Public school education has recently been described as an underfunded war zone where students are hitting, kicking and engaging in other unruly behaviors. National headlines highlight education system problems by describing capping the number of special education students, or segregating students with disabilities from their non-disabled peers, which often denies them equal access to education. Closer to home, school districts are reportedly using seclusion, restraint and shortened school days to try to control the chaos.
These headlines echo past times when students with disabilities were forgotten, warehoused in institutions and denied an education. Fortunately, a special education system now requires all students to have an equal public school education, regardless of disability. Different types of lawsuits brought by parents and groups of families have garnered the national and local spotlight, and the results help hold state and local education agencies accountable for protecting and ensuring the rights of students with disabilities.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines and protects the public education rights of students with disabilities. The IDEA is a federal law, guaranteeing students with qualifying disabilities a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The IDEA requires school districts to identify and evaluate any student who may need special education services. Once a student is identified as needing special education services, school districts must then design an educational program based on the specific strengths and needs of each student.
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is created for each student to meet all of the student’s unique needs. The IEP serves as a road map, outlining where a particular student is academically, socially and behaviorally; where that student is going; and what supports are needed to allow a student to progress. Districts cannot understand or address individual student needs without properly evaluating each student in all areas of suspected disability.
The school district has the responsibility to provide students with disabilities an appropriate education. However, the student’s parents are the most important team members in this process. Under IDEA, parents must be able to meaningfully participate in making educational decisions and choices, at every step of the process. Parents decide whether they want their child evaluated for special education services. Once those evaluations are completed, parents decide if they want their child to receive special education services. Parents are also equal members of the team that designs the IEP and decides what educational environment is the least restrictive for the student. The IDEA has safeguards and protections to ensure that parents are involved in, and kept informed of, all educational decisions related to their child.
The special education system is only as effective as the people involved. Collaboration between parents and district staff is crucial in protecting the educational rights of children with disabilities. There are many opportunities for things to fall apart and students to fall through the cracks. The sooner parents and district staff can intervene when a child is struggling at school, the easier it is to go back and methodically figure out where things went wrong and design solutions for that particular student.
When the special education system breaks down, it is the student who faces the consequences of the system’s failure. When a child is acting out, not progressing or losing skills, the IEP team must stop and ask the simple question, “Why?” Tragic stories of violent behavior in the schools that lead to seclusion, restraints and injuries, require figuring out the root cause of the student’s behavior. Too often, children are dismissed from the classroom in one way or another without districts doing the hard work of identifying and remediating the underlying cause.
This can leave parents and students feeling helpless, overwhelmed and frustrated. More importantly, precious educational time is lost. Parents need not stand idly by and watch their child flounder. Legal remedies are available. Parents can request mediation, file different types of complaints through the school district, state administrative law system, federal court system or the Office of Civil Rights. These options vary in time, money, potential outcomes and effect on the student.
Lawyers can help families work through special education legal processes to determine the best course of action to advocate for a child’s educational rights. Having a paper trail that includes written documentation of requests, concerns, and memorialized conversations with the school district helps hold schools accountable. If it comes down to legal remedies, these documents cannot be ignored and will serve to give parents the power Congress intended when enacting the IDEA.
Diane Wiscarson and Suzanne Gall are attorneys with Wiscarson Law. Since Diane Wiscarson founded the firm in 2001, Wiscarson Law has shepherded thousands of Oregon and Washington families through the region’s public schools and education service districts on behalf of their special needs children. Find more information at wiscarsonlaw.com.