Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More

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

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

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

Here are resource links referenced in the video:

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

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

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

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

Video number 2: Accommodations and Modifications

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

Here are resource links related to this video:

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

Video number 3: IEP Goal Setting

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

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

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

Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

A Brief Overview

  • Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
  • Section 504 prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity that receives federal funding. All Washington state public schools must comply with this federal law.
  • Every student with a disability is protected from discrimination under this law, including each student with a 504 Plan and each student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Eligibility for Section 504 support at school is determined through evaluation. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides fact sheets in multiple languages that describe the evaluation process and state requirements.
  • Civil rights complaint options are described at the end of this article.

Full Article

A student with a disability is protected by multiple federal laws. One of them is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act and provides key protections against disability discrimination.

To uphold a student’s civil rights under Section 504, schools provide accommodations and support to ensure that a student with a disability has what they need to access the opportunities provided to all students. That support is the essence of equity. Ensuring equity for students with disabilities is part of a school’s responsibility.

Students are protected in their access to academics, social engagement, extracurriculars, sports, events, and more—everything that is part of the school experience and school-sponsored activities.

Every student with a disability is protected from discrimination under this law, including each student with a 504 Plan and each student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Section 504 protects a person with disabilities throughout life and covers individuals in any public facility or program. A person can have a 504 Plan to support them in a vocational program, higher education, or in any location or service that receives federal funds.

All people with recognized disabilities also have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Within a school, business, or other organization, the person responsible for upholding civil rights under these two laws might hold a title such as Section 504/ADA Compliance Officer.

TIP: If you have concern about civil rights being upheld within any organization, ask to speak with the person responsible for Section 504/ADA compliance. Ask for policies, practices, and complaint options in writing.

What counts as a disability under Section 504?

Section 504 does not specifically name disability conditions and life impacts in order to capture known and unknown conditions that could affect a person’s life in unique ways. In school, determination is made through evaluations that ask these questions:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment substantially limit one or more major life activities?

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides fact sheets in multiple languages that describe the evaluation process and state requirements. Included is this information about what Section 504 means for students:

“Major life activities are activities that are important to most people’s daily lives. Caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, eating, sleeping, standing, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating are some examples of major life activities.

“Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as functions of the digestive, bowel, bladder, brain, circulatory, reproductive, neurological, or respiratory systems.

“Substantially limits should also be interpreted broadly. A student’s impairment does not need to prevent, or severely or significantly restrict, a major life activity to be substantially limiting.”

Pyramid of Rights: Students at the top have all these protections! 
Special Education Rights are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Eligible students are served with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Civil Rights are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students with disabilities impacting a “major life activity” receive accommodations and individualized support as part of their IEP (if eligible) or through a Section 504 Plan.
General Education Rights are protected by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). All children in the United States have the right to access free public education through age 21 or until they earn a high school diploma.

Does the student need a medical diagnosis?

A school cannot require a parent to provide a medical diagnosis to evaluate a student. However, a diagnosis can provide helpful information. The school could request a medical evaluation, at no cost to the parent, if medical information would support decision-making.

Note that a medical diagnosis does not automatically mean a student needs a 504 Plan. Doctors cannot prescribe a 504 plan—only the 504 team can make that decision. However, the 504 team must consider all information provided as part of its evaluation process.

Evaluations must disregard mitigating measures

A mitigating measure is a coping strategy that a person with a disability uses to eliminate or reduce the effects of an impairment. For example, a person who is deaf might read lips. A person with attention challenges might take medication. A person with dyslexia may read using audible books.

Because a person has adapted to their disability does not mean they give up the right to appropriate, individualized support. In its guidance, OSPI states:

“Mitigating measures cannot be considered when evaluating whether or not a student has a substantially limiting impairment.”

A school also cannot determine a student ineligible based on a condition that comes and goes. A student with a fluid illness (for example: bipolar disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, or a gastrointestinal condition) may be eligible for Section 504 protections even though on some school days they function without any evidence of impairment. OSPI states:

“An impairment that is episodic or in remission remains a disability if, when in an active phase, this impairment substantially limits a major life activity.”

504 or IEP?

Eligibility for school-based services is determined through evaluation. Federal law that protects students in special education process is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA includes Child Find protections that require schools to evaluate a student if there is a reasonable suspicion that disability is impacting educational access. A student is evaluated in all areas of suspected disability to determine eligibility for services. If the student is found eligible, the evaluation provides key information about service needs.

