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.

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 doesn’t need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated in the area of autism. If features from the autism spectrum of disability may significantly impact access to education, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Anxiety, Depression, Serious Mental Illness and/or behavior disabilities can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction. Social communication deficits 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: Note this is a separate category from deafness or deaf-blindness, as educational testing and identified needs may differ.
  • Deaf blindness
  • Deafness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a good place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-8): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 8. By age 9, 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 Analysis (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 Behavior 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 parents/caregivers disagree with the evaluation or the school’s decision to decline support services, they can pursue a request for an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). Making this request in writing encourages a professional response. When granting a request for an IEE, the school district provides a list of possible examiners and covers the cost. If the school district denies an IEE request, the district initiates a due process hearing within 15 calendar days to show that its initial evaluation was appropriate.

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

Center for Parent Information and Resources (English and Spanish): Parentcenterhub.org

Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities: smartkidswithld.org

PAVE’s Parent Training and Information (PTI) team can provide you with 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.

OR

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

Disability History Month Provides Opportunities for Reflection

A Brief Overview

  • October is Disability History Awareness Month, providing an opportunity for policy makers, teachers, families and people throughout communities to reflect on the disability rights movement and work that still needs advocacy.
  • State agencies collaborated to share biographical videos of middle-school students talking about their own diverse experiences with disability: One Out of Five: Disability History and Pride Project.
  • Understanding how historical actions have impacted the vocabulary of disability rights can help families in current advocacy. The ADA Legacy Project features specific “Moments in Disability History” with videos, articles and other archival materials.
  • This article highlights some key laws and legal actions that have impacted school access for students with disabilities.

Full Article

In the early part of the 20th century individuals with developmental, intellectual and other disabilities were often isolated from their communities and denied basic access to education. Many lived in large institutions, and it’s well known that those asylums were traumatizing for individuals and segregated them from their families. 

October is Disability History Awareness Month, providing an opportunity for policy makers, teachers, families and people throughout communities to reflect on the disability rights movement. Many agencies provide videos about disability history. Here is one 7-minute documentary that provides a summary of the eugenics* movement through current laws that protect rights for educational access: Disability Rights Activist Movement Documentary.

*Note: Eugenics involved the forced sterilization of individuals because of disability conditions. Parents may want to discuss topics in a developmentally appropriate way before sharing this or other historical information with children. An online children’s encyclopedia called Kiddle provides Eugenics Facts for Kids.

Washington State in 2008 passed a law that requires public schools to promote educational activities to enhance awareness of disabilities and the history of protections available to individuals with disabilities. A collection of historical biographies and artwork by school children is available online. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.230.158) includes this statement of findings:

“The legislature finds 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.”

The Office of the Educational Ombuds (OEO), in collaboration with the Rooted in Rights documentary project that is part of Disability Rights Washington, created a set of biographical videos of middle-school students talking about their own diverse experiences with disability. Access the videos and other educational materials on OEO’s website under the project’s title: One Out of Five: Disability History and Pride Project.

“One out of five people in the United States has a disability, and this resource is designed to celebrate the history and identities within this large and diverse community,” OEO states on its introductory page for the project.

Note: OEO provides online resources and 1:1 support when special education issues are not resolved through collaboration. A PAVE article about conflict resolution describes OEO as one of the “Three O’s” that can assist families when there is a question about whether student rights are being upheld. OSPI and the Office for Civil Rights are the other two O’s.

Disability rights activities can be traced back hundreds of years. Diversity Inc provides a PDF timeline that starts in the mid-1700s, with information about early hospital wards for individuals with mental illness. A few key historical points of note on this extensive timeline include passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, the launching of Medicaid in 1965 and the 1978 founding of US Department of Education’s National Council on Disability.

Understanding how historical actions have impacted the vocabulary of disability rights can help families in current advocacy. In an article providing history about special education law, the US Department of Education includes data showing that in the early 1970s, public schools educated only one out of five children with disabilities. Even though civil rights laws had been written and enacted, many states still had laws rejecting children from schools because they were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or intellectually disabled.

