Surrogate Parents Support Unaccompanied Students in Special Education

A Brief Overview

  • Parent participation in IEP process is a protected right for students with disabilities. If a student doesn’t have a family caregiver or legal guardian to advocate in their behalf, a surrogate parent is assigned to fill that role.
  • A surrogate parent is not paid and cannot be employed by the school system, or any other agency involved in the care or education of the child.
  • The provision for a surrogate parent is part of federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Section 300.519).

Full Article

If a student eligible for special education services does not have a family caregiver, adoptive parent, or other legal guardian fulfilling the role of parent, then a surrogate parent is assigned to ensure the student’s rights are protected. The surrogate parent fulfills the family caregiver role on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team and advocates to ensure the student’s needs are met.

A surrogate parent is an individual appointed by the public agency (usually a school district) responsible for the student’s special education services. Schools are responsible to assign a surrogate parent within 30 days after recognizing the need. Note that a child who is a ward of the state may be assigned a surrogate parent by the judge overseeing their case.

If a private individual, such as a neighbor or friend, has explicit written permission from the student’s parent or guardian to care for the student, a surrogate parent is not required.

A student 18-21 is responsible for their own educational decision-making unless they have a guardian to exercise their legal rights. A school district is responsible to assign a surrogate parent for a student declared legally incompetent or if an adult student with a disability asks for a surrogate parent.

A surrogate parent is required for a minor student when the parent cannot be identified or located or if parental rights have been terminated. A student’s parents are considered to be unknown if their identity cannot be determined from a thorough review of the student’s educational and other agency records.

A student’s parents are considered unavailable if they cannot be located through reasonable effort that includes documented telephone calls, letters, certified letters with return receipts, visits to the parents’ last known address, or if a court order has terminated parental rights. A parent is also considered unavailable if unable to participate in the student’s education due to distance or incarceration.

If a parent is too ill to participate at a meeting, either in person or by phone, that parent has the option of giving another individual written permission to act for them.

An uncooperative or uninvolved parent is not the same as an unavailable one.  A surrogate parent is not assigned because parents choose not to participate in their child’s education.

A child identified as an unaccompanied homeless youth by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is an example of a student who would be assigned a surrogate parent to support them within the special education system. Children with surrogate parents might live in foster homes, nursing homes, public or private group homes, state hospitals, or correctional facilities.

In some cases, a state agency has guardianship of a student with a disability: That student requires the assignment of a surrogate parent. 

Foster parents need to be formally appointed by the school as surrogate parents if they do not have legal guardianship. Relatives without formal kinship rights also can be designated as surrogate parents within the special education process.

A surrogate parent is not paid and cannot be employed by the school system, or any other agency involved in the care or education of the child. However, an unaccompanied homeless youth may be supported by appropriate staff from an emergency shelter, street outreach team, or other agency temporarily until a surrogate parent with no conflict of interest is appointed.

A surrogate parent must have knowledge and skills that ensure adequate representation of the student. A community volunteer, guardian ad litem, or other invested adult might serve as a surrogate parent. The surrogate parent must commit to understanding the student’s strengths and needs and how the educational system is structured to support the student’s services. Ideally, the surrogate parent lives near the student and is a match for providing culturally appropriate help in the student’s language.

The surrogate parent represents the student in all matters relating to special education identification, evaluation, and placement and works to ensure that the student receives a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) from their school-based services.

The provision for a surrogate parent is part of federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA Section 300.519).

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) includes some downloadable resources about the surrogate parent in its Special Education Resource Library.

PAVE is here to help all caregivers, including surrogate parents. For direct assistance, click Get Help to complete an online Help Request Form.

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 these IDEA eligibility categories:

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features from the autism spectrum may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools refer 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.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. The school may refer to a specific learning disability as having the characteristics of dyslexia but may not be willing to formally identify a student as having dyslexia or another named condition. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law that took effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia and our training 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.
  • 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.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing: Whether a student is hard-of-hearing in ways that are permanent or fluctuating, they may be eligible for services based on their condition, educational impacts, and individualized needs.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s education. 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.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • 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. At that point, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Washington State describes each eligibility category in WAC 392-172A-01035.

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.

Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

A Brief Overview

  • A student with a disability has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). General education spaces and curriculum are LRE.
  • Services are generally portable, and special education is delivered to the student to enable access to FAPE within the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate.
  • Federal law protects a student’s right to FAPE within the LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not for convenience of resource allocation.
  • The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource for families and schools writing IEPs to support students within general education: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

Full Article

An ill-informed conversation about special education might go something like this:

  • Is your child in special education?
  • Yes.
  • Oh, so your student goes to school in that special classroom, by the office…in the portable…at the end of the hall…in a segregated room?

This conversation includes errors in understanding about what special education is, how it is delivered, and a student’s right to be included with general education peers whenever and wherever possible.

This article intends to clear up confusion. An important concept to understand is in the headline:

Special Education is a service, not a place!

Services are portable, so special education is delivered to the student in the placement that works for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), in light of the child’s circumstances. A student with a disability has the right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

General education is the Least Restrictive Environment. An alternative placement is discussed by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team if access to FAPE is not working for the student in a general education setting with supplementary aids and supports.

Keep in mind that genuine inclusion doesn’t just meet a seat in the classroom. Adult support, adaptations to the learning materials, individualized instruction, and more are provided to support access to education within the LRE.

Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:

  • FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The entitlement of a student who is eligible for special education services.
  • IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The entitlement to FAPE is protected by this law that allocates federal funds to support eligible students.
  • LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. A student eligible for special education services has a right to FAPE in the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate. General education is the least restrictive, and an alternative placement is discussed when data indicate that supplementary aids and supports are not working to enable access to FAPE in general education.
  • IEP: Individualized Education Program. School staff and family caregivers make up an IEP team. The team is responsible to develop a program reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate toward IEP goals and on grade-level curriculum, in light of the child’s circumstances. Based on a student’s strengths and needs (discovered through evaluation, observation, and review of data), the team collaborates to decide what services enable FAPE and how to deliver those services. Where services are delivered is the last part of the IEP process, and decisions are made by all team members, unless family caregivers choose to excuse some participants or waive the right to a full team process.
  • Equity: When access is achieved with supports so the person with a disability has a more level or fair opportunity to benefit from the building, service, or program. For example, a student in a wheelchair can access a school with stairs if there is also a ramp. A person with a behavioral health condition might need a unique type of “ramp” to access equitable learning opportunities within general education.
  • Inclusion: When people of all abilities experience an opportunity together, and individuals with disabilities have supports they need to be contributing participants and to receive equal benefit. Although IDEA does not explicitly demand inclusion, the requirement for FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is how inclusion is built into special education process.
  • Placement: Where a student learns. Because the IDEA requires LRE, an IEP team considers equity and inclusion in discussions about where a student receives education. General education placement is the Least Restrictive Environment. An IEP team considers ways to offer supplementary aids and supports to enable access to LRE. If interventions fail to meet the student’s needs, the IEP team considers a continuum of placement alternatives—special education classrooms, alternative schools, home-bound instruction, day treatment, residential placement, or an alternative that is uniquely designed. 
  • Supplementary Aids and Supports: The help and productivity enhancers a student needs. Under the IDEA, a student’s unique program and services are intended to enable access to FAPE within LRE. Note that an aid or a support is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. To the contrary, having additional adult support might enable access to LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State. In its decision, OSPI stated that “paraeducator support is a supplementary aid and service, not a placement option on the continuum of alternative placements.”

Note that the IDEA protects a student’s right to FAPE within LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not in light of the most convenient way to organize school district resources. Placement is individualized to support a student’s strengths and abilities as well as the needs that are based in disability.

Tip: Families can remind the IEP team to Presume Competence and to boost a student from that position of faith. If the team presumes that a student can be competent in general education, how does it impact the team’s conversation about access to FAPE and placement?

LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own

To deliver FAPE, a school district provides lessons uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and struggles (Specially Designed Instruction/SDI). In addition, the IEP team is responsible to design individualized accommodations and modifications. (Links in this paragraph take you to three PAVE training videos on these topics.)

  • Accommodations: Productivity enhancers. Examples: adjusted time to complete a task, assistive technology, a different mode for tracking an assignment or schedule, accessible reading materials with text-to-speech or videos embedded with sign language…
  • Modifications: Changes to a requirement. Examples: an alternative test, fewer problems on a worksheet, credit for a video presentation or vision board instead of a term paper.

Note that accommodations and modifications are not “special favors.” Utilizing these is an exercise of civil rights that are protected by anti-discrimination laws that include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (particularly Section 504 as it relates to school) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA—particularly Title II).

Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access

An IEP may include related services (occupational therapy, speech, nursing, behavioral or mental health support, parent training, transportation, and more). For some students, related services may be part of the support structure to enable inclusion in the Least Restrictive Environment. If an IEP includes related services, then the IEP team discusses how and where they are delivered.

A tool to support inclusion

The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

The resource includes a variety of tools and recommendations for how school and family teams can approach their meetings and conversations to support the creation and provision of a program that recognizes:

  • Each child is a general education student. 
  • The general education curriculum and routines and the Individual Education Program (IEP) comprise a student’s full educational program.
  • The IEP for a student qualifying for special education services is not the student’s curriculum.

Who is required on an IEP team?

Keep in mind that IEP teams are required to include staff from general education and special education (WAC 392-172A-03095). All team members are required for formal meetings unless the family signs consent for those absences. Here’s a key statement from the TIES Center resource:

“The IEP is intended to support a student’s progress in general education curriculum and routines, as well as other essential skills that support a student’s independence or interdependence across school, home, and other community environments.  A comprehensive inclusive education program based upon these principles is important because without that focus, a student’s learning opportunities and school and post-school outcomes are diminished. In order to create an effective comprehensive inclusive education program, collaboration between general educators, special educators, and families is needed.”

LRE decisions follow a 4-part process

OSPI’s website includes information directed toward parents: “Placement decisions are made by your student’s IEP team after the IEP has been developed. The term ‘placement’ in special education does not necessarily mean the precise physical building or location where your student will be educated. Rather, your student’s ‘placement’ refers to the range or continuum of educational settings available in the district to implement her/his IEP and the overall amount of time s/he will spend in the general education setting.”

Selection of an appropriate placement includes 4 considerations:

  1. IEP content (specialized instruction, goals, services, accommodations…)
  2. LRE requirements (least restrictive “to the maximum extent appropriate”)
  3. The likelihood that the placement option provides a reasonably high probability of helping a student attain goals
  4. Consideration of any potentially harmful effects the placement option might have on the student, or the quality of services delivered

What are placements outside of general education?

If a student is unable to access appropriate learning (FAPE) in general education because their needs cannot be met there, then the IEP team considers alternative placement options. It’s important to note that a student is placed in a more restrictive setting because the student needs a different location within the school, not because it’s more convenient for adults or because it saves the school district money.

According to IDEA, Sec. 300.114, “A State must not use a funding mechanism by which the State distributes funds on the basis of the type of setting in which a child is served that will result in the failure to provide a child with a disability FAPE according to the unique needs of the child, as described in the child’s IEP.”

IEP teams may discuss whether there’s a need for a smaller classroom setting or something else. Keep in mind that a home-based placement is a very restrictive placement because it segregates a student entirely from their peers.

