Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More

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

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

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

Here are resource links referenced in the video:

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

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

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

The Youth Education Law Collaborative offers some free legal assistance on topics related to educational equity, with a priority for families who demonstrate financial need:

Video number 2: Accommodations and Modifications

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

Here are resource links related to this video:

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

Video number 3: IEP Goal Setting

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

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

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

Disability History Month Provides Opportunities for Reflection

A Brief Overview

  • Disability History and Awareness Month (RCW 28A.230.158) takes place during October to increase awareness, respect, and acceptance for people with disabilities, and to bring a greater sense of pride to people with disabilities.
  • State law requires public schools to promote educational activities that provide instruction, awareness, and understanding of disability history and people with disabilities.
  • The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a list of resources and educational opportunities for recognizing and celebrating Disability History and Awareness.
  • The Office of the Educational Ombuds (OEO), in collaboration with Rooted in Rights, created a teaching resource: One Out of Five: Disability History and Pride Project.
  • This article highlights some key laws and legal actions that have impacted school access for students with disabilities in Washington State and nationally. Scroll down for a visual version of our timeline.

Full Article

Disability History and Awareness Month in October provides an opportunity for policy makers, teachers, families and people throughout communities to reflect on the disability rights movement. Equity and access are protected by law, yet there is still work to be done to ensure that laws are upheld and that everyone has fair access to opportunities.

Parent Centers like PAVE participate in making sure that families and individuals understand disability rights and how history has impacted current protections and the language of disability rights. Following is a timeline of key actions at the state and federal level.

Please note that this article is an overview and does not include every law or legal action involved in the long and complicated history of disability rights.

1954​: Brown versus Topeka Board of Education​

  • Separate but Equal was outlawed, and Equal Educational Opportunities became a right of all citizens. ​

1964​: Civil Rights Act​

  • Prohibited state and local governments from denying access to public facilities, establishing equality as a legal right and discrimination as illegal.  
  • Desegregated public schools and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file lawsuits for suspected violations. ​
  • Established that agencies could lose federal funding for breaking the law.

1971: Washington guarantees special education rights

In 1971, the small but fierce Education for All Committee — Evelyn Chapman, Katie Dolan, Janet Taggart, Cecile Lindquist — worked with two law students to craft and advocate for passage of legislation (House Bill 90) to mandate public education for all children with disabilities age 3–21. HB 90 became Chapter 66 of the Laws of 1971, entitled Educational Opportunities for Handicapped Children, generally referred to as the Education for All Act. Washington’s special education law is now codified at RCW 28A.155

1972: Key precedents are established in other states

  1. P.A.R.C. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania*
    • Established Free Public Education for all students.
  2. Mills versus Board of Education of DC
    • Established accessible, free and suitable education for all children of school age, regardless of disability or impairment

In Pennsylvania parents led a class action suit that established that all children, regardless of their skill level, have a right to go to school for free. A few months later, a Washington, DC, court ruled that education should be free and accessible and “suitable.” These two cases set up the country to formalize the right of any student with a disability to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is the language of today’s law.

*Note: PAVE recognizes that past terms have led to stigma; using person-first language is our priority. To learn more about how individuals with intellectual disabilities earned education rights through these landmark cases, refer to Disability Justice.

1973: The Rehabilitation Act

The rights of a person with a disability to get the help they need in order to be successful in school and at work–and to access to any public place or program–was firmly established by the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is still an active law upheld by the Office for Civil Rights. Part of it, Section 504, defines disability as any impairment that significantly impacts a major life activity. When a student in school meets that criteria because of a physical or mental condition, the school is bound by this law to provide what a student needs to access their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

1975: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act

  • Required public schools to provide equal access to free educational programming
  • Provided for evaluation, a specific educational plan and parent input
  • Declared that special education should emulate as closely as possible the educational experiences of non-disabled students
  • Contained a provision for education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  • Provided dispute resolution procedures

The Act was the first federal law that was specific to the education of children with disabilities. The law used the word “emulate” to indicate that students with disabilities had the right to a school experience that would look as much like a typical student’s program as possible. The additional requirement for education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) further motivated schools to work harder to include students of many abilities in general education classrooms. This 1975 law also set up specific guidance for parents to take action if they disagree with the school. Parents are informed about their rights through the Procedural Safeguards that are provided at IEP and other official meetings.

1979: PAVE began as one of the country’s first six parent centers

Pierce County was among six locations across the country to receive training in Special Education rights. Thirty Washington parents got trained about Special Education law in 1979. The goal was for those parents to share information throughout the state. To help this movement, a clearinghouse named Closer Look provided intense training for these pioneering parents about the laws. Closer Look evolved in the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY), and much of that work has been updated and preserved by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR), the current technical assistance center for PAVE and other parent centers across the country. CPIR provides free information to professionals and parents through ParentCenterHub.org.

