The special education or IEP process is complicated and frustrating for families navigating the system on their own. School staff often mean well, but ultimately must represent the school’s interest even if that leaves a child without necessary services. Parents are left feeling that they alone are acting in their child’s best interest and quickly learn that advocating for their child while making sense of evaluations, test scores, and IEP progress can become a full time job. With limited formal training and experience, parents often don’t know that a school can and may even be required to provide more for a student more than it is offering. Parents can and should object when schools deny services on the basis that “this is just how we do it,” or “this is what all students get.” The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), which is the federal law that provides special education for children in public schools, demands that students receive individualized instruction, and that decisions are made for the individual child. There is no one way to do things.
The IDEA says that each student is entitled to a “Free and Appropriate Public Education” in the “Least Restrictive Environment.” This means that public schools should be providing each student who has a disability with instruction and intervention that is appropriate for that child and provided, as much as possible, in general education classrooms. Often, there is disagreement as to what is appropriate under the law. Section 504 states that a student at any school receiving federal funding cannot “be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination” because of their disability. Public schools in Maryland are required to administer their special education programs and services according to the IDEA, Section 504, and state law, so it is critical that parents understand these laws in order to make sure that their children get what they need.
Parents need to know, for example, that school systems are required to identify whether a student has a disability through evaluations, classroom performance and standardized data. If a student is found to have a disability covered by the IDEA, the school must develop an individualized plan to help the student, make sure that plan is followed, and track the student’s progress in achieving specific learning goals at regular intervals. Parents who are not trained in special education law may not know when a school is failing to fulfill its obligations, or when their rights are being violated.
Yet, parents are almost always right when they “feel” something is wrong. In some cases, parents know that their children are struggling even when they are not identified as needing services. In other cases, caring teachers have told parents that they have concerns, but the school still does not help. Often, that is when parents seek legal assistance. When families come to us, we help them resolve a variety of issues related to special education, such as:
- Their child is in need of services, but the school system says that the student does not qualify for special education (or an IEP), or that “everything is fine”
- A school system denied a child’s 504 Plan or is failing to provide the agreed upon accommodations
- The student has an IEP, but they are not making progress on their IEP goals and objectives
- The school is not following the IEP or 504 Plan
- The child has an IEP, but the services they are getting are ineffective
- The school system insists on using “interventions” that do not have evidence behind them or are not aligned with the latest research (for example, reading programs that do not follow findings on the science of reading)
- The child needs “non-public” placement (private, specialized school at the school district’s expense)
- The school district tells families “this is how we do it here,” or “we can’t afford that” in order to avoid providing needed services
- The public school system is excluding a child from general education
- The school team will not accept outside evaluations of the child or says that the school’s own data contradicts the outside evaluations
In addition to accomodations for their academic issues, students with disabilities that affect behavior, such as ADHD and autism, are entitled to special considerations in the school discipline. The school is required to follow special discipline processes and rules if your child’s behavior is a “manifestation” of (caused by or related to) their disabilities. Failure to do so violates the student’s rights and results in an unfair and discriminatory discipline process.
In each of these situations, we will work with you to analyze your child’s individual needs and achieve results that meet their best interests and protect their rights. In some cases, this may mean developing a plan for you to continue advocating for your child on your own. In other cases, you may decide it is time for a special education attorney or advocate to become actively involved. Each of these approaches has pros and cons, and we will help you identify which is best for you.