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Understanding Your Child’s Special Education Rights

By Elaine Meyer

Parents who send their children to public schools are often unaware that federal law entitles those children to an education that addresses their learning disabilities or mental disorders in as nonrestrictive an environment as possible. Here is a glossary to help navigate special education in public and charter schools.

IDEA: Special education rights are spelled out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), which was passed in 1975 and renewed in 2004. The law guarantees every student in American public schools the right to a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

FAPE: All students, even those with severe disabilities, are entitled to a “free appropriate public education.” This may include an educational plan that is specially designed for the student.

IEP: The Individualized Education Plan is a legally-binding document that outlines a student’s special education needs and curriculum. It is prepared by a team that usually includes a student’s teachers, counselors, an educational advocate, and a school district representative. It may specify classes that address a student’s specific learning disability and indicate certain times of day when the student needs counseling. Additionally, it addresses whether the student will take an alternate standardized test.

LEA: Each school in the District of Columbia is part of a Local Education Agency, or school district, that administers special education. A charter school can elect to be its own LEA, which means it alone is responsible for evaluating students for special education. Or the charter may elect to remain part of the District of Columbia Public Schools, which means the district is ultimately responsible. Jaleel’s former school, Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, is part of the District of Columbia Public Schools LEA.

If Your Child Needs Help
1. Parents who think their child needs additional attention in school, either because of a mental disorder, or physical or learning disability, may request that the school administration screen their child for the disability or disorder and initiate an IEP if necessary.

2. Public schools can be held responsible under the IDEA law for failing to initiate student evaluations if:
(a) the student’s parent wrote a letter to the school administration or a teacher saying that the child needs special education services.
(b) the teacher of the child or an employee of the school’s local education agency that administers its special education services expressed concerns to the LEA.

3. If parents are having a disagreement with the school system, they should look to the free and reduced-cost resources in what is called a “procedural safeguards” memo provided by their school to all special education students for help. Parents often find it useful to hire an education advocate to navigate this system; however, they may find it difficult to get reimbursed for these services due to current legal precedent.

4. If a public school cannot meet the special education needs of a student, the district may refer him or her to a private school that can. In that case, the public school district is responsible for the student’s tuition at the private school.

More information about special education law and advocacy can be found in the “Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book,” by Rich Weinfeld and Michelle Davis (Prufrock Press: 2008). Weinfeld and Davis are special education consultants from ABC Advocacy.

Filed Under: Reshaping CommunitiesWashington, D.C.


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  1. My English is not good, not too much to see to understand. But thank you to share with me

  2. A model of inspired education, Sunrise School strives to develop young adults who are confident, responsible and creative builders of their futures. Sunrise School will provide a challenging and inclusive education with an emphasis on the whole child and on learning in a cooperative, community-centered environment.

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