A Brief Overview
- Everyone has moments when they hear something and pause to wonder, Is that true? This article and its companion videos describe some special education topics that may be misunderstood. Included is an explanation of what is fact.
- Topics relate to special education eligibility, placement, support personnel, bullying, student discipline, and more.
- Read on to see if there are things you haven’t quite understood about your student’s rights or educational services. PAVE hopes to empower families with information to make sure students with disabilities have their best chance for an appropriate and meaningful education.
- The final myth described in this article is that PAVE provides advocacy on behalf of families—we don’t! But we can help you learn to be your child’s most important advocate. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 assistance.
Everyone has moments when they hear something and pause to wonder, Is that true?
Parents/caregivers in meetings with their child’s school can feel particularly confused when something doesn’t sound right. They might wonder whether it’s appropriate to question school authorities. They might not understand all the words being spoken. Fear of not knowing something can make it uncomfortable to speak up.
At PAVE, we encourage families to ask questions and make sure they understand the words school staff use. Ask for important answers in writing, and plan to research explanations that are confusing.
For example, if you ask for something and the school says no because of a law or policy, ask for a written copy of the relevant parts of that law or policy. Try to understand the school’s reason for saying no. Write down what you understand and send a reflective email to school staff to make sure you understand their position correctly.
Having everything in writing is important, especially if filing a complaint is a possible next step.
This article describes myths and misunderstandings some people might experience when navigating school-based services for students with disabilities. These topics apply to students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), students with Section 504 Plans, and students with possible disability conditions impacting their educational access.
MYTH: The school must hold a meeting without a parent if the parent is unavailable before an annual renewal deadline because the student’s IEP, 504 Plan, or eligibility will expire or lapse.
FACT: Parent participation is a higher priority than deadlines. Schools are required to accommodate parents/caregivers 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. If a meeting is delayed because a family member is temporarily unavailable because of illness, work, travel, or something else, services continue uninterrupted until the meeting. PAVE provies an article: Parent Participation in Special Education Process is a Priority Under Federal Law.
MYTH: The school is not required to evaluate a student who gets passing grades.
FACT: If there is a known or suspected disability condition that may be significantly impacting a student’s access to any part of their education—academic, social-emotional, behavioral, or something else—then the school district is responsible under Child Find to evaluate the student to determine eligibility for services and support. Child Find is an aspect of federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
MYTH: Section 504 doesn’t apply for a student without a plan or program.
FACT: Section 504, which is part of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, includes protections for students with suspected or known disability conditions that warrant evaluation. For example, if a student consistently misses school for reasons that may be connected to disability, the school may be accountable under the civil rights protections of Section 504 if an evaluation referral isn’t initiated.
MYTH: Section 504 eligibility does not involve an evaluation.
FACT: An evaluation process is required to determine whether a student has a disability condition impacting a major life activity. That evaluation process may include a review of grades, test scores, attendance, health room visits, parent and student input, teacher observations, medical or psychological evaluations, special education data, medical information, and more. If the student meets criteria, evaluation documents are used to support the design of accommodations and other individualized supports to ensure equity. The state provides a family-friendly handout, downloadable in multiple languages, to describe 504 eligibility, evaluation process, plan development, and civil rights complaint options.
MYTH: A student cannot be identified as eligible for services under the autism category unless they have a medical diagnosis of autism.
FACT: If there is a suspected disability condition and reason to believe there is a significant educational impact, the school is responsible under Child Find to evaluate the student to determine eligibility for services. Schools have evaluation tools to determine characteristics of autism, its possible educational impacts, and student needs. Medical information might help an IEP team design interventions, but families are not required to share medical information with the school, a medical diagnosis is not required, and doctors may not “prescribe” an IEP.
MYTH: Special Education is a location within the school.
FACT: Special Education is a Service, Not a Place, and PAVE provides an article by that title to further explain a student’s right to educational services in general education—the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)—to the maximum extent appropriate.
MYTH: The school district is in charge of placement decisions.