The continuum of placement options includes, but is not limited to:

  • general education classes
  • general education classes with support services and/or modifications
  • a combination of general education and special education classes
  • self-contained special education classes
  • day treatment, therapeutic school specializing in behavioral health
  • private placement outside of the school district (non-public agency/NPA)
  • residential care or treatment facilities (also known as NPAs)
  • alternative learning experience (ALE)
  • home-based placement  

School districts are not required to have a continuum available in every school building. A school district, for example, might have a self-contained setting or preschool services in some but not all locations. This gives districts some discretion for choosing a location to serve the placement chosen by an IEP team.

Placement and location are different

Note that the IEP team determines the placement, but the school district has discretion to choose a location to serve the IEP.

For example, an IEP team could determine that a student needs a day treatment/behavioral health-focused school in order to access FAPE—an appropriate education. If the IEP team chooses a Day Treatment placement, then the school district is responsible to find a location to provide that placement. Following this process, a public-school district might pay for transportation and tuition to send a student to a private or out-of-district facility. If a request for a specialized placement is initiated by the family, there are other considerations.

OSPI’s website includes this information:

“… if you are requesting that your student be placed in a private school or residential facility because you believe the district is unable to provide FAPE, then you must make that request through a due process hearing.”

Resources about inclusionary practices

An agency called Teaching Exceptional Children Plus features an article by a parent about the value of inclusion in general education. The January 2009 article by Beth L. Sweden is available for download online: Signs of an Inclusive School: A Parent’s Perspective on the Meaning and Value of Authentic Inclusion.

Understood.org offers an article and a video about the benefits of inclusion.

An agency that promotes best-practice strategies for school staff implementing inclusive educational programming is the IRIS Center, a part of Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

As stated earlier, The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource for families and schools writing IEPs to support students within general education: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

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: 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 families who demonstrate financial need:

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.

To get help from PAVE’s Parent Training and Information staff, click Get Help to complete an online Help Request Form.

We’d love to know whether these trainings are helpful. Please share your feedback by completing a short survey.

What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School

A Brief Overview

Full Article

Behavior is a form of communication, and children often try to express their needs and wants more through behavior than words. When a young person has a disability or has experienced trauma or other distress, adults and authorities may need to put in extra effort to understand. Missed cues and unmet needs can result in unexpected and sometimes explosive behaviors, which may lead schools to suspend or expel students. Schools are required to address students’ behavioral health needs and limit use of punitive discipline.

Unfortunately, not all students are adequately supported. State data indicate that students with disabilities are disciplined at least 2.5 times more often than non-disabled peers (See WA State Report Card). For students with disabilities who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), the numbers are consistently higher within Washington State and nationwide.

By many state and national measures, children’s behavioral health worsened during the pandemic and many children are developmentally behind in social, emotional, and behavioral skills. Governor Jay Inslee on March 14, 2021, issued an emergency proclamation declaring children’s mental health to be in crisis. At the same time, many schools and behavioral health agencies struggle to meet rising demand for services. PAVE provides a toolkit with further information about options for assisting children and young people with behavioral health conditions and ways to advocate for system change in Washington State.

This article provides information about school discipline. Keep in mind that disability rights protect individuals with all disabilities, including behavioral health disabilities. School policies and practices related to discipline may not discriminate against students, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability condition. Federal and state laws require that students with disabilities receive support and individualized instruction to help them meet behavioral expectations (WAC 392-172A-03110).

Federal and state guidance is written for schools and can help families too

This article includes links to various federal and state guidance documents that are written primarily to help school leaders follow laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities. Families and community members can refer to this guidance and work to help ensure that their local schools follow the law. When this does not happen, families and community members can use the dispute resolution process and incorporate federal and state guidance to support their advocacy efforts.

Dispute Resolution options related to IEP process are described in Procedural Safeguards. Dispute Resolution options when there are civil rights issues are described in the Section 504 Notice of Parent Rights. Both links connect to places where these documents are downloadable in various languages.

Key guidance and legal protections

Here are key state and national resources related to school discipline:

Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides information about Discipline Procedures for Students Eligible to Receive Special Education Services.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) within the US Department of Education issued a guidance letter July 19, 2022, that describes federal work underway to improve behavioral supports and reduce use of disciplinary removal nationwide. OSEP’s Dear Colleague Letter includes links to a Q and A document about disciplinary requirements and A Guide for Stakeholders, describing best practices to support behavior.

Also in July 2022, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance about the rights of students with behavioral health needs. Available in multiple languages, the downloadable booklet is titled: Supporting Students with Disabilities and Avoiding the Discriminatory Use of Student Discipline under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In a Dear Colleague letter published with OCR’s guidance on July 19, 2022, Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, calls out problems related to disability discrimination. “An important part of [OCR’s] mission is to ensure that students are not denied equal educational opportunity or subjected to discrimination based on their disabilities, including through the improper use of discipline,” Sec. Lhamon wrote.

Behavior support is part of FAPE

The right to appropriate behavioral supports is part of a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which requires services and supports designed to meet identified needs so students with disabilities can access what non-disabled students access without individualized services.

OCR’s guidance includes information about what schools must provide to serve FAPE, including the responsibility to offer regular and/or special education, and related aids and services, that “are designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met.”

Qualified personnel are required for FAPE: “Schools must take steps to ensure that any staff responsible for providing a student with the services necessary to receive FAPE understand the student’s needs and have the training and skills required to implement the services. A school’s failure to provide the requisite services is likely to result in a denial of FAPE.”

FAPE violations under Section 504 relate to fundamental disability rights. Denial of those rights is considered disability discrimination, which OCR defines as “excluding, denying benefits to, or otherwise discriminating against a student based on their disability, including by denying them equal educational opportunity in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

Federal framework for student rights

Families can empower themselves to understand these rights and resources and advocate for their students by learning the federal framework for school-based services:

  • Students who receive accommodations and supports through a Section 504 Plan have anti-discrimination protections from the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • Students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) have Section 504 protections and specific rights and protections from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  • Section 504 protects all students with disabilities within the public school system, including those with Section 504 Plans, those with IEPs, and those with known or suspected disability conditions that make schools responsible to evaluate them. The right to a non-discriminatory evaluation is protected by Section 504 and by IDEA’s Child Find Mandate.
  • Section 504 applies to elementary and secondary public schools (including public charter schools and state-operated schools), public school districts, State Educational Agencies (OSPI is the SEA for WA State), and private schools and juvenile justice residential facilities that receive federal money directly or indirectly from the Department of Education. Private schools that do not receive federal funding are not bound by IDEA.
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. According to its July 2022 guidance, OCR can investigate complex complaints: “OCR is responsible for enforcing several laws that prohibit schools from discriminating based on disability; race, color, or national origin; sex; and age. A student may experience multiple forms of discrimination at once. In addition, a student may experience discrimination due to the combination of protected characteristics, a form of discrimination often called intersectional discrimination. Some instances of intersectional discrimination may stem from a decisionmaker acting upon stereotypes that are specific to a subgroup of individuals, such as stereotypes specific to Black girls that may not necessarily apply to all Black students or all girls. When OCR receives a complaint alleging discrimination in the use of discipline under more than one law, OCR has the authority to investigate and, where appropriate, find a violation under any law in its jurisdiction.” [emphasis added]
  • Contact the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at OCR@ed.gov or by calling 800-421-3481 (TDD: 800-877- 8339).

What is exclusionary discipline?

Any school disciplinary action that takes a student away from their regularly scheduled placement at school is called exclusionary discipline. Out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and in-school suspensions count. Shortened school days and informal removals—like when the school calls parents to have a child taken home for their behavior—are forms of exclusionary discipline unless there is a school-and-family meeting in which an alternate placement or schedule is chosen to best meet the needs of the student. 

If such a meeting does take place, the school and family team are responsible to make decisions about program and placement that are individualized. Schools may not unilaterally decide, for example, that all students with certain behavioral characteristics should attend a specific school or program. According to OCR, “A school district would violate Section 504 if it had a one-size-fits-all policy that required students with a particular disability to attend a separate class, program, or school regardless of educational needs.”

Seclusion and restraint may not be used as punishment

Seclusion (also called isolation) and/or restraint are emergency responses when there is severe and imminent danger. Federal guidance emphasizes that these practices may never be used as punishment or discipline:

“OSEP is not aware of any evidence-based support for the view that the use of restraint or seclusion is an effective strategy in modifying a child’s behaviors that are related to their disability. The Department’s longstanding position is that every effort should be made to prevent the need for the use of restraint or seclusion and that behavioral interventions must be consistent with the child’s rights to be treated with dignity and to be free from abuse.”

More information about isolation and restraint is included later in this article.

Exclusionary discipline may violate FAPE, including for students not yet receiving services

A student with an identified disability may be suspended for a behavioral violation that is outlined in district policy. The student “code of conduct” usually explains what it takes to get into trouble.

Schools are limited in their ability to exclude students from school because of behaviors that “manifest” (arise or express) from disability. Federal and state guidance is for schools to suspend students only if there are significant safety concerns.

If a student with disabilities has unmet needs and is consistently sent home instead of helped, the school may be held accountable for not serving the needs. According to OCR, disability discrimination can include instances when there is reasonable suspicion that a disability condition is impacting behavior, but the student is not properly evaluated to see if they are eligible for services and what services they may need.

The right to evaluation is protected by Child Find, which is an aspect of the IDEA, as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. OCR guidance includes information that schools may need to train or hire experts to meet federal requirements: “To ensure effective implementation of its evaluation procedures, a school may need to provide training to school personnel on when a student’s behaviors, or other factors, indicate the need for an evaluation under Section 504.”

A student with a disability that impacts their learning is entitled to FAPE. Again, FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE is protected by Section 504 and by IDEA. FAPE is what a student with disabilities is entitled to receive and what schools are responsible to provide.

OCR provides these places to look for data demonstrating a need to evaluate and determine whether a student is entitled to the rights and protections of FAPE:  

  • Information or records shared during enrollment
  • Student behaviors that may harm the student or another person
  • Observations and data collected by school personnel
  • Information voluntarily provided by the student’s parents or guardians
  • The school’s own disciplinary or other actions indicating that school personnel have concerns about the student’s behavior, such as frequent office referrals, demerits, notes to parents or guardians, or use of restraints or seclusion
  • Information that a previous response to student behavior by school personnel resulted in repeated or extended removals from educational instruction or services, or that a previous response (such as a teacher’s use of restraints or seclusion) traumatized a student and resulted in academic or behavioral difficulties

Schools are required to take assertive action to evaluate a student and/or reconsider the services plan if the student is consistently missing school because of their behavior. OCR guidance clearly states that schools cannot use resource shortages as a reason to deny or delay an evaluation:

“OCR would likely find it unreasonable for a district to delay a student’s evaluation because it does not have sufficient personnel trained to perform the needed assessments and fails to secure private evaluators to meet the need. In addition, the fact that a student is doing well academically does not justify the school denying or delaying an evaluation when the district has reason to believe the student has a disability, including if the student has disability-based behavior resulting in removal from class or other discipline (e.g., afterschool detentions).”

Parents can request an evaluation any time

OCR’s guidance states that parents can request an evaluation at public expense any time. “Section 504 does not limit the number of evaluations a student may reasonably request or receive. The student’s parent or guardian is entitled to notice of the school’s decision and may challenge a denial of their request under Section 504’s procedural safeguards.”

Despite a parent’s right to request an evaluation, the school is responsible to evaluate a child if there is reason to believe a disability is disrupting education: “While parents or guardians may request an evaluation, and schools must respond to any such requests, the responsibility to timely identify students who may need an evaluation remains with the school.”

Procedural Safeguards include detail about the evaluation process and the right to an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) if the district’s evaluation is incomplete or if parents disagree with its conclusions or recommendations.