1981: Federal waiver program enables more children to get help at home

The federal government created a system through Medicaid to provide a new way to care for children and adults with disabilities in their homes. The new system provided a financial mechanism called a “waiver” to pay for in-home care. Once the first state Medicaid agency applied for and received a waiver from the federal government, other states began to apply. As a result, thousands of children who in the past might have lived in hospitals or state institutions now live at home. PAVE’s Family to Family Health Information Center is part of a nationwide Family Voices community that helps families understand and apply for these waivers and manage other aspects of care for their loved ones with disabilities and complex medical needs.

1988: Washington State recognizes the capacity of all persons

The Washington legislature passed RCW 71A.10.015 to recognize “the capacity of all persons, including those with developmental disabilities, to be personally and socially productive.

“The legislature further recognizes the state’s obligation to provide aid to persons with developmental disabilities through a uniform, coordinated system of services to enable them to achieve a greater measure of independence and fulfillment and to enjoy all rights and privileges under the Constitution and laws of the United States and the state of Washington.”

1990: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

  • Prohibits disability discrimination by federal and state government, including schools
  • Applies to all schools, workplaces—any space, public or private, that provides goods or services to the public
  • Covers people of all ages, including those who are discriminated against because they are perceived to have a disability, even if they don’t have one

Understood.org provides materials specifically designed for parents to provide basic understanding about ADA protections in schools. Included are printable fact sheets and instructions for filing formal complaints with various public agencies. Many ADA protections mirror those provided through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Key concepts in both are equity and access. The ADA and Section 504 protect a person throughout the lifespan. The Office for Civil Rights provides guidance for students with disabilities as they plan for higher education.

1990: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

  • All children with disabilities get a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)to be ready for further education, jobs and life! 
  • The rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected. 
  • The law requires schools to assess a child’s program, to make sure it’s working, and the child is benefiting. 

When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1990, the acronym FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) came into being. Now FAPE is key to this entitlement law. Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program that’s already built and available.

The federal law drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures, which in our state are part of the Washington Administrative Codes (WACs). Title 34, Part 104, is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office for Civil Rights Department of Education, and in Washington State rules for the provision of special education are in chapter 392-172A of the WAC. 

1992: Rehabilitation Act Amendments

Amendments to the 1973 Act put the abilities and choices of persons with a disability first and challenge the services system and the greater community to support individuals to work, live, and participate in the community. The Amendments are guided by the presumption of ability. A person with a disability, regardless of the severity of the disability, can achieve employment and other rehabilitation goals, if the appropriate services and supports are made available. The primary responsibilities of the vocational rehabilitation system are described:

  • Assist the individual with a disability to make informed choices about potential employment outcomes that result in integration and inclusion in the community.
  • Develop an individualized rehabilitation program with the full participation of the person with a disability.
  • Match the needs and interests reflected in the individualized programs with appropriate services and supports.
  • Proactively foster cooperative working relationships with other agencies and programs, including local education authorities, to unify the service system.
  • Emphasize the quality of services and the accountability that service representatives have to honor the dignity. participation, and growth of persons with disabilities as their employment interests develop over time.

2000: Settlegoode v. Portland Public Schools

  • Appropriate staff training is an important aspect of FAPE.
  • School staff have the right to advocate for children without retaliation.
  • The lawsuit was filed by a former special education PE teacher who was fired after highlighting errors in IEP implementation.

2004: IDEA Amendments

IDEA was amended by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004. Several provisions aligned IDEA with the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Here are a few examples of updates:

  • IDEIA authorized 15 states to implement 3-year IEPs on a trial basis when parents continually agree. 
  • Drawing on the report of the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, the law revised the requirements for evaluating children with learning disabilities.
  • More concrete provisions relating to discipline of special education students were added. These are influencing current work to revise disciplinary standards in Washington State.
  • Students are entitled to education in regular classrooms, with needed supplementary aides and services, “to the maximum extent appropriate” under the principle of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

2008: Washington schools are required to celebrate disability history each October

In passing a law to establish Disability History and Awareness Month (RCW 28A.230.158), the legislature determined that: “annually recognizing disability history throughout our entire public educational system, from kindergarten through grade twelve and at our colleges and universities, during the month of October will help to increase awareness and understanding of the contributions that people with disabilities in our state, nation, and the world have made to our society. The legislature further finds that recognizing disability history will increase respect and promote acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. The legislature further finds that recognizing disability history will inspire students with disabilities to feel a greater sense of pride, reduce harassment and bullying, and help keep students with disabilities in school.”

2012 Employment First in Washington State

The Washington legislature passed Senate Bill 6384 for Employment First requirements for clients 21 and older within the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA). In accordance with the new law, “The program should emphasize support for the clients so that they are able to participate in activities that integrate them into their community and support independent living and skills.”

