Children with disabilities should receive a free and appropriate education in their local school districts and be a partner in the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process.
In Utah, children with disabilities age 0-3 may be eligible to receive early intervention services from the Health Department (see ?Early Intervention Services? section). At age 3, eligible children start to receive preschool services from their local school district. School districts provide services until the student graduates or reaches age 22, and this is the group that this article will discuss.
Students with disabilities are ensured a free and appropriate education in their local school district through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004). The IDEA provides a very specific process where parents participate equally with school personnel as members of a planning team. This team meets together and develops a plan called the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for the child that spells out the child?s needs and what the school will do to provide specialized instruction and related services to meet those needs. Understanding some specific points about how this very helpful process works can help parents to be more appropriately involved and to have a good relationship with the school which should, in turn, lead to more appropriate services for the child.
When parents are involved in the special education process, they can work together with the school team to create a program that meets their child?s needs and sets him or her on a course for a more productive life as a contributing member of society. Parents know their children better than anyone else does, and can contribute ideas that are very helpful to the school. Often, it may seem a little overwhelming to be involved in the process, but continuing to work through challenges can make a huge difference for the child. As the child grows, he/she can learn self advocacy skills and may become able to participate in, and even lead, IEP meetings.
How Participation in the IEP Process Works
The special education process is designed to make sure that each child with a disability will have an education that is individualized to meet his or her needs and to give the child access to the general school curriculum. The process is designed to make parents equal partners with the school in making decisions. It is important for the parent to understand and respect the point of view of the school personnel. Likewise, the school should value the input from the parents. By treating each other with mutual respect and working together the team can more effectively develop an appropriate program for the child.
It is important for parents to understand and follow the process which, if pursued correctly, should lead to greater success for the child.
Step 1: Child Find/Referral
The school district must have a procedure for finding children that have disabilities. Either a parent or school personnel may refer a child to be evaluated to see if the child qualifies and needs specialized instruction and related services. Parents may submit a request to the Special Education department at the school. If school personnel submit a referral, they must first document the ways they have tried to teach the student that have not been successful. For this reason, the process can move more quickly if the parent makes the referral. The school may decide that an evaluation is not needed, but in most cases the school will provide a complete evaluation.
Step 2: Evaluation (Assessment)
The evaluation to determine eligibility for special education is a process of gathering information about the child that will be used to decide if the child is eligible for services and under which disability category the child should be served. This information also helps to determine the levels at which the child is performing (the strengths and needs of the child) which will be considered in making decisions about the type of services the child needs. Parents must give permission for the evaluation to take place.
The evaluation should be appropriate for the child and conform to a number of legal requirements that are outlined in the law. Parents will be better able to participate in the IEP process if they understand the results of the evaluation. Parents have a right to have a copy of the results of any evaluation and to be able to have any questions about the evaluations answered. If parents disagree with the results of the evaluation, they may request an independent evaluation at school district expense within certain guidelines.
Some children who do not qualify for special education may be eligible for services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This Act protects the rights of people with disabilities while they are participating in any program that receives federal funding. If the student qualifies for Section 504 services, a 504 plan may be developed to outline the accommodations that are needed for the student to have a successful school experience.
Step 3: Eligibility (Classification)
The team (including parents) reviews the data from the evaluation and decides if the child qualifies in one of the 13 categories that are served in special education. The requirements for each category are determined by federal and state law. Information on the qualifications for each category can be found in the law and in the Utah State Office of Education Special Education Rules. (Rules can be found at: http://www.schools.utah.gov/sars/rules/NewGrules.pdf)
Step 4: IEP Meeting
The IEP team, which includes the parents, meets to develop an appropriate program for serving the child. In the team meeting, the student?s educational needs are discussed. Measurable annual goals and sometimes short term objectives are agreed upon. Based on the goals, decisions are made about how to meet the child?s educational needs, including the special education and related services, and the supplementary aids and services that are to be provided. Keep in mind that the goals and services are only meant to serve the child?s educational needs! The IEP sets forth in writing a commitment of the resources necessary to serve the child. The IEP also serves as an evaluation device to help monitor the progress of the child. The IEP can be modified at any time, or the team can reconvene at any time.
By the time student turns 16, the IEP must include transition services to help the student plan for the move from school to post school activities.
Step 5: Placement
The IEP team (including parents) decides upon the placement of the child based upon the program agreed upon in the IEP meeting. The team decides the type of setting that the services can be delivered to the child in the most appropriate way. The student must be served in the least restrictive environment (LRE), meaning as close as possible to the way a regular student is served with emphasis on providing access to the general school curriculum.
Step 6: Service Delivery
The IEP is a legally binding document, meaning that the school must provide the agreed upon services.
Step 7: Review
The IEP should be reviewed at least annually to evaluate the progress of the student and to revise goals as needed. It is possible for some children to progress to the point that they no longer need special education and related services in which case the child will exit from the program. If the child moves out of special education services but qualifies under Section 504, he may receive accommodations outlined in a 504 plan.
Parents have the right to be informed of the district?s Procedural Safeguards which outline the rights of the parents and the student receiving special education services. Copies of the Procedural Safeguards must be given by the school to the parents at certain points in the special education process ? usually at an annual IEP meeting. Parents also have the right to be notified about actions the school takes and about meetings where decisions will be made as well as to be informed about the child?s progress.
A parent has the right to disagree with the IEP team at any point in the process. In the event that a parent does disagree, the parent has a number of due process rights including the right to have mediation or a formal due process hearing. These rights are explained in detail the Procedural Safeguards statement. Generally if a parent wishes to pursue due process procedures, it is a good idea to have assistance. Please see the resource section for ideas on where to go for help when disagreements occur.
In order to effectively participate in the special education process, it is helpful to have some kind of system for keeping records and tracking progress. The student who is in special education can have a valuable experience learning to advocate for him or herself. Brothers and sisters, grandparents, or other close family members may also be interested in being involved and could be invited to team meetings, if desired. You may want to have family members discuss ideas to take to the meeting to share with the IEP team. Certainly, such an important part of your child?s life should be discussed at home and be a part of the whole family?s experience. Families also should do what they can to support the child?s education at home and may want to discuss ideas about how they can accomplish this.
Additional resources for information on IDEA 2004