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 to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: 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.

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 that a 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 enable access to FAPE, 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—a service that enables access—is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. Having a 1:1 to support a student, for example, does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State. 

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.

  • 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 disability rights that are protected by the IDEA and civil rights/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 health support, parent training, etc.). 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.

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.”

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.

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.

The first video provides a visual to help—a pyramid of student rights. Learn how students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are protected by the full pyramid of rights, while students eligible for a Section 504 Plan also have civil rights that protect them at school. Learn the key terms from these rights: access, equity, and FAPE, and how to use those words to help a student get their needs met.

Our pyramid of rights provides a starting place for our second video, which 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. Click on the video to learn more about what the right to equity means.

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.

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

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.