The legislation:

  • Supports employment as the first choice for adults of working age
  • Incorporates the right to transition to a community access program after nine months in an employment service
  • Clarifies that a client receive only one service option at a time (employment or community access).

A DDA Policy Document describes history that led to passage of the legislation and rules for implementation.

2013: Doug C. v Hawaii

  • Parents must be included in the IEP process.
  • The lawsuit was filed in behalf of a parent who was not included in a school meeting at which key IEP decisions were made.

2015: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

  • Reauthorizes 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the nation’s national education law.
  • Provides all children in the United States the right to a free public education “to ensure that every child achieves.”
  • Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure student progress toward high standards.
  • Encourages evidence-based interventions.
  • Sustains and expands access to high-quality preschool.
  • Maintains accountability in low-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress and where graduation rates are low.

2017: Endrew F versus Douglas County School District

  • The Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that under the IDEA a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress, in light of the child’s circumstances of disability.
  • The “de minimis standard” is overruled; trivial progress isn’t enough.
  • Grade-level standards are prioritized.
  • Parent participation is emphasized

The Endrew F case is still being discussed by a variety of agencies, and many professionals from groups that oversee educational process are calling on parents to hold schools accountable to these new standards. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said that trivial progress would no longer meet the standard of FAPE and that the IDEA aims for grade level advancement for children with disabilities who can be educated in the regular classroom. A child making trivial progress, he said, would be tantamount to “sitting idly … awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

The above information is shown below as an infographic. You can click on the image and access the PDF of the same:

Infographic of the Disability Rights Timeline. Visit wapave.org and type disability History on the search bar to read the article and receive accessible information included  in this infographic

View this infographic in PDF form

Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting

When a student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), their IEP team is required to meet and review the program at least every year. The annual review date is listed on the cover page of the IEP document. Family caregivers can request additional meetings, and this article includes a sample letter families can use to formally request an IEP meeting.

Keep in mind that parents have the right to participate in meetings where decisions are made about eligibility or changes to a student’s special education services. A court decision in 2013 further affirmed those rights. More information about that case, Doug C. Versus Hawaii, is included in an article from PAVE: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.

An IEP meeting request letter can be submitted to school staff and to district staff. Family participants have the right to invite guests to the meeting for support and to provide additional expertise about the student.

Best practice is for the school and parents to communicate about who will attend the meeting. If required school staff are unable to attend a meeting, parents must sign consent for their absence. Under state law (WAC 392-172A-03095), a school district must ensure that each IEP team includes:

  • Parent/legal guardian
  • At least one general education teacher
  • At least one special education teacher of the student
  • District staff qualified in the provision of specially designed instruction (SDI), knowledgeable about the district’s general education curriculum, and knowledgeable about the district’s available resources
  • Someone (usually a school psychologist) qualified to interpret the instructional implications of evaluation results
  • At the discretion of the parent or the school district, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the student, including related services personnel
  • Whenever appropriate, the student (required to be invited once a transition plan is added, by age 16 or earlier)

The school’s meeting invitation lists attendees and can clarify when the meeting will start and end and the purpose or agenda for the meeting. PAVE provides an article about how families can prepare for a meeting by creating a handout for the team.

Note that in the above list, in accordance with state laws, the IEP team includes an individual who is knowledgeable about district resources. Sometimes a school principal or other staff member fulfills that role. Families or school staff can request attendance by someone who works in the district’s special education department. If the family is asking for something that might cost additional money or require a change in placement to another location inside or outside the district, it can be critical to have a district special education representative involved in decision-making.

TIP: If a school administrator in a meeting indicates that “we’ll have to check with district and get back with you on that,” the IEP team is probably incomplete. Parents can request another meeting with all required attendees.

Parents can request to meet with the IEP team any time of year if they have questions or concerns. Here are a few examples of reasons parents might request an IEP meeting:

  • New diagnosis or information about a student’s disability
  • Frequent disciplinary actions
  • Student is refusing to go to school
  • Academic struggles
  • Lack of meaningful progress toward IEP goals (PAVE provides an article with a handout about SMART goals and progress monitoring
  • Behavior plan isn’t working
  • Placement isn’t working
  • Parent wants to discuss further evaluation by the school or an independent agency

Below is a sample letter families can use when writing a request for an IEP meeting. If sending through email, the format can be adjusted to exclude street addresses:

Your Name
Street Address
City, State, Zip
Date

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

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

I am requesting an IEP meeting regarding the program for my student, NAME, (BD: 00-00-0000). I have some concerns that I believe need to be addressed by the entire team. I understand that I will be involved in scheduling so I can participate fully as an equal member of the IEP team and that I will be notified in writing when a meeting is arranged.

My hope is that this meeting will provide an opportunity for collaborative problem solving. I want to make sure (NAME’s) IEP provides enough support for improvement and learning within their capabilities. I look forward to discussing my specific concerns about: (add specific concerns here).

