Discipline and Disability Rights: What to do if Your Child is Being Sent Home

Learning the skills to maintain expected behavior and follow school rules is part of education. All students learn social, emotional and behavioral skills. Students with disabilities may get extra help in these areas of learning. Some have individualized behavior support plans.

When the pre-teaching and interventions fail to stop a behavior from causing a problem, the school might call a parent to say, “Take them home.” What happens next could depend on how well-informed parents are about the rights of students with disabilities.

This video provides key information about what to do if your child is being sent home. The first thing to ask is, “Are they being suspended?” If the answer is yes, the school is required to file specific paperwork. If the answer is no, a parent has choices and may support better long-term outcomes by carefully documenting what happens next.

Below are links to resources referenced in the video:

PAVE Provides Sample Letters to Support Families in their Advocacy

You can print this page as an accessible PDF! Download here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Tips to Help Parents Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home

A Brief Overview

  • Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a strategy schools use to teach children expected behavior. Read on for PBIS strategies families can use at home.
  • A key PBIS principle is that punishment fails to teach what to do instead. Adults can direct children and youth toward better choices and interrupt escalation cycles by consistently teaching expected, skillful behaviors.
  • The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right. Remember this catchy phrase, “5-and-1 gets it done,” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction.
  • PAVE provides a video with key information to help families and schools analyze a child’s behavior and develop a positive behavior support plan: Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.
  • If you come up with some great behavior support strategies this summer, be sure to share them with the school in the fall!

Full Article

Changes in routine and seasonal transitions can cause emotional upheaval for families. A few strategies, described below, might help families keep things chill this summer and beyond.

These ideas come from education, where research has helped teachers see the benefits from using Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS has been implemented in more than 26,000 U.S. schools. The PBIS framework has been shown to decrease disciplinary removals and improve student outcomes, including grades and graduation rates. When done well, PBIS provides positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice,” (working it out instead of punishing) and may prevent 80-90 percent of problem behaviors.

Punishment does not teach

PBIS research highlights problems with punishments, which are called “aversive interventions.” Research shows that a punished child is likely to flip into an emotionally dysregulated state (fight/flight/freeze) that actually blocks learning. Chances are low that the child will know what to do next time because the punishment didn’t provide a learning opportunity.

PBIS teaches what to do instead—and how to do it. Adults who calmly direct a child toward a new way of problem-solving can interrupt or prevent an escalation and help the child make better and better choices moving forward.

Keep in mind that adults need to stay regulated to help children. PAVE provides resources to help adults work on their own self-control and support their children:

Behavior is a child’s attempt to communicate

Simple, consistent, predictable language is critical for teaching and reinforcing behavior, says Kelcey Schmitz, who works for the University of Washington School Mental Health Assessment, Research, and Training (SMART) Center.

“PBIS is a game changer for children and youth with behavior challenges and their teachers and caregivers,” Schmitz says. “In fact, everyone can benefit from PBIS. Behavior is a form of communication, and PBIS aims to reduce problem behavior by increasing appropriate behavior and ultimately improving quality of life for everyone. The same approaches used by schools to prevent problem behaviors and create positive, safe, consistent and predictable environments can be used by families at home.”

Schmitz, an MTSS training and technical assistance specialist, provides the following specific tips for creating a successful PBIS home environment.

Support Positive Behavior before there is a problem

PBIS is set up with three layers—called tiers—of support. The parent-child relationship is strengthened by loving and positive interactions at each tier.

Tier 1 support is about getting busy before there is a problem. Much like learning to wash hands to prevent getting sick, expected behavior is taught and modeled to prevent unexpected behaviors.  Parents can look at their own actions and choices and consider what children will see as examples of being respectful, responsible, and safe.

Tiers 2 and 3 are where adults provide more support for specific behaviors that are getting in the way of relationships or how the child or youth functions. In a school setting, Tier 2 is for students who need a social group or some extra teaching, practice, and reinforcement.

Tier 3 supports include a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) to find out why the behavior is occurring, and an individualized Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). PAVE provides a video: Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.

Any student may access supports that include aspects of Social Emotional Learning at all three Tiers. At home, Tiers 2 and 3 naturally will be more blended and may include support from a community provider. Note that targeted interventions in Tiers 2-3 work best when Tier 1 is already well established.

