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:

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

A Brief Overview

Full Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key guidance and legal protections

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

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

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

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

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

Behavior support is part of FAPE

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

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

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

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

Federal framework for student rights

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

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

What is exclusionary discipline?

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

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

Seclusion and restraint may not be used as punishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents can request an evaluation any time

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

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

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

Manifestation Determination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A behavior support plan is best practice

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

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

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

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

A shortened school day may be a suspension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative learning options for longer suspensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools are required to support behavior and work with families

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

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

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

Here are links to OSPI’s model forms for:

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

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

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

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

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

PAVE provides resources to support families and schools:

Washington is a local control state

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

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

In general, Washington rules:

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

Schools must provide educational services during a suspension

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

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

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

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

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

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

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

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

Emergency Response Protocol (ERP)

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

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

Reporting requirements for disciplinary removal

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

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

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

Reporting requirements for isolation/restraint

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

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

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

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

Equity work in student discipline is ongoing

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

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

Tips to Help Parents Plan for the Upcoming School Year

A Brief Overview

Full Article

Summer provides an opportunity to reset for the school year ahead. If your child has a disability, you may want to think about what went well or what could have gone better last year. By getting organized, you can plan ahead for fall and beyond. This article includes resources and information to help you get ready for a new school year. 

Locate and organize documents

Now is a good time to re-read important documents, such as your student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), Section 504 Plan, or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). Organize a place to store the most current copies. Whether you choose an electronic file or a physical folder, label everything with the school year and renewal dates so you can easily notice when something is due for an update.

Use a highlighter or choose another way to make notes as you read through these documents. PAVE provides an article to help: Steps to Read, Understand, and Develop an Initial IEP.

Do you have concerns about anything that’s included or missing from your student’s program or plan? Write down your concerns and plan to use these notes to organize your top priorities. When you have an organized list of your top concerns, save this list to share with the school so these points will be included in your next meeting’s agenda.

Keep in mind that you can request a meeting anytime you have concerns. During summer you may be able to meet with district staff even if school staff are unavailable. The state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a resource directory with special educational staff at the state, regional, and district levels.

Many parents want to meet with teachers and other school staff a few weeks into a new school year to see how things are going and make sure services are on track to support good outcomes. Plan to schedule your meeting as soon as school staff are back in the building for the best chance to get a day/time that works well for you and the rest of the team.

Keep in mind that the school is required to support your participation in your student’s special education services program development and implementation. PAVE provides an article about the parent participation requirements of special education process.

Here are questions to consider as you review your child’s IEP, 504 Plan, or BIP

  1. Do the Present Levels of Performance describe your child in ways that are current and accurate? If no, you may want to request a new evaluation. PAVE provides a Sample Letter and information to help families seeking an evaluation.
  2. If your child has a 504 Plan but has never been formally evaluated, consider requesting a formal special education evaluation to make well-informed decisions about service needs. OSPI provides family-friendly guidance, downloadable in multiple languages, about Section 504 protections, plan development, and civil rights complaint options.
  3. Do IEP goals sound SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time appropriate), given the annual renewal date listed on the IEP’s cover page? PAVE provides an article to help families participate in goal-setting and progress monitoring.
  4. Does the Adverse Impact Statement list all the major ways that the student’s disability affects how they do in school? If not, does that important statement need to be rewritten? Is there enough evaluation data to write an accurate statement? If not, additional evaluations may be needed.
  5. Make sure the highlighted needs and the services match! Each area of need highlighted in the Adverse Impact Statement must be addressed through the services and accommodations being provided by the school.
  6. Is the program clearly written to show what skills the student is working on to support progress? For example, if a reading disability makes it hard for the student to keep up with their grade-level reading, does the program clearly describe the services and goal-setting/progress monitoring to make sure the student is getting better at reading?  
  7. Will each accommodation or modification work in real time to make sure the student has the support they need to access the classroom and curriculum? Keep in mind that accommodations and modifications are intended to meet the needs of each specific student in an individualized way. Cut-and-paste, generic accommodations are not best practice. See OSPI’s Model Forms for Section 504 Plan or for IEP. If the accommodations need work, make notes and plan to request a meeting.
  8. If there is a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), take a careful look at the target behaviors and replacement behaviors to decide whether you agree that the plan is built to support the student’s learning and skill-building. PAVE provides a video to help: Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process.
  9. Consider how behavior is going this summer and any insights you may wish to share. PAVE provides an article with Tips to Help Parents Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home.

