabled.
Removal: When the nature and severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
Re-evaluation. A re-evaluation must occur every 3 years unless the parent and school agree it is unnecessary. The parent or teacher can request an evaluation but not more than once per year unless the school agrees otherwise. Parents should never agree that it is unnecesssary without a very specific reason.
The above reflects a summary of about half of the presentation. I will close with a list of general tips for parents:
- Be professional and courteous even when the school is not.
- Keep all correspondence with the school.
- Communicate or confirm in writing.
- Save all anecdotal communications with the school. (Keep a communication notebook; number the pages. Keep signed copies of all letters sent to/from school.)
- Log all observations when observing at school.
- Log all observations of child’s negative behavior at home that is result of school issues.