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

I have attached documentation from (list any outside providers who provided letters or reports and highlight any specific recommendations from those attached documents).

I would like a copy of the most recent IEP (or amended Draft IEP) with enough time to review it so I can prepare for our team meeting.

I’m also requesting copies of (any other documents you wish to review before the meeting: evaluation reports, teacher progress notes, state curricula…).

I appreciate your help in behalf of my student. 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: It is the policy of PAVE to provide support, information, and training for families, professionals, and interested others on a number of topics. In no way do these activities constitute providing legal advice. PAVE is not a legal firm or a legal services agency. This message and accompanying documents are covered by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510-2521, and contain information intended for the specified individual(s) only. 

The contents of this document were developed under a grant from the US Department of Education. The contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the US Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP

A Brief Overview

  • A first-time IEP document is a lot to absorb. This article provides tips to help family members read through a draft IEP and prepare to participate on the IEP team that finalizes the Individualized Education Program before services begin.
  • Remember, the school’s first version is a DRAFT, and family members of the IEP team have the right to participate in program development.
  • Under state and federal law, parents have the right to information about their child’s education—including IEPs—in a language they can understand. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about language-access rights in multiple languages.
  • Parents or guardians can request a specific method for regularly checking in with school staff.  A weekly or bi-weekly email is common, or parents can arrange to get something in the backpack, a phone call, a text…. Ask for what works and be sure the agreement is included in the Prior Written Notice (PWN), a formal letter sent to parents after meetings and before (prior to…) implementation of services.
  • Services are ongoing unless a parent officially signs a document to revoke services or if a new educational evaluation finds that the student is no longer eligible.

Full Article

After a student is determined eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the process of building the IEP can feel intimidating. This article provides tips to help family members read through a draft IEP and prepare to participate on the IEP team that will finalize the program before services begin. The process is the same regardless of the age of the student. IEPs can support students ages 3-21, in preschool through high school graduation or aging out at 21.

Washington State requires schools to start IEP services within 30 calendar days of the eligibility finding. That means school staff generally start drafting the IEP right after the school and family meet to talk about the evaluation and the student’s eligibility. A family member can ask to extend the 30-day deadline, but schools cannot delay the process without parental consent.

Tip: If the school wants to have a meeting to discuss eligibility and IEP development all at once, parents can request a two-meeting process instead to have time to digest the information and fully participate in decision-making.

What is the student’s eligibility category?

Take note of the eligibility category that entitles the student to an IEP. This category is decided during the evaluation review meeting. Sometimes more than one of 14 possible categories applies, and the IEP team chooses the category that seems the best fit.

Once chosen, the category is less important than the services that are needed for a student to access meaningful learning. Parents may want to be aware of implicit biases associated with certain eligibility categories and ensure that school staff are talking about the whole child and not using labels to fit children into pre-built programs. For example, there’s no such thing as a “Behavior IEP” or an “Academic IEP.” Individual children have programs built to meet their needs, based on evaluations that highlight their strengths as well as deficits. Read on for information about the rights of children with disabilities to be served as general education students first—in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

The eligibility category is listed on the “Cover Page” of the IEP document, near the name, birth date, and other personal details about the student. PAVE provides an article, Evaluations Part 1, that describes the evaluation process and includes a list of 14 eligibility categories that apply in Washington State.

Know what’s in the IEP before you meet

The IEP document is a lot to absorb, and family members are more prepared to support their child when they review the IEP draft before meeting with the IEP team for the first time. The document may be 10-20 pages long (or longer), but don’t be intimidated! A child’s education is worth taking time to read for understanding.

Be sure to ask for a copy of the IEP draft with enough time to look it over before the meeting. Some IEPs have only a few services and goals while others are quite complex. The amount of time a family needs for review also might depend on whether the document is translated into a language besides English.

Under state and federal law, parents have the right to information about their child’s education in a language they can understand. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about language-access rights in multiple languages.

Below are suggestions for looking through the IEP to prepare for a meeting. Use this list like a map guiding you through the IEP document.

Start with the Service Matrix

The Service Matrix is about halfway through the IEP and looks like a chart/grid. These are the suggested services. Remember, the school’s first version is a DRAFT IEP, and family members of the IEP team have the right to participate in program development.

  • The services are how a student receives Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) in each area where the student has significant deficits that make them eligible for special education.
  • Notice how many minutes are being offered to support learning in each area of SDI. The SDI supports at least one goal for each subject area, so consider whether there’s enough time for the learning that will support progress (read on for more about goals).
  • The Service Matrix includes Related/Ancillary Services if the student is eligible for them. These are therapeutic services, such as occupational, physical, or speech therapy. Mental health counseling and parent training (for example, to learn behavioral strategies) may be listed as Related Services.
  • Sometimes Related Services are offered through “consultation,” meaning that a specialist will make recommendations to school staff but won’t work directly with the student. Notice how services are listed and whether you agree that they will meet the student’s needs.
  • If a child will transition to a different level of school within the year, there may be two grids. One grid is for the rest of the current year, and the other grid is for the next academic year at the new school. Service minutes are often slightly different for elementary, middle, and high school.
  • Consider whether the IEP team will schedule a “transition conference” to talk about the switch to a new level of school and how services might change.
  • The grid includes a location for each service. Notice whether the student is going to be pulled out of class to receive a service or whether the services will be “pushed in” to a general education classroom.
  • Make note of any questions or concerns about the Service Matrix that you want to include in your agenda for the IEP meeting.