Mark your calendar with important dates

While you are checking deadlines, get out your calendar to mark any important dates. For example, the cover page of an IEP includes an annual renewal date. The IEP team, including you, needs to meet before that date to review the IEP and make any necessary changes. Make a note on the date and also about a month before that date to make sure you and the team plan your meeting with plenty of advance notice to meet everyone’s scheduling needs.

If something happens and you cannot attend before the deadline, keep in mind that your participation is a higher priority than the deadline. Your student’s IEP will not “lapse” or “expire” because of a meeting delay. That deadline is there to hold the school accountable, not to punish families if they need to delay a meeting.

If you want to request an additional meeting, mark your calendar to reach out to the district and school as soon as teachers are back at work to get your meeting on everyone’s calendar.

The cover page of an IEP lists the date of the most recent evaluation. A new evaluation is required every three years to guarantee ongoing eligibility and to ensure that services meet current needs. Note those dates on your calendar.

You can request a new evaluation anytime you have concerns about an unmet need that isn’t fully documented or understood. You also have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) from a provider outside the school district if you don’t agree with the school’s evaluation.

PAVE provides more information and a sample letter for requesting an IEE. As you review your student’s documents, consider whether requesting an evaluation is part of what you want to do. Evaluation requests must always be in writing, and schools are responsible to provide forms to support written requests.

Review the school’s calendar and make a note of parent conferences and other important dates. If your student will be a graduating senior, plan ahead for senior year activities and make sure to allow plenty of time to request any accommodations. You might mark your calendar in early January, for example, to call the school and ask about Commencement, the Senior Party, etc., and talk through what will need to happen for those events to be accessible to your student. More information to support families of transition-age youth is available from PAVE: School to Adulthood: Transition Planning Toolkit for High School, Life, and Work.

Be sure to use a calendar that you check regularly to keep track of this important information!

Consider whether behaviors need to be addressed

A Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) often needs to be rewritten in a new school year because of changes in staffing and environment. Consider whether you want to request a fresh Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) early in the new school year to ensure your child gets a fresh start on the year with supports designed to match current needs.

See PAVE’s training video: Behavior and School: How to Participate in the FBA/BIP Process. Mark your calendar to send an FBA request letter right away if that is something you want to happen when schools reopen in the fall. 

If your child has experienced discipline and/or isolation and restraint in previous school years, summer is a good time to review state and district policies related to discipline. PAVE provides an article: What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.

Ask for a copy of the district’s student handbook so you clearly understand what the codes of conduct are for expected student behavior and what might be grounds for a suspension or expulsion. Plan to review the rules with your child in a developmentally appropriate way, and do your best to check for understanding. If there are rules you don’t think your child will be able to understand or follow, plan to discuss those challenges with school staff.

Keep in mind that if your student is sent home from school because of behavior, they are being suspended. The school is required to file paperwork with the state and share that paperwork with you. PAVE provides an on demand training: Behavior and Discipline in Special Education: What to do if the School Calls Because of a Behavior Incident.

Make notes about summer regression to talk about ESY for next year

If you notice that your child’s emerging skills are lagging during the break from school, write down details about what you observe. When school resumes, pay attention to how quickly or if those skills return. This data is important as part of a discussion with the school about Extended School Year (ESY), which is a special education service provided outside of regular school hours for eligible students. See PAVE’s article for more information: ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE.