Define, teach, and routinely acknowledge family expectations

  • Discuss how you want to live as a family and identify some “pillars” (important, building-block concepts) that represent what you value. Talk about what those pillars look and sound like in every-day routines. To help the family remember and be consistent, choose only 3-5 and create positive statements about them. Here are a few examples:
    • Speak in a respectful voice.
    • Be responsible for actions.
    • Be safe; keep hands, feet, and objects to self.
  • Identify a couple of “hot spots” to begin. Challenging behaviors often occur within routines.  Perhaps mornings or mealtimes create hot spots for the family. After discussing 1-2 ways to be respectful, responsible, and safe in the morning, teach what each looks like. Have fun with it! Set up “expectation stations” for practicing the plan and assign each family member one pillar to teach to the rest.
  • Behaviors that get attention get repeated. Notice when a child does the right thing and say something about each success: “I noticed you stopped to pick up your shoes in the hallway. Thanks for putting them away and keeping the walkway safe for others.” The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right!
  • Remember this catchy phrase, “5-and-1 gets it done” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction. When the expected behavior becomes routine, the reinforcement can fade away.

Create engaging and predictable routines

  • Children crave structure and routine. Adults may look forward to a relaxing evening or weekend, but kids often need regular activity and engagement. Consider that either the kids are busy, or the adults are busy managing bored kids!
  • Use visuals to create predictability. A visual schedule can display major routines of the day with pictures that are drawn, real photos or cut-outs from magazines. Create the schedule together, if possible.  Parents can ask a child to check the schedule – especially when moving from a preferred to non-preferred activity. It’s hard to argue with a picture!

Set the stage for positive behavior

  • Teach, pre-teach, and re-teach. Children need to learn behavior just like they learn colors and shapes. A quick reminder can help reinforce a developing skill: “When we get in the car, sit up, buckle up, and smile!”
  • Give transition warnings or cues to signal the end of one activity and the beginning of another: “In five minutes, it will be bath time.”
  • First/then statements set up a child for delayed gratification: “First take your bath; then we can play dolls.”
  • Focus on Go instead of Stop. Children often tune out words like NoDon’t and Stop and only hear the word that comes next, which is what an adult is trying to avoid. Tell a child what to do instead of what not to do: “Take your plate and put it in the sink.” Save Stop and No for dangerous circumstances that need a quick reaction.
  • Choices prevent power struggles: “Would you rather play for five more minutes or get in the bath now?”  “Feel free to choose the pink pajamas or the green ones.”

While these strategies may not eliminate all problem behaviors, they create consistency, predictability, and a more positive atmosphere. They teach new skills to help children get their needs met. The solid foundation will help even if challenging behaviors persist by creating a bedrock for additional layers of support.

Here are places to seek additional information:

Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process

This training has information about how to support a child’s behavior at school. When behavior gets in the way of learning, schools are responsible to figure out what the child is trying to communicate and to teach the child what to do instead.

The process of figuring out why a child is acting out is called a Functional Behavioral Assessment—FBA for short. A Behavior Intervention Plan—BIP for short—is a working document that the school and family build together and review regularly to make sure the child is supported with positive reinforcement and encouragement for meeting behavioral expectations. This training will help you know how to participate in the FBA/BIP process.

Schools are guided by the state to use best practices when evaluating and serving students with special needs. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state educational agency in Washington State. 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:

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Sample Letter to Request a Functional Behavioral Assessment

When a student’s behavior gets in the way of their learning and/or the learning of others, the school is responsible to figure out how to support behavioral expectations. One way to do that is to assess why the student might be acting out and use that information to consider how positive behavioral interventions might teach the student what to do instead.

The end of this article includes a sample letter to ask the school to begin a specific evaluation called a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). Data from the FBA is used to build a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP).

PAVE provides a video training called Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.

Ideally a school will notice if a student’s behavior has patterns of disruption and begin the FBA/BIP process before a student with disabilities is disciplined. PAVE provides an article: What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.

A teacher or school administrator might alert parents and request consent to begin an FBA. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is the state agency for Washington schools. OSPI provides guidance about discipline in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP #2). Included are best practices for schools to follow when there are persistent behavioral concerns:

  • Develop behavioral goals in the Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Provide related services needed to achieve those behavioral IEP goals (specific therapies or counseling, for example)
  • Provide classroom accommodations, modifications and/or supplementary aids and supports (a 1:1 paraeducator, for example)
  • Provide support to the student’s teachers and service providers (staff training)
  • Conduct a reevaluation that includes a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)
  • Develop a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP), as defined in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A-01031

Manifestation Determination

If an FBA process begins after a student has been excluded from school through a disciplinary removal (suspension, expulsion, or emergency expulsion), families can review their procedural safeguards to understand rules related to a special education process called Manifestation Determination.