Here’s what might happen after a student is evaluated:

  • A student is eligible for Section 504 protections but not an IEP. Data from the evaluation is used to build a Section 504 Plan for supporting the student with individualized accommodations and other needed supports.
  • A student is eligible for an IEP. The special education program includes goals that track progress toward learning in areas of specially designed instruction (SDI). Accommodations and supports that are protected by Section 504 are built into the IEP.
  • The school determines that the student does not have a disability or that a disability does not substantially limit educational activities. The student will not receive school-based services through an individualized plan or program.

Sometimes parents disagree with the school’s determination. Families have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at school district expense if they disagree with the methods, findings, or conclusions from a district evaluation. PAVE provides an article that describes that process and provides a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Case example from federal court

A 2018 federal court ruling regarding a student with Crohn’s disease highlights one complaint process. Parents provided the school with information about their child’s diagnosis and requested an evaluation for services. Their request was denied. The Third Circuit Court found the school in violation of the student’s right to appropriate evaluation under the Child Find Mandate. The court also found that the school should have provided special education services, not only accommodations with a Section 504 Plan:

“In seeing Crohn’s as something requiring only a Section 504 accommodation, not IDEA special education, [the district] treated the disease as something discrete and isolated rather than the defining condition of [this student’s] life.” 

Crohn’s Disease is one example of a specific medical condition that might require a unique support plan. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation provides relevant information about Section 504 rights and suggestions for accommodations.

TIP: If someone you support has a unique medical condition and there is an agency with wisdom about that condition, it’s worth asking whether there are specific recommendations that could be customized for a student’s Section 504 Plan or IEP. For example, the American Diabetes Association provides a sample Section 504 Plan to make sure the school is prepared to support the student’s routine and emergency diabetes care.

FAPE rights under Section 504

The right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is protected by Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities education Act (IDEA). PAVE provides a video training with more information about FAPE and Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

The most common way schools protect Section 504 FAPE rights is through accommodations. A student might have specifically designed help to accomplish their schoolwork, manage their emotions, use school equipment, or something else. The sky is the limit, and Section 504 is intentionally broad to capture a huge range of possible disability conditions that require vastly different types and levels of support.

Here are a two specific topic areas to consider when a student is protected by Section 504:

Section 504 complaint options

Some families are anxious about questioning actions taken by the school. Parents have protections under the law. The Office for Civil Rights maintains specific guidelines that prohibit retaliation against people who assert their rights through a complaint process.

A civil rights complaint can be filed at the local, state, or federal level. Here are resources related to those three options:

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

Disability History Month Provides Opportunities for Reflection

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

1954​: Brown versus Topeka Board of Education​

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

1964​: Civil Rights Act​

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

1971: Washington guarantees special education rights

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

1972: Key precedents are established in other states

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

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

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

1973: The Rehabilitation Act

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

1975: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

1988: Washington State recognizes the capacity of all persons

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

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

1990: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

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

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

1990: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

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

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

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

1992: Rehabilitation Act Amendments

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

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

2000: Settlegoode v. Portland Public Schools

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

2004: IDEA Amendments

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

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

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

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

2012 Employment First in Washington State

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

The legislation:

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

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

2013: Doug C. v Hawaii

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

2015: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

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

2017: Endrew F versus Douglas County School District

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

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

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

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

View this infographic in PDF form

Recovery Services: What Families Need to Know as Schools Reopen

A Brief Overview

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

Full Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OCR also includes these statements in its handout for families:

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

Families participate in decision-making

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

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

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

OCR investigates complaints and impacted change in Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

Guidance from OSERS

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

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

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

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

Government money is available to fund additional special education services

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

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

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

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

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

IEP teams also can discuss ESY

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

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

Checklist to get ready to talk about additional services

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

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

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

What’s Next? High School Transition Planning Timeline

High School Transition Planning Timeline

Click to print out this graphic

Description of the above graphic:

What’s Next?

High School Transition Planning

Mapping the Future

Check these milestones to ensure high school paves a pathway for young adult success and achievement!

Ages 13-14
Student begins High School and Beyond Plan in Middle School—a WA State requirement for all students.

Ages 15-16
IEP includes a Transition Plan, aligned with High School and Beyond Plan. Student is a member of the IEP team, which plans a pathway toward a diploma and target graduation date.

Age 16
Get state identification card. Consider Pre-Employment Transition Services from DVR/DSB or School-to-Work planning with DDA.

Ages 17-18
Coursework, IEP, High School and Beyond Plan, DDA/DVR all support student’s life goals and progress toward a diploma.

Age 18
Register to vote! Participate in Commencement and senior year activities, regardless of when diploma is earned.

Ages 18-19
Student may continue education in a high school transition program.