FACT: The IEP team determines a student’s placement. If placement in general education, with support, is not meeting the student’s needs, the IEP team is responsible to locate or design a placement that best supports the student in accessing their Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Placement might be general education, a segregated classroom setting where special education services are provided, day treatment, alternative learning environment, residential, home-based, something else, or a combination of any of these options. Once an IEP team designs a placement, the school district has some leverage in choosing a location. For example, if an elementary-age student who is struggling to read needs individualized services from a reading specialist, the district might bus them to a school in another neighborhood where a specially trained teacher provides reading instruction in a smaller classroom. The district doesn’t have to offer every placement or service within every building, but it does need to serve the IEP as written by the IEP team.
MYTH: Preschool IEPs are not required to serve students in the Least Restrictive Environment to the maximum extent appropriate.
FACT: An IEP is required to serve a student with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), to the maximum extent appropriate, regardless of age or grade level. WAC 392-172A-02050 provides specific language about state requirements for LRE, including for preschool students.
Adult Aids at School
MYTH: A 1:1 creates a “restrictive environment” for a special education student.
FACT: Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) refers to placement. A helper is an aid, not a placement. Supplementary aids and services, including 1:1 support from an adult staff member, may support access to the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for some students. If having a 1:1 enables a student to appropriately access learning in the general education setting, then that support is provided to ensure FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). FAPE within LRE is required by federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
MYTH: Support personnel should regularly rotate in their roles to ensure a student does not become “dependent” on specific individuals or relationships.
FACT: Healthy interpersonal relationships enable humans of any age to feel safe and secure. Because of the way our brains work, a person doesn’t learn well when a fight/flight nervous system response is activated. Connecting to trusted adults and receiving consistent help from safe, supportive people enhances learning. PAVE provides a collection of articles about Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Washington State’s SEL Standards.
MYTH: A 504 Plan is a watered down IEP.
FACT: Section 504 is part of a civil rights law called the Rehabilitation Act, passed by the US Congress in 1973. The anti-discrimination protections of Section 504 apply to any person identified as having a disability condition that impacts their life in a significant way. Public agencies, including schools, are responsible to provide individualized accommodations and support to enable the person with a disability to access the service, program, or building in a way that affords them an equitable chance to benefit from the opportunity. A 504 Plan at school ensures the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Section 504 FAPE rights are upheld by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. PAVE provides a video series: Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.
MYTH: Section 504 doesn’t apply to a student with an IEP
FACT: Section 504 protections apply to students with IEPs and those with Section 504 Plans. The civil rights protections of Section 504 are threaded throughout the IEP, especially within sections that describe accommodations and modifications. Section 504 includes specific provisions to ensure students are not discriminated against within student discipline, by unmitigated bullying, or through denial of support that is needed for access to what non-disabled students access without support. All aspects of school are protected, including athletic events, field trips, enrichment activities, specialized learning academies, and more—everything the school is offering to all students. PAVE provides a comprehensive article about Section 504 and its protections for all students with disabilities.
MYTH: If the student has found ways to cope with their disability, they don’t need support.
FACT: Section 504 forbids schools from using “mitigating measures” to justify denial of evaluation or support. A mitigating measure is a coping mechanism—for example, a deaf student who reads lips or a student with an attention deficit whose symptoms are improved by medication. PAVE’s article about Section 504 provides more detail about mitigating measures.
MYTH: The best way to help a student with a disability who is being bullied is to remove them from the bully’s classroom.
FACT: Section 504 protects a student with disabilities in their right to be protected from bullying. That means the school must stop the bullying and support the victim to feel safe again. Schools may not punish or disadvantage the victim. OCR says: “Any remedy should not burden the student who has been bullied.” PAVE provides a video: Bullying at School: Key Points for Families and Students with Disabilities.
MYTH: An informal conversation is the best way to address bullying.
FACT: The best way to hold a school accountable to stop bullying and support the victim is to file a formal HIB Complaint. HIB stands for Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying. Washington State’s 2019 Legislature passed a law that requires school districts to write formal HIB policies and appoint a HIB Compliance Officer to spread awareness and uphold the laws. Families can contact their district’s HIB Compliance Officer for support with a complaint and to ensure student civil rights are upheld.
IEP Goals and Process
MYTH: An IEP provides education to a student with a disability.
FACT: An IEP is not the student’s education. An IEP provides educational services to enable a student to access their education. IEP goals target areas of learning that need support in order for the student to move toward grade-level curriculum and learning standards. Included are services for academics, adaptive skills, social-emotional skills, behavior—all areas of learning that are impacted by disability.