Here are the basics: When a behavior “manifests” (is directly caused by) a disability condition, then there is recognition that the student has limited fault for violating the student code of conduct. Management of behavior is part of the special education process. A Manifestation Determination meeting is to talk about how a student’s services can better serve their needs to prevent future behavioral episodes that are getting in the way of education.

Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) may not be excluded from their regular educational placement, due to discipline, for more than 10 days in a school year without the school and family holding a Manifestation Determination meeting. According to the Washington Administrative Code (WAC 392-172A-05146),thestudent’s behavior is considered a manifestation of disability if the conduct was:

  • Caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to, the student’s disability
  • The direct result of the school district’s failure to implement student’s IEP

When these criteria are met, the school is responsible to review and amend the student’s services to ensure that the behaviors are addressed to prevent future escalations. If there isn’t a BIP, the school is required to develop one by initiating an FBA. If there is a BIP, the school is required to review and amend it to better serve the student’s needs.

Request FBA formally, in writing

Family caregivers can request an FBA/BIP process any time there are concerns that a student’s behavior is a barrier to their education. Families have the right to participate in all educational decision making for their students. See PAVE’s article: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.

Make any request for an evaluation in writing. This is important because:

  1. There will be no confusion about how/when/why request was made.
  2. The letter provides critical initial information about what is going on with the student.
  3. The letter supports a written record of family/school interactions.

If the family wishes, they can attach information from outside providers with their request. For example, if an outside therapist or counselor has recommendations for behavioral interventions at school, the family has the option to share those. The school district is responsible to review all documents and respond with written rationale about how the information is incorporated into recommendations. Families may choose to disclose all, a portion, or none of a student’s medical information. Schools may not require disclosure of medical records.

Family caregivers/guardians must sign consent for any school evaluation to begin.

The FBA/BIP might prevent a shortened school day

According to OSPI, serving a student through a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) is a priority. OSPI discourages schools from reducing the student’s schedule because of behaviors:

“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. 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.”

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

Please note that a request for behavioral support is NOT a recommendation to remove a student from the regular classroom and move them into an exclusive learning environment. Federal and state laws require that students eligible for special education services receive their education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate.

Special Education is a service, while LRE refers to placement. PAVE’s article provides further information: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place.

General education classrooms and spaces are the least restrictive. A child may be placed in a more restrictive setting if an IEP team, which includes family participants, determines that FAPE is not accessible even with specially designed instruction, accommodations, modifications, ancillary aids, behavioral interventions and supports, and other documented attempts to support a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) within the general education environment.

If the student was removed from their previous placement prior to a manifestation determination meeting, the school district is responsible to return the student to their placement unless the parent and school district agree to a different placement as part of the modification of the student’s services on their IEP and BIP.

Sample letter to request an FBA

Below is a sample letter family caregivers can use when requesting a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA). You can cut and paste the text into your choice of word processing program to help you start a letter that you can print and mail or attach to an email. Or you can build your letter directly into an email format. Be sure to keep a record of all requests and correspondence with the school.

Your Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip
Date

Name (if known, otherwise use title)
Title/Director of Special Education/Special Services Program Coordinator
School District
Street Address
City, State, Zip

Dear Name (if known, otherwise use district person’s title):

I am requesting a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) for my [child, son, daughter], NAME, (BD: 00-00-0000).

I have concerns that (NAME) is not receiving full educational benefit from school because of their struggles to meet behavioral expectations due to their disability circumstances. Their condition includes [brief summary of any diagnoses], which makes it difficult to [brief summary of the challenges]. I believe this has become a pattern of behavior that needs to be addressed with a positive behavioral support plan so my child with special educational needs can receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

I understand that the FBA will look for triggers and seek to understand what is happening in the environment when my child’s behaviors become problematic. I have learned that these are “antecedents” that the school can identify through data tracking. I hope we can begin to understand how [name] may be trying to communicate their needs through these behaviors. Here are some of my thoughts about what might be going on:

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

I look forward to discussing the results of the FBA and working with school staff on development of a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP). I hope we can choose a small number of target behaviors to focus on in the BIP. I understand that we will work together to identify replacement behaviors that the school can teach [name] to do instead. I hope these will be skills we can work on at home also. I look forward to learning how we can partner to encourage the learning that I know [name] is capable of.