Ages 20-21
Student earns a diploma. May apply for individualized employment support from DVR/TVR/DSB or DDA.

DVR: Division of Vocational Rehabilitation

TVR: Tribal Vocational Rehabilitation

DSB: Department of Services for the Blind

DDA: Developmental Disabilities Administration

Download this graphic to print and keep handy!

Need more information? Consider reading the article School to Adulthood: Transition Planning Toolkit for High School, Life, and Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullying at School: Resources and the Rights of Students with Special Needs

A Brief Overview

  • OCR provides a fact sheet for parents about school legal obligations to address bullying. The fact sheet is available in Spanish.
  • According to OCR, students who are victims of bullying shall not be further victimized by the school’s response: “Any remedy should not burden the student who has been bullied.”
  • Families can ask the school for a form to file a “HIB Complaint.” HIB stands for Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying.
  • OCR investigates complaints of disability discrimination at schools. OCR’s Complaint Assessment System provides a place to choose a language before filing a complaint. Contact OCR at 800-421-3481 (TDD: 800-877-8339).
  • Bullying protections apply to all students with disabilities, regardless of whether they are served through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan.
  • Failure to stop bullies and support a victimized student with disabilities is considered a denial of the student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The U.S. Department of Education provides a Dear Colleague letter with guidance about bullying as a FAPE violation.
  • Find additional guidance at StopBullying.gov, which offers suggestions for parents and what teens can do.

Full Article

Students with disabilities who are bullied at school have legal protections, and schools have added responsibilities to ensure their safety and well-being. When acts of bullying involve discrimination based on disability, race, sex, or religion, federal agencies classify those acts as harassment.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) list the following as harassing behaviors:

  • Unwelcome conduct, such as verbal abuse, name calling, epithets, or slurs
  • Graphic or written statements
  • Threats
  • Physical assault
  • Other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating

The PACER Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center, founded in 2006, provides this OCR and DOJ information and further explains that “bullying may also be considered harassment when the conduct is sufficiently serious that it interferes with (or limits) a student’s ability to participate in (or benefit from) the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school, and it is based on a student’s disability.”

PACER Center provides letter templates to help parents write to the school and reminds families: “Data is important. Remember, if it is not in writing, it does not exist. Please be sure to keep a copy of the letter(s) for your records. These records can help parents keep a concise, accurate timeline of events. These sample letters are general in nature in order to serve all potential users.”

What does a school have to do when a child with a disability is bullied?

OCR provides a fact sheet for parents about school legal obligations to address bullying. The fact sheet is available in Spanish. Here are a school’s basic responsibilities:

  • Take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the issue and take necessary steps to stop the bullying and prevent it from recurring.
  • Interview targeted students, offending students, and witnesses, and maintain written documentation of the investigation.
  • Remedy the effects of bullying by further supporting a student with services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Plan.
  • Make sure the student who was bullied is helped and not further injured by actions taken in response. For example, the victim should not be suspended. According to OCR: “Any remedy should not burden the student who has been bullied.”

To learn more about student rights related to discipline, see PAVE’s article: What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.

What can a parent do?

Every school district has a process for filing a formal complaint related to harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB). A parent or student can say, “I want to file a HIB complaint” and request the proper forms from the school.

Here are options for families:

  • Contact the HIB compliance officer in your school district.
  • Search online or request a HIB complaint form.
  • Request copies of the student handbook and the district’s written HIB policy.
  • If the act included a violation of the law, such as a physical assault, file a police report.
  • Request an emergency meeting of the IEP or Section 504 team to add supports for the student to ensure emotional and physical safety at school.
  • Ask the school district compliance officer for specific details—in writing—about who is responsible to stop the bullying, what will be done, and when. Ask how that officer will provide follow through and confirm accountability schoolwide. Write everything down.
  • Seek help from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The office investigates complaints of disability discrimination at schools. OCR’s Complaint Assessment System provides a place to choose your language before filing a complaint.
  • To learn more about federal civil rights laws or how to file a complaint, contact OCR at 800-421-3481 (TDD: 800-877-8339).

Rules in Washington State

The 2019 Legislature passed Substitute Senate Bill 5698, a Washington State law that prohibits harassment, intimidation, or bullying (HIB) in schools. The law requires school districts to have a formal HIB policy and a person designated to uphold the policy and distribute information among staff, students, and families.

The Washington HIB Prevention and Intervention Toolkit is accessible through the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The toolkit includes guidance for students and families and includes a link to a spreadsheet that lists HIB compliance officers in each school district.

