Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More

Getting the right help for students with disabilities is made easier when families learn key vocabulary and understand how to use it. PAVE provides videos to support learning about student rights and how to work with the school to get individualized support.

Video number 1: Pyramid of Rights Protections for Students With Disabilities

The first video provides a visual to help—a pyramid of student rights. Learn about special education rights, civil rights, and general education rights. Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are protected by the full pyramid of rights. Students with IEPs and Section 504 Plans have civil rights that protect their right to be accommodated and supported at school. All children in the United States have the right to access a free public education. Learn key terms from these rights: Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), equity, and access, and how to use those words to help a student get their needs met.

Here are resource links referenced in the video:

The video mentions that a civil rights complaint can be filed at the local, state, or federal level and may include elements of more than one civil rights protected area, such as disability discrimination, racism, and/or sexual discrimination. Here are resources with more information about civil rights complaint options and how to access forms:

  • Local: OSPI maintains a list of school officials responsible for upholding student civil rights. Families can reach out to those personnel to request a complaint form for filing a civil rights complaint within their district.
  • State: OSPI provides a website page with direct links to step-by-step instructions for filing a civil rights complaint with the state Equity and Civil Rights Office, or the Human Rights Commission.
  • Federal: The U.S. Department of Education provides guidance about filing a federal complaint. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is another option for dispute resolution related to civil rights.

The video provides information about some special education dispute resolution options. Here are related resources:

The Youth Education Law Collaborative offers some free legal assistance on topics related to educational equity, with a priority for students and their families who demonstrate financial need. They can be reached by telephone at 1-206-707-0877 or 1-844-435-7676.

Video number 2: Accommodations and Modifications

Our second video shares more detail about the rights of students under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Key to protecting those rights is the accommodations, modifications, and supports that enable a student with a disability to access what typically developing students can access without support. Non-discriminatory practices related to bullying, student discipline, and attendance are protected rights. Click on the video to learn more about what the right to equity means.

Here are resource links related to this video:

PAVE article: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

Video number 3: IEP Goal Setting

Our third video provides more detail about the rights of a student with an IEP. A three-step process is provided to help family caregivers make sure a student’s IEP goals are supporting the right help in the right way. Learn about Present Levels of Performance (PLOP), Specially Designed Instruction (SDI), and SMART goals to become a well-trained partner in the IEP team process. PAVE provides a fillable worksheet to assist parents in developing suggestions to share with the IEP team.

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Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

A Brief Overview

  • Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
  • Section 504 prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity that receives federal funding. All Washington state public schools must comply with this federal law.
  • Every student with a disability is protected from discrimination under this law, including each student with a 504 Plan and each student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Eligibility for Section 504 support at school is determined through evaluation. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides fact sheets in multiple languages that describe the evaluation process and state requirements.
  • Civil rights complaint options are described at the end of this article.

Full Article

A student with a disability is protected by multiple federal laws. One of them is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act and provides key protections against disability discrimination.

To uphold a student’s civil rights under Section 504, schools provide accommodations and support to ensure that a student with a disability has what they need to access the opportunities provided to all students. That support is the essence of equity. Ensuring equity for students with disabilities is part of a school’s responsibility.

Students are protected in their access to academics, social engagement, extracurriculars, sports, events, and more—everything that is part of the school experience and school-sponsored activities.

Every student with a disability is protected from discrimination under this law, including each student with a 504 Plan and each student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Section 504 protects a person with disabilities throughout life and covers individuals in any public facility or program. A person can have a 504 Plan to support them in a vocational program, higher education, or in any location or service that receives federal funds.

All people with recognized disabilities also have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Within a school, business, or other organization, the person responsible for upholding civil rights under these two laws might hold a title such as Section 504/ADA Compliance Officer.

Hidden disabilities, or those that are not readily apparent to others, are also recognized disabilities protected by Section 504 and the ADA. Hidden disabilities may include but are not limited to learning disabilities, psychological disabilities, and episodic conditions, such as epilepsy or allergies.

TIP: If you have concern about civil rights being upheld within any organization, ask to speak with the person responsible for Section 504/ADA compliance. Ask for policies, practices, and complaint options in writing.

What counts as a disability under Section 504?

Section 504 does not specifically name disability conditions and life impacts in order to capture known and unknown conditions that could affect a person’s life in unique ways. In school, determination is made through evaluations that ask these questions:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment substantially limit one or more major life activities?

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides fact sheets in multiple languages that describe the evaluation process and state requirements. Included is this information about what Section 504 means for students:

“Major life activities are activities that are important to most people’s daily lives. Caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, eating, sleeping, standing, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating are some examples of major life activities.

“Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as functions of the digestive, bowel, bladder, brain, circulatory, reproductive, neurological, or respiratory systems.

“Substantially limits should also be interpreted broadly. A student’s impairment does not need to prevent, or severely or significantly restrict, a major life activity to be substantially limiting.”

Pyramid of Rights: Students at the top have all these protections! 

Special Education Rights are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Eligible students are served with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

Civil Rights are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students with disabilities impacting a “major life activity” receive accommodations and individualized support as part of their IEP (if eligible) or through a Section 504 Plan.

General Education Rights are protected by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). All children in the United States have the right to access free public education through age 21 or until they earn a high school diploma.

Does the student need a medical diagnosis?

A school cannot require a parent to provide a medical diagnosis to evaluate a student. However, a diagnosis can provide helpful information. The school could request a medical evaluation, at no cost to the parent, if medical information would support decision-making.

Note that a medical diagnosis does not automatically mean a student needs a 504 Plan. Doctors cannot prescribe a 504 plan—only the 504 team can make that decision. However, the 504 team must consider all information provided as part of its evaluation process.

Evaluations must disregard mitigating measures

A mitigating measure is a coping strategy that a person with a disability uses to eliminate or reduce the effects of an impairment. For example, a person who is deaf might read lips. A person with attention challenges might take medication. A person with dyslexia may read using audible books.

Because a person has adapted to their disability does not mean they give up the right to appropriate, individualized support. In its guidance, OSPI states:

“Mitigating measures cannot be considered when evaluating whether or not a student has a substantially limiting impairment.”

A school also cannot determine a student ineligible based on a condition that comes and goes. A student with a fluid illness (for example: bipolar disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, or a gastrointestinal condition) may be eligible for Section 504 protections even though on some school days they function without any evidence of impairment. OSPI states:

“An impairment that is episodic or in remission remains a disability if, when in an active phase, this impairment substantially limits a major life activity.”

504 or IEP?

Eligibility for school-based services is determined through evaluation. Federal law that protects students in special education process is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA includes Child Find protections that require schools to evaluate a student if there is a reasonable suspicion that disability is impacting educational access. A student is evaluated in all areas of suspected disability to determine eligibility for services. If the student is found eligible, the evaluation provides key information about service needs.

Parents or guardians, teachers, district personnel, and others with information about the student can refer the student for evaluation for special education by completing the OSPI Referral for Special Education Evaluation form (direct download), which is available on the OSPI website.

Here’s what might happen after a student is evaluated:

  • A student is eligible for Section 504 protections but not an IEP. Data from the evaluation is used to build a Section 504 Plan for supporting the student with individualized accommodations and other needed supports.
  • A student is eligible for an IEP. The special education program includes goals that track progress toward learning in areas of specially designed instruction (SDI). Accommodations and supports that are protected by Section 504 are built into the IEP.
  • The school determines that the student does not have a disability or that a disability does not substantially limit educational activities. The student will not receive school-based services through an individualized plan or program.

Sometimes parents disagree with the school’s determination. Families have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at school district expense if they disagree with the methods, findings, or conclusions from a district evaluation. PAVE provides an article that describes that process and provides a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Case example from federal court

A 2018 federal court ruling regarding a student with Crohn’s disease highlights one complaint process. Parents provided the school with information about their child’s diagnosis and requested an evaluation for services. Their request was denied. The Third Circuit Court found the school in violation of the student’s right to appropriate evaluation under the Child Find Mandate. The court also found that the school should have provided special education services, not only accommodations with a Section 504 Plan:

“In seeing Crohn’s as something requiring only a Section 504 accommodation, not IDEA special education, [the district] treated the disease as something discrete and isolated rather than the defining condition of [this student’s] life.” 

Crohn’s Disease is one example of a specific medical condition that might require a unique support plan. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation provides relevant information about Section 504 rights and suggestions for accommodations.

TIP: If someone you support has a unique medical condition and there is an agency with wisdom about that condition, it’s worth asking whether there are specific recommendations that could be customized for a student’s Section 504 Plan or IEP. For example, the American Diabetes Association provides a sample Section 504 Plan to make sure the school is prepared to support the student’s routine and emergency diabetes care.