I have attached documentation from [any outside providers/therapists/counselors who may have provided letters or reports or shared behavioral recommendations].

I understand that I am an equal member of the team for development of educational services and that I will be involved in any meetings where decisions are made regarding my child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). I will also expect a copy of the FBA and a draft of the BIP before our meeting.

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

I appreciate your help in behalf of [child’s name]. If you have any questions please call me at [telephone number] or email me at [email address, optional].

Sincerely,

Your Name

CC: (Names and titles of anyone else you give copies to)

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

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

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!

A Supreme Court Ruling Could Impact Your Child’s IEP

A Brief Overview

  • The parents of a child named Endrew F argued that their son with a disability deserved more from his public school. They appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the ruling in their favor could mean more robust rights for all children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
  • The implications of this unanimous decision are reverberating through schools and agencies that oversee special education. Read on to learn how you can participate in important conversations about these uplifted standards.
  • Learn key phrases from this ruling to help you be a proactive member of your child’s IEP team. The U.S. Department of Education has an important guidance document that includes some of this language: For example, a school must offer an IEP “to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
  • This article and the included resource links can help you understand the Endrew F ruling and how you might use this information in advocating for your child’s rights.

Full Article

Endrew F (Drew) is a student with autism, ADHD and challenging behaviors. His disabilities impact his academic and functional skills, including his ability to effectively communicate about his emotions and needs. He attended a public elementary school in Douglas County, Colorado, and qualified for special education with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). His parents moved him to a private school in fourth grade, arguing that:

  1. Drew did not make measurable progress on the goals set in his past IEPs, and
  2. The IEP did not address Drew’s escalating behavior problems.

Drew had more success at the private school, and his parents filed a Due Process complaint with the Colorado Department of Education in 2012. They requested reimbursement for the private school tuition on the basis that the public school had failed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is a cornerstone of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that governs special education.

The parents argued, and lost, at the state, district and circuit court levels. These lower courts ruled that because Drew had made at least some progress toward his IEP goals, then the school had met its obligation to provide FAPE. Wrightslaw is one source for more detail about the case and its history.

The family filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and on March 22, 2017, the court ruled in their favor. The ruling, which took effect immediately, ended a discrepancy in circuit courts across the country by determining that a trivial amount of progress (“merely more than de minimis”) is insufficient to satisfy a student’s right to FAPE. In order to meet its “substantive obligation under the IDEA,” the court stated, “a school must offer an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Since then, a variety of agencies have been analyzing the court’s unanimous ruling and creating guidance documents to help schools and families understand the implications of this case. On April 9, 2018, The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provided a two-hour webinar with speakers from various education fields to discuss the ruling and its broad-sweeping impact on schools and families. Parents need to understand this case, the experts agree, because family voices are critical to raising the level of expectation.

High expectations are a theme in discussions about the ruling. Some other emerging themes:

  • Parents/guardians are the first and most important lifelong teachers of their children. They, therefore, need to be fully welcomed and heard as key collaborators in the process.
  • IEP teams need to assure relevance when writing appropriately ambitious IEP goals for lifelong learning and success in varied environments. Goals toward narrowly defined academic “mastery” often miss this opportunity to create flexible learners.
  • State academic standards should be noted at the IEP table, but challenging objectives are to be individualized, not “one size fits all” or based in goals generated by computer data programs.
  • Educational benefit is determined on an individual basis, and standards for measurement must be varied and rigorous to ensure meaningful progress.
  • An IEP with the same goals year-after-year does not meet the standard of FAPE.

The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) issued a summary of the Endrew F ruling that includes a list of “Roles and Responsibilities” for professionals and families. “This new standard will require a prospective judgment by school officials that will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child’s parents and guardians,” SPAN stated in this overview document.