Consider how your child with disabilities is included with non-disabled peers

Special education laws require education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to the maximum extent appropriate to meet the needs of each student. LRE requires that students with disabilities get the supplementary aids and supports they need so their inclusion is equitable. Keep in mind that equity doesn’t mean equal: It means people get the support they need to have the same opportunities.

Washington State leaders are well aware that our state is underperforming in its ability to include students with disabilities in general education. To support more inclusive schools in Washington, the State Legislature provided OSPI with $25 million for the 2019-21 biennium and $12 million for the 2021-23 biennium to provide educators with professional development opportunities in support of inclusionary practices across the state. Families can learn more about the Inclusionary Practices Professional Development Project on OSPI’s website.

Parents can support their child’s inclusion by considering how services might be delivered in the general education setting. Bringing specific ideas into an IEP meeting might generate discussion for significant shifts toward more meaningful and consistent inclusion. Here are some resources you can review to prepare for those discussions with the school:

Write an informal letter to your student’s teachers

Before the new school year gets going, consider what you most want your child’s teachers to understand or remember.

  • Is there something you say at home to help your child stay calm or refocus?
  • Is there a behavioral intervention that’s working well this summer?
  • Is there something unique about your child that isn’t obvious until you get to know them better?
  • What do you most want to share to help teachers understand and support your child?
  • Are there really important points in the IEP, 504 Plan, or Behavior Intervention Plan that you want to call out?

All of these points can be included in a short letter or email you share with teachers at the start of the school year. If you’re not comfortable writing, consider making a short video to share.

Enjoy time with your children

Summer can fly by, especially in the Northwest. Getting ready for fall is important, but so is enjoying the sunshine, swimming pools, hiking trails, camping, games, or whatever makes summer special for your family. Relish time to do something that everyone enjoys and notice how you feel. If something feels challenging next year, you can tap back into the feelings you found during a special summer moment to remember what can go well. Teachers want to know those highlights too!

PAVE provides an article, with links to self-care videos: Self-Care is Critical for Caregivers with Unique Challenges.

PAVE works all year and is happy to help. If you click Get Help and fill out a request for individualized assistance, we will contact you by phone and/or email and schedule time to discuss your specific questions.

More homework for extra credit!

PAVE provides a variety of on demand training videos and articles to support parents in better understanding special education rights, process, and family involvement. Here is some additional summer homework to support your learning:

Disability Teaches Us: Meaningful Inclusion Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Reading Tips for Families

A Brief Overview

  • Learning Heroes provides help to figure out a child’s reading level, useful when asking for summer reading recommendations from a teacher or librarian.
  • Any format that captures a child’s imagination and makes them enjoy reading is valuable. Consider graphic novels, audio books, read aloud online videos, or e-readers in addition to traditional books.
  • Consider rewards and prizes for reading achievements. The local library might have a summer program. Read on for ideas.
  • Some students will have school-based services over the summer through Extended School Year (ESY), Recovery Services (additional services due to pandemic impacts), or something else. See PAVE’s article: ESY Helps Students Who Struggle to Maintain Skills and Access FAPE.
  • PAVE provides a video and an article about supporting students with specific learning disabilities related to literacy.

Full Article

Summer days offer time to focus on play, creativity, and family fun. If most days also include time for reading, children will better maintain skills they’ve been working on during the school year. Here are tips for families to keep kids engaged in reading.

Check your child’s reading level

If possible, ask a teacher for information about the child’s reading level before school’s out. This information will help you use any reading guides provided by the school or library. Here’s another option: Learning Heroes provides help to figure out a child’s reading level.

Follow your child’s lead

Ask a librarian to show you where to find books in your child’s general reading level, then turn your child loose to explore. Children will often gravitate to books that look interesting and accessible.

Don’t worry if the child wants to explore a book that seems too easy or too hard. Keep in mind that the point is to keep the child interested in reading. Sometimes children need something easy to keep it fun, and sometimes the subject of a harder book makes it more fascinating.  

