Federal law guarantees the right to a “free and appropriate public education” for students with disabilities. Here are your options if you don’t think your child is receiving one.
Jeanette Harding’s son is a gifted student. He’s also autistic.
Most of his Wichita Public Schools teachers know how to work with his strengths and weaknesses, Harding said.
“They’re really great about finding a way to get something that they can grade, something that shows the skill they’re working on, even if it’s not the assignment the other kids are all doing,” she said.
But one teacher was less accommodating. She resisted changing an assignment even though the student’s sticking point wasn’t the purpose of the lesson — understanding population density — but the requirement to color, cut and glue graph paper squares to a map.
After that experience, Harding realized her son needed more formal protections to ensure he could do alternate assignments when needed.
So she successfully asked for those accommodations to be included in his individualized education program. An IEP lays out the services and supports tailored to help a specific student with disabilities meet grade-level expectations or to enhance a gifted student’s education.
Since 1975, federal law has protected the right of students with disabilities to receive a free and appropriate public education.
Those protections hold even in cases where schools say they’re not receiving enough special education funding, such as the push in Kansas to increase that funding to levels required by state law. Gov. Laura Kelly supports a proposal to add close to $350 million to the budget across four years but has met with resistance from some Republican lawmakers.
State laws also govern how children with disabilities should be treated, such as protecting them from certain forms of discipline.
But an appropriate public education can look different for each child, and parents have a huge role to play in determining which services their child may need.
The process is complicated, but the right resources can help you communicate with your school, advocate for your child’s needs and resolve any disagreements between the school and parents.
Here are some of the basics you need to know.
Your legal rights
Several federal laws protect the rights of students with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids discrimination at schools of any kind that receive federal funding.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, says students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education.
Understanding what that means is key for families to protect their rights, said Lesli Girard, co-executive director of Families Together, an organization assisting parents of children with disabilities or special health care needs.
“Then they can better set high expectations for their children, but also understand what it is that the schools are actually required to provide,” she said.
Under the law, students with qualifying disabilities must have access to special education services. Those services are coordinated through an IEP.
Students must also be taught in the “least restrictive setting,” meaning they should be in the general education classroom whenever possible.
IDEA also grants parents the right to have a voice in their children’s education and includes a number of “procedural safeguards” to ensure parents are able to exercise their rights.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 defines disability more broadly, meaning students who don’t qualify for services under IDEA might still be eligible.
But a “504 plan” doesn’t have the same safeguards as an IEP and can be harder to enforce, said Diane Woodard, an advocate for the Disability Rights Center of Kansas.
If a student has “more of a medical or a behavior issue and not an academic need, then they’re likely going to qualify for a 504 plan,” Woodard said.
Kansas laws also affect the rights of students with disabilities.
For example, the state regulates when schools can use restraint and seclusion to discipline students or control their behavior after parents complained the tactics were especially harmful to students with disabilities.
Making sure your IEP is functioning well can also help prevent schools from using extreme discipline or involving law enforcement, experts told The Beacon. According to a Beacon investigation based on data analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, schools call the police on students with disabilities disproportionately often.
Each state has a federally designated nonprofit that can help you navigate the special education process and understand your child’s rights.
Families often call when they’re new to navigating the system, confused or feeling things aren’t going well, Girard said.
Issues that have come up frequently in recent years include receiving the correct services amid school staffing shortages, caring for special health needs at school, behavior-related issues, trauma, anxiety and depression.
Staff members, most of whom are parents themselves, can share information, help guide parents through the special education process and in the most intensive cases even attend special education meetings with the family.
Callers are “going to be hooked up with people (who) know the system and are very aware of what the parents are going through,” Girard said. “They can also expect to be treated very respectfully and to be validated and heard.”
The group’s services are free for Kansas families that include a child with a disability from birth to age 27, Girard said. No one is ever turned away for lack of capacity, and the group can recommend other organizations for services it doesn’t directly provide.
The Disability Rights Center of Kansas provides free legal services to people with disabilities, including for some education issues. Even if the center isn’t able to take your case, advocates can provide some guidance or referrals to other organizations.
“I tell the parents, ‘There is no one that knows your child better than you do. The school is going to tell you that they know better what your child needs. But that’s not true. You know what your child needs,’” Woodard said.
How the IEP process works
If you think your child has a disability that is affecting their performance in school, you can start the IEP process by requesting — in writing — the school evaluate your child.
“If you just ask the principal, or you just ask the teacher, they can ignore you,” Woodard said. “But if you make it in writing, they have to respond.”
Having your concerns in writing also helps create a paper trail for your own reference or to hold the school accountable.
The school will review the available information and decide whether to fulfill your request.
If it moves forward with the evaluation, the school will meet to discuss the areas that need to be evaluated and then complete the evaluation within 60 days. The school will then decide whether the child needs special education services.
If the school agrees the child needs services, it has 30 days to meet with parents and develop an IEP.
Once the plan is developed, the school should quickly start to implement it. It will revisit the plan every year to examine whether it is meeting the proper goals and to make adjustments. Your child also may be reevaluated every three years.
What to do if you disagree with the school
If you disagree with your school about any part of the process — from whether an evaluation is necessary to whether a plan is being implemented well — you can start by telling your child’s case manager or teacher, moving up the chain of command to the principal or area coordinator if needed.
Another less formal option is to invite an impartial facilitator to an IEP meeting to help you reach a decision.
If those strategies don’t work, the law also provides methods of seeking recourse.
If you can’t reach agreement about your child’s education, such as the results of their evaluation or what should be included in their IEP, you can file a due process complaint, which can lead to a legal proceeding called a due process hearing where both sides present evidence.
If you believe the district has violated IDEA, you can file a child complaint. Examples of violations could include if the child is not receiving a service or technology they were promised in the IEP.
Schools are also required to have mediation available for families. During mediation, a more formal process, both parties seek consensus with the help of a qualified mediator who helps them reach agreement.
Having a mother who is a special education mediator has helped Harding, the parent of the gifted and autistic student, understand the technicalities of special education and how to work as a team with her child’s school, she said.
She recommends that non-adversarial approach when she advises other families on navigating the special education system, participating in an informal network that she has also benefited from.
Getting a diagnosis and building a network can help reinforce that while a child with special needs is an individual with specific challenges that can feel unusual, there are patterns teachers can recognize when providing support and other families with similar experiences, Harding said.
“Your kid’s unique and also not unique at the same time,” she said. “Just knowing there’s other families makes you feel a little better, I think, even though it’s still hard.”
Editor’s note: Harding is a member of The Wichita Beacon’s Community Engagement Bureau.
This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Beacon