Educational Advocacy for Your Child

This month’s guest blogger is Sharon L. Falen, J.D. , who is a licensed attorney practicing educational and child law in Illinois.  To email Sharon directly, click here.

Special education is governed by federal and state legislation.  Broadly, every child in special education is guaranteed the right to a free and appropriate education.  In short, this term means that educational opportunities cannot be denied a child because he or she has a special need that interferes with learning within the general educational setting.  Examples of special needs are learning disabilities, cognitive disabilities, and emotional disorders that impact the child’s ability to learn and to demonstrate that learning through testing and other standard assessments.  This means that whether a child has ADHD, dyslexia, Autism, anxiety, or another disability, that child may be eligible for special education.

Special education must be provided by a school if a child is determined to be eligible.  There are two main mechanisms through which schools most often provide education services:  a Section 504 plan or an Individualized Education Program.  An Individualized Education Program, or “IEP”, has more protections for families but is more difficult to obtain; a “504 plan” imposes less requirements on a school but is broader.  This article addresses only these plans and only briefly, but it is important to know that other mechanisms and protections exist that are beyond the scope of this article.

A 504 plan refers to Section 504 of the of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law requiring any agency that receives federal money to prohibit discrimination, and the law applies to school districts.  Under the law, school districts may not deny a child an education because the child has a disability.  Being eligible under Section 504 does not automatically mean that a child is eligible for special education services, but often a 504 plan will be developed for a child who needs assistance, accommodations, or modifications in school when he or she is not made eligible for an IEP.  A 504 plan may contain some of the same provisions of an IEP – such as extended time for tests, movement breaks or voluntary time outs, the use of an emotional identification board, or the use of an object or sensory item during class – but often without as much detail.  The law on 504 plans is limited, imposing far fewer procedural rules on schools and far fewer formal protections for students.

An IEP stems from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requiring schools to develop detailed educational plans if a child is found to be eligible for special education.  The first step is eligibility, as a student does not automatically receive an IEP because he or she has a disability; the disability also must negatively impact his or ability to learn.  The parents (or the school) must request in writing what is called a case study evaluation, to which the school has fourteen school days to grant or deny.  If granted, then the school must conduct the evaluation and subsequently hold the initial meeting within sixty school days.  The evaluation of the student is conducted by school personnel, including but not limited to teachers, psychologists, social workers, and specialists who assess the child under multiple areas of concern.  A child may be made eligible for special education under a variety of categories, called domains.  If an IEP is developed, then ideally the school and the parents work together to determine what services and accommodations or modifications the child might need to succeed.  The “IEP team” drafts goals that must be individualized to the student, concrete, and measurable by school data.  Examples of straightforward goals could be decreasing interruptions or missed work and measuring progress by tracking the number of times that the child interrupts class or misses an assignment.  Another example could be a goal of meeting specific benchmarks in a school district’s reading comprehension program.  Services often address academic and non-academic issues that are inhibiting the child from learning.  Additionally, the school is required to consider what the least restrictive environment is in which to educate the child.

Parents may advocate for their children for special education services.  The Illinois State Board of Education website offers information for parents covering a variety of areas in special education.  However, even armed with some knowledge of the process and the law, parents may face obstacles with communicating with their child’s school, obtaining appropriate and requested resources, or other issues.  Parents have the option of using legal counsel to assist them in navigating the process, attending school meetings, and filing for due process (i.e. initiating a formal hearing) when necessary.