The state and federal governments enacted various regulations to protect a student with disabilities and to ensure that he or she obtains a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Parents play a key role in the success of any special education program implemented for their children. Given the complexity of special education law, it is important to understand the significant responsibility a parent has in the special education system.
Referral to Special Education and Related Services
This is the first step in the process to determine a child’s eligibility for special education and related services. Parents should be aware that you have the right to request such a referral. The referral must be in writing. School officials also have the ability to make a referral. However, a parent is often in a better position to suspect any disabilities, and can make an early referral to special education services through Connecticut’s Birth to Three program, prior to enrollment in school.
Planning and Placement Team (PPT)
The PPT reviews all referrals to special education. As a parent of a child, you have the right to be actively involved in the PPT, and are, in fact, a valued asset of the PPT. A PPT generally consists of the parent(s), one of the child’s educators, a special education teacher, a representative of the school district, a pupil services personnel, and the child (depending on age). As a parent, you have the right to include other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding your child. As a valued member of the PPT, the school district must try to schedule meetings at a mutually agreeable time and place for you and must notify you, in writing, at least five (5) school days prior to holding the meeting.
Evaluations, Independent Educational Evaluations (IEE), and Reevaluations
The evaluation is the study used to determine a child’s specific learning strengths and needs, and ultimately determine whether your child is eligible for special education services. As an active participant, a parent can assist the PPT in designing the evaluation. That is why sharing with the PPT all important information concerning your child’s skills, abilities, observations, and needs can be extremely beneficial to the process. If you disagree with the evaluation conducted by the school district, you have a right to obtain an independent educational evaluation (IEE). Such an IEE can be obtained at the school district’s expense, unless the school district can prove its evaluation is appropriate or that the IEE does not meet the school district’s criteria. If the school district believes that its evaluation was appropriate, it must initiate a due process hearing (or pay for the IEE). In either event, you have a right to an IEE. However, if the school district’s evaluation is found appropriate, the parent will have to bear the cost of the IEE. Reevaluation must be performed at least once every three (3) years, or sooner if conditions warrant. At the reevaluation, the educational needs of your child will be assessed, along with present levels of academic and related development needs of your child to determine whether your child continues to need special education and related services and whether your child’s IEP needs to be modified.
Individualized Education Program (IEP)
The IEP is a written plan that describes in detail your child’s special education program created by the PPT. Given the IEP is designed specifically for your child, it is vital that as a parent you exercise your right to be actively involved in the PPT meetings. The IEP is designed to identify your child’s current levels of education and functional performance and any modifications or accommodations your child needs to participate in the general education curriculum. A child with a disability must, to the maximum extent possible, be educated with his/her nondisabled peers. This is called the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). By law, you are entitled to receive a copy of your child’s IEP within five (5) school days after the PPT meeting was held to develop or revise the same.
Prior to evaluating a child for the first time, a school district must obtain the parent’s written informed consent. Informed consent means that a parent has been given all the information needed to make a knowledgeable decision. Written informed consent must also be obtained prior to the initial placement into special education, before a child is placed into private placement, and before a child is reevaluated. As a parent, you can refuse to give your consent and you can withdraw consent once it has been given. Giving consent for an initial evaluation does not mean that consent was given to place a child into special education or for any other purposes. A school district must obtain separate written informed consent for each.
To the maximum extent possible, your child must be educated with his/her nondisabled peers in a general education classroom. Removal from the school that your child would attend had he/she not had a disability, should only occur when the nature or the severity of the disability is such that educating your child in that setting cannot be achieved satisfactorily. If this is the case with your child, the PPT must find an appropriate educational placement as close as possible to your home, at the cost of the school district. While you can place your child in private placement on your own, there is no guarantee of full or partial reimbursement from the school district and that will ultimately depend on the findings by a hearing officer.
The school district’s code of conduct applies to all children, with or without a disability. Prior to any suspension or removal, your child has the right to an informal hearing conducted by a school administrator. If it is determined by the PPT that the behavior was caused or related to your child’s disability, then your child may not be removed from the current education placement (except in the case of weapons, drugs, or infliction of serious bodily harm). It is the PPT’s obligation to conduct a functional behavioral assessment and implement a behavioral intervention plan.
Access to Records
If your child has not reached the age of majority, as a parent you have a right to inspect and review his/her school records. The request must be in writing. The school district must allow you to review the records within ten (10) school days from your request or within three (3) school days if you need the information for a PPT meeting. Connecticut law provides that you are entitled one free copy of your child’s records, and the school district has up to five (5) school days to provide you with that copy.
A parent has the right to ask for a due process hearing as a result of the school district’s refusal to consider or find that your child has a disability, to evaluate your child, to place your child in a school program that meets his/her needs, or to provide your child with a FAPE. A parent may bring an advocate or attorney with them to aid throughout the hearing. A hearing officer will make a final decision within 45 days from the start of the timeline. Generally, while a due process hearing is pending, a child’s classification, program or placement cannot be changed.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
There are three ways, other than a full due process hearing, to settle disputes between parents and the school district. The first is the Complaint Resolution Process, wherein a parent files a written complaint with the Bureau of Special Education, alleging the local school district has violated a state or federal requirement. Within sixty (60) days, a written report which includes the Bureau’s findings, conclusions, corrective actions and recommendations, will be mailed to the Complainant. The second alternative is mediation. Both parties (the parents and the school district) must agree to mediate the dispute. At mediation, if an agreement is reached, it is placed in writing and is legally binding. All discussions during mediation are confidential. The last alternative is an advisory opinion. This is a non-binding opinion, issued by a hearing officer, after a brief presentation of information by both parties. After receiving the advisory opinion, the parties can decide to settle the dispute or proceed to a full due process hearing.
By: Leigh H. Ryan, Esq.
If you have any questions regarding special education law, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.