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Special Education Law and Advocacy

Updated: May 11, 2022

Many people recognize a moral obligation to educate students with disabilities. In fact that moral obligation has been turned into special education law with which all public local education agencies in the United States are required to comply.

What is Federal Special Education Law?

All public schools that accept federal money are required to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA provides a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities that affect their progress in the general education curriculum.

The IDEA begins with a requirement that all students who are suspected of having a disability be assessed. The assessments must be in all areas of suspected disability, must be free from bias, must include different assessment techniques and must be conducted by professionals who are qualified to conduct assessments. If the student is subsequently found eligible for special education then the IDEA requires that the students be periodically assessed to determine their progress and the impact of their disability on their education.

Once the assessments are complete, the IDEA requires that a Team of people come together to discuss the student’s eligibility for special education. The Team includes the child’s parents, general education teacher, a special education teacher, a member of the district who can commit the district’s financial resources, a member of the school district who is knowledgeable about the district’s continuum of special education services, person(s) who are qualified to interpret the assessments, the student if appropriate and anyone else that the parent or school district think would be useful to the process.

If the Team finds that the student is eligible for special education because he or she has a disability that affects his or her progress in the general curriculum then the Team is required to draft an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The most important aspects of the IEP are the annual goals which the Team expects the child to meet and the service delivery information which specifies what type of specialized instruction and related service the child should receive and how often those services will be provided to the student. The IEP also contains information about the student’s current assessments, necessary modifications, special transportation requirements and more.

While this explanation might seem rather straightforward, the IDEA is a complex law that has many implementing regulations. It is often difficult for school districts to comply with all of the requirements. The IDEA therefore has many protections in place so that parents can get help enforcing the law if they believe that their child’s rights are not being protected pursuant to the IDEA.

What Can I Do If My Child’s School District Is Not Complying with IDEA?

While it is the school district’s responsibility to provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities, students with disabilities often benefit from strong special education advocacy. Sometimes this advocacy comes from the student’s parents and sometimes it comes from a special education advocate or a special education attorney hired by the parents.

Whether the advocacy is provided directly by the parents, an advocate or an attorney it is important that the person providing the advocacy start by trying to work out their differences with school district personnel. Disagreements often arise over the type or amount of services that need to be provided to a student with disabilities. Disagreements can also arise over the time frame with which districts conduct assessments or develop IEPs or with the assessments themselves.

If the parent, advocate or special education lawyer cannot work things out with the district then the IDEA provides specific steps that the parent can take to protect a student’s rights. If the parent’s complaint is procedural in nature and focuses on something that the district did or did not do then the parent can file a complaint with the state Department of Education. If the complaint is more substantive in nature, such as a disagreement over the type or amount of services, then the parent can seek a mediation or due process hearing. Since the IDEA is a federal law, the parent always has the right to file a complaint in Federal District Court as well.

Special education law was developed to protect the rights of students with disabilities and to make sure that districts give them an equitable education. The history of special education law is intertwined with civil rights laws and it is both a moral and legal obligation for school districts to comply with special education law requirements.

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