FAPE rights under Section 504

The right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is protected by Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). PAVE provides a video training with more information about FAPE and Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

The most common way schools protect Section 504 FAPE rights is through accommodations. A student might have specifically designed help to accomplish their schoolwork, manage their emotions, use school equipment, or something else. The sky is the limit, and Section 504 is intentionally broad to capture a huge range of possible disability conditions that require vastly different types and levels of support.

Here are a two specific topic areas to consider when a student is protected by Section 504:

Section 504 complaint options

Some families are anxious about questioning actions taken by the school. Parents have protections under the law. The Office for Civil Rights maintains specific guidelines that prohibit retaliation against people who assert their rights through a complaint process.

A civil rights complaint can be filed at the local, state, or federal level. Here are resources related to those three options:

  • Local: OSPI maintains a list of school officials responsible for upholding student civil rights. Families can reach out to those personnel to request a complaint form for filing a civil rights complaint within their district.
  • State: OSPI provides a website page with direct links to step-by-step instructions for filing a civil rights complaint with the state Equity and Civil Rights Office, or the Human Rights Commission.
  • Federal: The U.S. Department of Education provides guidance about filing a federal complaint. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is another option for dispute resolution related to civil rights.

IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that entitles children to special education services if disability significantly impacts access to education and a specially designed program is needed.
  • IDEA has been federal law since 1990, and key concepts are from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. PAVE provides an article and infographic about disability rights history.
  • A primary principle of the IDEA is the right to FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) for students eligible for special education services. FAPE rights are also protected by civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • PAVE provides a three-part video training with further information: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

Full Article

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was passed in 1990 and has been amended. The IDEA provides children with qualifying disabilities, from birth to age 21, with the right to services designed to meet their unique, individual needs.

Eligible children ages 3-21 who receive services at school have a right to FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. In accordance with the IDEA, FAPE is provided when individualized services enable a student with a disability to make progress that is appropriate, in light of their circumstances.

Services are delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). A non-discriminatory evaluation and family participation on an IEP team are aspects of FAPE. Families have dispute resolution options that are described in the Procedural Safeguards.

IDEA requires FAPE to be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment to the maximum extent possible, which creates a responsibility for schools to serve students in the general education environment, with appropriately inclusive access to grade-level learning, whenever possible. Access to general education might be provided through an adapted curriculum, additional adult support, assistive technology, or something else. PAVE provides more information about Washington State’s work to improve inclusive practices.

Many of these concepts were part of IDEA’s predecessor law, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. That was the first United States law that required schools to provide special education services to all children with eligible disabilities. PAVE provides an article and infographic about disability rights history. The IDEA’s primary features are further detailed later in this article.

The IDEA drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures. Title 34, Part 104 is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office for Civil Rights Department of Education. In Washington State, rules for the provision of special education are in Chapter 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC).

FAPE is an important acronym to learn!

Families often ask: What does the school have to provide? The answer to that question is FAPE. The school district is responsible to make sure a student with an eligible disability condition is receiving FAPE.

As part of their right to FAPE, a student eligible for an IEP has the right to an individualized services program that ensures their education is appropriate, equitable, and accessible. All of those terms are part of FAPE. Figuring out how to provide FAPE is the work of an IEP team, and part of FAPE is ensuring that family is part of the decision-making team.

FAPE must ensure that the student finds meaningful success, in light of their circumstances. Trivial progress on IEP goals or the same goals year after year does not meet the federal standard for FAPE. A lawsuit referred to as Endrew F was settled by the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court and included specific requirements for meaningful progress and parent participation.

If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming to guarantee FAPE within the general education classroom, then the school district is responsible to work through the IEP process to design an individualized program and placement that does meet the student’s needs. Keep in mind that Special Education is a Service, Not a Place: see PAVE’s article with that statement as its title.

IDEA considers the whole life of a person with a disability

IDEA includes Parts A, B and C. The right of a child with disabilities to receive an education that prepares that child for adult life is stated in Part A: ​

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society…

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Part B of the IDEA covers children ages 3 through 21—or until graduation from high school. Students who receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are covered under Part B.

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 9. PAVE provides an Early Learning Toolkit: Overview of Services for Families of Young Children.

To qualify for an IEP, a student meets criteria in one of the following eligibility categories. Washington State describes each eligibility category in WAC 392-172A-01035. For more information and resources related to each category, please refer to PAVE’s article, Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

  • Autism
  • Emotional Behavioral Disability
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Hearing
  • Deafness
  • Deaf blindness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9)
Explanation of what IDEA stands for

Click to print the explanation of IDEA

Educational evaluations ask 3 key questions:

The disability must have an adverse impact on learning. Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. Following procedures described by the IDEA, school districts evaluate students to consider 3 key questions:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

When each answer is yes, a student qualifies for services. In each area of identified need, Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability to access FAPE. Progress in that area of learning is tracked through goal-setting and progress monitoring. PAVE provides various articles about the evaluation process, including a sample letter to refer a student for services.

IDEA’s Primary Principles

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is not only free but also appropriate, designed just for them. Under IDEA rules, schools provide special education students with “access to FAPE,” so that’s a common way to talk about whether the student’s program is working.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at children with potential disabilities (Child Find Mandate). There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the child’s education can be improved.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper or a location (Special Education is a Service, Not a Place). The program is reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and family. Every student on an IEP gets some extra help from teachers, but the rest of the program depends on what a student needs to learn. Areas of need may be academic, social and emotional skills, and/or general life skills. By age 16, an IEP includes a plan for life beyond high school, and helping the student make a successful transition into life after high school becomes a primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” Regular classrooms and school spaces are the least restrictive. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to access FAPE, then the IEP team considers other options. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document. PAVE has an article about LRE.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA and state regulations about IEP team membership make it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision-making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices (WAC 392-172A-03100).
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. A copy of the procedural safeguards is downloadable in multiple languages from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the guidance agency for Washington schools. Parents may receive procedural safeguards from the school any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a complaint with the state. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year through exclusionary discipline. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions a parent can take informally or formally.

PAVE provides information, training, resources, and 1:1 support through our Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. To get help, reach out through our Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.

IEP Tips: Evaluation, Present Levels, SMART goals

Getting services at school starts with evaluation. Eligible students get an individualized Education Program (IEP), which describes a student’s present levels of performance and how specially designed instruction supports progress toward annual goals.

This article provides a quick overview of the basic IEP process and provides tips for family caregivers to get more involved. PAVE offers a fillable worksheet to assist parents in developing suggestions to share with the IEP team.

Step 1: Evaluate

To determine eligibility for special education, the school district collects data to answer 3 primary questions:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

If the answer to all three questions is ‘Yes’, the student qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

If the answer to any of the three questions is ‘No’, the student may be eligible for support through a Section 504 Plan.

TIP: Does the data being collected capture information in all areas of concern? District special education staff can provide input if more specialized evaluation tools are needed.

Step 2: Write the Present Levels of Performance (PLOP)

(Also referred to Present Levels of Educational Performance (PLEP)

When an IEP is drafted, information from the evaluation transfers to the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (PLOP for short). Students, family members, and outside providers may contribute additional information. There are required elements, depending on age:

  • Preschool: how disability affects participation in appropriate activities within the natural environment​
  • School-age: how disability affects involvement and progress in general education​

​​TIP: Does the PLOP list talents and skills to encourage a strength-based IEP? This section of the IEP can describe how teaching strategies support a student and create opportunities for progress toward goals.

Step 3: Write Goals to Measure Effectiveness of Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)

Goals are written for each area of SDI that a student is eligible to receive. Remember that the 3-part evaluation determines whether SDI is needed. Evaluation, PLOP, and goals are tied to the same data points.

TIP: Here are some questions to consider when reading/writing goals with the IEP team:

  • Are a student’s natural talents and curiosity described and appreciated as part of goal setting?
  • What is the SDI to support the goal, and why is it a good approach or strategy for this learner?
  • Are goals providing opportunity for appropriate progress, given the child’s circumstances?
  • Do the goals properly address the concerns revealed through evaluation and explained in the PLOP?
  • Can the students use their own words to describe IEP goals and how they are making progress? Student goal-tracking worksheets are readily available online.
  • Is the goal SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound?

Grid for Goal Development

In accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an IEP goal is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriately, in light of the child’s circumstances. Parents/students have the right to participate in goal setting and progress monitoring.

These points can be used to design a grid to outline goal setting and to note whether written goals are SMART. A downloadable PDF shows these points in a grid format. A family participant on an IEP team can draft rewritten or proposed goals for the IEP team to consider. Submitting those suggestions to IEP team members before a meeting might help ensure that a parent’s suggestions are a critical part of the agenda.

  • Challenge: Identify the learning barrier/issue.
  • Skill: What needs to be learned?
  • SDI (Specially Designed Instruction): What is the teaching strategy?
  • SMART Goal: Yes/No? Use the following questions to determine whether the goals need improving.

