Hope Kirsch, a special education attorney with the law firm of Kirsch-Goodwin & Kirsch, PLLC, represents students with disabilities and their families throughout Arizona in school-related matters, including individualized education programs (IEP), due process, 504 plans, disciplinary matters and bullying. She was a special education teacher and school administrator for nearly 20 years and has a B.S. in special education from Boston University, an M.A./M.Ed. in special education from New York University and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School. Jewish News asked Kirsch about what parents need to know when first learning that their child has special needs.
What are the first steps a parent should take when they find out that their child is having difficulty in school?
Parents should submit a request via e-mail to the school district or charter school that the child attends. I advise parents to email the child’s teacher, the special education director for the school district or charter school and the school principal or headmaster, stating they are requesting a complete assessment to determine the full nature and extent of their child’s disabilities and the impact of the disabilities on their child’s education. They should state their concerns and note that the email should be deemed as giving their “consent” to evaluate. (Giving consent triggers deadlines.) Parents who home-school their children, or who place their children in a for-profit private school – or whose children are in preschool or are ages 3-5 – should submit the evaluation request to the school district in which they reside (email the special education director and at least one other person, such as the superintendent). The schools have their own obligation, called “Child Find,” to evaluate, with parental consent, any child they suspect of having a disability that may require special education.
What are the parents’ rights when it comes to the evaluation?
The school (home-school district or charter school) has 60 calendar days to complete the evaluation from the date parents give consent, which is why I suggest parents state in the email requesting the evaluation that they are giving consent. Parents can submit their request any time during the year, not just during the school year.
The school is required under the law to assess/evaluate students “in all areas related to the suspected disability” including, if appropriate, social-emotional skills, behaviors, etc. If, after the evaluations, the parents do not agree with the findings, they have the right to an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) with an evaluator of their own choosing at the expense of the public education agency (PEA). If the school refuses, the school must file a due process complaint.
What is the difference between a 504 and an IEP and how do they affect the student?
A 504 Plan provides accommodations, services and/or aids to students with a disability (as that term is defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act) to afford the student equal opportunities to participate in school activities and receive the same instruction as nondisabled peers, but they do not require special education. Accommodations may include extra time for the same assignments as their peers, a separate quiet room to take the same test as their peers, large type for reading the same instructional material, or ramps to physically access the same classroom. An IEP is for a child who requires special education – instruction that is specialized, or modified, for that child. A ninth-grader reading at third grade can be given "Romeo and Juliet" modified from Shakespearean language to their reading level. Also, an IEP has goals written into it; a 504 does not. A student does not have an IEP after graduating high school, whereas a 504 plan continues into post-secondary school, and a student who had an IEP in high school can have a 504 in college.
To what degree can a parent expect schools to provide services and supports for the special needs of their child?
In order to answer these questions, it is important to understand that the federal law governing IEPs, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), does not require that schools maximize a child’s potential; the maxim is that students are only entitled to a Chevy, not a Cadillac. That said, the IEP must confer an “educational benefit” standard for a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) within the meaning of the IDEA by providing personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.
If parents believe their child is not receiving a sufficient amount or the right kind of services and supports (such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, behavior intervention, one-on-one), or they believe goals are too high, too low or there is insufficient progress, or if they have any other concerns, they should notify the school and request an emergency IEP meeting. The school has 15 school days after the date of the request to conduct the meeting. Parents should prepare a list of their concerns and explain why it is they believe the IEP is not appropriate, what they think their child needs, and go through each item with the IEP team. After exhausting their efforts, parents’ options include mediation, state administrative complaints and, in limited circumstances, due process.