Manifestation Determination

Schools are required to document missed educational time and meet with family to review the student’s circumstances. These requirements are related to the provision of FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) for students with disabilities. If the time a student with disabilities is removed from their academic placement for discipline adds up to 10 days, the school is required to host a specific meeting called a Manifestation Determination.

OCR guidance states that discussion about what happened and what to do next must be made by a team of people knowledgeable about the student’s needs and disability: “If a single person, such as a principal who is in charge of the school’s general disciplinary process for all students, alone determined whether a student’s behavior was based on the student’s disability, such a unilateral decision would not comply with Section 504.”

The Manifestation Determination requirement includes informal or “off book” removals from school. For example, if the school calls and directs parents to take a child home because of behavior, that missed educational time counts toward the 10 days. Parents can request paperwork to document the missed time to ensure compliance with this requirement. OCR guidance includes this statement:

“OCR is aware that some schools informally exclude students, or impose unreasonable conditions or limitations on a student’s continued school participation, as a result of a student’s disability-based behaviors in many ways, such as:

  • Requiring a parent or guardian not to send their child to, or to pick up their child early from, school or a school-sponsored activity, such as a field trip;
  • Placing a student on a shortened school-day schedule without first convening the Section 504 team to determine whether such a schedule is necessary to meet the student’s disability-specific needs;
  • Requiring a student to participate in a virtual learning program when other students are receiving in-person instruction;
  • Excluding a student from accessing a virtual learning platform that all other students are using for their instruction;
  • Informing a parent or guardian that the school will formally suspend or expel the student, or refer the student to law enforcement, if the parent or guardian does not: pick up the student from school; agree to transfer the student to another school, which may be an alternative school or part of a residential treatment program; agree to a shortened school day schedule; or agree to the use of restraint or seclusion; and
  • Informing a parent or guardian that the student may not attend school for a specific period of time or indefinitely due to their disability-based behavior unless the parent or guardian is present in the classroom or otherwise helps manage the behavior (e.g., through administering medication to the child).

“Depending on the facts and circumstances, OCR could find that one or more of these practices violate Section 504.”

Under Section 504, schools are bound to consider disability-related factors through Manifestation Determination if the disciplinary removal is for more than 10 consecutive school days or when the child is sub­jected to a series of removals that constitute a pattern. For state-specific information, OSPI provides a guidance form for Section 504 circumstances.

For a student with an IEP, removal from regularly scheduled classes for more than 10 days per school year constitutes a “change of placement” and a Manifestation Determination meeting is held to determine whether the disciplinary removals resulted from the school’s failure to implement the IEP. OSPI provides a guidance form for IEP circumstances.

Note that Manifestation Determination is a distinct process for students with known or suspected disabilities and is separate from general education disciplinary hearings or procedures. Under federal requirements (IDEA Sec. 300.530 (e)), the behavior must be determined to manifest from disability if the IEP Team determine that the behavior was:

  1. Caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to, the student’s disability
  2. The direct result of the school’s failure to implement the IEP, including situations where the child did not consistently receive all services required by their IEP

A behavior support plan is best practice

During a Manifestation Determination meeting, a student’s circumstances and services are reviewed. An IEP can be amended to provide additional support and a Functional Behavioral Assessment is planned to gather information for a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). If the student has a BIP that isn’t working, the plan can be changed. See PAVE’s video: Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.

For students without IEP services, a Manifestation Determination meeting can initiate or expedite an educational evaluation in addition to an FBA. If the school district knew or should have known that the student needed special education services and did not initiate an evaluation, Child Find violations may apply.

Family members are included in this process. According to WAC 392-172A-05146, “If the school district, the parent, and relevant members of the student’s IEP team determine the conduct was a manifestation of the student’s disability, the school district must take immediate steps to remedy those deficiencies.”

If the conduct is determined to be unrelated to disability, then school personnel may use general education discipline procedures. The school must still provide any special education services that the student has already been found to need. The IEP team decides the appropriate alternative setting and special education services to meet the student’s needs while suspended.

A shortened school day may be a suspension

If the school reduces a student’s schedule because of difficult-to-manage behaviors, the change could be considered a suspension and the missed educational time could count toward a Manifestation Determination process. OSPI provides this information in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP #2):

“A decision to shorten a student’s school day in response to a behavioral violation would constitute a suspension under general state discipline regulations (WAC 392-400-025).

“District authorities should not use a shortened school day as an automatic response to students with challenging behaviors at school or use a shortened day as a form of punishment or as a substitute for a BIP [Behavior Intervention Plan]. An IEP team should consider developing an IEP that includes a BIP describing the use of positive behavioral interventions, supports, and strategies reasonably calculated to address the student’s behavioral needs and enable the student to participate in the full school day.”

OSEP’s federal guidance explains that a shortened school day is a disciplinary removal unless the IEP team has explored all options to serve the student with a full day and agreed that a shortened day is the only adequate option so the student can benefit from their Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE):

“[The] practice of shortening a child’s school day as a disciplinary measure could be considered a denial of FAPE if the child’s IEP Team does not also consider other options such as additional or different services and supports that could enable a child to remain in school for the full school day.”

OCR’s guidance points out that a shortened school day is an example of a significant change of placement, and that placement changes require a re-evaluation process: “Section 504 requires reevaluations on a periodic basis, in addition to a subsequent evaluation before any significant change in placement.”

A school’s decision to keep a student out of school is separate from a student or family decision for the student to stay home to care for their mental health. In 2022, the Washington Legislature passed HB 1834, which establishes a student absence from school for mental health reasons as an excused absence.

Alternative learning options for longer suspensions

If a student’s behavioral violation includes weapons or illegal substances, or causes severe injury, the school can remove the student from their placement for longer than 10 days, regardless of their disability. Those situations are referred to as “Special Circumstances.”

Some Section 504 protections do not apply when a school disciplines a student with a disability because of current drug or alcohol use. According to OCR, “Schools may discipline a student with a disability who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs or the use of alcohol to the same extent that the school disciplines students without disabilities for this conduct.”

OCR goes on to say that Section 504 protections apply to students who:

  1. Successfully complete a supervised drug rehabilitation program or are otherwise rehabilitated successfully and no longer engaging in the illegal use of drugs
  2. Are participating in a supervised rehabilitation program and are no longer using
  3. Were erroneously [incorrectly] regarded as engaging in substance use

Under Special Circumstances, a student might shift into an Interim Alternative Educational Setting (IAES) for up to 45 school days, regardless of whether the violation was caused by disability related behaviors. The following information from federal law uses a couple of acronyms not previously defined in this article:

  • SEA is a State Educational Agency (OSPI is the SEA for Washington State)
  • LEA is a Lead Educational Agency, which in our state refers to a school district

Under federal law (34 C.F.R. § 300.530(g)):

School personnel may consider removing a child with a disability from their current placement and placing them in an IAES for not more than 45 school days without regard to whether the behavior is determined to be a manifestation of the child’s disability if the child:

  1. Carries a weapon to or possesses a weapon at school, on school premises, or to or at a school function under the jurisdiction of an SEA or an LEA
  2. Knowingly possesses or uses illegal drugs or sells or solicits the sale of a controlled substance, while at school, on school premises, or at a school function under the jurisdiction of an SEA or an LEA
  3. Has inflicted serious bodily injury upon another person while at school, on school premises, or at a school function under the jurisdiction of an SEA or an LEA

The temporary setting (IAES) is chosen by the IEP team and must support the student’s ongoing participation in the general education curriculum as well as progress toward IEP goals. As appropriate, the student’s behavior is assessed through the Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA—see below) while they are learning in the alternate setting, so a behavior plan is in place to prevent future problems when the student returns to their regular schedule and classes.

If the school pursues a threat/risk assessment, they are required to safeguard a student’s right to be treated in non-discriminatory ways. According to OCR, “Schools can do so by ensuring that school personnel who are involved in screening for and conducting threat or risk assessments for a student with a disability are aware that the student has a disability and are sufficiently knowledgeable about the school’s FAPE responsibilities so that they can coordinate with the student’s Section 504 [or IEP] team….

“For example, the Section 504 [or IEP] team can provide valuable information about: the nature of the student’s disability-based behaviors and common triggers; whether the student has been receiving behavioral supports, and, if so, the effectiveness of those supports; and specific supports and services that may be able to mitigate or eliminate the risk of harm without requiring exclusion from school.”

Schools are required to support behavior and work with families

Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their impairments. According to OCR, “Individualized behavioral supports may include, among other examples: regular group or individual counseling sessions, school social worker services, school-based mental health services, physical activity, and opportunities for the student to leave class on a scheduled or unscheduled basis to visit a counselor or behavioral coach when they need time and space to ‘cool down’ or self-regulate.”

Regardless of whether the student has previously qualified for services, best practice is for the school to conduct a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) following a significant disciplinary action. The FBA is used to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which helps a child learn expected behaviors and prevent escalations. The BIP identifies target behaviors that disrupt learning and calls out “antecedents,” conditions or events that occur first—before the targeted behavior. A BIP supports “replacement” behavior so a student can develop skills for expected learning behaviors.  

Schools are guided by the state to use best practices when evaluating and serving students with special needs. OSPI’s website is k12.wa.us. A page called Model Forms for Services to Students in Special Education has links to downloadable forms schools use to develop IEPs, Section 504 Plans, and more.

Here are links to OSPI’s model forms for:

When a student’s behaviors aren’t working, there’s an opportunity for learning

In addition to a BIP, a student receiving special education services whose behavior impedes their learning may need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) to support skill-development in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL). If targeted SEL instruction is needed, the student will have specific IEP goals to support the learning.

Another way that an IEP can support students with behavioral disabilities is through related services. Counseling and other behavioral health supports can be written into an IEP as related services. When included in a student’s IEP as educationally necessary for FAPE, a school district is responsible to provide and fund those services. If they participate in the state’s School-Based Health Services (SBHS) program, school districts can receive reimbursement for 70 percent of the cost of behavioral health services for students who are covered by Medicaid and on an IEP.

All students access behavioral supports when schools use Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). Families can ask school staff to describe their MTSS structure and how students receive support through Tier 1 (all students), Tier 2 (targeted groups), and Tier 3 (individualized support). An element of MTSS is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which also supports students across levels of need.

Keep in mind that participation in MTSS does not replace a school’s responsibility to evaluate a student with a known or suspected disability that is impacting their access to education.

PAVE provides resources to support families and schools:

Washington is a local control state

As a local control state, individual school districts determine their specific policies related to disciplinary criteria and actions. According to OSPI, school districts are required to engage with community members and families when updating their discipline policies, which must align with state and federal regulations.

When a student is suspended, the school is required to submit a report to the family and the state. That report must include an explanation of how school staff attempted to de-escalate a situation before resorting to disciplinary removal. OSPI provides information for schools and families related to state guidance and requirements. A one-page introductory handout for parents is a place to begin.

In general, Washington rules:

  • Encourage schools to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions and focus instead on evidence-based, best-practice educational strategies
  • Prohibit schools from excluding students due to absences or tardiness
  • Require schools to excuse absences related to mental health (HB 1834)
  • Limit use of exclusionary discipline for behaviors that do not present a safety threat
  • Prohibit expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range cannot be excluded from their classroom placements/suspended for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)
  • Require schools to provide educational access while a student is suspended or expelled

Schools must provide educational services during a suspension

State law requires that all suspended and expelled students have an opportunity to receive educational services (RCW 28A.600.015). According to the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-400-610) educational services provided in an alternative setting must enable the student to:

  • Continue to participate in the general education curriculum
  • Meet the educational standards established within the district
  • Complete subject, grade-level, and graduation requirements

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

The state has specific rules related to the use of isolation (sometimes called seclusion) and restraint, which are implemented only when a student’s behavior poses an imminent likelihood of serious bodily harm and are discontinued when the likelihood of serious harm has passed. Isolation and restraint are not used as a form of standard discipline or aversive intervention.