Some children choose comic books or books with diagrams, which are rarely included on teacher lists but can keep kids going to the library. Consider whether guilt-free reading options might reduce battles and keep eyes engaged on the page. Any format that captures a child’s imagination and makes them enjoy reading is valuable. Consider graphic novels, audio books, read aloud online videos, or e-readers in addition to traditional books.

Pull words from the page

Some children prefer or need books that are more interactive. Here are some options:

  • A read-aloud, with an adult or child doing the reading
  • Read together and share questions and answers along the way
  • Act out a book
  • Participate in a read-a-thon
  • Check out audio books
  • Seek applications and video programs that show words and provide narration

An agency called Bookshare provides e-books for children with learning disabilities, vision problems, or conditions such as cerebral palsy.  The agency provides alternative reading options, such as braille, audiobooks, large print books, and more.

Make reading part of everyday activities

Children learn reading habits from their family, and when adults show they love to read children will often model that behavior.

Read during everyday activities. Notice and read signs and billboards while you travel around town. Ask children to read the recipe while they help prepare a meal. They can help read a text message, an email, or a letter that came in the mail. Turn on the television’s closed caption feature so a favorite show includes the words to read and follow along.

Understand reading milestones

Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides guidance for teachers and families through Early Literacy Pathways. The downloadable booklet provides a chart of developmental milestones linked to literacy. An alternative place to get this type of information is from Understood.org: Reading skills at different ages.

Resource locations for summer reading

Washington’s Secretary of State provides a website page with information about a statewide Summer Reading Program. Included is a tool to find your local library.

Ask the teacher or school district what they offer over summer. Many schools partner with local organizations or offer school-supported access to digital learning applications, such as

The Barnes & Noble summer reading program is for all ages and allows any child to pick a free book from a predetermined list of books after completing the program. Visit the store to ask for a journal to track summer reading.

Scholastic Summer Challenge (Scholastic.com) has a summer reading challenge called “Readapalooza.” Kids log their reading minutes, unlock badges, and earn rewards.

Search locally online for “summer reading [your city]” or  “summer reading program near me” because many local or state-specific businesses and restaurants host summer reading programs.

Happy reading this summer and always!

Transition Triangle

The transition triangle talks about the relationship between the High School and Beyond Plan , the IEP transition plan and Agency supports from DDA, DVR and DSB. within that triangle of support is the student asking themselves: Who they are, what is their future and their goals.

The planning process to support a student with disabilities toward their adult life plans requires coordination and organization. This graphic provides a visual overview of the work and who is responsible to help.

The center upside down triangle describes key questions for a student as they move through school and toward adulthood:

  1. Who am I? Answers include what the student is interested in, what they are good at, what they struggle with, and how they see themselves.
  2. What’s my future? Students can begin to imagine where they might work, whether higher education will be part of their future, and how they might live.
  3. How do I reach my goals? The answers are a long-term project. A good planning process ensures that work done today is moving the student toward their vision for adult life.

The three colored triangles on the corners of the graphic represent three tools that help students ask and answer these questions.

The purple triangle on the bottom left represents the High School and Beyond Plan. Washington State requires schools to begin supporting all students with a High School and Beyond Plan before they leave middle school. The plan includes questions to help the student think about where they might work someday and how much education they will need to get that job. The plan is designed to make sure time spent in school is moving the student toward adult goals. The High School and Beyond Plan addresses the same questions that are listed in the center of our triangle and is often managed by staff in a school’s counseling center.

The blue triangle on the bottom right represents the transition plan, which is required in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) by the school year when they turn 16. Goals in the IEP Transition Plan include further education/training, employment, and independent living as parts of a student’s program. A student with disabilities has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) until they earn a diploma or turn 21. The IEP includes a target graduation date, determined by the IEP team. The state requires the IEP Transition Plan to align with the High School and Beyond Plan. School staff and the family collaborate to make sure these two tools match up to best support a student’s progress.