Washington State defines harassment, intimidation, or bullying (RCW 28A.300.285) as any intentional electronic, written, verbal, or physical act that:

  • Physically harms a student or damages the student’s property
  • Has the effect of substantially disrupting a student’s education
  • Is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment
  • Has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school

The Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) offers direct support to students and their families. OEO provides an online intake form and a phone option, with language interpretation available: 1-866-297-2597.

According to OEO, “Bullying and harassment can be a difficult topic for schools, families and students, but not talking about it can make it worse.” OEO provides information and tools to help families figure out who to talk to, how to raise informal and formal complaints, and how to help prevent and respond to bullying or harassment: “If you have questions, or want help understanding or addressing a concern, contact us.”

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU Washington) provides a downloadable guidebook on student rights. A section about harassment states: “Harassment is illegal when it is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or hostile school environment and interferes with your education.”

How common is bullying of students with disabilities?

Data show that students with disabilities are bullied at least twice as frequently as their typical classmates. According to the PACER Center: “Although only ten U.S. studies have been conducted on the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities, all of these studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.”

According to Disability Scoop, about half of individuals with autism, intellectual disabilities, speech impairments and learning disabilities are bullied at school. The rate of bullying for typical students is about 10 percent.

Stopping stigma and ending discrimination require everyone to consider myths about bullying that often make things worse for a person who has been the victim of harassment, intimidation, or bullying. PACER Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center provides a document that describes myths about bullying.

For example, it’s never true that “some people deserve to be bullied.” Here’s a statement to dispel that myth: “No child’s behavior justifies being hurt or harmed in any manner. All children deserve to be treated with respect and consideration.”

It’s also never true that “bullying will make kids tougher.” In fact, “Bullying does not make someone tougher. Research has shown it often has the opposite effect and lowers a child’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Bullying often creates fear and increases anxiety for a child.”

Another myth is that telling a teacher about bullying is “tattling.” Adults can ensure that children understand the difference between tattling and telling: “Tattling is done to get someone in trouble. Telling is done to protect someone.” Keeping secrets about a bully gives the bully more power and hurts everyone.

Federal Guidance

The U.S. Department of Education maintains a website page with access to resources about student rights and anti-bullying protections. The department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) can accept complaints with overlapping civil rights concerns. For example, a complaint about bullying may also include aspects of racism and disability discrimination. OCR points out that bullying concerns that are not appropriately addressed can violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

“Under Section 504 and Title II, schools must address bullying and harassment that are based on a student’s disability and that interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school. Further, if any bullying or harassing behavior interferes with the ability of a student with a disability to access educational services, the situation, if uncorrected, may constitute a FAPE violation. OCR works with other offices in the Department, as well as with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), to address bullying and harassment of students with disabilities.”

Crisis Help

A child’s mental well-being may be impacted by bullying. If a student or family member needs someone to talk to in an emergent moment of crisis, these phone numbers may be helpful:

Additional hotlines and text lines:  Suicide Hotlines.com

Long COVID May Cause Disability and Eligibility for Services

Some people infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus experience long-term symptoms—called Long COVID. If lasting symptoms significantly impact a person’s life, their ability to work, or their access to school, disability laws are in place to protect and support them.

Among federal laws that support disability rights are the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which includes Section 504), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Note that Part B of the IDEA supports special education services for ages 3-21, and Part C provides early interventions for children birth-3.

Disability protections are also provided by Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice provide guidance on the HHS.gov website: Guidance on “Long COVID” as a Disability Under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557.

The federal Administration for Community Living (ACL) published a resource that is a place to begin learning about where support is available: How ACL’s Disability and Aging Networks Can Help People with Long COVID. For people whose work is impacted by Long COVID, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy provides information related to job accommodations, employee benefits, worker’s rights, and more.

If a student with Long COVID is impacted, they can be evaluated to determine eligibility for school-based services. For students already identified for school-based services, Long COVID might entitle the student to additional or adjusted services. The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), issued a Fact Sheet July 26, 2021, explaining the rights of children who may have a disability condition related to Long COVID. The rest of this article focuses on protections for children and students.

Section 504 support

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act and includes protections for individuals accessing a public space, service, or program. A person of any age with a disability has the right to accommodations and modifications if their disability condition significantly impacts a major life activity, such as breathing, walking, learning…. Section 504 guarantees equitable access to opportunities publicly available to people without disabilities. If COVID infection has caused a disability condition because of its lasting impacts, then Section 504 protections may apply.

In school, a Section 504 Plan provides a student with support in general education. Criteria are broad and determined if the student has a disability condition that impacts any aspect of their educational access. If so, the student is eligible for support to meet their needs.