Review whether IEP Goals are SMART:

  • Specific: Is the targeted skill clearly named or described? How will it be taught?
  • Measurable: How will progress toward the goal be observed or measured?
  • Achievable: Is a goal toward this skill realistic for the student, considering current abilities?
  • Relevant: Is the skill something that is useful and necessary for the student’s success in school and life?
  • Time-Bound: What specific date is set to determine whether the goal is met?

Learn more about SMART Goals in this short video:

Pathways to Support: Where to Begin If Your Child Receives Services Through Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT)

When an infant or toddler receiving early intervention services from Washington’s Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) program approaches the age of three (3), the Family Resource Coordinator (FRC) begins transition planning for when the child will age out of early intervention services on their third birthday. If the child is potentially eligible for special education and related services, the transition includes evaluation and development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Each plan is unique and designed to respond to individual needs.

Transition begins 6-9 months before your child’s third birthday

Transition Planning BeginsTransition ConferenceEvaluation for an IEP
FRC starts talking about transitionScheduled by the FRC for 90 days before your child’s third birthday Begins with parent’s signature of consent for evaluation
FRC transmits your child’s records to the school system, with your written consent, including the most recent IFSP and evaluations/ assessments Explanation of parents rights in special educationSchool receives the records from ESIT
FRC identifies and shares community resourcesDiscussion of options for early childhoods special education and other appropriate servicesFamily provides information and concerns
Development of a transition timelineChild is evaluated for eligibility for an IEP
Writing transition plan into the IFSPEligibility meeting is held within 35 school days

Not all children who qualified for early-learning support will qualify for an IEP. Children who are not eligible for IEP services might be eligible to receive accommodations and support through a Section 504 Plan.

If your child needs support to prepare for school readiness

If a student is having a hard time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education, through a process called Child Find. Washington State requires special education referrals to be in writing (WAC 392-172A03005). Anyone with knowledge of a student can write a referral. The state provides a form for making a special education referral, but the form is not required—any written request is valid.

  • Complete the Sample Letter to Request an Evaluation.
  • Make a copy for your records.
  • Call your local school district or go on their website to identify the correct office, person, and address to mail (signed, return receipt requested), email, or hand-deliver your request.
  • Refer to the IEP Referral Timeline to track your child’s progress through the evaluation process.
  • This article forms part of the 3-5 Transition Toolkit

Starting School: When and How to Enroll a Student in School

A Brief Overview

  • Compulsory attendance begins at 8 years of age and continues until the age of 18 unless the student qualifies for certain exceptions.
  • Infants and toddlers receiving early intervention services may be eligible to start preschool as early as 3 years old to continue receiving specialized instruction and related services.
  • A student aged 4 years old by August 31 may be screened for Transition to Kindergarten (TK), a state program designed for students who need additional support to be successful in kindergarten the following year.
  • A child must have turned 5 years old by August 31 to enroll in kindergarten, and 6 years old to enroll in first grade.
  • When registering your student for school, contact the school to find out what documents are required in addition to those listed in this article.
  • Students with a condition that may require medication or treatment

Full Article

If your child has never enrolled in school, back to school season can be a confusing time. This article answers frequently asked questions about school entrance age, compulsory education, and the enrollment process.  Note that “enrollment” and “registration” are used interchangeably regarding the steps leading up to a student starting school and within the OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) website.

At what age are children required to attend school?

Federal law protects the rights of children and youth to receive a publicly funded education. This is called compulsory education, or compulsory attendance. The age at which a child must begin school varies by state. In Washington state, children must begin attending school full-time at the age of 8 and continue attending regularly until the age of 18 (RCW 28A.225.010).

There are some exceptions to compulsory attendance, including if a child is –

  • enrolled in a private school, extension program, or residential school operated by the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) or the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF).
  • enrolled in home-based instruction that meets State supervision requirements.
  • excused by the school district superintendent for physical or mental incapacity.
  • incarcerated in an adult correctional facility.
  • temporarily excused upon the request of the parents when the excused absences meet additional requirements under Washington state law (RCW 28A.225.010).

Compulsory attendance is required in Washington until the age of 18, unless the student is 16 years or older and meets additional criteria for emancipation, graduation, or certification (RCW 28A.225.010).

At what age can a student begin attending school?

Students with special needs or disabilities may qualify for early education programs. An infant or toddler with a disability or developmental delay receiving early intervention services may be eligible to start preschool between the ages of 3-5 to continue receiving specialized instruction and related services through the public school district until they reach the minimum enrollment age for kindergarten. Washington’s Transition to Kindergarten (TK) program screens 4-year-olds with a birthday by August 31st to identify those in need of additional preparation to be successful in kindergarten.

Parents may choose to enroll a child in kindergarten at 5 years old, if the birthday occurred before August 31st of the same year, but kindergarten is not required under compulsory education. Similarly, a child must be 6 years of age to enroll in first grade.

Families have the right to choose whether to enroll their students in school until the child turns 8 years old and compulsory attendance applies.

How do I enroll my student in school?

If this is the first time your child will attend this school, call the school and ask what you must bring with you to enroll your child and the best time to go to the school for enrollment. Consider that things will be busiest right before the school day starts, during lunch breaks, and as school is ending. Also find out if there is an on-site school nurse and the best time to reach that person.

A parent or legal guardian must go with the student to the school for registration with the required information and documents. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)’s Learning by Choice Guide, most schools require the following at a minimum:

  • Proof of age (e.g., birth certificate or passport).
  • Health history, including name, address, and phone number of child’s doctor and dentist.
  • Proof of residency (e.g., utility bill, tax statement).
  • Parent or guardian’s telephone numbers.
  • Child’s immunization records.

If your child has attended another school, also provide:

  • Withdrawal form or report card from the last school attended.
  • Expulsion statement.

Enrollment for Military-Connected Students

A Washington law passed in 2019 (HB 1210-S.SL, School Enrollment-Nonresident Children from Military Families) allows advance enrollment of children of active-duty service members with official military orders transferring or pending transfer into the state. This means that qualifying children must be conditionally enrolled in a specific school and program and registered for courses. The parent must provide proof of residence within fourteen days of the arrival date listed in the military orders before the school will finalize the enrollment. The address on the proof of residency may be a temporary on-base detailing facility; a purchased or leased residence, or a signed purchase and sale or lease agreement; or military housing, including privatized and off-base housing. The child will be conditionally enrolled and registered for courses.

Schools are responsible for the health and safety of students during all school-related activities. If a student has a condition that may require medication or treatment while at school, Washington state law (RCW 28A.210.320 and WAC 392-380) requires additional steps before the student may begin attending school. The parent or guardian must:

  1. Provide the school with a written prescription and/or treatment plan from a licensed health care provider,
  2. Provide the prescribed medication and/or equipment outlined in the treatment plan, and
  3. Create an Individualized Healthcare Plan with the school nurse.

Schools may develop their own forms, so contact your child’s intended school to get the correct forms and provide complete, accurate information.

Download How to Enroll a Student in School Handout

How to Enroll a Student in School Checklist To download the fillable form and get access to the clickable links, download the PDF

Additional Considerations for Military-Connected Students

Children with parents in the uniformed services may be covered by the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children, also known as MIC3, was created with the hope that students will not lose academic time during military-related relocation, obtain an appropriate placement, and be able to graduate on time. MIC3 provides uniform policy guidance for how public schools address common challenges military-connected students experience when relocating, including several issues related to enrollment. Learn more about how to resolve Compact-related issues with this MIC3 Step-by-Step Checklist.

Families who are new to Washington can learn more about navigating special education and related services in this article, Help for Military Families: Tips to Navigate Special Education Process in Washington State.

Additional Information

Infant Early Childhood Mental Health

A Brief Overview

  • Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) is a term that describes how young children develop socially and emotionally. They learn about their emotions form close and secure relationships with their caregivers and family members. They learn and explore the environment – all in the context of family, community, and culture.
  • Families concerned about a child’s development can call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588, with support in multiple languages. Parents can complete a developmental screening online for free at Parent Help 123.
  • PAVE provides an article for next steps after age 3: What’s Next when Early Childhood Services End at Age 3? Another PAVE article for families new to special education: Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff help families understand and navigate service systems for children 0-26. Click Get Help on the PAVE website or call 800-572-7368.
  • Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) helps young children with disabilities or delays to learn and supports their unique development.

Full Article

New parents may struggle to know whether their child’s emotional development is on track. They may have a feeling that a milestone is missed, or they may observe siblings or the emotional well-being of other children and notice their child is developing differently. Sometimes a parent just needs reassurance. Other times, a child may have a developmental delay or a disability. In those cases, early support, including Infant Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) can be critical to a child’s lifelong learning and development.

