I realize that many readers are professionals or concerned parents who have been struggling with the school system for a long time, so I felt that it would be beneficial to discuss the ins and outs of how to qualify a student for special education.
The school district’s responsibility for a student begins at age three (3). Therefore, if you are having issues with a toddler, the time to notify your local district is at age two (2) and eleven (11) months. For any other student, the time to get in touch with your school district to request special education is when you believe that a child is struggling in school, academically, physically, or socially. Although it is the school district’s obligation to provide services when it recognizes that a student is having problems, many times that does not happen. So how do you initiate services for your public school student and what are the differences if your child is in a private school?
In order to notify a school that your child is struggling and request services, the first thing you must do is provide written notice. This can be addressed to the principal of the school or to the special education director of your district. If your district is Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), send notice to the principal of your child’s school of attendance.
If your child is in a private school student, a notice goes to the special education director of the district in which the private school is located. As an example, if you live within the boundaries of LAUSD, but your child’s private school is located in Santa Monica, California, your notice should be sent to Santa Monica.
Detail all the difficulties which concern you whether it is poor grades, inability to do homework, school refusal, problems with attention, disinterest in other children, etc. Ask that the school assess your child for special education. It is important that your letter addresses every difficulty you see, as the school district may not evaluate in areas you do not mention. For example, the area of speech and language, among other things, encompasses articulation, word retrieval, ability to conduct a meaningful conversation, understanding directions, and difficulties with group social exchanges. The written notice may be sent by letter, fax or email. You must keep a copy of your request and follow up to ensure that it was received.
After the school district receives a request for assessment, it has fifteen (15) days to send you an assessment plan, detailing the areas in which testing will be done. You have fifteen (15) days to return the signed plan. Once the school receives this document, it has sixty (60) days (not counting winter, spring and summer break) to perform the evaluation and schedule an Individualized Education Program (IEP) Team Meeting. Due to the many periods excluded, it is easy to see how that meeting may not be held for six (6) months.
When you receive notice that an IEP Meeting is going to be held, make sure to request in writing that all reports be sent to you at least five (5) days before the meeting. It is extremely important to review the district’s findings and have the ability to share those results with trusted friends or professionals before the meeting. If you have decided to bring someone, be it an attorney, psychologist or friend, the district must be notified at least twenty four (24) hours in advance.
Since test results are somewhat dependent upon the instruments used, there can be wide variations between district and private testing. For example, there are many measures of reading. Some tests only require a student to put one word in a sentence while some require students to read a paragraph out loud and answer questions. For bright students with reading difficulties, they may be able to guesstimate one word, but their challenges are apparent when they are required to read a grade level paragraph. In other areas there are similar differences between scores as the demands are changed. If you feel that the school testing does not adequately reflect your child’s abilities and areas of need, it is important to make that known.
Whether you child is in private or public school, the next step will be the IEP Team Meeting At that time you will be advised as to whether the school district has agreed to make the child eligible for special education and the category which has been determined to best describe him/her. Although billed as a Team meeting, generally the information will be introduced as a foregone conclusion. If the child is qualified, the IEP meeting will continue and the district will propose goals to meet the student’s needs, services, and placement.
If you are a private school parent, the IEP services are only obtainable if you place your child in a public school. You cannot, with some notable exceptions, receive services at the private school.
If you are a public school parent or a private school parent who intends to place the child in the public school and agrees with the plan, you sign the document and the IEP is put in place at the indicated public school. You do not have to decide at the IEP meeting. You may indicate that you need some time to think about it and take the IEP home.
If you disagree, you may refuse to sign the IEP in total or in part. Whatever you disagree with cannot be implemented.
If your student is turned down for special education services, the proposed plan does not meet the student’s needs or you are unsure about whether to choose private or public education, what should you do next?
This is may be the time to get an attorney involved. A special education attorney can review the student’s history, testing, and IEP and forge a path with parents and professionals to lead to success for the student. While you may be concerned that this will establish an acrimonious relationship with the school, this is not the case at all. In fact, the attorney handles the difficult issues which enable you to continue a friendly and respectful relationship. It is also important to understand that the longer a student who needs special education continues without it, the greater the learning gap and emotional sequelae.
Leejanice Toback is an educational attorney. Her legal experience includes representation of children with disabilities ages 3 – 22 in all matters involving educational services. She has also appeared in juvenile, family, and criminal court on behalf of clients. Leejanice started her career as an Assistant District Attorney in Kings County and went on to practice personal injury and product liability. After having her son and experiencing the challenges associated with special needs education, she decided to begin practicing as a special education attorney, and she has been assisting special education students in getting the help that they need from their school districts since 1998. She can be reached at Law Offices of Leejanice Toback.