For example, a student with Long COVID might have impacts to their breathing, walking, attention span, or stamina. They may need accommodations for a late start, a shortened school day, a reduced workload, or a place to rest while at school. If mental health is impacted, they may need social-emotional or behavioral supports to continue accessing their general education curriculum and class spaces.

School-based IEP services

If evaluation determines that Long COVID impacts a student (ages 3-21) to such a degree that special education and related services are necessary, then the student may be eligible for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). One eligibility category for IEP services, for example, is Other Health Impairment (OHI). For a full list of eligibility categories see PAVE’s article: IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education.

An educational evaluation determines:

  1. Is there a disability?
  2. Is there significant educational impact?
  3. Does the student require Specially Designed Instruction and/or Related Services?

If Long COVID has created a condition in which all three criteria are met, then the student receives services with an IEP. If the student already has an IEP and a COVID infection has created new barriers to learning, then a new evaluation may be needed to determine what additional services the IEP team can consider.

Here are a few examples of how Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) and Related Services might be included in an IEP to support a student with Long COVID:

  • A teacher provides instruction differently to support a student whose ability to focus is significantly impacted by Long COVID. Progress toward a skill of attention/focus is tracked to see if there is improvement or if something about the teaching strategy needs an adjustment.
  • A teacher helps a student learn emotional coping strategies after Long COVID caused severe anxiety and mood dysregulation. A goal is set to track progress on this social emotional learning (SEL) skill.
  • A physical education teacher provides a specially designed PE program for a student with Long COVID whose symptoms get worse with physical exertion. Goals are set, and progress is monitored. See PAVE’s article about Adapted PE.
  • A student with lingering physical symptoms of COVID receives physical or occupational therapy as a Related Services through the IEP.
  • A student with psychological impacts from the illness receives counseling as a Related Service on the IEP.

Of course, this is a short and incomplete list of possibilities. IEP teams are responsible to develop programming that is individualized to meet a student’s unique and specific needs. Evaluation data is critical in development of the services and programming, and families have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at district expense if they don’t believe the district’s own data is accurate or comprehensive enough to develop an appropriate IEP.

The primary entitlement of a student receiving school-based services is FAPE—Free Appropriate Public Education. FAPE means that services enable progress that is appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. If Long COVID has disabled a student’s ability to access school appropriately, then they may be entitled to FAPE. The services that provide FAPE are determined individually and by a team that includes family participants.

Early intervention services

Health officials are reporting developmental delays related to COVID infections. Young children, Birth-3, who have been ill with COVID and have ongoing symptoms may be eligible for disability protections from the IDEA Part C, which provides federal funds for early intervention services delivered through an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). According to the OSERS document about Long COVID:

“A child suspected of having a disability should be referred as soon as possible, but in no case more than seven days, after the child has been identified. With parental consent, a timely, comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation must be completed, and if the child is determined eligible, a child and family assessment must be conducted to determine the appropriate early intervention services and supports for the child and family.”

Resources to help you

PAVE provides resource collections to support families of children in various ages and stages:

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

Evaluations Part 1: Where to Start When a Student Needs Special Help at School

A Brief Overview

  • Special Education is provided through the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student with a qualifying disability. The first step is to determine eligibility through evaluation. This article describes that process.
  • Specially Designed Instruction (SDI) is the “special” in special education. The evaluation determines whether SDI is needed to help a student overcome barriers of disability to appropriately access education. Learning to ask questions about SDI can help families participate in IEP development. Read on to learn more.
  • Parents can request an evaluation by submitting a written letter to the school district. PAVE offers a template to help with letter writing.
  • For more detail about what happens when a student qualifies for special education, PAVE’s website includes a short video, Overview of IEP Process; a more detailed on-demand webinar, Introduction to Special Education; and an article about IEP Essentials.

Full Article

If a student is having a hard time at school and has a known or suspected disability, the school evaluates to see if the student qualifies for special education. If eligible, the student receives an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Information collected during the evaluation is critical for building the IEP, which provides specialized instruction and other supports in a unique way for each student.

The school follows specific deadlines for an evaluation process, which are described in the state laws provided in the links connected to each of these bullet points:

  • The district must document a formal request for evaluation and make a decision about whether to evaluate within 25 school days (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • After consent is signed, the school has 35 school days to complete the evaluation (WAC 392-172A-03005).
  • If a student is eligible, the school has 30 calendar days to hold a meeting to develop an initial IEP (WAC 392-172A-03105).

Evaluation is a 3-part process

Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. The school district’s evaluation asks 3 primary questions in each area of learning that is evaluated:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

If the answer to all three questions is Yes, the student qualifies for an IEP. After the evaluation is reviewed, the IEP team meets to talk about how to build a program to meet the needs that were identified in the evaluation. Each area of disability that meets these three criteria is included as a goal area on the IEP.