Refer to the Present Levels statements

The Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLOP for short) are within the first few pages of the IEP. This is the part of the IEP with the most room for paragraphs about what’s going on. These statements come mostly from evaluation, and parents, teachers, and service providers may contribute language and information to enhance them. This section of the IEP explains why the student needs services.

  • Consider whether the Service Matrix adequately addresses the needs identified in the Present Levels.  
  • Goals are described within the Present Levels and again in another section of the IEP that is just for goal setting. Make sure nothing is left out and that language is consistent throughout the IEP.
  • Read the goals carefully. The Present Levels statements provide a “baseline,” to show where a student starts before new learning begins.
  • Are the goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound)?
  • In particular, is each goal Achievable with the instructional time offered through the Service Matrix?
  • Are any goals too easy?
  • Students with IEPs are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE includes the right to an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. Are the goals set at the right level to support meaningful progress?
  • Parents can suggest changes to the goals at the IEP meeting.
  • Parents can ask what teaching strategy (SDI) will help the student reach the annual goals. Here’s a way to ask: “Can you help me understand HOW you will be teaching my child, so I can use similar words and strategies when I’m helping my child learn?”
  • A general description of the teaching strategy can be incorporated into the Present Levels statements.
  • PAVE provides an article with more tips about goal setting.
  • Write down questions and concerns about Present Levels or Goals for the team meeting.

Compare Service Matrix and LRE statement

The Present Levels, Goals, and Service Matrix are the heart of a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). After reading through these sections,notice if any of the student’s services are listed as “concurrent,” which means they are provided within general education (push in). Notice also which services are being offered in a separate (pull out) classroom. Then keep going in the IEP document to find a statement about the student’s Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

  • A student is entitled to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment to the maximum extent appropriate.
  • Consider whether the IEP team has adequately considered that special education is a service, not a place.
  • Are there additional creative ways to consider how services might be “push in” instead of “pull out” to support more inclusion, if appropriate, to meet the student’s needs?
  • The LRE page includes a grid to mark what was considered and chosen as a range/percentage of time that a student will spend in special education versus general education.
  • Consider whether you agree with the LRE determination and note any concerns for the IEP team to discuss.

Read the list of accommodations.

Accommodations are designed to enable a student with a disability to access learning in ways that are equitable. Equity doesn’t mean equal. Equity exists when a student gets support (like a wheelchair ramp, toileting plan, earphones, or a break-space option) to access what typically developing classmates can access without support.

  • Consider how the accommodations will look and feel to the student. Will the student be able to understand and self-advocate for them, or will the student need more coaching from teachers for the supports to be meaningful?
  • If possible, collect student input or ensure the student can attend the IEP meeting to participate in discussion about their supports and services.
  • Are the supports individualized and thoughtful or pulled from a pre-built list? Be sure they address needs identified through evaluation and by the student, family, and other people who truly know this student.
  • A student does not need to be “eligible” for an accommodation. There simply needs to be demonstrated impact on a “major life activity.” See PAVE’s article about Section 504.
  • The accommodations section of an IEP or a Section 504 Plan can travel with a student into higher education, vocational education, or work.
  • Is there anything the student needs that is missing? The Present Levels section at the front of the IEP might provide insight.
  • “Teacher check for understanding” is a common school accommodation. Parents may want to ask how the teacher will develop a system for doing that.
  • Parents can ask how the school will share the list of accommodations with all relevant staff. For example, does a bus driver, school nurse, or lunch server need to read this list? Would it be reasonable for the student to hand-carry a handout version?
  • If the student will transition into a new level of school within the year, consider how to discuss the accommodations with the new teaching team next term.
  • Notice if there are any “modifications,” which would include changes to the expectations—such as doing a shorter assignment or showing work in an alternative format. Does anything need to be added?
  • Make note of any concerns related to accommodations or modifications and plan to share those with the IEP team.

Accommodations for state testing

Note any concerns about how a child will be accommodated on standardized tests. Students with IEPs may be allowed extra time, an alternative place or time to take the tests, or something else. Try to imagine the experience of testing from the student’s perspective and consider how accommodations will enable the student to demonstrate knowledge.

