“Know Your Child’s Educational Rights”
If you have a special needs child, you should be familiar with the federal laws and state regulations that outline the educational rights that your child is entitled to. For example, from the age of 3 to 21, a child with special needs enrolled in a public school is often entitled to special services or accommodations.
The main federal law in this area is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the IDEA, public schools must offer children who qualify a free appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Usually, that means “main-streaming” or putting the child in a regular classroom. To qualify, your child’s education must be negatively affected by one of the following special needs:
• Hearing, speech or visual impairment;
• Brain injury or mental impairment;
• Serious emotional issues;
• Serious health issues; or
• An identifiable learning disability.
The IDEA states that your child has the right to be evaluated to find out if his or her special need qualifies. The evaluation will include your child’s current functioning level. This level is determined by looking at the child’s grades, test scores, reports and even teacher observations. It will also show how the special need negatively affects your child’s education. Should you disagree with the evaluation, you have the right to get an Independent Educational Evaluation, which is performed by someone outside of the school district. This evaluation is often paid for by the school district.
Other rights granted under the IDEA include your right to see your child’s school records and test results, as well as to meet with the school’s administration in order to create an “Individualized Education Program” for your child’s specific needs. Each child’s program is developed by a team that includes you, the child’s teacher, an agency representative and sometimes even the child. If you agree on your child’s program, that means you have agreed to the special services that your child specifically needs, the goals that your child is expected to meet during the school year, and methods that will be used to evaluate your child’s progress. Once a program is agreed upon, under the IDEA your child must be placed in the “least restrictive” educational environment. After your child is placed in a school that you and the school district agree upon, you will receive progress reports. Expect your child to be re-evaluated once every three years.
Should you disagree with your child’s proposed program, you have a few options: you can request a review by the state’s educational agency or request the services of a mediator, who is an unbiased person. If you choose the review and the agency comes back with a decision with which you disagree, you can appeal to either state or federal court. If you choose to meet with a mediator, she will meet with you and the school district’s representative. The mediator will listen to both sides and suggest an agreement that she thinks would make everyone happy. If you still disagree, you have a right to an impartial due process hearing, where both sides will tell their story to a hearing officer. Then, based on the IDEA regulations, the hearing officer will decide the appropriate program for your child. Be aware that your school district must give you a written copy of the rules that outline the above procedure.
Another important federal statute is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Under this civil rights statute, all public and private programs that receive federal financial assistance are prohibited from discriminating against students with disabilities. Under Section 504, a child is considered disabled if she has an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as learning or social development. Usually, children that are disabled under this statute are less disabled than those protected under the IDEA. These programs must provide your child with reasonable accommodations, like untimed testing or a front-row seat. This statute also requires schools to ensure that students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is another federal statute that may assist you with your child’s education. It safeguards disabled children’s access to education, programs and services and prevents discrimination. It also requires all non-religious educational institutions to meet with your child if she has psychiatric problems.
Armed with the laws designed to protect special needs children, you will be able to advocate on their behalf and ensure that their rights are not violated. Be sure to check with your state’s agencies to see what rights and protections your local statutes offer.
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