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.

Life After High School: Tools for Transition

Helping a student with disabilities prepare for life after high school requires thoughtful organization and planning. This presentation describes three ways to support this important time of life:

  1. High School and Beyond Plan
  2. IEP Transition Plan
  3. Agency Support

Here are resources referenced in the video:

  • OSPI Model Forms: Scroll down to find and open the IEP Form with Secondary Transition
  • OSPI Graduation Requirements, including links to download the High School and Beyond Plan in various languages
  • DDA: Developmental Disabilities Administration
  • DVR: Division of Vocational Rehabilitation
  • TVR: Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation, for Native Americans with disabilities
  • DSB: Department of Services for the Blind, for people with blindness or low vision
  • WAC 392-172A-03090, including description of Age of Majority rights that transfer to the student at age 18
  • PAVE article about Supported Decision Making
  • OSPI: The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has a family liaison for special education
  • OEO: The Office of the Educational Ombuds provides online resources and 1:1 support
  • OCR: The Office for Civil Rights can help with questions about equity and access
  • ESD: Nine Education Service Districts; each has a behavioral health navigator, and some are licensed to provide behavioral health services
  • Developmental Disabilities Ombuds
  • PAVE School to Adulthood Toolkit

Toolkit Basics: Where to Begin When a Student Needs More Help

When a student has unmet needs and may need new or different school-based services, what to do next can feel confusing or overwhelming. PAVE provides this toolkit to support families in taking initial, critical steps. These guidelines apply regardless of where school happens.

If your family is new to Washington State, military connected, or you just need help to understand how education is structured here, a great place to start learning is to read, download, or print PAVE’s article, Help for Military Families: Tips to Navigate Special Education Process in Washington State.

Is Disability a Factor?

Before acting, the family can consider disability and its impact. PAVE’s overview article about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education) describes 14 disability categories. If criteria are met in one of those categories, a student is eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP team that includes family caregivers determines how special education services are provided.

IDEA and/or Section 504?

If a student does not meet IDEA eligibility, the student may still have the civil right to help, protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. An educational evaluation determines whether there is a disability impacting a “major life activity.” If so, a Section 504 Plan enables the student to access school with individualized supports and accommodations. PAVE provides an article: Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations. Note that a student with an IEP has protections from special education law (IDEA) and civil rights protections from Section 504.

A three-part video series from PAVE provides more information: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

Request Evaluation

If a student has not been identified for school-based services, the first step is to request an educational evaluation. State deadlines apply to formal requests. PAVE provides an article with basic information about that process and a sample letter format for requesting a free evaluation from the school district: Sample Letter to Request Evaluation.

Prepare for the Meeting

Families are more successful in their advocacy when they prepare for a meeting with the school. Families can write down questions and concerns to share before the meeting to make sure their primary topics of concern are included in the meeting agenda.

To help families get organized, PAVE offers a format for designing a Handout for the Team Meeting.

An alternative version supports self-advocates: Students: Get Ready to Participate in Your IEP Meeting with a Handout for the Team.

Here are a few common meeting topics, with prompts to consider and links to more information from PAVE:

  • Evaluation request
    • Will the school evaluate to determine eligibility and needs?
    • Are student rights being upheld, including Child Find, which protects the right to evaluation?
  • IEP goals and progress monitoring
    • Do goals need to be changed or rewritten?
    • Is the student’s progress appropriate in light of their circumstances?
  • Accommodations on an IEP or Section 504 Plan
    • Who is responsible for the accommodations—student or staff?
    • Is the current plan working to help the student access their learning?
  • Placement
    • Is the student’s right to education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) being upheld?
    • Is the placement student-centered or a result of resource challenges?
    • Has the IEP team considered a range of placement options to meet the student’s needs if education in the LRE cannot be achieved successfully?
  • Related Services
    • Do parents understand what is being provided, and by whom?
    • If related services are a critical aspect of the meeting, are staff providing those services invited to the meeting?
  • Behavior
    • Has a request been made for a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA)?
    • Is behavior being supported in ways that reinforce skill development?
  • Literacy
    • Has the student been evaluated for a Specific Learning Disability?

IEP Process Demystified

Procedural safeguards protect family and student rights throughout the special education process. A copy of the procedural safeguards is offered at all formal meetings. Procedural Safeguards explain how the process of special education is designed to work and can help families monitor whether their rights and the rights of their student are being upheld. If anyone suspects the school is doing something wrong in the provision of special education services, they have the right to dispute resolution options.

Filing a community complaint is one dispute resolution option. PAVE provides a training video: Procedural Safeguards: How to File a Special Education ComplaintThe training helps families know where to get a community complaint form and provides a case study example to describe how to complete the form. The community complaint process is a no-cost option for families of children who receive special education services. Here’s another resource for general information about special education process and how to participate: The Seattle Special Education PTSA has built a family-friendly Guide to Special Education, downloadable in 10 languages.

PAVE Provides Sample Letters to Support Families in their Advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behavioral Health and School: Key Information for Families

When a student struggles to maintain well-being, achievement at school can be a challenge. This video provides key information for families to seek school-based services for behavioral health needs. Included are two advocacy statements that this information might empower you to say in a meeting with the school:

  1. “I want to make sure my student’s rights are upheld.”
  2. “I’m providing information and resources to help the school follow the law and educational best practices.”