Communication and Prior Written Notice (PWN)

Parents can request a specific method for regularly checking in with school staff.  A weekly or bi-weekly email is common, or parents can arrange to get something in the backpack, a phone call, a text…. Ask for what works. At the IEP team meeting, the group can agree on a communication strategy.

A communication agreement is formally written into the Prior Written Notice (PWN), which the school sends to parents after the IEP meeting.

A parent can request further changes to the IEP and note any disagreements by submitting a note to attach to the PWN, which becomes part of the formal IEP document. The PWN includes detail about what the IEP team has agreed to implement and when services are scheduled to begin.

Sign Consent for services to begin

Once the team agrees on a final version of the IEP, a parent must sign consent for services to begin. From that point on, families have the right to request an IEP team meeting any time there are concerns about progress or services. The IEP team is required to meet at least once a year. At meetings, family participants sign to show their participation and attendance.

Services are ongoing unless a parent officially signs a document to revoke services or if a new evaluation finds that the student is no longer eligible. A new evaluation is required at least every three years to determine ongoing eligibility and any necessary changes to the student’s program. A parent who disagrees with a school district evaluation can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at district expense. See PAVE’s article: Evaluations Part 2.

Recovery Services: What Families Need to Know as Schools Reopen

A Brief Overview

  • Students with disabilities who have not been fully served during years of the COVID-19 pandemic may have the right to additional school-based services to help them get back on track. These additional services may be called Recovery or Compensatory Services.
  • Read on for information, including guidance from the federal government. A family-friendly, printable handout from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is a place to begin.
  • Whether a student with disabilities is served through a Section 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), decisions about Recovery/Compensatory Services are made by a collaborative team that includes family participants.
  • Federal money is available to help schools provide additional services to students with disabilities.
  • Section 504 and IEP teams are responsible to make collaborative, student-centered decisions about Compensatory Services: Schools may not take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Full Article

Schools, students, and families face a unique set of challenges as doors reopen with ongoing impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Students with disabilities may have been impacted more than their non-disabled peers and may be eligible for additional services to help them get back on track with their learning and development.

Additional services may be called Recovery Services or Compensatory Services. Under either name, schools are responsible for working with families to determine where there are learning gaps and how to ensure students get the support and services they need to make appropriate progress in all areas of their education, including areas related to student well-being and social emotional learning (SEL).

The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) provides a family-friendly, printable 4-page handout that explains a student’s right to Compensatory Services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law protects the civil rights of all students with disabilities, including those with Section 504 Plans and those with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). All students with disabilities that significantly impact how they access school have the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

FAPE right are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). IDEA is the federal law that provides a grant entitlement for students who receive special education through an IEP.

Section 504 and the IDEA require that students with known or suspected disabilities be evaluated to determine eligibility for services and to gather data for an individualized plan or program. Students who were not identified for services because of COVID-related logistics may be among those who are entitled to additional services.

Recovery/Compensatory Services are based on a student’s right to FAPE

Compensatory Services are sometimes awarded as the result of a complaint investigation but do not have to be linked to dispute resolution: Schools and families can design a plan for these services in ways that are collaborative and not adversarial. Whether a student is entitled to Recovery/Compensatory Services is a question related to FAPE rights and not a question of whether the school tried in good faith to serve the student, according to OCR.

OCR states that “Schools must convene a group of persons knowledgeable about the student to make an individualized determination of whether a student’s current services should be changed due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the impact of loss of services on skills, mental health and trauma concerns, or the physical health effects of long COVID (post-COVID conditions).”

OCR also includes these statements in its handout for families:

  • “Compensatory Services are required to remedy any educational or other deficits that result from the student with a disability not receiving the evaluations or services to which they were entitled.
  • “For example, a school may need to provide Compensatory Services for a student who did not receive physical therapy during school closures or for a student who did not receive a timely evaluation.
  • “Providing Compensatory Services to a student does not draw into question a school’s good faith efforts during these difficult circumstances. It is a remedy that recognizes the reality that students experience injury when they do not receive appropriate and timely initial evaluations, re-evaluations, or services, including the services that the school had previously determined they were entitled to, regardless of the reason.”

Families participate in decision-making

Whether a student with disabilities is served through a Section 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), decisions about Compensatory Services are made by a collaborative team that includes family participants and anyone else with knowledge of the student, including (but not limited to) school nurses, teachers, counselors, psychologists, school administrators, social workers, doctors and/or other providers within or outside of school. Note that IEP teams have specific requirements about who must attend meetings unless a parent signs consent for an absence (WAC 392-172A-03095).

OCR lists factors for a team of people knowledgeable about a student to consider when making decisions about Compensatory Services:

  • The frequency and duration of missed instruction and related services
  • Whether special education and/or related services that were provided during the pandemic were appropriate based on the student’s individual needs
  • A student’s present level of performance
  • Previous [pre-pandemic] rates of progress
  • Results of updated evaluations
  • Whether evaluations were delayed
  • Any other relevant information

OCR investigates complaints and impacted change in Los Angeles

Under Section 504, if a parent or guardian believes that their child has not received a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) or has been denied equitable access to educational opportunities, they may seek a hearing under the school’s Section 504 Due Process procedures or file a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights.

