A Brief Overview
- Schools are required to accommodate parents to ensure their attendance and participation at meetings where their child’s special education services are discussed. Those rights are affirmed in a court decision from 2013: Doug C. Versus Hawaii.
- A meeting that includes family is a higher priority than a renewal deadline.
- If a deadline is missed, a student’s IEP services continue uninterrupted while meeting schedules are arranged to include family participation. The student’s eligibility does not expire.
- The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) describes the participation rights of parents (WAC 392-172A-05001).
- Failure to accommodate parent access to meetings when a child’s eligibility or services are discussed is a denial of the student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
Parents have the right to participate in all meetings where a student’s special education services are discussed. Those rights are protected by federal and state laws.
Students have a right to attend meetings about their school services at any age. Schools must invite students once their Individualized Education Program (IEP) includes a Transition Plan—a legal requirement by the school year when a student turns 16. The student is not required to attend but must be invited and accommodated to participate if they choose to.
A court decision in 2013 includes statements that family rights are more important than other legal requirements, such as renewal deadlines. More information about that case, Doug C. Versus Hawaii, is included later in this article.
Accessibility is a right
When inviting families to participate in meetings, the school is required to accommodate their needs related to scheduling, language access, parent or student disability, or something else. If a parent is ill, for example, the school is responsible to wait until the parent is well enough to meet. The school is responsible to provide a meeting format to meet the family’s needs, including through in person, virtual, or telephone attendance with any interpretation services needed for full participation.
IEP eligibility and services do not lapse or expire because the school delayed a meeting to accommodate the family. If a deadline is missed, a student’s services continue uninterrupted while meeting schedules are arranged to include family participation.
Here are examples of meetings where a parent/guardian must be invited and accommodated to participate:
- Referral meeting to discuss whether to evaluate a student for eligibility
- Evaluation review meeting
- IEP meeting
- Placement meeting
- Transition conference to discuss moving into a new school or level of school (preschool into kindergarten, for example)
- Meeting to discuss a Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) or Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP)
- Meetings related to discipline, truancy, or complaints about Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB)
- Any other meeting where school-based services are discussed
What does the state say about parent rights to participate?
The Washington Administrative Code (WAC) describes the participation rights of parents (WAC 392-172A-05001).
The WAC explains that schools are not required to invite parents for “informal or unscheduled conversations involving school district personnel and conversations on issues such as teaching methodology, lesson plans, or coordination of service provision. A meeting also does not include preparatory activities that school district personnel engage in to develop a proposal or response to a parent proposal that will be discussed at a later meeting.”
The WAC includes information about a parent’s right to visit school: “A parent of a student eligible for special education services may request permission to observe their student’s current educational placement, and to observe any educational placement proposed or under consideration either by a parent or a group that makes decisions on the educational placement of the parent’s child, in accordance with applicable school district policy and state law.”
Here is a key statement from the WAC related to parent participation:
“The parents of a student eligible for special education services must be afforded an opportunity to participate in meetings with respect to the identification, evaluation, educational placement and the provision of FAPE to the student.”
What is FAPE?
The statement above includes the word FAPE. FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE is what a student with a disability is entitled to receive. The school district is responsible to deliver FAPE.
The district must ensure that students with disabilities receive accessible, equitable, and appropriate services: All are elements of FAPE. PAVE provides a video training with more information about these key features of student rights: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504, and More.
An IEP provides FAPE through specially designed instruction and goal setting, progress monitoring, supplementary aids and services, accommodations, a thoughtfully chosen placement, and more. The IEP team meets to discuss all of this and make sure FAPE is being provided. Parents are equal partners for discussing all aspects of a student’s education.
TIP: Ask for a draft copy of the IEP or any other documents that will be discussed with enough time to review them before a meeting. The draft IEP is unfinished until it’s been reviewed and finalized in a team meeting that includes family participation.
Families have always been a priority under the law
The collaborative process of an IEP team that includes the family has been part of special education since federal laws were written to protect a student’s right to receive an education designed just for them. Parent participation is one of six primary principles of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Here’s more language that describes FAPE: The IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”
This phrase—progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances—comes from another court decision, referred to as Endrew F. That Supreme Court decision established that meaningful progress must be tracked and monitored, and that the IEP must be adjusted if meaningful progress isn’t being made.