IECMH is a term that describes how very young children develop socially and emotionally. They form relationships with other people. They learn about their emotions and how to control them. This happens in the settings of their family, community, and culture. (Zero to Three, Basics of Early Childhood Mental Health, 2017).

According to Best Starts for Kids, relationships are at the heart of human development and thriving for infants, toddlers, and young children. Relationships with parents and caregivers give very young children the social and emotional foundations they need to learn and thrive.

The Washington Health Care Authority reports around 1 in 6 young children has a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental condition (Cree et al., 2018). These conditions may be treated with infant early childhood mental health (IECMH) services.

Services work to improve the quality of the child’s relationship with parents or caregivers. They can:

  • Help the distress of the mental health concern.
  • Support the return to healthy development and behavior.

When families receive Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) services for a child, the child is tested as part of an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).

The evaluation looks at the child’s ability to:

  • Identify and understand their own feelings;
  • Accurately notice and understand other people’s emotional states.
  • Manage strong emotions in a positive way.
  • Control their behavior.
  • Develop empathy (understand how people feel based on the child’s own experience)
  • Make and support relationships.

The evaluation may show the child is not developing well in some of these areas.  IECMH services may help.

Some examples of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health services include:

  • Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation
  • Parent training
  • Childcare provider training
  • Group training
  • Parent Behavioral Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Infant/Child – Parent Psychotherapy
  • Play therapy

If you are concerned about a child’s development:

  • To learn about typical development, read the birth-to-6 pre-screening chart in English or Spanish
  • Please Ask is a three-minute video that shows the importance of referring infants and toddlers for early intervention. ESIT is a part if the Department of Children, Youth and Families
  • Families can call the ESIT local lead agency: Local Lead Agencies by County
  • Family Health Hotline: 1-800-322-2588. This statewide, toll-free number offers help in English, Spanish, and other languages.
  • Early Learning Transition: When Birth-3 Services End

More Resources:

Traumatic Brain Injury in Youth

A Brief Overview

  • A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury that affects how the brain works.
  • Approximately 1.7 million people receive traumatic brain injuries every year. Of children 0-19 years old, TBI results in 631,146 trips to the emergency room annually, 35,994 hospitalizations, and nearly 6,169 deaths.
  • Children have the highest rate of emergency department visits for traumatic brain (TBI) injury of all age groups. TBI affects children differently than adults.
  • Although TBI is quite common, many medical and education professionals may not realize that some difficulties can be caused by a childhood TBI. Often, students with TBI are thought to have a learning disability, emotional disturbance, or an intellectual disability. As a result, they may not receive the type of educational help and support really needed.
  • Students with TBI who are not eligible for special education might be eligible for a Section 504 plan.
  • TBI is a category of eligibility for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Washington State Administrative Code (WAC)
  • Washington law requires evaluation referrals in writing. The state provides a form for referrals, downloadable from a website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. The person making the referral can use the form or any other format for their written request.
  • PAVE provides a Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Full Article

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is an injury that affects how the brain works. TBI can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. The exact definition of TBI, according to special education law, is referenced later. This injury can change how the person thinks, behaves, and moves. A traumatic brain injury can also change how a student learns and behaves in school. The term TBI is used for head injuries that can cause changes in one or more areas, such as:

  • thinking and reasoning,
  • understanding words,
  • remembering things,
  • paying attention,
  • solving problems,
  • thinking abstractly,
  • talking,
  • behaving,
  • walking and other physical activities,
  • seeing and/or hearing, and
  • learning.

The term TBI is not used for a person who is born with a brain injury or for brain injuries that happen during birth.

How is TBI Defined?

The definition of TBI below comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is the federal law that guides how schools provide special education and related services to children and youth with disabilities.

IDEA’s Definition of TBI

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines traumatic brain injury as

“…an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a student’s educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psycho-social behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.” [34 Code of Federal Regulations §300.8(c)(12)]

Washington State’s Definition of TBI

“Traumatic brain injury means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a student’s educational performance. Traumatic brain injury applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem solving; sensory, perceptual, and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. Traumatic brain injury does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or to brain injuries induced by birth trauma.” (WAC 392-172A-01035)

What Are the Signs of Traumatic Brain Injury?

The signs of brain injury can be quite different depending on where the brain is injured and how severely. Students with TBI may have one or more difficulties, including:

Physical disabilities: Individuals with TBI may have problems speaking, seeing, hearing, and using their other senses. They may have headaches and feel tired a lot. They may also have trouble with skills such as writing or drawing. Their muscles may suddenly contract or tighten (this is called spasticity). They may also have seizures. Their balance and walking may also be affected. They may be partly or completely paralyzed on one side of the body, or both sides.

Difficulties with thinking: Because the brain has been injured, it is common that the person’s ability to use the brain changes. For example, students with TBI may have trouble with short-term memory (being able to remember something from one minute to the next, like what the teacher just said). They may also have trouble with their long-term memory (being able to remember information from a while ago, like facts learned last month). People with TBI may have trouble concentrating and only be able to focus their attention for a brief time. They may think slowly. They may have trouble talking and listening to others. They may also have difficulty with reading and writing, planning, understanding the order in which events happen (called sequencing), and judgment.

Social, behavioral, or emotional problemsThese difficulties may include sudden changes in mood, anxiety, and depression. Students with TBI may have trouble relating to others. They may be restless and may laugh or cry a lot. They may not have much motivation or much control over their emotions.

A student with TBI may not have all the above difficulties. Brain injuries can range from mild to severe, and so can the changes that result from the injury. This means that it is hard to predict how an individual will recover from the injury. Early and ongoing help can make an enormous difference in how the student recovers. This help can include physical or occupational therapy, counseling, and special education.

It is also important to know that, as children and youth grow and develop, parents and teachers may notice new problems. This is because, as young people grow, they are expected to use their brain in new and different ways. The damage to the brain from the earlier injury can make it hard for them to learn new skills that come with getting older. Sometimes families and teachers may not even realize that the student’s difficulty comes from the earlier injury.

How to Access Support

If a student is having a tough time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. A student is protected in their right to be evaluated by the Child Find Mandate, which is part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). if they do have a disability and, because of the disability, need special services under IDEA. These services can include:

Early Supports for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT): A system of family centered services to support infants and toddlers with disabilities (before their 3rd birthday).

Special education and related services: Services available through the public school system for school-aged children and youth, including preschoolers (ages 3-21). It is important to remember that the IEP is intended to be flexible. It can be changed as the family, school, and the student learns more about what support and services are needed at school.

If the student is not eligible for special education, a Section 504 Plan may help. Under Section 504, students with disabilities can access the accommodations, aids, and services they need to access and benefit from education. It also protects students from discrimination based on disability.

When students with TBI return to school, their educational and emotional needs are often quite different than before the injury. Their disability has happened suddenly and traumatically. They can often remember how they were before the brain injury. This can bring on many emotional and social changes which may result in mental and/or behavioral health needs. The student’s family, friends, and teachers also recall what the student was like before the injury. These and other people in the student’s life may have trouble changing or adjusting their expectations of the student. Therefore, it is important to plan carefully for the return to school.

Tips for Families and Caregivers

  • Learn about TBI. The more you know, the more you can help yourself and your student.
  • Work with the medical team to understand your loved one’s injury and treatment plan. Ask questions. Share what you know or think. Make suggestions.
  • Keep track of your loved one’s treatment. A 3-ring binder or a box can help you store this history. As your youth recovers, you may meet with many doctors, nurses, and others. Write down what they say. Put any paperwork they give you in the notebook or place it in a box.
  • Plan for your student’s return to school after the injury. Contact the school. Ask the principal about an evaluation for special education or a Section 504 plan. You may also consider asking the medical team to share information with the school.
  • Talk to other families whose loved ones have TBI.
  • Stay connected with your student’s teacher. Tell the teacher about how your student is doing at home. Ask how your student is doing in school.
  • Sometimes students who do not qualify for the IEP will qualify for accommodations and other support through a Section 504 Plan. PAVE has an article about Section 504, which provides an individual with protections throughout the lifespan.
  • Protections against bullying and discriminatory discipline are aspects of Section 504. Watch PAVE’s video, Behavioral Health and School: Key Information for Families.

Help from PAVE

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team provides 1:1 support and additional resources. Click Get Help or Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

For information, help during a crisis, emotional support, and referrals:  

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK): After July 16, 2022, call 988.
  • Text “HEAL” to 741741 to reach a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.
  • TeenLink (1-866-833-6546; 6pm-10pm PST)
  • Seattle Children’s Hospital has a referral helpline. Families can call 833-303-5437, Monday-Friday, 8-5, to connect with a referral specialist. The service is free for families statewide.