Included in the video is information about truancy and a new state law that schools must excuse absences for behavioral health reasons. Also included is information from the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which provided new guidance in summer 2022 about school responsibility to help instead of discipline students with behavioral health needs.  

PAVE staff cannot provide advocacy or advice. We share information to empower family members and young people who do have legal advocacy rights. You can learn this information and keep in handy when you aren’t sure whether the school is following the law or educational best practices. Please be patient with yourself while you are learning this information. It can feel like a lot! As you learn a little bit at a time, you can see how your increasing knowledge shifts options and outcomes for your student.

Here are resources from this training, listed in video order:

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.

Back To School Checklist!

Late summer is the time to gather school supplies, find out what time the school bus will pick up and drop off, and prepare to find new classrooms and meet new teachers. Parents of students with disabilities have some additional things to check off the list to be ready for the year ahead.

Super important: Before school starts, make sure you know what’s included in your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), Section 504 Plan, and/or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). For a more detailed article about getting ready for a new school year, see PAVE’s article: Tips to Help Parents Plan for the Upcoming School Year.

Here’s a checklist to help you get organized:

  • Create a one-pager about your child to share with school staff
    • Include a picture
    • List child’s talents and strengths—your bragging points
    • Describe behavioral strategies that motivate your child
    • Mention any needs related to allergy, diet, or sensory
    • Highlight important accommodations, interventions, and supports from the 504 Plan, IEP, or BIP
  • Make a list of questions for your next meeting to discuss the IEP, BIP, or 504 Plan
    • Do you understand the goals and what skills your child is working on?
    • Do the present levels of performance match your child’s current development?
    • Do accommodations and modifications sound likely to work?
    • Do you understand the target and replacement behaviors being tracked and taught by a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)?
    • Will the child’s transportation needs be met?
  • Mark your calendar for about a week before school starts to visit school and/or send an email to teachers, the IEP case manager, and/or your child’s counselor
    • Share the one-pager you built!
    • Ask school staff how they prefer to communicate—email, phone, a notebook sent back and forth between home and school?
    • Get clear about what you want and need, and collaborate to arrange a communication plan that will work for everyone
    • A communication plan between home and school can be listed as an accommodation on an IEP or 504 Plan; plan to ask for your communication plan to be written into the document at the next formal meeting
  • Design a communication log book
    • Can be a physical or digital notebook
    • Plan to write notes every time you speak with someone about your child’s needs or services. Include the date, the person’s full name and title, and information about the discussion
    • Log every communication, whether it happens in the hallway, on the phone, through text, via email, or something else
    • After every communication, plan to send an email thanking the person for their input and reviewing what was discussed and any promised actions—now that conversation is “in writing”
    • Print emails to include in your physical log book or copy/paste to include in a digital file
    • Having everything in writing will help you confirm what did/didn’t happen as promised: “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen.”
  • Consider if you want to request more information about the credentials of teachers or providers working with your child. Here are some things you can ask about:
    • Who is providing which services and supports?
    • Who is designing the specially designed instruction (SDI)? (SDI helps a child make progress toward IEP goals)
    • What training did these staff receive, or are there training needs for the district to consider?
  • Ask  the special education teacher or 504 case manager how you can share information about your child, such as a one-pager, with school team members. This includes paraprofessionals or aids and other members of the school team.
    • Parents have important information that benefit all school team members. Ask who has access to your child’s IEP or 504 Plan and how you can support ensuring team members receive information
  • Have thank you notes ready to write and share!
    • Keep in mind that showing someone you appreciate their efforts can reinforce good work
  • Celebrate your child’s return to school
    • Do the bus dance on the first morning back to school!
    • Be ready to welcome your child home with love and encouragement. You can ask questions and/or read notes from your child’s teachers that help your loved one reflect on their day and share about the new friends and helpers they met at school

Below is an infographic of the above information.

Tip! you can click on the image and access an accessible PDF to print and keep handy.

Back to School Checklist click to find the accessible PDF

Click to access an accessible PDF of the infographic above

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

A Brief Overview

Full Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key guidance and legal protections

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

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

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

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

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

Behavior support is part of FAPE

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

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

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

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

Federal framework for student rights

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

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

What is exclusionary discipline?

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

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

Seclusion and restraint may not be used as punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents can request an evaluation any time

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

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

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

Manifestation Determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A behavior support plan is best practice

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

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

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

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

A shortened school day may be a suspension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative learning options for longer suspensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools are required to support behavior and work with families

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

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

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

Here are links to OSPI’s model forms for:

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

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

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

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

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

PAVE provides resources to support families and schools:

Washington is a local control state

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

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

In general, Washington rules:

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

Schools must provide educational services during a suspension

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

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

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

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

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

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

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

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

Emergency Response Protocol (ERP)

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

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

Reporting requirements for disciplinary removal

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

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

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

Reporting requirements for isolation/restraint

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

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

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

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

Equity work in student discipline is ongoing

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

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

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.