The needs and how the school plans to serve those needs gets written into the section of the IEP document called the Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance—sometimes shortened to Present Levels of Performance (PLOP). Becoming familiar with the PLOP section of the IEP is important for family members who participate on IEP teams. IEP goals flop without good PLOP!

Bring ideas to the evaluation review meeting

After an initial evaluation is finished, the school arranges a meeting to review the results and determine whether the student qualifies for services. The evaluation review meeting can include time for family members, students and outside service providers to share ideas about what’s going on and what might help. PAVE provides a tool to help parents and students get ready for this and other important meetings by creating a Handout for Meetings.

Read on for ideas about what to do if the school determines that a student doesn’t qualify for IEP services and parents/caregivers disagree or want to pursue other types of school support.

If a student qualifies for special education, new input can be added to information from the evaluation that is automatically included in the PLOP. The present levels section of the IEP is important because it provides space to document the creative ideas that will support the student at school. This section can provide answers to this question: How will the school support the student in meeting annual goals?

Remember that the 3-part evaluation determines whether the student needs Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). SDI is the “special” in special education. SDI is provided through individualized teaching methods, and its success is tracked and measured through progress on the IEP goals.

Progress monitoring is required annually but can be done throughout the year with a communication strategy designed by the school and family. That communication strategy can be written into the IEP document. PAVE’s article about SMART Goals and Progress Tracking can help families better understand how to participate in follow-through to make sure that the special education program is helping the student make meaningful progress.

FAPE is a special education student’s most important right

Whether the student makes meaningful progress is also a measure of whether the school district is meeting its obligation to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), the primary entitlement of a student who qualifies for special education under criteria established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

PAVE provides an article about the history of special education with more detail about how FAPE became the standard for special education service delivery.

When a student is evaluated, the results are reviewed by a team that includes school staff and the family. The team discusses whether the student qualifies for special education. If yes, then the IEP process begins to determine how best to deliver FAPE. In other words, how will the school district provide an appropriate education to meet a student’s unique needs, in light of the circumstances of disability?

PAVE provides an article describing the IDEA and its six primary principles as the Foundation of Special Education. In addition to FAPE, the primary principles include: appropriate evaluation, IEP, parent and student involvement, education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and Procedural Safeguards, which provide dispute options and protections to make sure schools follow federal and state rules.

A referral starts the evaluation process

A parent/guardian, teacher, school administrator, service provider or other concerned adult can refer a student for evaluation. PAVE’s recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation in writing are included later in this article.

Depending on a student’s suspected areas of disability (see categories listed below), the district may need medical information. However, the school cannot delay the evaluation while requiring parents to get that medical information. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination, the district must pay for the outside evaluation. OSPI includes more detail about these requirements in a Technical Assistance Paper (TAP No. 5).

If the school agrees to evaluate, a variety of tests and questionnaires are included. The evaluation looks for strengths and difficulties in many different areas, so input from parents, teachers and providers is critical. Generally, the evaluation reviews developmental history and assesses cognition, academic achievement and “functional” skills. Listed below are some common skill areas to evaluate:

  • Functional: Functional skills are necessary for everyday living, and deficits might show up with tasks such as eating, handling common classroom tools or using the restroom.
  • Academic: Testing in specific academic areas can seek information about whether the student might have a Specific Learning Disability, such as dyslexia.
  • OT and Speech: Occupational Therapy and Speech/Language can be included as specific areas for evaluation, if there is reason to suspect that deficits are impacting education.
  • Social-Emotional Learning: Many evaluations collect data in an area of education called Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which can highlight disabilities related to behavior, social interactions, mental health or emotional regulation. It’s common for parents to fill out an at-home survey as part of an SEL evaluation process.
  • Autism Spectrum: Testing can look for disability related to autism spectrum issues, such as sensory processing or social difficulties. Testing in this area can be done regardless of whether there is a medical diagnosis.
  • Adaptive: How a student transitions from class-to-class or organizes materials are examples of adaptive skills that might impact learning.

Please note that strengths are measured alongside challenges and can provide important details for a robust program. The first part of a present levels statement can always include statements about what the student does well.

Eligibility Categories of Disability

Areas of evaluation are associated with the 14 categories of disability that are defined as “eligibility categories” under the IDEA. These are broad categories, and sometimes there is discussion about which is the best fit to capture information about a student’s unique situation. Please note that there is no such thing as a “behavior IEP” or an “academic IEP.” After a student qualifies, the school is responsible to address all areas of need and design programming, services and a placement to meet those needs. An IEP is an individualized program, built to support a unique person and is not a cut-and-paste project based on the category of disability.