Parent Centers like PAVE, which began in 1979, participate in making sure that families and individuals understand disability rights and how history has impacted current protections and the language of disability rights. 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.

 1972: Key State Precedents

  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 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

In 1975 Congress passed 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 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.

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.

The Minnesota Council on Developmental Disabilities celebrates the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act with the ADA Legacy Project. To honor the contributions of individuals with disabilities and their allies who persevered in securing the passage of the ADA, the project features 31 specific “Moments in Disability History” with videos, articles and other archival materials:

“In order to fully realize a world where all people are accepted and valued, it is crucial to preserve and promote the history of the ADA and the disability rights movement.”

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 asses 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. 

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)

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.

Legal actions influence ongoing changes

Special Education Law impacts what happens every day at school and with a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). A few prominent lawsuits have influenced the way special education laws are interpreted. Following are a few examples.

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.

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.

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.”

Special education law continues to evolve

Interpretation of the IDEA continues to evolve as the US Department of Education creates documents to guide schools in how they understand and follow the law. “Dear Colleague” letters guide school staff to apply legal principles in daily practice. There are letters about IEP, FAPE, early learning, least restrictive environment (inclusion principles), alternative learning environments (such as Charter Schools), bullying and many more topics. Some letters review recent legal proceedings related to special education. For example, courts often discuss how schools are providing FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education), and their rulings further fine-tune how the schools are meeting their obligation to provide FAPE for students with identified disabilities. A library of these letters and other federal guidance and memos is available on the website of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

Introduction to Special Education

 

The process of special education can feel overwhelming for parents already working hard to manage home and medical challenges. This presentation is for parents of students ages 3-21, with known or suspected disabilities, who may have unique educational needs that require additional supports and services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan. This information can help parents participate in decision-making with schools by understanding basic principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

For an additional video about communication strategies for collaborating with the school, watch PAVE’s video, Parents as Partners with the School.

Parents with Disabilities Have Rights

Brief overview:

  • For nearly 100 years, parents with disabilities have experienced fewer rights than their non-disabled peers.
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect parents and prospective parents with disabilities from unlawful discrimination in the administration of child welfare programs, activities, and services.
  • Despite legal protections, parents with disabilities still are referred to child welfare services and permanently separated from their children at disproportionately high rates.
  • Parents who believe they have experienced discrimination may file an ADA complaint online, by mail, or by fax. Another option is to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Read on for details about how and where complaints are filed.

Full Article

In 1923, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) established parental rights, but four years later parents with disabilities were denied those protections. In Buck v. Bell, May 2, 1927, SCOTUS ruled that persons with disabilities do not have fundamental rights to make private decisions regarding family life. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 attempted to correct some disparities, but parents with disabilities still have their children removed from their homes at disproportionate rates.

Here are a few Facts About Disability Rights for Parents, compiled by the National Council on Disability and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation:

  • In the United States, 4.1 million parents have disabilities.
  • 1 in 10 children have a parent with a disability.
  • 5.6 million Americans live with paralysis from stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, neurofibromatosis, cerebral palsy, post-polio syndrome or other issues.
  • 35 states include disability as grounds for termination of parental rights.
  • Two-thirds of dependency statutes allow courts to determine a parent unfit, based on disability.
  • In every state, disability of the parent can be included in determining the best interest of the child.
  • The District of Columbia, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Dakota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Carolina allow physical disability as the sole grounds for terminating parental rights, without evidence of abuse or neglect.

The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability

The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools and transportation. The federal law, which is upheld by the Office for Civil Rights, covers all public and private places that are open to the general public. Under the ADA, people with disabilities have the right to equitable access. Equity doesn’t mean equal: It means that accommodations are provided to ensure access to something that everyone else has access to.

In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law. The ADAAA made significant changes to the definition of disability. The ADA is organized in sections called “Titles,” and the ADAAA changes applied to three Titles of the ADA:

  • Title I: Covers employment practices of private employers with 15 or more employees, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor unions, agents of the employer and joint management labor committees
  • Title II: Covers programs and activities of state and local government entities, including child welfare agencies and court systems
  • Title III: Covers private entities that are considered places of public accommodation

Equitable parenting opportunities are a Civil Right

Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protect parents and prospective parents with disabilities from unlawful discrimination in the administration of child welfare programs, activities, and services. Section 504 also protects students with disabilities, and PAVE has an article about that.

