IEPS AND COMMON IEP ISSUES

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“Your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is the roadmap for their education. The IEP is a legally binding contract that must be followed strictly to the letter.”

- Joseph Montgomery

 

IEPS AND COMMON IEP ISSUES

The beginning of the school year is a hectic time for any family. However, if your child has a disability, the new school year can be particularly stressful. Between changes in routine, new and more rigorous academic expectations, navigating social interactions, bullies, and homework, you and your child may feel overwhelmed.  If you feel your child with a disability is struggling to keep up, it may be time to consider special education. This article will walk you through the steps for determining if your child is eligible for special education, how to obtain special education from your school district, and how to develop and implement the best educational plan for your child.

WHAT IS SPECIAL EDUCATION?

Special education can mean different things depending on the educational needs of your child. Special education is any instruction, accommodations, and related services intended to meet the specific needs of a child with a disability. Special education ranges from a fully general education placement (with some accommodations or services) to placement in an alternative school facility. Whatever a child’s needs may be, federal law requires school districts to offer special education at no cost to parents. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that requires school districts to find and evaluate children with disabilities within their district in order to offer those children a free appropriate public education (FAPE). 

The term Individualized Education Program (IEP) is used to describe the document that contains all of the information regarding a child’s special education services and the educational plan for that child. If your child qualifies for an IEP, there are several legal requirements that a school district must meet in order to ensure that your child receives a FAPE. In addition to providing all education and related services necessary for your child, school districts are required to hold at least one annual meeting to review your child’s progress and review the IEP (known as an annual IEP meeting). However, parents of children with IEPs can also request additional IEP meetings if they feel that there is an important issue that the IEP team needs to discuss. The school district has many other responsibilities regarding assessment, reporting, and procedure that contribute to providing a child with a FAPE. It is important to know what your child’s rights are and what actions you can take in cases where your child has been denied a FAPE in order to ensure your child’s educational needs are met. 

HOW DO I KNOW IF MY CHILD NEEDS AN IEP AND WHAT IS THE ELIGIBILITY PROCESS?

In order to receive an IEP, a student must qualify as an individual with a disability within the meaning of the IDEA. The law states that a child with a disability is any child with: 

  • intellectual disabilities,

  • hearing impairments (including deafness),

  • speech or language impairments,

  • visual impairments (including blindness),

  • serious emotional disturbance,

  • orthopedic impairments,

  • autism,

  • traumatic brain injury,

  • other health impairments, or

  • specific learning disabilities;

  • who, because of their disability, requires special education and related services.

This means that if your child has one of the conditions listed above and needs some form of specialized education or services due to this condition, then they are IEP-eligible. Failing to provide an IEP-eligible child with a FAPE is a serious violation of federal law that can entitle a student to tutoring, services, and even compensation for tuition, tutoring, or other special education services costs parents may have incurred. 

If you suspect that your child may have one of the above disabilities and needs special education, you can contact your child’s teacher or school principal. You can also make a written request for evaluation to the school district. It is best to be clear and specific about why you are requesting the evaluation and include details about why you suspect your child may be IEP-eligible. The school district must respond to your letter, either by approving or denying the request for evaluation. If your request is approved, the school district will send you a consent form to sign so that they can evaluate your child for special education services. You must sign this form – otherwise the school district cannot evaluate your child. If, however, your evaluation request is denied, you can take specific steps to dispute the refusal; this often requires obtaining an independent evaluation and/or taking legal action. 

If the school district agrees to evaluate your child, then you are entitled to information regarding any testing procedures that will be used in the evaluation. The tests and assessment techniques that are chosen will depend on the educational challenges your child is facing, but should be geared towards pinpointing your child’s strengths and weaknesses as well as any areas of academic need. The school district has to assess your child in all areas of suspected disability.

After your child is assessed, the school district will make a determination regarding whether your child is eligible for an IEP. You are entitled to a copy of the evaluation report and the school district’s decision regarding your child’s IEP eligibility. If the school district finds your child IEP-eligible, then the school district is required to hold an initial IEP meeting. If the school district finds your child ineligible for an IEP and you disagree with their finding, then there are steps you can take to formally dispute the determination. 

WHAT HAPPENS AT AN IEP MEETING?

After your child is assessed and the school district has determined that they qualify for an IEP, an initial IEP eligibility meeting will be held. At this meeting, the IEP team will review any assessments and come up with an initial IEP for your child. There are some key things to keep in mind with this initial IEP meeting as well as with all other IEP meetings. You want to go into the meeting prepared to discuss your concerns and act as the best advocate for your child’s needs. In order to be prepared, it is helpful to know what will be discussed at the meeting and who will attend the meeting. 

How can I know what will happen at my child’s IEP meeting in advance?

School districts are required to send you a written notice (sometimes called a “prior written notice”) regarding the IEP meeting. This notice includes some key facts that can help you to predict what will happen at the meeting. 