This list includes some common diagnoses and/or issues that come up within each of the IDEA’s 14 categories.

  • Autism: A student does not need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated by the school. If features of autism may significantly impact access to learning, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs. See PAVE’s  article about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and resources for families.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Psychological or psychiatric disorders (anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, etc.) can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). Please note that all eligibility categories are intended to identify the needs of students and are not intended to label children in ways that might contribute to stigma or discrimination.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document. If medical information is necessary for an eligibility determination and not already available, the school district must pay for the outside evaluation.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction (how a student is able to produce sounds that are understood as words). Social communication deficits also might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Whether permanent or fluctuating, a hearing impairment may adversely affect a child’s educational performance.
  • Deafness: A student unable to process linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, may be eligible for services under this category.
  • Deaf blindness: A combination of hearing and visual impairments establishes a unique set of special education service needs.
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness: Partial sight and blindness may fit this category when, even with correction, eyesight adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is an agency that provides youth and adult services for individuals who are blind or low vision.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-9): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 9. By age 10, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Child Find requires school districts to evaluate

Appropriate evaluation is a key principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA includes a mandate called Child Find, which requires school districts to seek out, evaluate and serve students ages Birth-21 who have known or suspected disabilities that may impact school success or access. PAVE has an article about the Child Find Mandate, which applies to all children, including those who go to public or private schools. Children who are homeless or wards of the state are included, as are children who move a lot. Children who are “advancing from grade to grade” are included in the mandate, if they may have disabilities that impact learning in non-academic areas of school.

Here are some considerations:

  • Child Find mandates evaluation if there is reason to suspect a disability.
  • Students who are failing or behind their peers might have challenges related to language or access to school that don’t indicate a disability.
  • Parents who don’t understand the school’s reason can request a written explanation.
  • Schools cannot refuse to evaluate because of budgetary constraints. They also cannot refuse because they want to try different teaching strategies. School staff might use the term Response to Intervention (RTI). Although the school might benefit from a review of its methods, RTI is not a basis for refusing to evaluate a child for a suspected disability.

Deadlines start when a referral is made

When a student is referred for an evaluation, the school follows a schedule of deadlines. Parents can mark a calendar to track these timelines. To make sure deadlines are followed, PAVE recommends that formal requests and communications are made and stored in written form. Parents can always request a written response from the school or write down a response made verbally and send a “reflective” email that includes detail about what was discussed or decided. That reflective email creates a written record of a conversation.

Districts have 25 school days to respond to a request for evaluation. Some schools invite parents to a meeting to discuss concerns. Being prepared with a written statement can help. Parents can also share information from doctors or outside providers.

Before a school evaluates a student, the parent/guardian signs consent. If school staff recommend an evaluation and parents do not agree or sign consent, then the school does not conduct the evaluation. Please note that parents are consenting to the evaluation, so that parents and schools can make an informed decision about what to do next. Parents can choose at the next step whether to sign consent for a special education program to begin.

If a parent initiated the referral and the school doesn’t respond or denies the request for an evaluation, the parent can request an answer in writing. PAVE provides an article about what to do if the school says no to your evaluation request.

What happens next if the school agrees to evaluate?

If all agree that an evaluation is needed, and a parent/guardian signs a formal document giving permission, then the school completes the evaluation within 35 school days.

In compliance with the IDEA, an evaluation for special education is non-discriminatory. If the child cannot read, for example, the testing uses verbal instructions or pictures. The child’s native language is honored. Schools have a variety of tools available to eliminate bias. Parents can take action if they disagree with the way testing was done or the way it was interpreted.

The IDEA requires schools to use “technically sound” instruments in evaluation. Generally, that means the tests are evidence-based as valid and reliable, and the school recruits qualified personnel to administer the tests. The IDEA is clear that a singular measure, such as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, does not meet the standard for an appropriate evaluation.

Don’t be intimidated by fancy language!

The formal language of the IDEA and the evaluation process can feel intimidating, but parents need to remember that they have a critical role as the experts and long-term investors in their child. If the evaluation data is confusing, parents can ask the school to provide charts or graphs to make it clear. Parents have the right to ask questions until they understand the evaluation process and what the results mean.

A primary goal of evaluation is to identify a child’s strengths and needs in the general education environment. Regular classrooms are the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) unless a student is unable to succeed there. The evaluation determines whether a student needs extra help in the general education setting, and the IEP team uses information gathered through evaluation to recommend and develop an initial program.