In simpler words, isolation and restraint are an emergency action for safety and cannot be used to punish a student. The isolation or restraint ends the moment the safety threat has passed, not after everything is all better.

The Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) offers an online resource page that details state guidance related to isolation and restraint. Included is this statement:

“Schools in Washington State are not allowed to use restraint or isolation as a form of discipline or punishment, or as a way to try to correct a child’s behavior. Restraint and isolation are only allowed as emergency measures, to be used if necessary, to keep a student or others safe from serious harm. They can continue only as long as the emergency continues.”

School districts are required to collect and report data on the use of restraint and isolation. That data is posted on OSPI’s website as part of the School Safety Resource Library. 

Emergency Response Protocol (ERP)

If emergency responses and/or severe disciplinary actions become frequent, schools might ask the parent/guardian to sign an Emergency Response Protocol (ERP) for an individual student. Families are not required to sign this.

The ERP explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff authorized to conduct isolation and restraint. Parents can request a copy of the district’s general education policies on this topic. The ERP can include a statement about how parents are contacted if the school uses isolation or restraint.

Reporting requirements for disciplinary removal

Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian and to the state any time disciplinary or emergency actions are taken.

The Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-400-455) describes what is required in a notice to students and parents when a student is suspended or expelled from school:

  • Initial notice. Before administering any suspension or expulsion, a school district must attempt to notify the student’s parents, as soon as reasonably possible, regarding the behavioral violation.
  • Written notice. No later than one school business day following the initial hearing with the student in WAC 392-400-450, a school district must provide written notice of the suspension or expulsion to the student and parents in person, by mail, or by email. The written notice must include:
    • A description of the student’s behavior and how the behavior violated the school district’s policy adopted under WAC 392-400-110;
    • The duration and conditions of the suspension or expulsion, including the dates on which the suspension or expulsion will begin and end;
    • The other forms of discipline that the school district considered or attempted, and an explanation of the district’s decision to administer the suspension or expulsion;
    • The opportunity to receive educational services during the suspension or expulsion under WAC 392-400-610;
    • The student’s and parents’ right to an informal conference with the principal or designee under WAC 392-400-460;
    • The student’s and parents’ right to appeal the suspension or expulsion under WAC 392-400-465, including where and to whom the appeal must be requested;
    • For a long-term suspension or expulsion, the opportunity for the student and parents to participate in a reengagement meeting under WAC 392-400-710
  • Language assistance. The school district must ensure the initial and written notices required under this section are provided in a language the student and parents understand, which may require language assistance for students and parents with limited-English proficiency under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Reporting requirements for isolation/restraint

The state has similar reporting requirements when a student is isolated or restrained at school. Following are statements from the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.600.485):

“Any school employee, resource officer, or school security officer who uses isolation or restraint on a student during school-sponsored instruction or activities must inform the building administrator or building administrator’s designee as soon as possible, and within two business days submit a written report of the incident to the district office. The written report must include, at a minimum, the following information:

  • The date and time of the incident
  • The name and job title of the individual who administered the restraint or isolation
  • A description of the activity that led to the restraint or isolation
  • The type of restraint or isolation used on the student, including the duration
  • Whether the student or staff was physically injured during the restraint or isolation incident and any medical care provided
  • Any recommendations for changing the nature or amount of resources available to the student and staff members in order to avoid similar incidents”

The RCW also states that school staff “must make a reasonable effort to verbally inform the student’s parent or guardian within 24 hours of the incident and must send written notification as soon as practical but postmarked no later than five business days after the restraint or isolation occurred. If the school or school district customarily provides the parent or guardian with school-related information in a language other than English, the written report under this section must be provided to the parent or guardian in that language.”

Equity work in student discipline is ongoing

A graph that shows disparity in discipline is provided on OSPI’s website, which includes training and materials for schools to support improvements. “Like other states, Washington has experienced significant and persistent disparities in the discipline of students based upon race/ethnicity, disability status, language, sex and other factors,” OSPI’s website states.

“While overall rates of exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion) have declined over the last decade, significant disparities persist. These trends warrant serious attention from school districts, as well as OSPI, to work toward equitable opportunities and outcomes for each and every student.”

Disability Teaches Us: Meaningful Inclusion Series

Families have an opportunity to learn about how children with disabilities can be included meaningfully and successfully in classrooms with their non-disabled peers. A three-part webinar series called “Disability Teaches Us: Meaningful Inclusion,” and additional training materials and resources are available on the Family Engagement Collaborative Website.

This website is part of the Inclusionary Practices Project (IPP), funded by Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The Family Engagement Collaborative is comprised of PAVE, Open Doors for Multicultural Families, Roots of Inclusion, and Education Northwest.

In March and April of 2022, PAVE worked with The Office of the Education Ombuds and Inclusion for All to introduce the work of Dr. Priya Lalvani as part of the Disability Teaches Us Series and the OSPI Inclusionary Practices Project. Dr. Priya Lalvani is Professor of Disability Studies at Montclair State University and is editor of Constructing the (M) other: Narratives of Disability, Motherhood, and the Politics of Normal. Dr. Lalvani co-authored Undoing Ableism: Teaching about Disability in K-12 Classrooms.

According to Dr. Lalvani, inclusive education is more than placing students with disabilities into general education settings. It is “the philosophy and practice of educating diverse students in classrooms which are heterogenous in terms of ethnicity, class, culture, gender identity, (dis)ability and other identity markers, using strategies that are responsive to each student’s strengths and needs.”

Learn more about the theory of inclusive education and the work of Dr. Lalvani by watching the Disability Teaches Us series, available through the Family Engagement Collaborative website, fecinclusion.org. You can also access additional training and resources to support inclusive education practices.

These resources can help everyone understand that inclusion means more than just providing a seat in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE is an aspect of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires delivery of educational services to students with disabilities in general education to the maximum extent appropriate to meet their individual needs. For more information about LRE and state and federal requirements, read PAVE’s article, Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

Families can seek individualized assistance by clicking Get Help from PAVE’s website, wapave.org.

Navigating Special Education in Private School

A Brief Overview

  • When a family chooses to enroll their student with disabilities in a private school, they have different rights. Those rights are summarized in this article and further explained by U.S. Department of Education guidance issued in February 2022.
  • School districts are responsible to seek out and evaluate all students suspected of having disabilities impacting their education, including those who are home schooled or placed in private schools by their parents. That right is mandated by Child Find.
  • Public schools are responsible to re-evaluate students eligible for services at least every 3 years and to include them in their “child count,” regardless of where they attend school and whether they receive any services.
  • Upon recommendation by an IEP team, a school might place a student with specific needs into a private school in order to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Private placement based on an IEP team process is different, and this article is not about those placements.

Full Article

When a family chooses to enroll their student with disabilities in a private school, they have different rights. The vocabulary is also different. Here are some key terms:

  • Equitable Services: Special education services provided to privately enrolled students. Equitable services are the responsibility of the public district where the student’s private school is located.
  • Services Plan: The arrangement agreed upon by the private school, the public school, and the family. A Services Plan can include services at the private school, a public school, or somewhere else; transportation necessary to access services is generally the responsibility of the public district. 
  • Consultation: Federal law requires public school district staff to meet consistently with private school providers and parents/stakeholders in the community to discuss which services to prioritize for children with disabilities placed by their families into private schools in the area.
  • Proportionate Share: Federal law requires public school districts to set aside funds to serve students with disabilities enrolled by their parents in private schools. The amount of the set-aside funds is determined through a calculation called “proportionate share.” Families/stakeholders can ask for specific details about the local requirements for proportionate share by attending a consultation (see above definition).

Evaluation rights are upheld

Like all children in the United States, students placed in private schools are protected in their right to be evaluated if there is reason to believe a disability condition might impact how they learn and participate in school.

That protection is mandated by Child Find, which is part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A comprehensive evaluation determines whether a student is eligible for special education services because of a disability that impacts the student’s access to education to the extent that Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is needed.

A parent has the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at public district expense if they disagree with an evaluation conducted by the public district.

Private school students have an Equitable Services plan, not an IEP

If their parents choose to enroll them in private school, a student eligible for services under IDEA is not served through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). They instead are served through a plan for Equitable Services.

What those services provide depends on what the student needs, resources available, and priorities identified within the local community. They might include special education services in a specific area of learning and/or related services provided by a professional, such as an occupational, physical, or speech-language therapist.

What rights to parents have?

Federal law protects parents in their right to participate in the development of an Equitable Services plan. According to federal guidance (question E-3), “Given the emphasis on parent involvement in IDEA, the Department believes that parents should have the opportunity to participate in meetings to review and develop the services plan for their child.”

Parents have the right to file complaints if they disagree with the way services are provided. In Washington State, that process is called filing a Community Complaint. Other dispute resolution options are somewhat limited. For example, the right to file Due Process is limited to complaints related to Child Find. Mediation is offered only for complaints related to Child Find or a Community Complaint, and a family cannot demand compensatory services if a district has run out of proportionate share funds. Compensatory services are additional services provided when a student was available to receive services as written by a program or plan; however, the school failed to provide them.

Where services are provided depends on a range of circumstances. The U.S. Department of Education advises public school districts to serve students at their private schools. Here is language from the February 2022 guidance (Section F):

“The Department generally believes that, unless there is a compelling rationale for these services to be provided off-site, [Lead Education Agencies/public school districts] should provide services on-site, at the child’s private school, to not unduly disrupt the child’s educational experience.”

It’s possible that students with disabilities in private schools may not receive any special education services. One reason might be that their family doesn’t want them. In those situations, the local public district is still responsible to keep track of that student and include them in their records—called a “child count.” The district is also responsible to re-evaluate those students for eligibility at least every 3 years.

Not all needs must be met through Equitable Services

The public school district or “lead education agency/LEA” responsible for services to privately enrolled students is the LEA where the private school is located, not necessarily the district where the student lives. This includes situations where a student goes to school in another county, state, or even country (a Canadian student attending a U.S. private school, for example, may access Equitable Services).

The local district is not responsible to provide services that cost more than the funds they have available through their “proportionate share” formula. Another reason certain services are not provided may be that stakeholders in the community decide to prioritize certain services over others during their “consultation” process. For example, a consultation may result in a district choosing to fund speech/language services but not occupational therapy.

In summary, there is not a guarantee of equitable access to all aspects of school and learning within a voluntary private school placement.

Keep in mind that the word “equity” does not mean equal. In general, equity is provided when a person who needs assistance gets the help they need to access an opportunity that people who don’t have disabilities can access without that assistance. In the case of Equitable Services, the term suggests equity but does not guarantee equity.

Parentally placed private school students do not have IEPs or receive FAPE

Equity is guaranteed for public school students with disabilities who are eligible for IEPs. The public-school student’s IEP is designed to support their access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Equity and help that enables appropriate access to school are part of FAPE. So is an individualized education designed to enable progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

Private school students are not entitled to FAPE or its specific entitlements and protections.

What if a child attends a private school as part of their IEP placement?

This article is about IDEA protections for students who are placed in private schools by their parents/caregivers because of a family preference. Under different circumstances, a student might go to a private school because their IEP team decides they need to be there in order to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Those students retain all of the rights of a public education student under special education law.