Further information on TBI:  

Family Support

  • PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center provides technical assistance to families navigating health systems related to disability. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368 for individualized assistance. Family Voices of Washington provides further information and resources.
  • Department of Health and Human Services (DSHS) has a link to Washington TBI Support Groups.
  • Brain Injury Association of America works to create a better future through brain injury prevention, research, education, and advocacy.

Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School

A Brief Overview

  • Special Education is provided through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student with a qualifying disability. The first step is to determine eligibility through evaluation. This article describes that process and provides information and resources related to each eligibility category.
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is the “special” in special education. The evaluation determines whether SDI is needed to help a student overcome barriers of disability to appropriately access education. Learning to ask questions about SDI can help families participate in IEP development. To learn more, watch PAVE’s three-part video series: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504, and More.
  • Washington law requires evaluation referrals in writing. The state provides a form for referrals, downloadable from a website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. The person making the referral can use the form or any other format for their written request.
  • PAVE provides a Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Full Article

If a student is having a hard time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. A child is protected in their right to be evaluated by the Child Find Mandate, which is part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

If eligible, the student receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Information collected during the evaluation is critical for building the IEP.

The school follows specific deadlines for an evaluation process. They have 25 school days to respond to the referral in writing. If they proceed with the evaluation they have 35 schools days to complete the assessment. For an eligible student, an IEP must be developed within 30 calendar days.

If parents disagree with the school’s evaluation, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) in writing. The school must either pay for the IEE or defend its evaluation and their IEE denial through Due Process. PAVE provides an article, Evaluations Part 2, with more information and a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Complaint options and family/student rights are described in the Procedural Safeguards, downloadable in multiple languages on the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

When a written referral is submitted to the school district: The IEP Services begin ASAP with the signed consent of the parent.  The school district has 30 calendar days to develop the IEP and 35 school days to complete the evaluation.

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The school district’s evaluation asks 3 primary questions in each area of learning that is evaluated:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP. After the evaluation is reviewed, the IEP team meets to talk about how to build a program to meet the needs that were identified in the evaluation. A summary of the most important findings is listed in the Adverse Educational Impact Statement on the IEP. Additional findings become part of the present levels statements, which are matched with IEP goal-setting and progress monitoring.

TIP: Read the Adverse Educational Impact Statement carefully to make sure it captures the most important concerns. The rest of the IEP is responsible to serve the needs identified in this statement. Families can request changes to this statement at IEP meetings. PAVE’s article, Advocacy Tips for Parents, provides information to help families prepare for and participate in meetings.

Don’t wait to evaluate because of provider wait lists

Depending on a student’s suspected areas of disability (see categories listed below), the district may need medical information. However, the school cannot delay the evaluation while requiring parents to get that medical information. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination, the district must pay for the outside evaluation. OSPI includes more detail about these requirements in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP No. 5).

What areas can be evaluated?

When a parent signs consent for an evaluation, looking through the list of areas the school intends to evaluate is important to ensure that all concerning areas are included. Families can request additional areas to include in the evaluation, including a Functional Behavioral Assessment, for example.

Listed below are examples of skill areas that are commonly evaluated:

  • Functional: Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up with tasks such as eating, handling common classroom tools or using the restroom.
  • Academic: Testing in specific academic areas can seek information about whether the student might have a Specific Learning Disability, such as dyslexia.
  • Cognitive: Testing to determine intelligence quotient (IQ) scores: verbal IQ, performance IQ, and full-scale IQ. These tests provide important data about a student’s strengths and weaknesses and can be important for IEP teams making decisions about how to adapt materials to ensure accessibility.
  • OT and Speech: Occupational Therapy and Speech/Language can be included as specific areas for evaluation, if there is reason to suspect that deficits are impacting education.
  • Social-Emotional Learning: Many evaluations collect data in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which can highlight disabilities related to behavior, social interactions, mental health or emotional regulation. It’s common for parents to fill out an at-home survey as part of an SEL evaluation process.
  • Autism Spectrum: Testing can look for disability related to autism spectrum issues, such as sensory processing or social difficulties. Testing in this area can be done regardless of whether there is a medical diagnosis.
  • Adaptive: How a student transitions from class-to-class or organizes materials are examples of adaptive skills that might impact learning.

TIP: Keep in mind that strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details. An IEP should always include statements about what the student does well, and the IEP team uses this information to reinforce and build on strengths throughout the program.

Below is an infographic showing this: See this infographic in PDF form

An infographic of what areas can be evaluated.

Eligibility Categories of Disability

Areas of evaluation are associated with 14 eligibility categories. These are broad categories, and sometimes there is discussion about which is the best fit to capture information about a student’s unique situation. Please note that there is no such thing as a “behavior IEP” or an “academic IEP.” After a student qualifies, the school is responsible to address all areas of need and design programming, services and a placement to meet those needs. An IEP is an individualized program, built to support a unique person and is not a cut-and-paste project based on the category of disability.

Below is a list of the 14 eligibility categories, including some information about places to get further information or specific resources.

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features of autism may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs. See PAVE’s article about Autism Spectrum Disorder for information and resources.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington State refers to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination. PAVE provides a Behavioral Health Toolkit for Navigating Crisis, School-Based Services, Medical Services, Family Support Networks, and More.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. The school might find, for example, that a student has a reading disability “with the characteristics of dyslexia,” although the school may not be willing to name the condition using formal diagnostic terms. Washington requires schools to screen primary school children for dyslexia. The Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) has information about state requirements. PAVE provides an article, Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources, and a video,Supporting literacy: Text-to-Speech and IEP goal setting for students with learning disabilities.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document. Sometimes a Related Service is needed to assess a student because school staff do not have the expertise to properly understand a disability condition in order to make service recommendations. “Medical services for diagnostic or evaluation purposes” are written into federal law (IDEA Section 1432) as something schools provide at no cost to the family, if necessary as part of special education process.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also might qualify a student for speech services. The Washington Speech Language Hearing Association (wslha.org) provides Consumer Information on its website and published a downloadable resource, Guidelines for Evaluation and Identification of Students with Communication Disorders.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category. Depending on their impairments, a student eligible in this category might receive services in a range of ways that overlap with other disability categories. Washington Sensory Disabilities Services (WSDS.wa.gov) may have information and resources to support families and schools in these complex situations.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category. Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services manages the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) that provides services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). DDA’s Informing Families website and newsletter is a place for information and resources. A child with a disability related to I/DD may be identified early and receive Birth-3 services through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). PAVE provides an Early Learning Toolkit.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education. PAVE provides an article about Related Services to help families understand services provided through school versus the medical system.  
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance. The Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth (cdhy.wa.gov) provides information and resources for families and schools. Another place for information is Washington Sensory Disabilities Services (WSDS.wa.gov).
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category. The Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth (cdhy.wa.gov) provides information and resources for families and schools.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs. The Washington DeafBlind Program (deafblindprogram.wa.gov) provides information about seeking educational support and connecting with other families.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision. Other places to seek resources and information are Washington Sensory Disabilities Services (WSDS.wa.gov) and Outreach services from the Washington State School for the Blind (wssb.wa.gov/services/outreach).
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: The state provides resources related to TBI, including guidance about Returning to School After Traumatic Brain Injury. Another place for resources and support is the Brain Injury Alliance of WA.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 9. By age 10, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue. PAVE’s Early Learning Toolkit includes information to support families of babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and children in early elementary school.

What to do if you disagree

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests. The IDEA is clear that a singular measure, such as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, does not meet the standard for an appropriate evaluation.

Parents can take action if they disagree with the way testing was done or the way it was interpreted.

Parents can always ask school staff to describe their decisions in writing, and parents have rights guaranteed by the IDEA to informally or formally dispute any decision made by the school. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) offers a variety of guidebooks that describe these options. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides state-specific guidelines for dispute resolution.

A student may qualify for a Section 504 Plan, if not an IEP

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This Civil Rights law protects individuals with disabilities that severely impact “major life activities,” such as learning, breathing, walking, paying attention, making friends… The law is intentionally broad to capture a wide range of disability conditions and how they might impact a person’s life circumstances.

A student with an IEP has protections from Section 504; those protections are included in the IEP.

Sometimes students who don’t qualify for the IEP will qualify for accommodations and other support through a Section 504 Plan. PAVE has an article about Section 504, which provides an individual with protections throughout the lifespan.

Protections against bullying and discriminatory discipline are aspects of Section 504. Watch PAVE’s video, Behavioral Health and School: Key Information for Families.

Help from PAVE

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team provides 1:1 support and additional resources. Click Get Help or Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

PAVE Provides Sample Letters to Support Families in their Advocacy

An advocate is someone who works toward a cause or goal. Sometimes the hardest part of advocacy is figuring out what to do next. When a child has unmet needs at school, family advocates can seek changes to a student’s services by asking for an evaluation, a meeting, a behavioral assessment, or something else. Putting any request in writing formalizes the process and holds everyone accountable.

