Monday, July 13, 2009

Back to the Beginning: How to Get an IEP for your Special Needs Child

If you think your child may require special education, including specialized instruction and services, within the school setting, it may feel very overwhelming to embark on the process of obtaining those services. Here is some basic information to help you understand the initial steps and get you started.

Who May Require An Individualized Education Plan?

If your child has a disability, or you suspect that he or she may have a disability, he/she may require an individualized education plan (IEP) and may be entitled to a free appropriate public education from your school district. Eligibility for special education is based on two factors: First, the child must be a student with a disability; Second, because of that disability, the child must require special education and related services.

Parents may suspect that their child requires an IEP based on many different factors. You should follow up on these suspicions and request an evaluation and IEP (see below) if your child is struggling in school (academically, behaviorally, socially, etc) because of difficulties that you believe may be related to a disability. Maybe your child already has a diagnosed disability from his pediatrician, a specialist, or a psychologist; if you believe that diagnosed disability is impacting him/her educationally, you need to obtain an evaluation and IEP from your school district. Many parents start this process not knowing what disability their child has, but knowing that their child is experiencing difficulties and "failures" in the school setting that don't make sense, or aren't explained by other factors. Ultimately, you as a parent need to follow your instincts, and request the evaluation if you think that a special education program may be required.

How Do You Get the Process Started?

If you suspect that your child may have a disability and may require special education, the first step is to request that your local school district conduct an evaluation. You should make this request in writing. Although it is certainly appropriate for you to verbally discuss your concerns with your child's teachers or other staff, you should not trust that doing so will mean that your child will be referred for an evaluation. Make a very specific request in writing and make sure it gets to the appropriate person at your child's school, and at the school district if necessary. The school staff should be able to tell you exactly who handles these requests so that you can address your letter to the appropriate person.

Your letter should state clearly that you are requesting a comprehensive evaluation in order to determine eligibility for special education and related services. If your child has a diagnosed disability already, it would be a good idea to state this in the letter. Otherwise, you can state what your concerns are that cause you to believe an IEP is required.

Dear Ms. Administrator:

I am writing in to request an evaluation for special education and related services for my child, Daughter. Daughter is a student in the Local School District and currently attends Local School. Her date of birth is XX/XX/XX, and she is currently in the Xrd Grade.

I am concerned about Daughter's ongoing struggles in school. Although Daughter is smart and capable of learning, she seems to be having a difficult time learning to read, and is falling further and further behind. She is also having a difficult time paying attention, and her teachers have noticed that she is not always on task. Daughter's pediatrician has suggested that she be evaluated for a learning disability. I believe that Local School District needs to conduct a comprehensive evaluation in order to determine her possible eligibility for special education and her unique needs. Thereafter, I am requesting an IEP team meeting to be convened as soon as possible to review the results of the evaluation and to discuss an appropriate plan to address Daughter's educational needs.

I can be reached at 000-000-0000. I look forward to working with you in order to obtain help for Daughter.

What are the Next Steps?

After you have formally requested an evaluation and an IEP, the school district cannot simply ignore that request. They will need to respond to you and initiating the evaluation process. If the school district ignores the request and does nothing, you can file a Compliance Complaint with your state educational agency.

Different states have different rules in regards to how the evaluation process commences. In California, for example, after the school district recieves a request for an evaluation, it must produce a proposed assessment plan within 15 days. That assessment plan will need to provide the parent with information regarding what areas will be assessed and what assessment measures will be utilized.

After the parent provides consent for the assessment, the school district will need to conduct the evaluations and convene an IEP meeting within the applicable timelies (60 days, for the most part) to review the results. The evaluations conducted by the school district must be conducted by a multidisciplinary team, and must cover all areas of suspected disability, including health and development, vision, hearing, motor skills, language, academics, general intelligence, self-help skills, orientation and mobility, career and vocational skills, social / emotional status, and communication. See 20 U.S.C. section 1414(b). The evaluation also must be sufficiently comprehensive to identify each of the student's unique special education and related services needs. Ultimately, the evaluation needs to provide enough information to the IEP team not only to determine whether the child is eligible, but also to be useful in developing an appropriate program to meet the child's needs.

What Happens at the Initial IEP Meeting?

The District must convene an "IEP team" to review the findings of the evauation. This team includes parents, a special education teacher, a regular education teacher, a district representative or school administrator, and the persons who conducted the assessment or persons who are qualified to interpret the results of the assessment. Parents may invite other persons with specific knowledge about their child or about special education, like a friend, relative, doctor, tutor, therapist, or advocate.

The IEP team as a whole should review the results of the assessment, the findings, and the recommendations. The team should then consider any applicable eligibility categories, and whether, based on the assessment results and other data presented, the child meets any category. The team should also consider whether the child "requires special education and related services."

Remember that parents are a part of the IEP team, and can and should express their opinion regarding eligibility as well as any other concerns that they have regarding their child's education!

If the IEP team determines that the child is eligible for special education, the next step is the development of an Individualized Education Plan, to include goals and objectives to enable the child to make progress and to meet her unique needs, modifications and accommodations necessary to allow the child to access curriculum, and appropriate and necessary related services and specialized instruction to address the child's needs and enable them to recieve benefit from his/her educational program.

What Happens if The District Says No?

If the school district determines that the child is not eligible for special education, you have the right to disagree with this determination. If you do not believe that the district's evaluation was appropriate, accurate, adequate or sufficient, you also have the right to disagree with the evaluation, and to seek an indepedent educational evaluation at district expense. An independent evaluation can be critical to provide more comprehensive information to support a determination that the child is in fact eligible. You can ask that the school district reconvene the IEP team at a later date to review the results of an independent evaluation and determine eligibility.

If you are disagreeing with the eligibility determination, you should make this clear in writing and base it on your concerns. You may need to seek assistance for a special education attorney or advocate to dispute the school district's determination if you need to file for a due process hearing or mediation.

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