Reminder: A student placed in private school by their parents does not have an IEP and is not entitled to FAPE.

All students with disabilities have the right to accommodations

Private schools are required to provide accommodations to children who qualify for them under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Examples might include a ramp for a child in a wheelchair, Braille texts or audible books, additional time or an alternative space for testing. Each school has a staff member assigned to support compliance with these federal requirements.

PAVE provides on demand video trainings: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

Supporting literacy: Text-to-Speech and IEP goal setting for students with learning disabilities

A child who struggles to read can quickly fall behind in school. Nearly every academic area includes some reading, and children might become confused or frustrated when they don’t get help to make sense of their schoolwork. Behavior challenges can result, and sometimes schools and parents struggle to understand why the student is having a hard time.

This video provides information about two primary ways that schools can support students with learning disabilities that impact literacy:

  • Text-to-Speech (technology that provides audio-visual communication)
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)

Student learning accelerates when both strategies work together, and this video provides tips for making that happen.

Washington passed a law in 2018 requiring schools to screen young children for the indicators of weaknesses associated with dyslexia and support literacy across all grades. The law took effect in the 2021-22 school year. PAVE provides an article with more information: Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources.

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

ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE

A Brief Overview

  • Extended School Year (ESY) services help a student with a disability maintain skills in academic and/or functional areas, such as speech/language, occupational therapy, or behavior.
  • Due to COVID-19, the school and family may also discuss Recovery Services when they discuss ESY. A student may be eligible for Recovery Services if they have experienced learning gaps related to the pandemic. Read on for information about differences between ESY and Recovery Services.
  • The Individualized Education Program (IEP) team determines whether a student needs ESY and/or Recovery Services. Family members participate in the decision. PAVE provides an article: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.
  • Services may be provided when school is not normally in session, but not always. Sometimes they are built into the school day. Typically, they are provided during summer. Holiday breaks and after school are options too.
  • Parents can keep notes about any loss of skill during a break from school. By tracking how long it takes to recover a skill, parents can provide data for a discussion about whether additional services are necessary.
  • ESY and Recovery Services are different, and one does not exclude the other. Both are provided at no cost to the family.

Full Article

With summer coming, some parents worry that a child’s progress at school might be erased by the break. Some families may also worry that their child is on the verge of acquiring a new skill and that progress will be disrupted by an extended break. Parents can request a meeting with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to review progress and address the concerns. PAVE provides an article with a sample letter to help families request a meeting that isn’t part of the required annual IEP review process.

The team uses existing data and can plan additional evaluations to decide whether the student needs extra instructional time. The student might need supplemental instruction in an academic subject or to maintain a skill in speech/language, occupational therapy, behavior or another area being served through the IEP.

The critical question for the IEP team: Will learning be significantly jeopardized if additional services are not provided?

Extended School Year (ESY) is available for students in special education if there is evidence that without extra instruction they will fall significantly behind in specific skills. Falling behind is formally called regression.

Recovery of skills is called recoupment. A school will provide ESY if regression or likelihood of regression is significant and extra instructional time is needed for recoupment of skills. ESY services help a child maintain skills already being taught and are not provided to teach new skills.

ESY is not the same as summer school

Families often think of ESY as a summer program, but it’s not the same as summer school. A summer-school program might be structured to accommodate a student’s individualized ESY program. ESY and Recovery Services are individualized to serve the needs of a student eligible for special education. The program is structured to fit the student, not the other way around. See PAVE’s video about a student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): FAPE Fits Like a Proper Outfit.

ESY is usually provided when school is not normally in session, but not always. The IEP team may decide that the services will be most helpful if built into the school day. ESY also can be provided during holiday breaks or as an extension of the typical school day.

Conversations about ESY can happen any time the IEP team meets to discuss progress and goal-setting. If ESY is determined necessary, the IEP document includes an amendment with specific ESY objectives. When an IEP team determines a child eligible for ESY, the school district alerts parents in a Prior Written Notice (PWN) before implementing ESY. If transportation is needed for delivery of ESY services, the district provides transportation.

ESY is not an enrichment program. It is not provided for credit recovery. It is also not a “compensatory service,” which is provided by the district when a student’s services have not met requirements for a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

ESY services might include 1:1 instruction at home, at school or at a district office. A student could also receive ESY as part of “related services” at a provider’s office. (Occupational and speech therapy are examples of related services.) Computer- and home-based learning are additional ESY options. Like all IEP programming, ESY is individualized. Service delivery is designed by the IEP team, and sometimes creative problem-solving is needed.

If the IEP includes ESY services and the family moves during the summer, the new school district is responsible to provide the services as they are designed in the IEP or in a comparable way.

The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) includes information about ESY in sections 392-172A-02020.

How are decisions made about ESY and Recovery Services?

The IEP team decides whether a student requires ESY and/or Recovery Services by meeting to review the student’s program goals and progress. PAVE has an article about goal-tracking. Parents or teachers may have notes about any loss of skill during a past break from school.

By making notes about how long it takes to recover a skill after a break, parents can contribute important data. Sharing that information earlier in the school year is ideal, so there is ample time for a review of data and any additional testing. Attendance information also is helpful because some disabilities create illness conditions that keep a child out of school long enough to fall significantly behind.

The school and family discuss whether the lost skills and extra time required to regain them is likely to create a significant barrier to progress toward IEP goals and learning in the future. This will justify whether recoupment is required to reverse or prevent regression. Those are the key words in ESY decision-making.

The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) has an article about ESY and lists the following as evidence that a school might consider:

  • Documented problems with working memory from assessments
  • Demonstrated need for constant reinforcement over time, even during the regular instructional day/year
  • History from a previous year of losing skills and struggling to regain them after a school break
  • Need for constant reinforcement of a behavior support program when a student is at risk of being moved to a more restrictive environment without substantial progress around behavior

How are Recovery Services different?

The term “Recovery Services” was designated by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to describe additional special education services for students who lost progress or failed to make appropriate gains in learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like ESY, Recovery Services are designed to meet the needs of individual students and are provided based on an IEP team decision. A difference is that Recovery Services do not follow the same process related to regression and recoupment. The IEP team, which includes family participants, discusses how the pandemic affected the student’s access to learning and opportunities and whether extra services are necessary to get the student back on track.

Here is how Recovery Services are determined through an IEP team discussion:

  • What did the IEP team hope the student would accomplish by now? (Expected progress, skills, and services if there had been no pandemic)
  • What did the student accomplish or access? (Actual progress or regression and services delivered)
  • What is the gap, and how can the team design Recovery Services to fill that gap?

In summary, the goal is to help the student get to where they likely would have been in their learning if there hadn’t been a pandemic.  

State and federal dollars have been allotted to support student recovery, including through the American Rescue Plan. School districts are required to submit a formal plan before accessing these federal funds. Districts have been required to seek public comment and to share their plans publicly. Information about these requirements is described in a publication from OSPI: Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan: Planning Guide 2021 For School Districts, Tribal Compact Schools, and Charter Schools.

OSPI’s guidance provides detail about state requirements for districts to consider social emotional learning, student well-being, and equity issues related to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on different populations—not just academic recovery.

TIP: Families impacted by trauma, death, or other challenges during the pandemic can review their district’s Recovery Plan and consider whether their student’s needs are being met. If there are concerns, meet with school and district staff to request a more individualized, equitable approach. Needs related to specific losses and trauma can be discussed in the context of an IEP Recovery Services Plan.

For more information and guidance about accessing materials in a language other than English, visit OSPI’s website: Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance & Resources.

What does LRE have to do with these additional services?

Special Education has Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) as a primary feature. In accordance with the IDEA, a school district is responsible to provide instruction in the least restrictive setting to the maximum extent appropriate.

Accommodations and supports are provided to allow for LRE. Therefore, LRE is part of the school’s obligation to FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). For some students, routine is paramount. Parents and teachers can discuss whether a break in routine might jeopardize the student’s ability to remain in their current classroom/placement. If yes, then ESY or Recovery Services might be needed for the student to continue accessing school in the Least Restrictive Environment.

What can parents do if they disagree with the school?

Parents who disagree with school decisions have the right to dispute those decisions. PAVE has an article about Procedural Safeguards and options when families and schools disagree. PAVE also provides a video about how to file a Community Complaint, which is one dispute resolution option.

Which students might be eligible for ESY?

ESY is not mandated for all students with disabilities and is not required for the convenience of the school or a parent who might need respite or daycare. There are no federal regulations on ESY eligibility. DREDF, a parent-information center in Berkeley, Calif., lists standards established by a range of legal rulings:  

  • Regression/Recoupment: Likelihood of regression or anticipating that it will take a long time to get a skill back can make a child eligible for ESY. A student doesn’t have to fully lose a skill or experience a long delay in recovering the skill to qualify.
  • Degree of Progress toward IEP Goals: Very slow progress toward IEP goals can meet criteria for ESY. Trivial progress toward goals does not meet the standard of FAPE, as established by a 2017 supreme court ruling.
  • Nature and/or Severity of Disability: Determination is not limited to a specific category of disability. However, students with more severe disabilities are more likely to be involved in ESY programs because their regression and recoupment time are likely to be greater than students with less severe disabilities.
  • Emerging Skills/Breakthrough Opportunities: If a critical life skill is not completely mastered or acquired, ESY services may ensure that the current level of skill is not lost over a break. A few examples of critical life skills: beginning to communicate, learning to read or write, self-care. 
  • Interfering Behaviors: Some students receive positive behavior support as part of the IEP. When considering ESY, the IEP team would determine whether interruption of such programming would jeopardize the student receiving FAPE.
  • Special Circumstances: Sometimes there are special circumstances that prevent a student from learning within the regular school schedule. Districts have different definitions of what constitutes a special circumstance. Parents can ask for a copy of district policy and refer to WAC 392-172A-02020.

No sole factor determines whether a student qualifies for ESY or Recovery Services. IEP teams review a variety of data, including informed predictions about what is likely to happen in future based on past experiences. A student who has received ESY in a previous year is not automatically entitled to those services again, and a student who wasn’t eligible in the past is not automatically denied.

Summary and Additional Resources

Some students require special education and related services longer than the regular school year in order to receive FAPE. ESY can minimize regression, so a child can catch up or recoup those skills. Parents who have concerns can discuss eligibility criteria with the IEP team. The sooner ESY and/or Recovery Services are discussed, the sooner data can be collected and reviewed. Parent may need time to consider all options and to collaborate with the school.

As part of its Model Forms, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a downloadable document that IEP teams can fill out and attach to the IEP when a student qualifies for ESY services. To access the PDF directly: Extended School Year (ESY) addendum.

A website called Great Schools.org provides additional information about ESY and downloadable forms about IDEA requirements.

Wrightslaw.com provides information about the IDEA and legal findings on a variety of topics.

Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law

A Brief Overview

  • Schools are required to accommodate parents to ensure their attendance and participation at meetings where their child’s special education services are discussed. Those rights are affirmed in a court decision from 2013: Doug C. Versus Hawaii.
  • A meeting that includes family is a higher priority than a renewal deadline.
  • If a deadline is missed, a student’s IEP services continue uninterrupted while meeting schedules are arranged to include family participation. The student’s eligibility does not expire.
  • The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) describes the participation rights of parents (WAC 392-172A-05001).
  • Failure to accommodate parent access to meetings when a child’s eligibility or services are discussed is a denial of the student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Full Article

Parents have the right to participate in all meetings where a student’s special education services are discussed. Those rights are protected by federal and state laws.

