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If the evaluation of a student with BTHS also finds evidence of a recognizable learning disability and if the student needs special education as a result of his learning disability, then he will be protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, amended in 1997 (IDEA). This federal law provides many more protections than Section 504 provides, so a student who is already protected under the IDEA does not have to worry about having a 504 plan. Under the IDEA, a student with disabilities will have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which details how the student will be accommodated for his disabilities in each element of his education. This document legally binds the school district to provide the protections and accommodations they promise to provide. (Some provinces in Canada also have IEP’s protecting students with disabilities, and the British government has a similar protection called a Special Educational Needs policy.)

An excellent book for parents who have students with IEP’s or for parents who are thinking about having their children protected under the IDEA is called The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child by Lawrence M. Seigel (see resources page). This book offers all that a parent could need in learning the basics and the specifics of the IEP process. 

One of the purposes of the IEP is to provide protections that a student with disabilities will be educated, as much as possible, with non-disabled students in regular classrooms. In legal terms, the student should be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment possible. At the same time, the school has the responsibility to take the student out of the regular classroom for special education or one-on-one instruction when such methods are necessary for the student to actually benefit from his education. Parents often are concerned about the extent to which their child will be labeled as a special education student and separated from the general student body, but parents should be equally concerned if their child with disabilities are unable to learn in a regular classroom. Finding the balance between special education and mainstreamed education is a challenge the parents and the school will work toward in the writing of the IEP.

An IEP includes the following information:

  • A statement of the student’s present levels of educational performance
  • A statement of measurable annual goals and objectives
  • A statement of the special education, aids and related services to be provided by the student
  • A statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel to be provided for the student
  • A statement that explains the ways in which the student might be educated separated from non-disabled students in regular classrooms
  • Communicating with schools

The school must evaluate the student once every three years in order to keep the student’s records up to date, and the IEP must be reviewed (and possibly revised) at least once a year. An IEP team made up of educators and the child’s parents is responsible for the writing and the reviewing of the IEP. Parents do not have the final say in how their child will be educated, but the law provides protections that the parents, as members of the IEP team, will have a significant say in how their child will be placed and accommodated. In order to have a meaningful say in the creation of an IEP, parents need to be educated in how to read their child’s evaluations and test scores. 

When disagreements between parents and educators arise concerning the education of a student with an IEP, the school has many legal responsibilities to work with the parents to find a solution that everyone will accept. If parents make a request for accommodation that the school does not wish to offer or if the school plans to make an adjustment to a student’s IEP, the school must inform the parents in writing. This letter is called prior written consent, and it not only must explain exactly how the school came to its decision but also must be written in a language that the parents can easily understand. Furthermore, if the parents cannot read and write in the language that the school uses in its letters and communications, the school must provide an interpreter to assure that the parents understand the IEP process.

If, after reading the prior written consent letter, parents wish to have the school reconsider its position, they may ask for mediation, and if mediation fails, parents may request an impartial due process hearing, otherwise known as a Fair Hearing. Most student advocates, however, will argue that these hearings are rarely fair and are usually biased towards the school districts. Essentially, a Due Process hearing is something to be avoided when possible. Certainly, parents would need considerable expert help and advice before they should consider such a strategy. 

In the rare cases when the parents wish to continue their fight beyond the due process hearing, they have the right to appeal their case to the state or federal courts. This kind of legal battle often costs an enormous amount of money in legal fees, and the battle takes years to finish. The best way to solve a dispute between parents and schools regarding a child’s IEP is through mediation (see Communicating with Schools for more discussion about mediation and due process hearings.)

In summary, here are some points to remember regarding students with IEP’s:

  • A student with an IEP does not also need a 504 plan
  • Schools must allow parents to examine all records pertaining to their child
  • Schools must give parents the opportunity to participate in all meetings pertaining to how their child will be educated
  • Schools must allow parents to have their child independently evaluated
  • When disagreements cannot be resolved between schools and parents, schools must pay for mediation sessions between administrators and parents
  • If parents do not accept the terms offered in mediation, they have the right to take their case to a due process hearing
  • If parents are not satisfied with the outcome of the due process hearing, they have the right to appeal their case to a state or federal court

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