OCR complaints can also be filed at the state level; the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance about civil rights complaint options in Washington State.

OCR investigated the Los Angeles Unified school district and found infractions related to Compensatory Services. In a document describing OCR’s resolution with Los Angeles schools, there is a list of what the schools did wrong. For example, OCR found that during remote learning, the district:

  • Limited the services provided to students with disabilities based on considerations other than individual educational needs
  • Failed to accurately or sufficiently track services provided to students with disabilities
  • Directed district service providers to include attempts to communicate with students and parents—including emails and phone calls—as the provision of services, documenting such on students’ service records
  • Informed staff that the district was not responsible for providing Compensatory education to students with disabilities who did not receive FAPE during the COVID-19 school closure period because the district was not at fault for the closure
  • Failed to develop and implement a plan adequate to remedy the instances in which students with disabilities were not provided a FAPE during remote learning

The Los Angeles district agreed to resolve these violations by creating and implementing a comprehensive plan to address the Compensatory education needs of students with disabilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guidance from OSERS

The federal Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) included guidance related to Compensatory services as part of its Return to School Roadmap, published September 30, 2021. Included is a question (D-6) about when Compensatory Services may be necessary and this multi-part answer:

“A child’s IEP Team may determine that compensatory services are necessary to mitigate the impact of disruptions and delays in providing appropriate services to the child. Some examples of situations that might require consideration of whether, and what, Compensatory Services are necessary include:

  1. If the initial evaluation, eligibility determination, and identification, development and implementation of the IEP for an eligible child were delayed
  2. If the special education and related services that were provided during the pandemic through virtual, hybrid, or in-person instruction were not appropriate to meet the child’s needs
  3. If some or all of the child’s IEP could not be implemented using the methods of service delivery available during the pandemic (for example, if the physical therapy and behavioral intervention strategies included in the child’s IEP could not be provided through virtual means)
  4. If meaningful services to facilitate the transition from secondary school to activities such as postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation were not provided due to the pandemic

OSERS goes on to say: “These examples are not meant to be exhaustive and are provided to illustrate various situations that could require consideration of whether, and to what extent, Compensatory Services are needed to address the child’s needs and mitigate the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Government money is available to fund additional special education services

Federal money is available to help schools provide additional services to students with disabilities, including students who may be aging out of IEP services at 21 but have not yet earned a diploma or accessed all the transition services they need to be prepared for further education, employment, and independent living. See PAVE’s article, Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19.

The US Office of Elementary and Secondary Education in December published a resource focused on allowable uses of funding from various sources, including the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund (GEER) and the American Rescue Plan. The FAQ specifically highlights:

  1. Providing educational and related services under Section 504, including, but not limited to, providing [Compensatory Services] to students with disabilities… to make up for any skills that might have been lost if it is individually determined that the student was unable to receive a FAPE as a result of school closure or other COVID disruption
  2. Supporting students with disabilities under the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act/federal special education law], including by eliminating evaluation backlogs and providing support and direct services, such as technical assistance, personnel preparation, and professional development and training

School districts are required to incorporate stakeholder input into their plans for use of federal funds. Information about these requirements is described in a publication from Washington’s State Educational Agency/OSPI: Academic and Student Well-Being Recovery Plan: Planning Guide 2021 For School Districts, Tribal Compact Schools, and Charter Schools.

For additional state information related to the pandemic, and to access content in languages other than English, visit OSPI’s website: Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Guidance & Resources.

IEP teams also can discuss ESY

The fall return to school is a good time for IEP teams to consider whether a student experienced learning losses during summer break. By tracking how long it takes to recover a skill, the IEP team can discuss whether the student might need Extended School Year (ESY), typically provided next summer. ESY is a unique process for students with IEPs, and ESY services are determined based on a specific discussion about regression and recoupment. To better understand those terms and how ESY is determined, see PAVE’s article: ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE.

IEP teams can discuss Recovery Services, Compensatory Services, and Extended School Year in determining what a student may need to recover learning that was unavailable or inaccessible due to the pandemic or a student’s unique circumstances.

