Special needs: How parents can ensure their child’s rights are protected
By Scaringi & Scaringi P.C.
Gone are the days when children with special needs were shunted aside to “special education” classrooms, sequestered from the rest of the student body. Seeing that such a system created a separate but unequal environment, new federal and state laws were enacted, beginning with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to give children with disabilities the attention they need and access to regular classrooms.
Still, there can be a vast difference between the letter of the law and what actually occurs in the classroom.
When it comes to ensuring your child’s rights, it may take an attorney who can negotiate with school officials, including the district’s own solicitor, to demand that your child is properly accommodated in accordance with the law.
Assuring individualized instruction
Since every child learns differently, school districts and teachers must depart from cookie-cutter approaches to instruction. Reflecting that philosophy, school districts are mandated to develop an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, tailored to each child with special needs.
A key tenet of the IEP is to ensure that the child is taught and supported in the least restrictive environment the school can provide. In most cases, this means mainstream classrooms, whether the child has mild autism, a visual or hearing impairment, or profound physical or intellectual disabilities.
But some school officials choose expedience and cost-effectiveness over what is best and necessary for the child. Typically, IEP teams are made up of special education teachers, regular education teachers, school psychologists, school district officials and other stakeholders. Parents have a seat at the IEP table, but they might not be experts in all the services their child is entitled to, or how to get what their child needs. This is why parents often opt to have an experienced attorney represent or accompany them at IEP meetings and school conferences.
Disputed aspects of an IEP often include the child’s education goals, the measurement of those goals, and the means to achieve them. Even the results of the school’s comprehensive review of the child’s initial strengths and weaknesses can be controversial, for it is upon this assessment that the entire IEP is built.
Sometimes, the school’s IEP panel will speak in jargon which can confuse and intimidate parents. By contrast, an attorney well-versed in IDEA law and the IEP process can serve as an effective advocate to the school’s IEP panel, ensuring the child’s rights are represented.
An IEP is never set in stone. Regular meetings and updates will track whether the IEP is being followed and the child is progressing. If a school is not measuring up or the child is not reaching the stated goals, both the IEP and the education services must be adjusted accordingly.
When schools fail to make good on an IEP, more than legal compliance issues are at stake; federal and state funding can be jeopardized as well. This is the regulatory hammer that compels school officials to deliver on a child’s IEP – but only if parents know which buttons to push.
Enforcement comes through Pennsylvania’s state-level education system and administration. Federal courts hold ultimate jurisdiction, especially when it comes to the rights of the disabled and the disposition of federal money funneled to school districts.
Still, school officials have been known to resist measures necessary to support students with special needs. As such, the IEP process can become a complicated matter of painstaking negotiation and possible litigation. When it does, every parent and child should be represented by an experienced attorney advocate.
Ultimately, a child’s failed IEP plan can be legally challenged by invoking the right to a due process hearing. There have even been cases when parents determined that the public school was not meeting their child’s needs, placed their child in private school, and then sued for tuition reimbursement from the school district.
No matter what diagnosis a child may receive, the public school system must not only accommodate the child, but meet each need in the least restrictive setting. Under the law, this is called making meaningful progress. Your child’s rights cannot be discounted — and the school district’s duty cannot be removed — solely because of the severity of a disability, steep costs or administrative inconvenience.
If you are concerned that your child’s IEP isn’t working, or your child is not making meaningful progress, a knowledgeable attorney can help.
Working together, parents and their attorney can hold the school district accountable to deliver on the law’s guarantees to fully support and effectively educate your child.