PAVE helps families get started with a collection of sample letters. We’ve bundled links to those letter templates here for easy reference. Each link takes you to a short article with key information to help you understand the process of special education and how your customized letter can move you forward in that process.

Always keep your “why” in mind. Why are you taking action? Because you want something to improve for your child! PAVE’s short video, Quick Start Your Advocacy in Two Steps, might help you get ready to craft a letter. The video helps you ask two key questions:

  • What do you want?
  • Who has the power to work with you and make that happen?

As you write your letter, keep those questions and your “why” top of mind. Here are articles with sample letters to help you begin your next step:

  • Sample Letter to Request Evaluation: Schools are required to evaluate students to determine eligibility for a Section 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). A referral can come from anyone with knowledge of the student and must be in writing. This article provides a sample letter and a link to an alternative form provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
  • Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting: Family members can request an IEP team meeting anytime there are concerns about how the IEP is being implemented and whether a student may have unmet needs. This article includes information about who is required to attend an IEP meeting and the rights of parents to participate in educational decision making.
  • Sample Letter to Request a Functional Behavioral Assessment: If a child’s behavior is getting in the way of their education, the school is responsible to assess the problematic behaviors and develop a support plan to teach the student what to do instead. In addition to a sample letter, this article provides a link to a video to help families and schools work together through this process.
  • Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’: If the school evaluates a student and says they aren’t eligible for an IEP or a specific area of service, parents have steps they can take if they disagree. One option is to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) from an outside provider. This article provides a sample letter for requesting an IEE at school district expense. If the family requests an IEE because they disagree with the school’s evaluation or its conclusions, then the district must pay for the IEE or deny the request through Due Process: IEE denials are evaluated by an Administrative Law Judge.

Families who want individualized assistance can reach out to PAVE by clicking Get Help and filling out the online request form or by calling 1-800-5-PARENT.

Sample Letter to Request Evaluation

A Brief Overview

  • Washington State requires special education referrals to be in writing (WAC 392-172A-03005). Anyone with knowledge of a student can write a referral.
  • The state provides a form for making a special education referral, downloadable from a website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. The form is not required—any written request is valid.
  • Schools are responsible to provide families with a referral form in their native language and to provide qualified interpreters so families can participate in all meetings to discuss their student’s special education eligibility and services.
  • Another option is to write a referral using the sample letter at the end of this article.
  • Evaluation process and family/student rights are described in the special education Procedural Safeguards, updated in 2022.

Full Article

When a student is struggling in school and there is reason to suspect the challenges are disability related, anyone can refer the student for an educational evaluation. If the evaluation shows that the student is eligible, services are provided through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Washington State requires special education referrals to be in writing (WAC 392-172A-03005).

 If someone who knows the student asks for an evaluation, the school is responsible to:

  • Document the request
  • Record the date the referral was made
  • Provide a referral form in the person’s native language
  • Respond to the request within 25 school days

If the person asking for the evaluation cannot write, the school is responsible to support them to complete the referral.

The school must provide a referral form in the native language of the person making the request. Schools are required to provide qualified interpreters to support parent participation in the referral process and for all meetings where a student’s eligibility and/or educational services are discussed. See Parent Rights Information Sheets, downloadable in many languages.

Here’s a summary of evaluation timelines:

  • The school has 25 school days to respond to a referral.
  • After a parent/caregiver signs consent, the school has 35 school days to evaluate the student.
  • If eligibility is found, the school has 30 calendar days to write an IEP and seek parent/caregiver consent for services to begin.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the guidance agency for Washington State. OSPI provides a form for making a special education referral, downloadable from a website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. Families may use OSPI’s form, a form provided by their school, or their own choice of format to write their request for a student to be evaluated. PAVE’s sample letter at the end of this article is an option.

A non-discriminatory evaluation is part of the protections for a student with a known or suspected disability that may significantly impact their access to education (Child Find Mandate). Child Find protections are part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Child Find applies whether there are academic and/or non-academic school impacts.

PAVE provides more detail about IEP eligibility and evaluation process: Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School.

The clock starts ticking when a request is made

The school has 25 school days after the initial request date to decide whether to evaluate the student who was referred. School days are days when students attend school. The school district lets the family know their decision through a formal letter called Prior Written Notice (PWN), which is described in the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-05010).

Often the school and family meet to discuss the referral and how the student is doing. If all agree to proceed with an evaluation, parents sign consent for the testing to begin. The family can ask questions about what the evaluation will include. Evaluating all areas of suspected disability and educational impact is important to learn as much as possible about the student’s strengths and needs. Information from the evaluation is used to build the services program if the student is found eligible for an IEP.

If the school says no to the evaluation and the family disagrees, they have dispute resolution options that are described in special education Procedural Safeguards, updated in 2022.

Parent consent is required

When the school agrees to evaluate the student, staff must promptly seek parent consent to begin the evaluation process (WAC 392-172A-03005).

Generally, parents sign a form that lists what the school will include in its evaluation. Parents can ask for additional areas to be evaluated to make sure the school gets data for all areas of concern. Families can ask for more information about what the evaluation will look like, where it will take place, how long it will take, and who will participate. The school and family can creatively plan the evaluation process if accommodations are needed. For example, if a student isn’t able to attend in-person school, the evaluation can be done in alternative locations.

After a parent signs consent, the school has 35 school days to finish the evaluation and meet with the family to talk about the results. The deadline may be extended if the family agrees, particularly to accommodate needs of the family or student.

The 35-day deadline does not apply if the student is unavailable for the evaluation or enrolls in another school district before the evaluation is finished (WAC 392-172A-03005).

For students found eligible for services, the school develops an IEP within 30 calendar days and requests parent consent for services to begin. The school and family meet to review a DRAFT version of the IEP and write a final version together before consent is signed. School staff provide a Prior Written Notice (PWN) with a summary of the meeting, agreements, and timelines before services start. PWN requirements are described in WAC 392-172A-05010.

Special Education is a service, not a location within the school

A request for a special education evaluation is NOT a recommendation to remove a student from the regular classroom and move them into an exclusive learning environment. Federal and state laws require that students receive education and services in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent possible to meet their needs.

Decisions about placement are made by the IEP team, which includes the family. The IEP team is responsible to consider the child’s circumstances and capacities as its top priority—not pre-built programs or district resources.

Special Education is a service, while LRE refers to placement. PAVE’s article provides further information: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place. Another article provides detail about parent participation in special education process: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.

Parents can appeal decisions and/or seek a 504 plan

If a student is evaluated and found not eligible for an IEP (or if the school refuses to do an evaluation), the family has the right to dispute the decision using Procedural Safeguards.

If they disagree with the district’s evaluation or its findings, the family may seek an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE), which is done by an agency outside of the school district. The district must pay for an IEE or deny the request using Due Process. See PAVE’s article: Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’ to Your Request. The article includes a sample letter to request an IEE.

Another option if a student doesn’t get an IEP is to develop a Section 504 Plan, which accommodates a person with a disability that impacts a major life activity (learning, walking, speaking, writing, socializing…). Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities against discrimination throughout their lives. See PAVE’s article about Section 504 rights, which also protect students who qualify for an IEP: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations.

Sample letter for a special education referral

Below is a sample letter to write a request for a special education evaluation. You can copy and paste the text of this sample letter into your word processor to build your own letter.

The state provides an alternative form, downloadable from OSPI’s website page titled, Making a Referral for Special Education. Your school district is responsible to provide a form, in your language, for you to submit your written request. These formats are your choice—any written request is valid. If you cannot write, you can ask for an evaluation by telling the school and they can write the request with you.

Submit your written request through email, by mail, or by hand delivery, to the special education/special services manager at your school’s district office. You may submit additional copies to school administrators and/or a school psychologist—the person who manages evaluations for your school. Be sure to keep copies of all of your communications with the school in an organized, safe place.

Your Name
Your relationship to the student
Your phone number
Your email address

The date you submit the request

To: [name of person and/or district],

I am requesting a full and individual evaluation for NAME, (birth date: 00-00-0000), for assessment as a special education student as stipulated in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA, Public Law 108-446), and in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A). My child is being evaluated for the first time [or include information if student was previously evaluated or received IEP or Section 504 services].

My student attends [name of school] and is currently in [grade level]. We speak [language] in our home, and we need a qualified interpreter for all meetings where our child’s eligibility and services are discussed.

I have concerns that (NAME) is not receiving full educational benefit from school because of their struggles with [brief summary of biggest disability-related concern].

I understand that the evaluation is to be in all areas of suspected disability, and that the school district is to provide this evaluation at no charge to me. My reasons for requesting this evaluation are: [be as specific as you can/note that OSPI’s form suggests possible academic and physical/behavioral concerns]

  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.

Here are some areas where [name] is struggling:

  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.