Students have a right to attend meetings about their school services at any age. Schools must invite students once their Individualized Education Program (IEP) includes a Transition Plan—a legal requirement by the school year when a student turns 16. The student is not required to attend but must be invited and accommodated to participate if they choose to.

A court decision in 2013 includes statements that family rights are more important than other legal requirements, such as renewal deadlines. More information about that case, Doug C. Versus Hawaii, is included later in this article.

Accessibility is a right

When inviting families to participate in meetings, the school is required to accommodate their needs related to scheduling, language access, parent or student disability, or something else. If a parent is ill, for example, the school is responsible to wait until the parent is well enough to meet. The school is responsible to provide a meeting format to meet the family’s needs, including through in person, virtual, or telephone attendance with any interpretation services needed for full participation.

IEP eligibility and services do not lapse or expire because the school delayed a meeting to accommodate the family. If a deadline is missed, a student’s services continue uninterrupted while meeting schedules are arranged to include family participation.

Here are examples of meetings where a parent/guardian must be invited and accommodated to participate:

  • Referral meeting to discuss whether to evaluate a student for eligibility
  • Evaluation review meeting
  • IEP meeting
  • Placement meeting
  • Transition conference to discuss moving into a new school or level of school (preschool into kindergarten, for example)
  • Meeting to discuss a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)
  • Meetings related to discipline, truancy, or complaints about Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB)
  • Any other meeting where school-based services are discussed

What does the state say about parent rights to participate?

The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) describes the participation rights of parents (WAC 392-172A-05001).

The WAC explains that schools are not required to invite parents for “informal or unscheduled conversations involving school district personnel and conversations on issues such as teaching methodology, lesson plans, or coordination of service provision. A meeting also does not include preparatory activities that school district personnel engage in to develop a proposal or response to a parent proposal that will be discussed at a later meeting.”

The WAC includes information about a parent’s right to visit school: “A parent of a student eligible for special education services may request permission to observe their student’s current educational placement, and to observe any educational placement proposed or under consideration either by a parent or a group that makes decisions on the educational placement of the parent’s child, in accordance with applicable school district policy and state law.”

Here is a key statement from the WAC related to parent participation:

“The parents of a student eligible for special education services must be afforded an opportunity to participate in meetings with respect to the identification, evaluation, educational placement and the provision of FAPE to the student.”

What is FAPE?

The statement above includes the word FAPE. FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE is what a student with a disability is entitled to receive. The school district is responsible to deliver FAPE.

The district must ensure that students with disabilities receive accessible, equitable, and appropriate services: All are elements of FAPE. PAVE provides a video training with more information about these key features of student rights: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504, and More.

An IEP provides FAPE through specially designed instruction and goal setting, progress monitoring, supplementary aids and services, accommodations, a thoughtfully chosen placement, and more. The IEP team meets to discuss all of this and make sure FAPE is being provided. Parents are equal partners for discussing all aspects of a student’s education.

TIP: Ask for a draft copy of the IEP or any other documents that will be discussed with enough time to review them before a meeting. The draft IEP is unfinished until it’s been reviewed and finalized in a team meeting that includes family participation.

Families have always been a priority under the law

The collaborative process of an IEP team that includes the family has been part of special education since federal laws were written to protect a student’s right to receive an education designed just for them. Parent participation is one of six primary principles of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Here’s more language that describes FAPE: The IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

This phrase—progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances—comes from another court decision, referred to as Endrew F. That Supreme Court decision established that meaningful progress must be tracked and monitored, and that the IEP must be adjusted if meaningful progress isn’t being made.

The IEP meeting is where families participate in tracking and monitoring that progress. Parents contribute important information about the progress or unmet needs of their children. Their observations provide critical information for team decision-making, and the federal laws were written to acknowledge the value of those contributions. That’s why parent participation is required for FAPE

TIP: Here’s a way to talk about parent rights within the process of special education: Failure to accommodate parent access to meetings when a child’s eligibility or services are discussed is a denial of FAPE.

What if parents cannot attend a meeting by the required renewal deadline?

Legal protections for students and families require a timely process. Schools are responsible to host a meeting that includes the family to update a student’s IEP at least every year. The IEP lists an “annual renewal date” on its cover page.

The school is also responsible to re-evaluate the student at least every three years to determine ongoing eligibility and to ensure that information about the student’s strengths and needs is up-to-date and the student is appropriately served through the IEP.

Sometimes there is a conflict when an evaluation or IEP renewal date sneaks up on the team and meetings aren’t scheduled early enough to accommodate the family and meet the deadline. It’s also possible that a family emergency or illness could prevent their timely participation.

In those situations, federal law has made it clear that the family’s participation is more important than the re-evaluation or IEP renewal deadline. The school can document the reason that the deadline is delayed, and a student’s services can continue without interruption until the meeting happens with family participants.

A student’s IEP eligibility does not expire because an evaluation is delayed, and the IEP does not lapse. Families can share this article and information about the federal court ruling if there is confusion.

What did Doug C. Versus Hawaii say?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 13, 2013, that reversed rulings by lower courts. The final ruling meant that the school in Hawaii was held accountable for having an IEP meeting without a parent. 

The court explained that schools must include parents at meetings unless they “affirmatively refused to attend.” Other legal language uses the phrase “good faith effort” to describe how schools must attempt to include families.

In the case of Doug C., the court found the school did not try hard enough to include the parent. In a hearing, the parent was able to share documentation showing he had provided the school with explanations each time he was unable to attend a meeting at the school’s suggested time and location. One documented explanation was that he was ill. In that case, the school held the meeting without him because they believed the IEP was about to “expire.”

The court said this rationale was based on a flawed premise. Earlier court rulings already had found that services do not end because an IEP renewal deadline is missed.  

In its decision, the court stated, “Parental participation is key to the operation of the IDEA for two reasons: Parents not only represent the best interests of their child in the IEP development process; they also provide information about the child critical to developing a comprehensive IEP and which only they are in a position to know.”

A place to get more information about court rulings related to special education is Wrightslaw.com. A Wrightslaw analysis of Doug C. Versus Hawaii includes a question-and-answer summary of the case. Here are highlights from that information:

Question: If a meeting is held after an annual renewal deadline, do IEP services lapse?

Answer: No. A child’s IEP does not lapse. Continuing to provide services based on the most recent IEP does not deny FAPE or “deprive a student of any educational benefit,” the court determined. The court further explained that there is no basis for assuming a school cannot provide services for a student whose annual IEP review is overdue.

Question: If there are scheduling conflicts, is priority given to school staff or the parent?

Answer: Priority is given to the parent. The court stated, “The attendance of [the]. . . parent, must take priority over other members’ attendance . . . an agency cannot exclude a parent from an IEP meeting in order to prioritize its representatives’ schedules.”

Question:  If the school has a meeting without the parent, can they make it okay by having another meeting within 30 days?

Answer:  No. The court found that parental involvement after-the-fact is not enough because “the IDEA contemplates parental involvement in the creation process.”

Question:  If a school district violates a procedural safeguard, such as parental involvement in meetings, does there need to be another finding of fault to show denial of FAPE? For example, would a court need to show that a child wasn’t receiving meaningful educational benefit from the services?

Answer:  No. The court does not need to determine a second violation. The denial of a parent’s right to participate in meetings is a violation of FAPE.

A parent’s right to participate in IEP process is part of the Procedural Safeguards that are written into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Schools are responsible for sharing a copy of the Procedural Safeguards at every formal meeting or whenever a parent requests them.

A copy of the Procedural Safeguards is downloadable from the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). An OSPI page titled Parent and Student Rights lists multiple translated versions of the Procedural Safeguards available for download.

FAPE Fits Like a Proper Outfit

Have you ever felt like your student’s Individualized Education Program—their IEP—just isn’t a good fit? This short video provides an analogy to help families and schools talk about improvements.

Here are the words that go with the video:

Imagine if the school was responsible to provide a suit of clothes for your student. The clothes must fit in size and style. Let’s pretend your child is eligible for this specially tailored suit because clothes off the rack fit so poorly that the child won’t leave home. This problem is impacting everything.

This is sort of like the school’s responsibility to provide a child who has an IEP with FAPE. FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. The services delivered through an IEP make education appropriate because they are tailored to fit the child based on their strengths and needs. FAPE is what makes school accessible for a student with a disability.

Let’s go back to pretending that the school must provide a well-fitting suit. Imagine that the school opens a closet and says, “Let’s see what we have in here.” What they pull out might be too big, too small, outrageously mismatched or in colors and patterns that make your child grimace and refuse to get dressed. They might find bits and pieces that work, but chances are high that they won’t be able to put together a whole outfit without trying a little harder and getting out the sewing machine.

That’s like the work of an IEP team—to pull out the tools everyone needs to creatively build a program that is a good fit for the student.

The school is responsible under federal law to provide eligible students with FAPE. Tailoring a program to meet individualized needs in light of the child’s circumstances is part of FAPE. If you think your school is digging around in a closet trying to find a program for your student that is ready made, you can remind them that an IEP is individually tailored to fit the student.

Our Parent Training and Information team at PAVE hopes your IEP team designs a program that outfits your child for a successful journey through education. If you’d like our support, click Get Help from PAVE’s website, wapave.org.

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.
  • 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. Read on to learn more.
  • Parents can request an evaluation by submitting a written letter to the school district. PAVE offers a template to help with letter writing.
  • For more detail about what happens when a student qualifies for special education, PAVE’s website includes a short video, Overview of IEP Process; a more detailed on-demand webinar, Introduction to Special Education; and an article about IEP Essentials.

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. If eligible, the student receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Information collected during the evaluation is critical for building the IEP, which provides specialized instruction and other supports in a unique way for each student.

The school follows specific deadlines for an evaluation process, which are described in the state laws provided in the links connected to each of these bullet points:

  • The district must document a formal request for evaluation and make a decision about whether to evaluate within 25 school days (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • After consent is signed, the school has 35 school days to complete the evaluation (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • If a student is eligible, the school has 30 calendar days to hold a meeting to develop an initial IEP (WAC 392-172A-03105).

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. Each area of disability that meets these three criteria is included as a goal area on the IEP.

The needs and how the school plans to serve those needs gets written into the section of the IEP document called the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance—sometimes shortened to Present Levels of Performance (PLOP). Becoming familiar with the PLOP section of the IEP is important for family members who participate on IEP teams. IEP goals flop without good PLOP!

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

After an initial evaluation is finished, the school arranges a meeting to review the results and determine whether the student qualifies for services. The evaluation review meeting can include time for family members, students and outside service providers to share ideas about what’s going on and what might help. PAVE provides a tool to help parents and students get ready for this and other important meetings by creating a Handout for Meetings.

Read on for ideas about what to do if the school determines that a student doesn’t qualify for IEP services and parents/caregivers disagree or want to pursue other types of school support.

If a student qualifies for special education, new input can be added to information from the evaluation that is automatically included in the PLOP. The present levels section of the IEP is important because it provides space to document the creative ideas that will support the student at school. This section can provide answers to this question: How will the school support the student in meeting annual goals?

Remember that the 3-part evaluation determines whether the student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). SDI is the “special” in special education. SDI is provided through individualized teaching methods, and its success is tracked and measured through progress on the IEP goals.

Progress monitoring is required annually but can be done throughout the year with a communication strategy designed by the school and family. That communication strategy can be written into the IEP document. PAVE’s article about SMART Goals and Progress Tracking can help families better understand how to participate in follow-through to make sure that the special education program is helping the student make meaningful progress.

