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An Overview of Special Ed Law

The federal government, under U.S. Code Title 20, Chapter 33, ensures rights to disabled students and their families through a law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This act is the crux of special ed law, because it governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to children with disabilities. IDEA addresses the special needs of children with disabilities from birth to age twenty-six. All states who accept federal funding are governed by IDEA.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

IDEA is central part of special ed law. The defining purpose of IDEA is to guarantee students a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that prepares them for further education, employment and independent living. This FAPE, guaranteed to those disabled children aged three to twenty-one, includes an educational program that is individualized to the specific child, designed to meet that child's unique needs, provides access to the general curriculum, meets the grade-level standards established by the state, and from which the child receives educational benefits.

Special ed law also calls for the students' parents to be an integral part of their child's education. IDEA ensures the parents of disabled students the following rights:

  • To be informed of Procedural Safeguards in writing (a booklet is available)
  • To review all educational records
  • To be equal members of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team, alongside the educational faculty
  • To be a part of all aspects of their child's education plan
  • To have their complaints heard with the state education agency
  • To request mediation, or a due process hearing
  • To suggest an alternative IEP and call witnesses (experts and others) who support their case.
  • These hearings are Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) hearings and can be appealed. This is not a trial.

Eligibility for IDEA services

Your school district is required by law to identify and evaluate students with disabilities. Then, the disabled students may be given special education programs and services individualized for their special needs.

Special ed law has certain requirements for students to be eligible for IDEA services. Children are entitled to IDEA rights if they are between the ages of three and twenty-one and have any of the following:

  • mental retardation
  • hearing impairment or deafness
  • speech or language impairment
  • visual impairment or blindness
  • serious emotional disturbance
  • orthopedic impairment
  • autism
  • traumatic brain injury
  • specified learning disability, or
  • other health impairment

If your child does have one or more of these impairments and there is evidence that her impairment(s) adversely affect her academic performance, then she qualifies for special education under IDEA.

From the time your child is found eligible for special education, she should be reevaluated every three years. Adjustments to her IEP should be made accordingly. You are entitled to have your child evaluated more frequently and even have outside or independent assessments, especially if you are dissatisfied with the school's evaluation or your child's special needs have indeed changed.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Under special ed law, every child that qualifies for special education is assigned an IEP. It specifies the services to be provided and how often, describes the student's present levels of performance and how the student's disabilities affect academic performance, and specifies accommodations and modifications to be provided for the student. Every faculty member, particularly classroom teachers, must follow this plan.

The IEP must include a design that meets the child's special needs in the least restrictive environment appropriate to that child. When your child qualifies for special education services, an IEP team is created to develop a detailed written description of the child's IEP. The IEP team must meet once a year to reevaluate and continue developing the child's IEP based on changing needs. This team must include

  • at least one of the child's regular classroom teachers
  • a special education teacher
  • someone who can read the educational implications of the child's evaluation (usually a psychologist). This person can be someone who is already a member of the team.
  • an administrator who is familiar with what services are available in the district and can make those services available to the child
  • a representative of the local education agency (LEA) who is qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of, specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of children with disabilities; knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and knowledgeable about the availability of resources of the LEA
  • at the discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the child, including related services personnel as appropriate
  • whenever appropriate, the child with the disability.

As mentioned, parents are considered to be equal members of the IEP team, as ensured by their fundamental parental rights. As such, parents may prepare an IEP of their own if they feel the school's IEP is not fair to their child.

The format of IEPs will vary among different school districts, but they all must contain the same basic information:

  • a description of the child's current academic achievement and functional performance in school
  • measureable annual goals structured to meet the child's special educational needs
  • the situation and services needed to provide the child with the appropriate education
  • considerations of vocational, placement, and transitional needs for a child who is 16 or older
  • the parents' right to take any dispute with the child's school district to a neutral third party for a resolution

For more information on IEPs, read How to Prepare for IEP Meetings.

Stay current in special ed law

IDEA is a law that is constantly changing. The last major changes took effect in October 2006 and leave the basic special ed rights the same, but affect the qualifications of the teachers, teaching methods, transitional services, evaluation and identification methods for special needs students, and the various aspects of IEP's. Because special ed law is always changing, it is important that you stay current on those changes, as they could have affects on you and your child. You can always research and read through the statute itself: U.S. Code Title 20, Chapter 33.

Your school district is required to give you a copy of the federal and state statutes, as well as any other relevant policies. So be sure to request this information, the school's IEP form, and any parent guides.

Many communities have local parent support groups that offer support and information for parents of children with special needs.

Another good resource for keeping current with is the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.

Of course your state department of education is always a good source of information, too, and many states keep recent changes in laws on their website. All states are required to follow IDEA, and states are permitted to provide even more protection and services to special needs students than IDEA requires. Any of these additional protections should be included on your state department of education's website. If there is no information there, your school district can give you the contact information for the state department of education.

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