The IEP isn’t a one-and-done project

The IEP shifts and changes with the needs of the student, so the initial evaluation is only the beginning. A new evaluation is required by the IDEA at least every 3 years, but a new evaluation can be initiated earlier if there’s a question about whether the program is working. The school and family are always collecting new information and insights, and the IEP adapts in real time with new information.

For example, the school might document that a student is failing to access learning in general education despite help that was carefully designed to make the setting accessible. Then the IEP team, which includes a parent or guardian, might discuss placement in a more restrictive setting.

What if I don’t agree with the school?

Parents can always ask school staff to describe their decisions in writing, and parents have rights guaranteed by the IDEA to informally or formally dispute any decision made by the school. The Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE) offers a variety of guidebooks that describe these options. In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides state-specific guidelines for dispute resolution. PAVE provides an on-demand webinar about conflict engagement: Parents as Partners with the School.

Recommended guidelines for requesting an evaluation

Make the request in writing! PAVE provides a sample letter to help.

  • Address the letter to the district’s special education director or program coordinator.
  • Deliver the request by email, certified mail, or in person. To hand-deliver, request a date/time stamp or signature at the front office to serve as a receipt.
  • Track the days the district takes to respond. The district has 25 school days (weekends and holidays excluded) to respond.

Items to include in the referral letter:

  • The student’s full name and birthdate.
  • A clear statement of request, such as “I am requesting a full and individual educational evaluation for [the student].”
  • A statement that “all areas of suspected disability” be evaluated.
  • A description of concerns. Include any details provided by the student about what is working or not working at school, during transportation or related to homework. Consider all areas of school, not just academic ones.
  • Include any detail about past requests for evaluation that may have been denied.
  • Attach letters from doctors, therapists, or other providers who have relevant information, insights, or diagnoses (NOTE: medical information is offered voluntarily and not required to be shared).
  • Parent/legal caregiver contact information and a statement that consent for the evaluation will be provided upon notification.

After receiving a letter of request for evaluation the school district has the responsibility to:

  • Document the referral.
  • Notify parent/caregiver, in writing, that the student has been referred for evaluation.
  • Examine relevant documents from family, the school, medical providers, and other involved agencies.
  • Tell parents/caregivers in writing, within 25 days, about the decision to evaluate or not. This formal letter is called “Prior Written Notice.”
  • Request formal written consent for an evaluation.
  • Complete the evaluation within 35 school days after consent is signed.
  • Schedule a meeting to share evaluation results with a team that includes family to determine next steps.
  • Initiate development of an IEP, if the student qualifies.

Evaluation for Behavior Supports

Sometimes a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) is conducted alongside an educational evaluation when behavior is a primary feature of a child’s difficulty at school. The FBA uses tools and observation to identify triggers and unskilled coping strategies that can help explain areas of need for learning. The FBA provides the foundation for a Behavioral Intervention Plan (BIP), which supports positive choices. BIP goals and strategies prioritize social skill development and emotional regulation tools. The BIP can be a stand-alone document or can be used with an IEP or a Section 504 Plan (see below). PAVE provides a variety of articles about Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.

A student may qualify for a Section 504 Plan, if not an IEP

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This Civil Rights law protects individuals with disabilities that severely impact “major life activities,” such as learning, breathing, walking, paying attention, making friends… The law is intentionally broad to capture a wide range of disability conditions and how they might impact a person’s life circumstances.

Sometimes students who don’t qualify for the IEP will qualify for accommodations and other support through a Section 504 Plan. PAVE has an article about Section 504, which provides an individual with protections throughout the lifespan. Note that Section 504 anti-discrimination protections apply to students with IEPs and Section 504 Plans. Key protections provide for equitable opportunities, access and non-discriminatory policies and practices. These protections might be part of the discussion if a student, because of disability, is denied access to a field trip, extracurricular opportunities, a unique learning environment or something else that is generally available to all students.

Section 504 includes specific provisions to protect students from bullying related to disability conditions: A US Department of Education Dear Colleague letter about bullying describes those protections as an aspect of a school district’s responsibility to provide FAPE.

Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE)

If families disagree with the school district’s evaluation, they can request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. To deny an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate. PAVE provides an article with more information and a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Here are additional resources:

Washington laws regarding evaluation are in 392-172A, 03005-03080, of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC)

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team provides 1:1 support and additional resources. Here are ways to Get Help:

Call 1-800-5PARENT (572-7368) and select extension 115, English or Spanish available, to leave a dedicated message.

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Go online to fill out a form to Get Help! Use the Google translate to make it to the language you use the best!