The goal of the ADA and Section 504 as it applies to parents and prospective parents is to ensure equitable access to parenting opportunities.  Also, these Civil Rights laws recognize that separation of parents from their children can result in long-term negative outcomes. The ADA requires child welfare agencies to:

  • Give a fair chance to parents with disabilities so they can take part in programs, services, or activities. 
  • Provide help to make sure people with disabilities understand what is being said or done.
  • Prevent barriers that make programs, activities or services hard to access because of disability.

Title II of the ADA and Section 504 also protect “companions”—people who help individuals involved in the child welfare system. A companion may include any family member, friend, or associate of the person who is seeking or receives child welfare services. For example, if a helper person is deaf, the child welfare agency provides appropriate auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication.

Discrimination leads to family separation

According to a comprehensive 2012 report from the National Council on Disability (NCD), parents with disabilities are often inappropriately referred to child welfare services. Once involved, these agencies permanently separate families impacted by disability at disproportionately high rates.

According to the report, discrimination most commonly involves parents with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. Parents who are blind or deaf also report significant discrimination in the custody process, as do parents with other physical disabilities. Individuals with disabilities seeking to become foster or adoptive parents encounter bias and barriers to foster care and adoption placements. The NCD linked the discrimination to stereotypes and speculation about parenting ability rather than evidence of problems in the home. The agency found a lack of individualized assessments and that many families weren’t receiving needed services.

The ADA and Section 504 provide Civil Rights protections against retaliation or coercion for anyone who exercises anti-discrimination rights. ADA complaints can be filed online, by mail, or by fax.

To file an ADA complaint online:

Americans with Disabilities Act Discrimination Online Complaint Form | (en Español)
Instructions for submitting attachments are on the form.

To file an ADA complaint by mail, send the completed ADA complaint form to:

US Department of Justice 
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Civil Rights Division 
Disability Rights Section – 1425 NYAV
Washington, D.C. 20530

To file an ADA complaint by facsimile, fax the completed ADA complaint form to: (202) 307-1197

Individuals also may file complaints with the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). For instructions to file in English or other languages, go to How to File a Civil Rights Complaint.

Always save a copy of the complaint and all original documents.

For more information about the ADA and Section 504, call the Department of Justice ADA information line: 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TDD), or access the ADA website.

Visit the following websites for additional information:

Parenting with a Disability: Know Your Rights Toolkit

Protection from Discrimination in Child Welfare Activities

Children’s Bureau – An Office of the Administration for Children and Families

Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children

Parental Disability and Child Welfare in the Native American Community

Protecting the Rights of Parents and Prospective Parents with Disabilities

 

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

Students with disabilities are bullied at a higher rate than their typical peers. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, providing a good opportunity to review information about available resources and actions families can take.

According to Disability Scoop magazine, 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.

A student who is identified as having a disability has added layers of protection against bullying. Those protections are upheld by the United States Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which in 2014 issued a Dear Colleague Letter to remind school staff of their obligations to protect students with disabilities against bullying:

“While there is broad consensus that bullying is wrong and cannot be tolerated in our schools, the sad reality is that bullying persists in our schools today, and especially so for students with disabilities,” the letter states. “This troubling trend highlights the importance of OCR’s continuing efforts to protect the rights of students with disabilities through the vigorous enforcement of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II). It also underscores the need for schools to fully understand their legal obligations to address and prevent disability discrimination in our schools.”

Students on Section 504 Plans and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) qualify for the protections of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Special services, accommodations and programming designed to meet specific, unique needs are what make education “appropriate” for a student with an identified disability. According to OCR, a school’s failure to address bullying can be determined as a denial of FAPE, “when a school knows or should know of bullying conduct based on a student’s disability.”