Based on what I know about my student, here are some supports that I think are needed:

  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.
  • Use bullet points.

[Name] has been medically diagnosed with [Diagnoses, if available… Or you might write: Name is awaiting a medical evaluation for … Note that a medical diagnosis is not required for schools to conduct an educational evaluation and to find a student eligible for services].

I have attached documentation from [list any outside providers who provided letters or reports]. Please take note that [Dr. NAME] recommends [highlight any specific recommendations from those attached documents] because [reason].

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and that I will be involved in any meetings related to evaluation, identification of disability, provision of services, placement, or other decisions regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I would appreciate meeting with each person who will be doing an evaluation before [NAME] is tested so that I might share information and history. I will expect a copy of the written report generated by each evaluator so that I might review it before the team meeting.

I understand you must have my written permission for these tests to be administered, and I will be happy to provide that upon receipt of the proper forms.

I appreciate your help in behalf of [NAME].

Sincerely,

Your Name

CC: (Names and titles of other people you give copies to)

Please Note: PAVE is a nonprofit organization that provides information, training, individual assistance, and resources. PAVE is not a legal firm or legal service agency, and the information contained in this handout is provided for informing the reviewer and should not be considered as a means of taking the place of legal advice that must be obtained through an attorney. PAVE may be able to assist you in identifying an attorney in your area but cannot provide direct referrals. The contents of this handout were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. The contents do not represent the policy of the US Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Government.

Disability Rights for Littles: Key Information for Families of Babies, Preschoolers, and Primary-School Children

This two-part video series provides information about the rights of babies, toddlers, and young children with developmental delays or disabilities.

Part 1 provides information about early support services for babies through age 3. An interactive exercise is included to help families better understand how to participate in development of functional outcomes as part of the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The video includes information about how early support services are provided and delivered in Washington State and where to begin. Keep in mind that early services are provided in the natural environment—places where babies and toddlers would spend their days if there was no disability.

Part 2 includes information about the transition from early services into preschool and primary school. Families will learn how decisions are made about eligibility for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and how to participate in educational decision-making for their child. Inclusion in general education is covered, with information about federal requirements for services in the Least Restrictive Environment, to the maximum extent appropriate. The video explains the components of an IEP and provides advocacy tips to support parents and children throughout their educational years.

Families can reach out for individualized assistance from our Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff at PAVE. Click Get Help or call 800-572-7368.

After you view the video, please take a quick moment to complete our survey. Your feedback is valuable!

Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington

A Brief Overview

  • Early intervention services help infants and toddlers with disabilities or delays to learn and catch up in their development. This article covers some basics about services for young children in Washington State.
  • Families concerned about a child’s development can call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588, with support in multiple languages. Parents can complete a developmental screening online for free at Parent Help 123.
  • Early Learning and Development Guidelines are downloadable from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Hard copies can be purchased at myprint.wa.gov.
  • PAVE provides an article for next steps after age 3: What’s Next when Early Childhood Services End at Age 3? Another PAVE article for families new to special education: Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff help families understand and navigate service systems for children 0-26. Click Get Help at wapave.org or call 800-572-7368.

Full Article

New parents may struggle to know whether their child’s growth and development are on track. They may have a feeling that a milestone is missed, or they may observe siblings or other children learning and developing differently. Sometimes a parent just needs reassurance. Other times, a child has a developmental delay or a disability. In those cases, early interventions can be critical to a child’s lifelong learning.

Seek guidance from a Family Resource Coordinator (FRC)

Washington families concerned about a young child’s development can call the Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588 (TTY 1.800.833.6384) to connect with a Family Resource Coordinator (FRC). Support is provided in English, Spanish and other languages. Families can access developmental screening online for free at Parent Help 123 developmental screening tool.

Several state agencies collaborated to publish Early Learning and Development Guidelines. The booklet includes information about what children can do and learn at different stages of development, focused on birth through third grade. Families can purchase a hard copy of the guidelines from the state Department of Enterprise Services. Order at: myprint.wa.gov. A free downloadable version is available in English and Spanish from OSPI’s website on a page labeled: Early Learning and Development Guidelines.

Washington early services are provided by ESIT

In Washington, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) administers services for eligible children from birth to age 3 through Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT). Families can contact ESIT directly, or they can reach out to their local school district to request an evaluation to determine eligibility and consider what support a child might need. The ESIT website includes videos to guide family caregivers and a collection of Parent Rights and Leadership resources, with multiple language options.

Early intervention services are provided in the child’s “natural environment,” which includes home and community settings where children would be participating if they did not have a disability. According to ESIT, “Early intervention services are designed to enable children birth to 3 with developmental delays or disabilities to be active and successful during the early childhood years and in the future in a variety of settings—in their homes, in childcare, in preschool or school programs, and in their communities.”

Early services are delivered through an IFSP

Children who qualify receive services through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The right to an IFSP is protected by Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA is a federal grant program that provides funding for states to implement early learning and special education programs. Part B of the IDEA protects an eligible school-age student’s right to an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Part A includes general guidance about the educational rights of children 0-21.

Family caregivers, childcare professionals, teachers, or anyone else can refer a child for an early learning evaluation if there is reason to suspect that a disability or developmental delay may be impacting the child’s growth and progress. The school district’s duty to seek out, evaluate and potentially serve infants, toddlers or school-aged students with known or suspected disabilities is guaranteed through the IDEA’s Child Find Mandate.

First Step: Evaluate to determine eligibility

Early intervention is intended for infants and toddlers who have a developmental delay or disability. Eligibility is determined by evaluating the child (with parental consent) to see if the little one does, in fact, have a delay in development or a disability. Eligible children can receive early intervention services from birth to the third birthday. 

After a referral is accepted, a team of professionals uses standardized tools and observations to evaluate a child’s development in five areas:

  1. : Reaching for and grasping toys, crawling, walking, jumping
  2. : Watching activities, following simple directions, problem-solving
  3. : Making needs known, initiating games, starting to take turns
  4. : Vocalizing, babbling, using two- to three-word phrases
  5. : Holding a bottle, eating with fingers, getting dressed

The tools used to evaluate a child provide scores that are compared with the scores of children who are typically developing. Eligibility is met based on one or more of these conditions:

Next Step: Develop a service plan

If an infant or toddler is eligible, early intervention services are designed to meet the child’s individual needs. Options might include, but are not limited to:  

  • Assistive technology (devices a child might need)
  • Audiology or hearing services
  • Speech and language services
  • Counseling and training for a family
  • Medical services
  • Nursing services
  • Nutrition services
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Psychological services

Services are typically provided in the child’s home or other natural environment, such as daycare. They also can be offered in a medical hospital, a clinic, a school, or another community space. 

Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP): What is the plan?

The IFSP is a whole family plan, with the child’s primary caregivers as major contributors to its development and implementation. Parents/custodial caregivers must provide written consent for services to begin. In Washington, Family Resource Coordinators (FRCs) help write the IFSP. Team members may include medical professionals, therapists, child development specialists, social workers, and others with knowledge of the child and recommendations to contribute. 

The IFSP includes goals, and progress is monitored to determine whether the plan is supporting appropriate outcomes. The plan is reviewed every six months and is updated at least once a year but can be reviewed at any time by request of parents or other team members. The IFSP includes:

  • The child’s current developmental levels and needs in physical, cognitive, communication, social/emotional, and adaptive areas
  • Family information: resources, priorities, and concerns of parents/caregivers.
  • Major results/outcomes expected from the child and family
  • Specific services:
    • Where services are provided—any services provided outside the child’s “natural environment” of home/daycare/community require a statement explaining the rationale for the placement
    • When the child receives services—the number of days or sessions for each service, and how long each session will last
  • Who pays for the services
  • Name and contact information for the Family Resource coordinator (FRC) responsible for IFSP implementation
  • Steps to begin at age 2.5 to support the child’s transition out of early intervention and perhaps into school-based services.
  • If relevant, additional services or information for the family—such as financial guidance or parenting support

Dispute resolution options are available

If parents have a concern or disagree with any part of the early intervention process, they can contact their Family Resource Coordinator (FRC). If issues remain unresolved, families may choose from a range of dispute resolution options that include mediation, due process, and more. ESIT provides access to a downloadable parent rights brochure with information about dispute resolution options in multiple languages.

Most services are free to families

Washington State provides most early intervention services at no cost to families of eligible children. Some services covered by insurance are billed to a child’s health insurance provider, with the signed consent of a family caregiver. The early intervention system may not use health care insurance (private or public) without express, written consent.

Part C of the IDEA requires states to provide the following services at no cost to families: Child Find (outreach and evaluation), assessments, IFSP development and review, and service coordination.