The teal triangle on top of the pyramid represents agencies that might provide Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services. The Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) has a variety of school-to-work programs for eligible students: A DDA case manager can provide information about options. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provides Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) for students still in school as well as vocational rehabilitation services for adults with disabilities. As they transition out of school, members of some Native American tribes may access Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation (TVR) services. The Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is a separate agency providing Pre-ETS for youth and vocational rehabilitation services for individuals who are blind or low vision. Staff from these agencies may work with an IEP team and counselors at school to make sure everyone is working together to support the student in the center.

Ideally a student with disabilities has people supporting all of the features on this transition triangle. Best practice is for all agencies and supporters to collaborate as they help a student move toward a successful adult life.

For direct assistance from PAVE, click Get Help. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides information about graduation requirements for a student in Washington State

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

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

Student rights have not been waived

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Waivers to Early Learning Requirements

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

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

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

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

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

Communication is key

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

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

Keep notes about student learning

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

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

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

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

Families can reach out to School Boards and Counselors

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

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

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

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

Creative conversation starters

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

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

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

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

Quick Look: How to Prepare for a Virtual Meeting

Schools and families continue to meet virtually to discuss special education services during the closures related to the coronavirus pandemic. Here are tips to help family members prepare for remote meetings to discuss a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), a Section 504 Plan, evaluation for special education services or something else related to a special education student’s needs and learning program.

For more comprehensive information, see PAVE’s article, IEP on Pause? How to Support Continuous Learning with School Buildings Closed.”

  • Determine a regular communication plan with the school. That might include email, telephone, text, web-based meetings, U.S. mail, packet delivery by school bus…  whatever works for regularly checking in.   
  • Family caregivers can request meetings. PAVE provides a template to formalize the request: Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting. Included with the letter template is detail about who is required to attend IEP meetings, and those requirements have not changed.
  • The Special Education Continuous Learning Plan is provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to support but not replace the IEP during the national crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Included in the form is a sample meeting agenda.
  • Consider confidentiality and privacy issues. Ask school staff to describe how privacy and confidentiality are protected through a suggested meeting platform, and make sure to have any passwords or PINs ready to use when you log in or call into a meeting.
  • Before a meeting, ask to sign any necessary paperwork or releases to have special education records sent electronically via email. Special education records can include meeting notifications, IEP or Section 504 documents, assessments, progress reports, Prior Written Notices that describe meetings and planned actions, or other materials that contribute to the program review and goals.  
  • Review records before the meeting and write down questions to ask during the meeting. PAVE provides a Parent Handout Form or, for self-advocates, a Student Handout Form, that can help organize concerns and questions. Another version of a Parent Input Form is provided by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
  • Carefully review goals, services, accommodations, modifications and consider how they might apply or need to be adjusted for current circumstances. Think creatively and prepare to collaborate and request expertise from school staff. Pay special attention to the present levels of academic achievement and functional performance. These present levels statements, within the first pages of the IEP document, describe how the student is doing and where there are challenges. Wrightslaw.com provides tools specifically to support parents in reviewing IEP present levels in preparation for a meeting during COVID-19.
  • Consider whether the student will attend the meeting. A student who is 14 or older is invited as part of the state’s Pathways to Graduation planning. PAVE provides an article: Attention Students: Lead your own IEP meetings and take charge of your future.
  • Communicate early—before the scheduled meeting—to request updates about progress, a student’s present levels of performance, or other concerns. If family caregivers build a handout for the meeting, that can be submitted ahead of time to ensure that this information is part of the agenda.
  • Family members can request a practice session to test the technology. Part of that training might include practice sharing the screen to make sure everyone will be able to view important documents during the formal meeting.
  • As with in-person meetings, family participants can invite support people. A friend or family member might be able to attend and take notes.
  • Refer to parent and/or student input forms to stay on topic and ensure that all concerns and questions are addressed.
  • When the meeting ends, family participants can ask for a copy of the program recommendations page.
  • After the IEP meeting, the school provides a Prior Written Notice (PWN) to the family participants to review meeting notes and any decisions, agreements, or disagreements. Ask when and how the PWN will be provided. Family participants have the right to request amendments or corrections to the PWN.
  • Be sure to leave with a clear action plan. Here are key questions to ask and record:
    • What will happen?
    • Who is responsible?
    • When will the actions happen? Are there timelines?
    • How will we communicate for follow through?
  • As with any meeting, any unresolved issues can be addressed in a follow-up meeting.