The OCR goes on to say that a school “must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. If a school’s investigation reveals that bullying based on disability created a hostile environment…the school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the bullying, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent it from recurring, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

The U.S. Department of Education maintains an online blog called Homeroom. An article, Keeping Students with Disabilities Safe from Bullying, states that students will disabilities are particularly vulnerable because of physical issues, challenges with social skills and intolerant environments. “Students who are targets of bullying are more likely to experience lower academic achievement, higher truancy rates, feelings of alienation, poor peer relationships, loneliness, and depression,” the article states. “We must do everything we can to ensure that our schools are safe and positive learning environments—where all students can learn.”

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

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

Every school district in the state has a staff member responsible for managing complaints related to Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB), and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a resource list to help you locate the compliance coordinator with jurisdiction over your school. OSPI also provides a HIB Toolkit as part of its Safety Center. Among resources provided through the toolkit is a link to a national agency,  StopBullying.gov, which includes lists of suggestions for parents and what-to-do for teenagers.

Washington State’s Office of the Educational Ombudsman (OEO) provides guidance and model Incident Reporting Forms for parents and schools through its website, which includes some articles in both English and Spanish. “Bullying is not something schools and families should take lightly,” OEO states. “Bullying is a repeated negative behavior that takes advantage of a less-powerful person, and sometimes even makes the child who is bullied feel at fault. Hitting, name calling, shunning and shaming are all forms of bullying. So are spreading rumors, gossiping and making threats online.”

The PACER Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center, founded in 2006, has a vast array of resources for families and professionals. Here is a sampling of information from PACER’s Top 10 facts for parents, educators and students with disabilities:

  1. Students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than nondisabled peers.
  2. Bullying affects a student’s ability to learn. For more information read PACER’s Common Views About Bullying. Bullying can lead to:
    1. school avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
    2. decrease in grades
    3. inability to concentrate
    4. loss of interest in academic achievement
    5. increase in dropout rates
  3. Bullying based on a student’s disability may be considered harassment if it includes:
    1. unwelcome conduct such as verbal abuse, name calling, epithets, or slurs
    2. graphic or written statements
    3. threats
    4. physical assault
    5. other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating
  4. Bullying could be determined to be disability-based harassment and/or a denial of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), protected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
  5. All states have bullying prevention laws, and many school districts also have individual policies that address how to respond to bullying situations. Families can contact a local district to request a written copy of the district policy on bullying.
  6. Adult response is important. Parents, educators, and other adults are important advocates and need to know the best way to talk with children who might be reluctant to talk about what happened, perhaps because the bully threatened to retaliate if called out. PACER has letter templates parents can use to communicate with the school and also articles about how to talk with children about bullying and cyberbullying.
  7. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be adapted to help when bullying becomes a barrier to learning. The PACER center provides these IEP-specific tips:
    1. Identify an adult in the school that the child can trust for help.
    2. Determine how school staff will document and report incidents.
    3. Allow the child to leave class early to avoid hallway incidents.
    4. Hold separate in-services for school staff and classroom peers to help them understand a child’s disability.
    5. Educate peers about school district policies on bullying behavior.
    6. Ensure that school staff regularly remind the student that he or she has a “right to be safe” and that the bullying is not his or her fault.
    7. Request that school staff shadow the student who has been bullied in hallways, classrooms, and playgrounds.
  8. More than 50 percent of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes. Most students don’t like bullying, but they may not know what to do when it happens. Peer advocacy is a unique approach that empowers students to protect those targeted by bullying.
  9. Self-advocacy can be fostered as a skill that helps the student with a disability talk about needs in a straightforward way. By being involved in what happens in response to the bullying, a student gains a sense of control over their situation. PACER Center’s Student Action Plan helps students define the situation, think about what could be different and write steps for action.
  10. Everyone has a role to play to help students see that no one deserves to be bullied and that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what. PACER center provides curricula under a program called, The We Will Generation.

Additional information and resources about bullying are available through the Center for Parent Information and Resources, CPIR, which maintains a website called the Parent Center Hub.

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

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

General Teen Talkline: 800-TLC-TEEN

Trevor Project (issues related to sexuality): 866-488-7386

These and other hotlines and text lines are available through Suicide Hotlines.com.