An Overview of Special Education Law
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An Overview of Special Education Law

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") (originally the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, Public Law 94-142) was created in response to the fact that the educational needs of children with disabilities weren't being adequately met.

The purpose of the law is to ensure a "free appropriate public education" to all children with disabilities in the "least restrictive environment."

In order to trigger the protections of IDEA, a child must have a disability that results in the need for special education and related services. Eligibility is determined when a child is referred by a teacher, school personnel or a parent for an evaluation.

The evaluation must assess all areas related to the child's suspected disability or disabilities, and may include a physical examination, psychological and psychiatric evaluation and testing, hearing or vision testing, and other appropriate evaluations. 

The goal of the evaluation is to determine whether or not the child has a disability that requires the provision of special education and related services. If a parent disagrees with the evaluation, they can request an independent educational evaluation (IEE). 

If the child is determined eligible, then an IEP meeting is scheduled. The IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is the guiding document for the special education and related services an eligible child will receive. At the meeting, the parents, together with several education professionals including a regular education teacher, special education teacher, a representative of the school, an individual who can interpret evaluation results, and others with specialized knowledge or expertise as necessary. The child with a disability may also participate in the IEP meeting. 

At the conclusion of the meeting, the IEP will be developed. It is required to contain the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance; the special education and related services that will be provided; supplementary aids and services that are needed; modifications and accommodations that will be provided. It includes extracurricular activities and nonacademic activities in addition to academic learning activities. A key component of the IEP is how much time the child will spend separated from his or her nondisabled peers. 

The IDEA requires that a child with a disability receive special education and related services in the least restrictive environment or LRE. The basic premise of LRE is that children with disabilities will be educated alongside children without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate. It also requires that the child with a disability be educated in their home school, unless the IEP requires a different placement as the least restrictive environment for that child. 

It is important to remember the "individual" part of the Individualized Education Program, which means that a school can't place all children with disabilities in a separate, segregated classroom. The individual needs of each student must be assessed and a plan written and implemented to address those individual needs.

In order to effectively benefit from the special education and related services provided, a child with a disability may need modifications and accommodations. Some examples of modifications are changing the way a child is tested, i.e. giving an oral exam instead of a written one, or giving extra time to take an exam. Accommodations are things like augmentative communication devices, specialized computer software, Braille, sign language interpreters or captioning, allowing a service animal to accompany the child, etc.

If parents disagree with the placement decision, or the contents or implementation of the IEP, there are procedural safeguards in place. Parents can choose informal resolution like an IEP review, as well as the more formal procedures of mediation or a due process hearing. They can also file a state complaint. 

Mediation is a facilitated meeting between the parties where the mediator tries to help the parties reach an agreement. Mediation is voluntary and confidential. 

Parents can also file a due process hearing request. While each state's procedures vary, the basic requirements are that a due process complaint is filed, a resolution meeting is convened within 15 days, the hearing takes place and a decision is issued within 45 days. The hearing officer's decision is final; the only recourse is to appeal to the appropriate state or federal court. 

Parents may decide to file a complaint with the State Education Agency (SEA), which is required to investigate the complaint and issue a written decision within a certain time frame.

Though the IDEA is federal law, each state has its own set of regulations and procedures, so consult an attorney or advocate in your state for more information

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.


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