Checklist to get ready to talk about additional services

  • Note whether the student is due for an educational evaluation, required every three years. Family can request a new evaluation any time there are concerns that information about the student is outdated or inaccurate.
  • Read each IEP goal carefully. Goals are written to establish whether a teacher’s Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is effectively helping a child learn a needed skill or concept.
  • Consider whether there are questions about how instruction is specifically designed to meet a need or teach a skill, so the learning is accessible to the student.
  • Reach out to the IEP team case manager or to individual teachers/service providers to request documentation about progress made toward each IEP goal.
  • If progress wasn’t monitored, make a note to discuss this lack of progress monitoring with the IEP team.
  • Write down and prepare to share family/student observations about what worked or didn’t work during alternative school delivery during the pandemic. Reflect on this question: Was the learning accessible?
  • Request an IEP team meeting within a time frame that makes sense. Some teams will want to meet before the school year begins, while others may wait until the school year is underway or until an annual review date later in the school year.
  • Consider inviting district special education staff into the meeting if additional expertise or problem-solving support is needed.
  • At the meeting, ask for family/student concerns to be included in the Prior Written Notice (PWN), a required document generated each time an official IEP team meets to discuss a student’s program and services.
  • Prepare to discuss transportation needs for access to Compensatory/Recovery Services. Transportation options may include district transportation; regional, shared agreements; private transportation; or parent reimbursement for travel costs. Transportation is part of FAPE delivery.
  • For students near the end of high school or who graduated or turned 21 during the pandemic without achieving or receiving everything that was expected, Transition Recovery Services may be available. See PAVE’s article: Support for Youth Whose Post-High School Plans were Impacted by COVID-19.
  • Consider a student’s strengths and how Recovery Services build on those strengths to support student resilience and well-being. Will the services instill a sense of pride, belonging, and accomplishment? Ensure that the student’s emotional well-being is honored and that the extra help does not feel like punishment.

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) staff can help with questions about school-based services. For questions related to health and wellness, insurance, and access to medical services, PAVE’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center (F2F) provides assistance. Click Get Help from our home page at wapave.org to request individualized support.

Here’s a resource with a video training and links to some documents included in this article and more: Lessons from the Field – Providing Required Compensatory Services That Help Students with Disabilities in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

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

Special Education is a service, not a place!

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

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

Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:

  • FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The entitlement of a student who is eligible for special education services.
  • IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The entitlement to FAPE is protected by this law that allocates federal funds to support eligible students.
  • LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. A student eligible for special education services has a right to FAPE in the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate. General education is the least restrictive, and an alternative placement is discussed when data indicate that supplementary aids and supports are not working to enable access to FAPE in general education.
  • IEP: Individualized Education Program. School staff and family caregivers make up an IEP team. The team is responsible to develop a program reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate toward IEP goals and on grade-level curriculum, in light of the child’s circumstances. Based on a student’s strengths and needs (discovered through evaluation, observation, and review of data), the team collaborates to decide what services enable FAPE and how to deliver those services. Where services are delivered is the last part of the IEP process, and decisions are made by all team members, unless family caregivers choose to excuse some participants or waive the right to a full team process.
  • Equity: When access is achieved with supports so that a person with a disability has a more level or fair opportunity to benefit from the building, service, or program. For example, a student in a wheelchair can access a school with stairs if there is also a ramp. A person with a behavioral health condition might need a unique type of “ramp” to access equitable learning opportunities within general education.
  • Inclusion: When people of all abilities experience an opportunity together, and individuals with disabilities have supports they need to be contributing participants and to receive equal benefit. Although IDEA does not explicitly demand inclusion, the requirement for FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is how inclusion is built into special education process.
  • Placement: Where a student learns. Because the IDEA requires LRE, an IEP team considers equity and inclusion in discussions about where a student receives education. General education placement is the Least Restrictive Environment. An IEP team considers ways to offer supplementary aids and supports to enable access to LRE. If interventions fail to enable access to FAPE, the IEP team considers a continuum of placement alternatives—special education classrooms, alternative schools, home-bound instruction, day treatment, residential placement, or an alternative that is uniquely designed. 
  • Supplementary Aids and Supports: The help and productivity enhancers a student needs. Under the IDEA, a student’s unique program and services are intended to enable access to FAPE within LRE. Note that an aid or a support—a service that enables access—is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. Having a 1:1 to support a student, for example, does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State. 

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

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

LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own

To deliver FAPE, a school district provides lessons uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and struggles (Specially Designed Instruction/SDI). In addition, the IEP team is responsible to design individualized accommodations and modifications.

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

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

Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access

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

A tool to support inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sample Letter to Request Evaluation

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a summary of evaluation timelines:

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

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

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

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

The clock starts ticking when a request is made

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

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

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

Parent consent is required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents can appeal decisions and/or seek a 504 plan

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

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

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

Sample letter for a special education referral

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

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

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

From:

Your Name

Your relationship to the student

Your phone number

Your email address

The date you submit the request

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

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

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

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

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

  • Use bullet points.
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Here are some areas where [name] is struggling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I appreciate your help in behalf of [NAME].

Sincerely,

Your Name

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

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

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

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

Accessibility is a right

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

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

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

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

What does the state say about parent rights to participate?

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

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

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

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

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

What is FAPE?

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

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

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

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

Families have always been a priority under the law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did Doug C. Versus Hawaii say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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