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

Whether the student makes meaningful progress is also a measure of whether the school district is meeting its obligation to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), the primary entitlement of a student who qualifies for special education under criteria established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

PAVE provides an article about the history of special education with more detail about how FAPE became the standard for special education service delivery.

When a student is evaluated, the results are reviewed by a team that includes school staff and the family. The team discusses whether the student qualifies for special education. If yes, then the IEP process begins to determine how best to deliver FAPE. In other words, how will the school district provide an appropriate education to meet a student’s unique needs, in light of the circumstances of disability?

PAVE provides an article describing the IDEA and its six primary principles as the Foundation of Special Education. In addition to FAPE, the primary principles include: appropriate evaluation, IEP, parent and student involvement, education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and Procedural Safeguards, which provide dispute options and protections to make sure schools follow federal and state rules.

A referral starts the evaluation process

A parent/guardian, teacher, school administrator, service provider or other concerned adult can refer a student for evaluation. PAVE’s recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation in writing are included later in this article.

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).

If the school agrees to evaluate, a variety of tests and questionnaires are included. The evaluation looks for strengths and difficulties in many different areas, so input from parents, teachers and providers is critical. Generally, the evaluation reviews developmental history and assesses cognition, academic achievement and “functional” skills. Listed below are some common skill areas to evaluate:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Please note that strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details for a robust program. The first part of a present levels statement can always include statements about what the student does well.

Eligibility Categories of Disability

Areas of evaluation are associated with the 14 categories of disability that are defined as “eligibility categories” under the IDEA. 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.

This list includes some common diagnoses and/or issues that come up within each of the IDEA’s 14 categories.

  • 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 (ASD) and resources for families.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer 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.
  • 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. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • 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. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination and not already available, the school district must pay for the outside evaluation.
  • 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.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • 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.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • 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.

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

Appropriate evaluation is a key principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA includes a mandate called Child Find, which requires school districts to seek out, evaluate and serve students ages Birth-21 who have known or suspected disabilities that may impact school success or access. PAVE has an article about the Child Find Mandate, which applies to all children, including those who go to public or private schools. Children who are homeless or wards of the state are included, as are children who move a lot. Children who are “advancing from grade to grade” are included in the mandate, if they may have disabilities that impact learning in non-academic areas of school.

Here are some considerations:

  • Child Find mandates evaluation if there is reason to suspect a disability.
  • Students who are failing or behind their peers might have challenges related to language or access to school that don’t indicate a disability.
  • Parents who don’t understand the school’s reason can request a written explanation.
  • Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. They also cannot refuse because they want to try different teaching strategies. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although the school might benefit from a review of its methods, RTI is not a basis for refusing to evaluate a child for a suspected disability.

Deadlines start when a referral is made

When a student is referred for an evaluation, the school follows a schedule of deadlines. Parents can mark a calendar to track these timelines. To make sure deadlines are followed, PAVE recommends that formal requests and communications are made and stored in written form. Parents can always request a written response from the school or write down a response made verbally and send a “reflective” email that includes detail about what was discussed or decided. That reflective email creates a written record of a conversation.

Districts have 25 school days to respond to a request for evaluation. Some schools invite parents to a meeting to discuss concerns. Being prepared with a written statement can help. Parents can also share information from doctors or outside providers.

Before a school evaluates a student, the parent/guardian signs consent. If school staff recommend an evaluation and parents do not agree or sign consent, then the school does not conduct the evaluation. Please note that parents are consenting to the evaluation, so that parents and schools can make an informed decision about what to do next. Parents can choose at the next step whether to sign consent for a special education program to begin.

If a parent initiated the referral and the school doesn’t respond or denies the request for an evaluation, the parent can request an answer in writing. PAVE provides an article about what to do if the school says no to your evaluation request.

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?

If all agree that an evaluation is needed, and a parent/guardian signs a formal document giving permission, then the school completes the evaluation within 35 school days.

In compliance with the IDEA, an evaluation for special education is non-discriminatory. If the child cannot read, for example, the testing uses verbal instructions or pictures. The child’s native language is honored. Schools have a variety of tools available to eliminate bias. Parents can take action if they disagree with the way testing was done or the way it was interpreted.

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.

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

The formal language of the IDEA and the evaluation process can feel intimidating, but parents need to remember that they have a critical role as the experts and long-term investors in their child. If the evaluation data is confusing, parents can ask the school to provide charts or graphs to make it clear. Parents have the right to ask questions until they understand the evaluation process and what the results mean.

A primary goal of evaluation is to identify a child’s strengths and needs in the general education environment. Regular classrooms are the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) unless a student is unable to succeed there. The evaluation determines whether a student needs extra help in the general education setting, and the IEP team uses information gathered through evaluation to recommend and develop an initial program.

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

The IEP shifts and changes with the needs of the student, so the initial evaluation is only the beginning. A new evaluation is required by the IDEA at least every 3 years, but a new evaluation can be initiated earlier if there’s a question about whether the program is working. The school and family are always collecting new information and insights, and the IEP adapts in real time with new information.

For example, the school might document that a student is failing to access learning in general education despite help that was carefully designed to make the setting accessible. Then the IEP team, which includes a parent or guardian, might discuss placement in a more restrictive setting.

What if I don’t agree with the school?

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. PAVE provides an on-demand webinar about conflict engagement: Parents as Partners with the School.

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

Make the request in writing! PAVE provides a sample letter to help.

  • Address the letter to the district’s special education director or program coordinator.
  • Deliver the request by email, certified mail, or in person. To hand-deliver, request a date/time stamp or signature at the front office to serve as a receipt.
  • Track the days the district takes to respond. The district has 25 school days (weekends and holidays excluded) to respond.

Items to include in the referral letter:

  • The student’s full name and birthdate.
  • A clear statement of request, such as “I am requesting a full and individual educational evaluation for [the student].”
  • A statement that “all areas of suspected disability” be evaluated.
  • A description of concerns. Include any details provided by the student about what is working or not working at school, during transportation or related to homework. Consider all areas of school, not just academic ones.
  • Include any detail about past requests for evaluation that may have been denied.
  • Attach letters from doctors, therapists, or other providers who have relevant information, insights, or diagnoses (NOTE: medical information is offered voluntarily and not required to be shared).
  • Parent/legal caregiver contact information and a statement that consent for the evaluation will be provided upon notification.

After receiving a letter of request for evaluation the school district has the responsibility to:

  • Document the referral.
  • Notify parent/caregiver, in writing, that the student has been referred for evaluation.
  • Examine relevant documents from family, the school, medical providers, and other involved agencies.
  • Tell parents/caregivers in writing, within 25 days, about the decision to evaluate or not. This formal letter is called “Prior Written Notice.”
  • Request formal written consent for an evaluation.
  • Complete the evaluation within 35 school days after consent is signed.
  • Schedule a meeting to share evaluation results with a team that includes family to determine next steps.
  • Initiate development of an IEP, if the student qualifies.

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

Sometimes a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) is conducted alongside an educational evaluation when behavior is a primary feature of a child’s difficulty at school. The FBA uses tools and observation to identify triggers and unskilled coping strategies that can help explain areas of need for learning. The FBA provides the foundation for a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP), which supports positive choices. BIP goals and strategies prioritize social skill development and emotional regulation tools. The BIP can be a stand-alone document or can be used with an IEP or a Section 504 Plan (see below). PAVE provides a variety of articles about Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

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.

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. Note that Section 504 anti-discrimination protections apply to students with IEPs and Section 504 Plans. Key protections provide for equitable opportunities, access and non-discriminatory policies and practices. These protections might be part of the discussion if a student, because of disability, is denied access to a field trip, extracurricular opportunities, a unique learning environment or something else that is generally available to all students.

Section 504 includes specific provisions to protect students from bullying related to disability conditions: A US Department of Education Dear Colleague letter about bullying describes those protections as an aspect of a school district’s responsibility to provide FAPE.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If families disagree with the school district’s evaluation, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. To deny an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate. PAVE provides an article with more information and a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Here are additional resources:

Washington laws regarding evaluation are in 392-172A, 03005-03080, of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC)

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team provides 1:1 support and additional resources. Here are ways to Get Help:

Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

OR

Go online to fill out a form to Get Help! Use the Google translate to make it to the language you use the best!

Tips for Communicating as a Member of the IEP Team

A Brief Overview

  • When families and schools meet to discuss a student’s special education program, they can find Common Ground by remembering that everyone wants the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
  • Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.
  • Read on for tips about getting ready for a collaborative meeting.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.

Full Article

Whether on Zoom or around a conference table, sitting down with a team of professionals can feel intimidating to families. When a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is on the agenda, emotions can overtake a meeting. Getting defensive or angry does not usually help, however. This article provides tools for staying organized, open minded, and on topic to improve the work of meetings—and student outcomes.

A basic special education vocabulary boosts empowerment, and empowered families generally feel more confident at their meetings. Here is a key word to know:

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

A student with an IEP has the right to FAPE. That right is protected by federal law—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To meet the standard of FAPE, special education services are accessible to the student. Accessible means the services work as designed to enable progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.

A student receiving FAPE with appropriate, accessible services demonstrates steady progression toward mastery of skills. Those skills are being taught with specially designed instruction (SDI). As skills are learned, progress is measured through goal tracking. Meaningful progress indicates that the student is accessing FAPE.

Mastery can enable a sense of belonging. When the student feels capable, connected, and responsible within the school community, things generally run more smoothly for everyone.

In other words, FAPE is the result when everyone works together for the benefit of the student and meaningful learning happens. When a student is successful, the IEP team has done its job well and everyone can celebrate!

Here is a more formal way to talk about FAPE: Under the IDEA, FAPE requires an IEP reasonably calculated to provide progress appropriate, in light of the child’s circumstances.

FAPE provides a place to begin

When families and schools meet to talk about a child’s services, everyone can begin with FAPE as the overarching goal. FAPE provides Common Ground for the discussion. Everyone on the team wants FAPE:

  • The school district is required by law to provide FAPE to IEP-eligible students.
  • Teachers are happy when their students are successful.
  • The family wants a child to learn in a meaningful way.
  • The student wants to feel confident and proud.

Common Ground is not always where meetings begin

Problems arise in meetings when school staff and/or family members start the conversation far from Common Ground. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) has designed a curriculum to support families and schools in their discussions. Two short videos, A Tale of Two Conversations, provide a quick look at how a meeting might feel like one long argument or a helpful collaboration. The difference starts with preparation and approach.

To avoid a meeting that feels like a fight, the parent may want to start the meeting with some general comments to help school staff better understand the student and to gently remind the team that years of parenting have led to some expertise about a specific child.

For example, an IEP or a behavior plan might say that a student is “defiant” or “refusing” to do work. Those types of statements can make a parent feel defensive. Showing up angry probably will not lead to a productive meeting. Instead, a parent may come to the meeting prepared to explain that the student lacks confidence and would rather appear defiant than “stupid.” Maybe the parent has been able to talk to the student about their frustrations and can bring statements or requests directly from the student.

Another way to find common ground is to prepare open-ended questions and bring those to the table first, before offering suggestions or requests. For example, if a parent shows up and demands a 1:1 right at the start of the meeting, the conversation might quickly devolve into an argument about resource problems. If a parent comes ready to talk about what is not working for the student and concerns for their child’s learning and well-being, there is an opportunity to build empathy and problem-solving.

Climb mountains as a team

Firm predetermined “solutions” from any side can position school staff and family members far from collaboration, like the peeks of two mountains unable to ever meet in the middle.