More resources

  • Learn the Signs. Act Early. The website includes tools for tracking milestones and materials for families to learn more and plan home-based activities to promote skill development. “Early intervention services can change a child’s developmental path and improve outcomes for children, families, and communities,” the CDC encourages. “Help your child, help your family! Families benefit from early intervention by being able to better meet their children’s needs from an early age and throughout their lives.”
  • The Center for Parent Information and Resources (CIPR—ParentCenterHub.org) provides an Overview of Early intervention.
  • The US Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provides funding for the Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (ectacenter.org), based at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The center builds state and local capacity to improve outcomes for young children with disabilities and their families.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff provide information, training, resources, and technical assistance to help family caregivers, students and professionals understand rights and responsibilities within education systems, including those for early learning. For support, complete an online help request at wapave.org or leave a message at the helpline: 1-800-572-7368/press 115.

Evaluations Part 2: Next Steps if the School Says ‘No’

A Brief Overview

  • If the school denies a request for a special education evaluation or does an evaluation and determines a student is ineligible for services, families have options. Read on for information about some possible next steps.
  • When there is a dispute about a district’s evaluation, one option is to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) from a provider outside of the school district. This article includes a sample letter to help with that process.
  • Families are protected by Procedural Safeguards, which guarantee a specific process for special education and offer families the right to file formal complaints when they disagree with school decisions.
  • PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff supports families navigating educational services. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 support.

Full Article

Parents have a variety of choices if the school denies a request to evaluate a student for special education or if the school does an evaluation and finds the student ineligible for services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Here are some options to consider.

Is disability a factor?

A student qualifies for IEP services when three prongs of eligibility are met through evaluation:

  1. A disability is present.
  2. The disability condition causes significant adverse educational impact.
  3. The student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services, such as speech, occupational, physical or another therapy to meet an educational need. 

Keep in mind that a student does not need to meet all three prongs in order to be evaluated. In accordance with the Child Find Mandate, the school district must evaluate a child if there is a known or suspected disability that may have significant impact on learning. The findings of evaluation consider the three prongs listed above.

When considering whether disability is impacting educational access and outcomes, it’s helpful to review the eligibility categories outlined by federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

  • Autism
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Deafness
  • Deaf blindness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

In Washington State, children through age 9 may be eligible for services under the category of Developmental Delay. The Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-172A-01035) provide detail about eligibility in each category.

Keep in mind that the educational impact of a disability can be assessed with or without a formal diagnosis from a medical provider.

Was your request in writing?

Referrals for special education evaluation are best made in writing. If an initial request was made and denied verbally, start again with a formal letter sent through email, certified mail or in person. PAVE provides a letter template and more information for evaluation requests in an article: Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Address the letter to a district special education director or program coordinator, and cc an administrator at the student’s school. Make sure to include the student’s full name and birthdate, a clear statement of request for evaluation in all areas of suspected disability, and details about the concerns. If relevant, attach letters from doctors, therapists or other providers who support the request. The letter should include complete contact information and a statement that parent is prepared to sign consent for the evaluation to begin.

Ask for the decision in writing

The school is required to respond through a formal letter, called Prior Written Notice (PWN), to explain its rationale for moving forward with an evaluation or denying the request. If the school’s rationale for denial is confusing or incomplete, ask for detail in writing.

School evaluators cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. Impacts of COVID-19 delayed some evaluations in spring 2020, but the pandemic is not an explanation for evaluation denial.

Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because they want to try different instructional methods. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although it might be useful for the school to research its teaching methods, this cannot be the basis for refusing to evaluate a student with a known or suspected disability.

Request a meeting

Discussing a student’s difficulties in a meeting, in-person or virtually, can help school staff understand a parent’s level of concern. A district representative, such as a director of special education, can provide insight about the process and additional options. Parents can invite a support person to take notes and help track the conversation.

Is a Section 504 Plan appropriate?

If a student has a known disability, with some educational impacts, but there is no documented need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services, the student might qualify for accommodations provided through a Section 504 Plan.

Section 504, which is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. A formal evaluation is helpful but not required, and parent involvement is best practice. The team asks:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment limit one or more major life activities?

If the answer to these two questions is yes, the school can develop a plan to support the student within the general education setting. Assistive technology and modifications to the curriculum can be part of the plan, which includes individualized accommodations to ensure the student is able to access school in ways that are equitable. PAVE provides an article with more information about Section 504.

File a complaint and/or get outside help

Families are protected by Procedural Safeguards, which guarantee a specific process for special education and offer families the right to file formal complaints when they disagree with school decisions. Mediation, Citizen Complaint, and Due Process are options for dispute resolution in special education. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides assistance to navigate these processes through a Special Education Parent Liaison.

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff supports families in their communication with schools. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 support.

Another option for support with family/school collaborations is the Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds.

Request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)  

If family caregivers disagree with a district’s evaluation result, the family can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). An IEE can offer additional information that may support the need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and/or related services.

If the school district denies a request for an IEE at public expense, the district must initiate a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its evaluation was appropriate.

When an IEE request is accepted, the school district provides a list of independent evaluators. Parents have discretion to call each one or to seek an alternative evaluator before choosing who will evaluate the student. The school must consider the results of the IEE when deciding whether the student qualifies for special education programming.

Sample letter to request an IEE

Note: You can email the IEE request letter or send it by certified mail (keep your receipt), or hand carry it to the district office and get a date/time receipt. Remember to keep a copy of this letter and all school-related correspondence for your records. Get organized with a binder or a filing system that will help you keep track of all letters, meetings, conversations, etc. These documents will be important for you and your child for many years to come, including when your child transitions out of school.

Your Name

Street Address

City, State, Zip

Date

Name (if known, otherwise use title only)

Title/Director of Special Education/Program Coordinator

School District

Street Address

City, State, Zip

Dear Name (if known, otherwise use title only):

I am requesting an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) for my (son/daughter), (NAME) (BD: 00000000). Please provide me with information about outside agencies in our area that can provide this evaluation.

The school conducted an evaluation (date range of evaluation) to determine whether (NAME) is eligible for special education programming. I disagree with the results of that evaluation for the following reasons: (be as specific as you can; one reason may be that you don’t believe that all areas of suspected disability were appropriately evaluated)

  • Use bullet points if the list becomes long.
  • Use bullet points if the list becomes long.
  • Use bullet points if the list becomes long.

I have attached documentation from (list any outside providers who provided letters supporting your request). Please note that (highlight any particularly important recommendations from those attached documents).

I understand that the school can provide this IEE at no cost to me. I also understand that the school may initiate a due process hearing if denying my request. Upon request, I can provide more detail about my objections to the school’s evaluation.

Please Note: It is the policy of PAVE to provide support, information, and training for families, professionals, and interested others on a number of topics. In no way do these activities constitute providing legal advice. PAVE is not a legal firm or a legal services agency.

Special Education Process Demystified in 10 Steps

Here is basic guidance about how special education works. For a bit more detail, visit How Special Education Works A 10-Step Guide to the Special Education Process provided by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Procedural Safeguards protect family and student rights throughout the process.

  1. Referral: Is there a known or suspected disability condition that may significantly impact educational access? If yes, family or anyone with knowledge of the student can request an evaluation from the school district in writing.
  2. Consent to evaluate: The school district has 25 school days to consider the referral and whether to evaluate. Family signs consent for an evaluation to begin.
  3. Initial Evaluation: The district has 35 school days to conduct an evaluation that comprehensively addresses all areas of suspected disability.
  4. Initial Evaluation Report: Family and school meet to review the findings. Discussion includes:
    • What did the evaluation find?
    • Is the student eligible?
    • What category of disability is the right fit for eligibility?
    • What services is the student eligible for?
    • Does the family have suggestions for goal areas or accommodations that school staff can consider for the initial IEP draft?
  5. Eligibility and Consent: For special education and related services to begin, family signs consent.
  6. Creating an Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP team meets within 30 days of the eligibility determination to write the IEP.
    • A DRAFT IEP may be reviewed and discussed. Family can request a copy of the DRAFT before meeting.
    • The team decides what the final IEP includes.
    • School provides family with Prior Written Notice after the meeting to reflect the discussion and actions being taken.
    • Family has an opportunity to request further changes or more meetings.
  7. Special Education Begins: All teachers and service providers receive a copy of the IEP and implement the services, accommodations, and other elements of the program.
  8. Progress Monitoring and Annual IEP Review: The IEP team meets to discuss the program at least once a year. Changes can be made then or any time a team meeting is called because of concerns raised by the family or school.
  9. Reevaluation: The student is re-evaluated at least every 3 years to determine ongoing eligibility and to assess any needed changes to the program. If a student’s needs change, reevaluation can happen sooner.
  10. Transition: By the time a student turns 16, the IEP must have a plan in place for when the student will either graduate from high school or continue to receive school-based services, an option through age 21. Postsecondary goals drive the IEP process from that point forward.