Understood, a consortium of non-profit agencies committed to providing information on attention and learning problems in children ages 3-21, developed a free, downloadable Endrew F Advocacy Toolkit that provides a four-page handout of Talking Points and a four-page IEP Worksheet to assist parents in using principles from the Endrew F ruling in their own advocacy. For example, the court’s ruling included the words “appropriately ambitious” as a requirement for IEP goals. The worksheet offers a place where a parent can record a list of areas that they feel a child’s goals might not be ambitious enough. The worksheet then suggests a script for a parent to use at an IEP meeting:

“I know that my child’s goals should be appropriately ambitious. Even if my child is behind in academics, the IEP goals should aim to help my child catch up. When can we look at present level of performance and put services and supports in place, so we can set goals that allow my child to meet the same standards as his peers?”

The National Center for Parent Leadership, Advocacy, and Community Empowerment (National PLACE) offered a Webinar to explain how the ruling provides families with a new advocacy tool. PLACE, a membership organization whose website is named “Parents at the Table,” has made available some resource documents, including a Power Point with a set of slides titled: “What Parents Can Do.” For example, PLACE suggests that parents prepare questions for an IEP meeting using key phrases pulled directly from the Supreme Court’s ruling. Here are some sample questions:

  • Has the team carefully considered my child’s potential for growth?
  • Have we considered whether my child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency?
  • Are the goals appropriately ambitious, with sufficiently challenging objectives?
  • How is the IEP reasonably calculated to enable my child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances?

PLACE emphasizes that parents should not accept an IEP with the same goals and objectives from year to year, indicators that a child has failed to make meaningful progress. And, using language directly from the SCOTUS ruling, PLACE encourages parents to hold schools accountable for a child’s progress by requesting a “cogent and responsive explanation” for decisions about goals and progress measurements.

Diana Autin, an attorney and executive director of National PLACE, uses the webinar platform to review foundational principles of the IDEA, re-authorized by Congress in 2004, to set a stage for understanding new guidelines related to the SCOTUS ruling. “It’s important to note that Endrew F can’t be understood or defined or used without it being within the context of the IEP requirements of IDEA,” she says.

Autin shares the PLACE webinar platform with Michael Yudin, former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and a longtime national leader in disability rights. Yudin points to key language in the ruling that clarifies earlier Department of Education guidance documents that he helped develop. The heart of IDEA, he says, is specially designed instruction that helps students reach goals that are “ambitious but achievable” and in alignment with grade-level content standards. “Specially designed instruction is adapting as appropriate to the needs of the child,” Yudin says, “so that the content, methodology and the delivery of instruction are appropriate to ensure access to the general curriculum so that the child can meet the educational standards that apply to all children.”

Inclusion sometimes requires access to specially designed instruction in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), and the Endrew F decision reinforces the IDEA’s requirement for necessary behavioral interventions and supports, Yudin says. “This guidance clearly states that failure to consider and provide those needed behavioral supports and interventions through the IEP is in fact likely to result in a denial of FAPE.”

The child at the heart of this landmark case, Drew, struggled with phobias and had behaviors that included screaming, climbing over furniture and occasionally running from school. According to the PLACE webinar: “His parents believed that his progress had stalled and that the strategies used to address his behaviors were insufficient to allow him to learn.” Behavior interventions at the private school chosen by Drew’s parents helped, and his access to learning improved. In considering all aspects of the case, including a lack of suitable behavior interventions, the Supreme Court ruled that the public school had denied Drew access to FAPE.

A child “must be afforded the opportunity for significant learning,” the court stated. And individualized supports and programming must provide for more than “de minimis,” or trivial, progress to meet the standard of FAPE. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly,” the court wrote, “…awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

The ruling in Endrew F has brought new emphasis to existing policy related to discipline and behavior. On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague guidance document to establish clarity about the IDEA’s requirements for behavioral assessments and interventions. “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs,” the document states. “In light of research about the detrimental impacts of disciplinary removals… the Department is issuing this guidance to clarify that schools, charter schools, and educational programs in juvenile correctional facilities must provide appropriate behavioral supports to children with disabilities who require such supports in order to receive FAPE and placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE).”

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) offered a summary of policy that included this statement: “Parents may want to request an IEP Team meeting following disciplinary removal or changes in the child’s behavior that impede the child’s learning or that of others, as these likely indicate that the IEP may not be properly addressing the child’s behavioral needs or is not being properly implemented.”

For further information about the Endrew F decision and its implications, refer to the following resources:

The Center for Parent Information and Resources/Parent Center Hub

National PLACE/Parents at the Table

Wrightslaw

Understood Endrew F Advocacy Toolkit

SCOTUSblog

SPAN Parent Advocacy Network

OSEP IDEAs that Work