Consider collaborative problem-solving as a project that starts at the intersecting bases of two mountains, on Common Ground. Shared expectations and assumptions are a good place to begin for an open-minded discussion. Here are a few conversation starters to consider:

  • According to these progress reports, the student is getting good at … How might we use that emerging skill to scaffold skill-building in this other area?
  • My student is not making as much progress as I expected in this area… Can we talk about strategies for improving progress?
  • This assignment, grade, or record shows that the student struggles to … Is there another approach to services or placement that we have not considered yet as a team?
  • I notice that this IEP goal is written to help the student “stop” doing an unwanted behavior. Can you help me understand the skill that is being taught, and can we rewrite the goal to focus on measuring progress toward the expected skill or behavior?
  • From what I see here (data/evidence/observations), this service is not working or is not accessible to the student. My theory about this is… Does anyone here have a different theory about what might be going on?

Here are some big-picture concepts for productive collaboration:

  • Trust is at the heart of positive working relationships.
  • Family members and educators can develop trust by showing personal regard, respect, transparency, and integrity. These may be particularly important for trust to grow among people of different cultures.
  • Blaming, bringing up the past repeatedly, minimizing another’s opinion, or rushing a conversation can create barriers to collaboration.
  • A neutral third party may be needed to resolve issues and rebuild relationships.

Prepare for the meeting

Request any documents that are going to be discussed at the meeting ahead of time. Review the documents in preparation for the meeting and mark down any notes for discussion. Whether meeting to discuss an IEP, a Section 504 Plan, behavior, ancillary services, or something else, families are better served when they prepare. To help families organize their concerns and requests, PAVE offers a format for designing a Handout for the Team Meeting. An alternative version supports self-advocates: Students: Get Ready to Participate in Your IEP Meeting with a Handout for the Team.

Leave with an action plan

At the end of the meeting, review what has been decided and be sure to make notes about any action steps, deadlines, or assignments. Be sure to note:

  1. What is the action?
  2. When will it happen?
  3. Who is responsible?

Schedule a follow-up conversation or a plan to communicate about anything that is not firmly decided. After a formal meeting, the school sends parents a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to describe any changes being made to a student’s services and when those changes will take effect. Parents with their own notes about the action plan will better understand how to read the PWN and whether there are unresolved topics.

Procedural Safeguards provide additional options

If a meeting leaves too many issues unresolved, parents can review their procedural safeguards to make a choice about what to do next. A copy is offered by the school at all formal meetings, and parents can also request a copy any time. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also provides information about parent and student rights.

Parents have the right to disagree with the school and to pursue resolution by:

The collaboration strategy being explained. Meet on common ground. A depiction of two mountains are shown, one represents family and the other mountain represents the school. Both family and school push against each other to form a smaller overlap triangle called FAPE - that represents the common ground.

Key Information and Creative Questions for Families to Consider During COVID-19 Closures

A Brief Overview

  • Districts are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students within their boundaries with known or suspected disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. Read on to learn more about FAPE and student rights.
  • Federal and state requirements to ensure that children with qualifying disabilities can access early learning services and make the transition to school-based services if eligible at age 3 are still in place, without waivers. PAVE provides an article: Early Intervention: How to Access Services for Children Birth to 3 in Washington.
  • Students retain the right to access high-school transition and vocational rehabilitation services. PAVE provides an article: Ready for Work: Vocational Rehabilitation Provides Guidance and Tools.
  • Families might be interested in attending a school board meeting to learn more about decisions being made at this time. Read on for more information about Open Meetings.
  • The final section of this article includes creative conversation starters, some ideas and prompts that might help your family prepare to talk with school staff.

Full Article

With schools closed and lives disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, families impacted by disability have unique questions. This article includes key information about student rights and creative conversation starters that family caregivers might consider when planning to meet with school staff over the phone, through written communication or over a web-based platform.

Student rights have not been waived

Students with disabilities have protections under federal and state laws. Those rights and protections are not waived during the school building closures. While schools are operating, districts are responsible to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students within their boundaries with known or suspected disabilities that significantly impact access to learning. The protections of FAPE include the right to:

  • Appropriate evaluation if there is a known or suspected disability condition that may impact educational access (Please refer to PAVE’s articles on Evaluations Part 1 and Child Find for more information)
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in areas of learning with significant educational impact from the disability and an identified need for SDI
  • Meaningful progress toward goals, which are developed to measure the effectiveness of Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)
  • Accommodations (extra time, videos with captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, other Assistive Technology…)
  • Modifications (shorter or different assignments, testing, etc.)
  • Special services (speech/language, occupational or physical therapy through video conferencing, for example)
  • Not get bullied or discriminated against because of a disability circumstance

FAPE rights related to accommodations, modifications and anti-bullying measures are protected by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and apply to all students with disabilities, including those who have Section 504 Plans and those with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). FAPE rights related to evaluation process, SDI, and formal goal setting are aspects of the IEP and are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In accordance with the IDEA, the IEP includes a description of the student’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. Special education attorneys Pam and Pete Wright have published books about special education law and maintain a website, Wrightslaw.com. Included during the pandemic is this page: IEPs During the COVID-19 Era: Your Parental Role and Present Levels in IEPs.

The Wrightslaw page encourages parents to read and re-read the present levels statements before meeting with the school. These statements form the basis for the student’s goals and other services. Up-to-date and comprehensive data within the present levels section of the IEP can be key to a successful outcome.

Wrightslaw encourages family caregivers to provide input for the present levels statements and to request further evaluation if the statements are incomplete or out of date. Creativity and collaboration are encouraged to allow for data collection while school buildings are closed: “Parents, never forget why you are essential members of your child’s IEP team. You are essential because your job is to represent your child’s interests. So, you need to be an active member, not a spectator. Your goal is to work with other members of the team to develop IEPs tailored to meet your child’s unique needs.”

No Waivers to Early Learning Requirements

Federal and state requirements to ensure that children with qualifying disabilities can access early learning services and make the transition to school-based services if eligible at age 3 also are still in place, without waivers.

Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) provides COVID-19 guidance for families of children in early learning through the Early Support for Infants and Toddlers (ESIT) program. Included is information about the Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP), how to manage a transition from IFSP to school-based services during the pandemic and tips for telemedicine appointments and protection of confidentiality.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance to schools in Washington. In early May 2020, OSPI issued guidance specifically related to early childhood programs during the COVID-19 closure. In particular, the document addresses a child’s rights through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Services for children Birth-3 are defined by IDEA’s Part C, and school-based services for children 3-21 are defined by IDEA’s Part B. About 3 months before a child with an IFSP turns 3, the school district is responsible to evaluate the child to determine eligibility for an IEP. PAVE provides a general article about the early learning transition process.

According to OSPI guidance, “School districts are expected to move forward with initial Part B evaluations as specified in the Early Childhood Transition from Part C to B Timeline Requirements. School districts must make reasonable efforts to comply with the requirement and may utilize alternative means for conducting virtual assessment and IEP team meetings, such as telephone or videoconferencing.”

Communication is key

How a student of any age accesses FAPE during a national health crisis is a work-in-progress that requires communication and collaboration between schools and families. On its website page titled Special Education Guidance for COVID-19, OSPI provides links to numerous documents that guide schools in best-practice for outreach to families.

On May 5, 2020, OSPI issued a Question & Answer document to address special-education delivery. “This is a national emergency,” the document states, “and districts should be communicating with families and making decisions based on student need and how those services can be provided. There is no one right way to provide services.”

Keep notes about student learning

Schools and families are encouraged to keep notes about student learning and access to educational services. Parents can ask the district to define its official dates of operation. When a school is officially closed, the district is not responsible to provide FAPE, according to OSPI guidance.

State guidance related to the provision of FAPE aligns with federal guidance issued since the pandemic began. On March 16, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued a fact sheet describing the federal rights of students with disabilities:

“If the school is open and serving other students, the school must ensure that the student continues to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), consistent with protecting the health and safety of the student and those providing that education to the student.”

IEP and Section 504 meetings are encouraged, and teams can discuss whether Recovery Services are needed to make up for services not provided or accessible due to the circumstances of the pandemic. Documentation from families and schools will support conversations about what was needed and what was provided. Families can collect and share their own observations about progress toward goals and whether materials provided by the school have been accessible.

Families can reach out to School Boards and Counselors

Families are meeting these emergency circumstances from a wide range of places economically, medically, emotionally, and logistically. School districts statewide have different staffing arrangements and approaches, and Washington schools are locally managed and overseen.

Families might be interested in attending a school board meeting to learn more about decisions being made at this time. Families have the option of making public comment at meetings to share thoughts or concerns. School board meetings are required monthly and must follow the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (Chapter 42.30 in the Revised Code of Washington).Families can reach out to their local district for information about how and when school boards meet. The Washington State School Directors’ Association provides a guidebook about the rules for Open Public Meetings. The rules apply in any meeting space or platform.

For additional support, families might consider reaching out to the school counseling office. The president of the Washington School Counselor’s Association, Jenny Morgan, provided comments in a May 7, 2020, webinar moderated by League of Education Voters. She said school counselors provide a broad range of services, from academic advising to social and emotional support. The American School Counselor Association provides a handout describing the roles of a school counselor.

Morgan says school counselors are uniquely trained to address the academic, career, and social/emotional development of all students through a comprehensive school counseling program. “We are advocates for your child’s educational needs,” she says. “Please do not hesitate to reach out to your school counselor for assistance and support. We are here for you.”

Creative conversation starters

Here are some ideas and prompts that might help your family prepare to talk with school staff. Keep in mind that some answers will not be easily provided, and conversations are ongoing.

  • My child struggles to understand social distancing. What strategy can we use to teach and practice this skill so it will be ready to use when schools reopen?
  • What social story does school staff have to share that will be accessible for my student to understand the coronavirus and why we need to stay home and practice good hygiene?
  • How can the school help my student cope with a high level of anxiety, grief, fear (any emotion that significantly impacts a student’s ability to focus on learning)? Which school counselor can help?
  • My child is turning 3 this month. Who can we talk to at the school district to help get our child ready for preschool? 
  • My student does not want to do school right now. How can we work together to motivate my student to participate in learning and do the work?
  • My student wants to cook, research cars, talk about space flight, do craft projects, walk in nature, play with the family dog, plant a garden … right now. How can we make sure that continuous learning objectives match my child’s natural curiosity?
  • My student loves to play the drums (or something else specific). How can drumming and music (or any interest) be part of the math (or other subject) assignment?
  • The homework packet, online platform, etc., is not accessible to my child. How can we work together and create a learning plan that will work for our family at this time?  
  • My child has a health condition that creates a greater risk for COVID-19 exposure. What could school look like for my child if buildings reopen but my child cannot safely re-enter a traditional classroom?
  • My student is in high school. How can we work together to make sure that the IEP Transition Plan and the High-School and Beyond Plan align? Can we invite the school counselor to our next meeting if we need more help?
  • Can my student do a self-directed project or an alternative assignment to earn a grade or meet a specific objective? Is there a modified way to demonstrate the learning, perhaps through a video, an art project, or a conference with the teacher?
  • Who is the transition counselor assigned to our school by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR)? What tools and people can my student work with right now to explore career options and prepare for adult life?
  • What can school staff do to make sure that my student’s current education includes progress toward independent living goals? (Note: PAVE’s article, High School Halt, includes more information on topics impacting graduating seniors and youth transitioning through high school and beyond.)

During the coronavirus pandemic, families with students of all ages and abilities are figuring out strategies for coping with the disruptions. This article may provide some help: How to Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, and Breathe during the crisis.

PAVE provides ongoing 1:1 support. Fill out a Helpline Request online or call 800-572-7368. Language access services are available.