MYTH: If an IEP team agrees to change something about a student’s services or placement, the team must submit that idea to the district for approval or denial.
FACT: An IEP team has decision-making authority. The team is required to include a person knowledgeable about district resources (WAC 392-172A-03095) so decisions about program and placement can be made at the meeting. If a required IEP team member is not in attendance, the family participant must sign consent for the absence. The family can request a new meeting because a key team member, such as a district representative, is missing. PAVE provides more information and a Sample Letter to Request an IEP meeting.
Behavior and Discipline
MYTH: A Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) is used to figure out how to discipline a student more effectively.
FACT: An FBA is an evaluation focused on behavior. It helps IEP teams understand the needs behind the student’s behavior. A Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) is built from the FBA to provide positive behavioral supports, teach new or missing skills, and reduce the need for discipline. PAVE provides a video about the FBA/BIP process.
MYTH: A school isn’t responsible to track exclusionary discipline if a parent agrees to take the child home and no paperwork is filed when the school calls to report a behavior incident.
FACT: “Off books” or informal suspensions count as exclusionary discipline for students with disabilities. If a student with a disability misses more than 10 cumulative days of school because of their behavior, the school is responsible to hold a manifestation determination meeting to decide whether the behaviors are directly connected to the disability and whether school staff are following the IEP and/or behavior plan. If services or placement need to change, this formal meeting is a key opportunity to make those changes. PAVE provides a video: Discipline and Disability Rights: What to do if Your Child is Being Sent Home.
MYTH: A parent or provider who visits school to support or evaluate an individual student is violating the privacy rights of other students just by being there.
FACT: Federal laws protect private medical or educational records. Visiting a classroom or other school space should not expose student records for inappropriate viewing. The Department of Education provides a website page called Protecting Student Privacy to share resources and technical assistance on topics related to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The confidentiality of medical records is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Understanding HIPAA and FERPA can help parents /caregivers ask their school for documented explanations whenever these laws are cited as reasons for a request being denied.
MYTH: Schools cannot provide individualized instruction in reading through a student’s IEP unless the student is diagnosed by a medical provider as having dyslexia.
FACT: No medical diagnosis is needed for a school to evaluate a student for any suspected disability that may impact access to learning and school. An educational evaluation might show that a student has a Specific Learning Disability in reading, with characteristics of dyslexia. When a disability that impacts education is identified through evaluation, the school is responsible to provide services to meet the identified needs and enable appropriate progress. PAVE provides an article: Dyslexia Screening and Interventions: State Requirements and Resources and a video: Supporting Literacy for Students with Learning Disabilities.
MYTH: The school has to withhold credits for a student to receive services beyond a traditional senior year.
FACT: Credits do not need to be withheld, and a student doesn’t automatically earn a diploma by reaching the required number of credits. The IEP team determines the target graduation date for a student receiving services through an IEP and how transition programming for a student ages 18-21 might support learning and life planning. Receiving the required number of credits is only part of what a student needs to earn a diploma, and the IEP team individualizes a plan for the student with a disability to earn their diploma within the state’s options for graduation pathways. PAVE provides a Toolkit for life after high school planning.
Private School and Home School
MYTH: Public schools do not have to do anything for students with disabilities who are home schooled or enrolled in private schools by parent choice.
FACT: Child Find applies to all students with known or suspected disabilities who live within a district’s boundaries, including those who are home schooled or enrolled in private schools. Child Find means the public district is responsible to seek out and evaluate all students with known or suspected disabilities. If the student is found eligible for services, parents/caregivers can choose to enroll the student in the public school to receive special education services, even if the primary educational setting is a private or home placement. If the student is fully educated in the private setting, by parent choice, the private school provides equitable services.
Parent Support from PAVE
MYTH: PAVE gives the best advice and advocates on behalf of families.
FACT: PAVE does not give legal advice or provide advocacy. We support families in their work. Staff from our Parent Training and Information (PTI) program provide information and resources to empower family advocates. Our goal is to ensure that family advocates have knowledge, understand options, and possess tools they need to work with schools to ensure that student rights are upheld and the needs of students with disabilities are met. Click Get Help at wapave.org to request 1:1 assistance. Help us help you by reading your student’s educational documents and having those documents handy when you connect with us!