The IEP meeting is where families participate in tracking and monitoring that progress. Parents contribute important information about the progress or unmet needs of their children. Their observations provide critical information for team decision-making, and the federal laws were written to acknowledge the value of those contributions. That’s why parent participation is required for FAPE
TIP: Here’s a way to talk about parent rights within the process of special education: Failure to accommodate parent access to meetings when a child’s eligibility or services are discussed is a denial of FAPE.
What if parents cannot attend a meeting by the required renewal deadline?
Legal protections for students and families require a timely process. Schools are responsible to host a meeting that includes the family to update a student’s IEP at least every year. The IEP lists an “annual renewal date” on its cover page.
The school is also responsible to re-evaluate the student at least every three years to determine ongoing eligibility and to ensure that information about the student’s strengths and needs is up-to-date and the student is appropriately served through the IEP.
Sometimes there is a conflict when an evaluation or IEP renewal date sneaks up on the team and meetings aren’t scheduled early enough to accommodate the family and meet the deadline. It’s also possible that a family emergency or illness could prevent their timely participation.
In those situations, federal law has made it clear that the family’s participation is more important than the re-evaluation or IEP renewal deadline. The school can document the reason that the deadline is delayed, and a student’s services can continue without interruption until the meeting happens with family participants.
A student’s IEP eligibility does not expire because an evaluation is delayed, and the IEP does not lapse. Families can share this article and information about the federal court ruling if there is confusion.
What did Doug C. Versus Hawaii say?
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision on June 13, 2013, that reversed rulings by lower courts. The final ruling meant that the school in Hawaii was held accountable for having an IEP meeting without a parent.
The court explained that schools must include parents at meetings unless they “affirmatively refused to attend.” Other legal language uses the phrase “good faith effort” to describe how schools must attempt to include families.
In the case of Doug C., the court found the school did not try hard enough to include the parent. In a hearing, the parent was able to share documentation showing he had provided the school with explanations each time he was unable to attend a meeting at the school’s suggested time and location. One documented explanation was that he was ill. In that case, the school held the meeting without him because they believed the IEP was about to “expire.”
The court said this rationale was based on a flawed premise. Earlier court rulings already had found that services do not end because an IEP renewal deadline is missed.
In its decision, the court stated, “Parental participation is key to the operation of the IDEA for two reasons: Parents not only represent the best interests of their child in the IEP development process; they also provide information about the child critical to developing a comprehensive IEP and which only they are in a position to know.”
A place to get more information about court rulings related to special education is Wrightslaw.com. A Wrightslaw analysis of Doug C. Versus Hawaii includes a question-and-answer summary of the case. Here are highlights from that information:
Question: If a meeting is held after an annual renewal deadline, do IEP services lapse?
Answer: No. A child’s IEP does not lapse. Continuing to provide services based on the most recent IEP does not deny FAPE or “deprive a student of any educational benefit,” the court determined. The court further explained that there is no basis for assuming a school cannot provide services for a student whose annual IEP review is overdue.
Question: If there are scheduling conflicts, is priority given to school staff or the parent?
Answer: Priority is given to the parent. The court stated, “The attendance of [the]. . . parent, must take priority over other members’ attendance . . . an agency cannot exclude a parent from an IEP meeting in order to prioritize its representatives’ schedules.”
Question: If the school has a meeting without the parent, can they make it okay by having another meeting within 30 days?
Answer: No. The court found that parental involvement after-the-fact is not enough because “the IDEA contemplates parental involvement in the creation process.”
Question: If a school district violates a procedural safeguard, such as parental involvement in meetings, does there need to be another finding of fault to show denial of FAPE? For example, would a court need to show that a child wasn’t receiving meaningful educational benefit from the services?
Answer: No. The court does not need to determine a second violation. The denial of a parent’s right to participate in meetings is a violation of FAPE.
A parent’s right to participate in IEP process is part of the Procedural Safeguards that are written into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Schools are responsible for sharing a copy of the Procedural Safeguards at every formal meeting or whenever a parent requests them.
A copy of the Procedural Safeguards is downloadable from the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). An OSPI page titled Parent and Student Rights lists multiple translated versions of the Procedural Safeguards available for download.