To learn more, PAVE provides a six-minute overview of IEP basics and a 30-minute training video about special education.   

Early Learning Transition: When Birth-3 Services End

The Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) ends when a child turns 3. A transition to a preschool plan with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) requires a new evaluation and is a team-led process:

Planning begins 6-9 months before the third birthday.

  • The Family Resource Coordinator (FRC) schedules a transition conference to design a written Transition Plan.
  • The transition includes an evaluation that is conducted by the local school district and usually begins 2-3 months before the child’s third birthday.
  • If the child is determined eligible, the child will transition from a family-centered program of early learning (IFSP) into a school-based program (IEP).
  • Parent participation is critical: You are an important member of the transition planning team!

To qualify for an IEP, the child must meet evaluation criteria under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Criteria for Birth-3 services (Part C of the IDEA) are slightly different than the criteria for Special Education programming available for ages 3-21 (Part B of the IDEA).

To qualify for an IEP: (1) The student is determined to have a qualifying disability.  (2) The disability adversely impacts education. (3) The evaluation indicates a need for specially designed instruction.

Differences in Eligibility

IDEA Part C
(Also called Early Intervention -IFSP)

IDEA Part B
(Also called Special Education – IEP)
25% or 1.5 SD (Standard Deviation) Below the mean in one area of development – OR-2 SD (Standard Deviation ) below the mean in one or more areas of development – OR –
Diagnosed physical or medical condition that has a high probability of resulting in delay 1.5 SD below the mean in two or more areas of development

Qualifying Disability Categories for IEP:

  • Developmental Delay (ages 3-8)
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Autism
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Deaf-blindness
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impairment
  • Deafness
  • Speech/Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury

A child who doesn’t qualify for an IEP:

  • May qualify for a Section 504 plan, which provides accommodations under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when:
    • The disability significantly limits one or more major life activities.
    • The student needs accommodations to access the general education curriculum.
  • May qualify for other services like Head Start, co-operative pre-school, paid pre-school or day care with early achievers, play-to-learn programs, and other early learning opportunities in a community setting.

Use this checklist to help track your family’s transition steps:

6-9 months before the child’s third birthday:

  • The Family Resource Coordinator (FRC) starts talking about transition.
  • The FRC transmits your child’s records to the school system, with your written consent. The most recent IFSP and evaluations/assessments are included.
  • If your child is potentially eligible for Part B services, a transition conference is scheduled.
  • Community resources are located.

Transition Conference:

  • Parent’s rights in special education are explained.
  • Options for early childhood special education and other appropriate services are discussed.
  • A transition time line is developed.
  • A transition plan is written into the IFSP.

Evaluation:

  • If you agree, you sign consent for evaluation.
  • Records from Early Intervention Services are received at the school.
  • Information from the family is considered.
  • Evaluation is completed, and the eligibility meeting is held within 35 school days so that an IEP can be developed before the child’s third birthday.

IEP Meeting:

  • The IEP meeting is scheduled with a formal written invitation with date, time and location.
  • Discussion and decision-making include the family, the FRC (with parent permission), and an early childhood special education staff member.
  • Eligibility for special education is decided.
  • If the child is eligible, the Draft IEP is brought to the team meeting and you will have the opportunity to agree or disagree.
  • You receive a copy of your rights and procedural safeguards.
  • If you agree, you sign consent for services to begin.

The IEP in action:

  • The child makes the transition from Early Intervention to Early Childhood Special Education or another pre-kindergarten arrangement, if chosen.
  • The IEP is in place by our child’s third birthday.
  • The team of professionals and parents continue working together to resolve any issues that arise.
  • All IEP team members communicate during this time of change.