First, the notice will contain the location, date, and time of the meeting. If the time is not convenient for you, you can ask for a different date or time to be scheduled. You can also attend the meeting via telephone if you cannot attend in person. Second, the notice states the purpose of the meeting. Often this will simply be a brief description of the type of meeting, for example the notice may state “annual meeting” if the meeting is the yearly IEP meeting or “initial meeting” if it is the first meeting after an initial IEP evaluation. Third, the notice contains a list of participants from the school district who will be attending the meeting. This can sometimes be more helpful in determining what will be discussed in the meeting than the description of purpose. For example, if a speech pathologist is listed as a participant on the IEP meeting notice and your child does not receive speech therapy services, the pathologist may have been included in order to discuss adding speech therapy to your child’s IEP. 

Who attends an IEP meeting?

There are certain people that must be in attendance at the IEP meeting, this includes: (1) a general education teacher (if your child attends general education, then one of your child’s teachers); (2) a special education teacher; (3) a representative qualified to discuss district resources and curriculum; (4) a qualified person to interpret the results of any recent assessments; (5) you and any person you wish to bring with you (for example, an IEP advocate, attorney, or any person who has worked with your child); (6) in some cases, a person qualified to discuss vocational training or programs; and, (7) where appropriate and with your consent, your child. 

If the school district holds a meeting with any of these key participants missing or denies you the right to attend the meeting or bring a necessary participant to the meeting, you may have a legal claim against the school district. 

What is discussed at an IEP meeting?

IEP meetings usually follow a typical format. The meeting will generally open with an introduction of all participants and an update on how the child is performing in school. Next, the IEP team might discuss the child’s strengths and areas of need. After that, the IEP team may review any new evaluations or assessments. A discussion of the student’s performance on their current IEP goals will likely follow the review of assessments. After that, the IEP team may develop new IEP goals if the meeting is an annual review, or discuss any tweaks to existing IEP goals if the meeting is not an annual review. After new goals are established, the IEP team will most likely discuss the nature, location, duration, and amount of special education and related services the child should receive as well as any necessary supports, technology, assistive devices, or accommodations.  

Your school district should also consider your concerns, input, and any other information that you would like to share with the team. The IEP meeting is an important opportunity for you to advocate on behalf of your child, make sure to come prepared with any concerns or important information you may have for the IEP team. In order to be the best advocate for your child at the IEP meeting, it is helpful to know what the IEP document itself should contain and ways to make sure the team develops a document that accurately reflects your child’s needs. 

WHAT GOES INTO THE ACTUAL IEP DOCUMENT?

Understanding the framework of an IEP is an important step to ensuring that your child’s educational needs are being met. A good IEP acts as a roadmap to understanding what your child’s needs are, what educational goals they are working on, and what services and supports are in place to help them make meaningful progress on their goals. The IEP should also provide a summarization of what was discussed at the IEP meeting itself. IEPs are typically broken up into seven sections: student information, present levels of performance, IEP goals, services, supplementary aids and services, participation, and parent consent form. Understood.org provides samples of each of these sections, which are described in more detail below.  

  • What is the student information section?

The student information section contains identifying information about your child, such as their name, date of birth, address, grade, and the members of their IEP team. 

  • What is the present level of performance (PLOP)?

The present level of performance section (or PLOP) contains a detailed description of your child’s current academic performance, including any strengths or weaknesses relating both to academics and any other areas of need (for example, social, behavioral, physical, and emotional needs). This section acts as an update on how your child is performing but also a review of where there are areas of need.  It is important for this section to include specific information unique to your child. If you are confused about something in this section or you feel that more details should be included, be sure to ask your child’s IEP team clarifying questions and request concrete examples of any listed performance or behaviors not adequately discussed.

  • What are IEP goals?

The IEP goals are a critical component of the IEP. The IEP goals are the specific objectives that your child should achieve during the school year during their special education or related service time. Goals drive services, so it is critical that the goals accurately reflect what your child can achieve in a year but also challenge your child to improve. A good rule of thumb is that a child should have at least one goal for every area of need.

What a specific IEP goal says will vary wildly depending on the needs of the child, but any well-written goal should be clear, sufficiently detailed, and progress should be measurable. This often means that the goal will be broken down into several parts or objectives and progress will be assessed at various times during the school year. How progress will be measured and reported to you should also be written into the IEP. The more detailed and clear the written goals are the easier it will be to implement them and monitor progress. 

  • What is the description of services?

The description of services states the nature of the special education your child will receive. The services section should include the name of the service, where the service will take place, how frequently the service will occur, the duration of each session, the start and stop date for the service, and any other relevant information. Services can include anything from designated special instruction to transportation to occupational therapy services. Any services that will take place outside of the standard school year (summer services) should also be included in this section. 

  • What is the description of supplementary aids and services?

The supplementary aids and services section describes any accommodations, modifications, assistive technology, or other supports your child will receive while at school. This section should be specific and include where, when, for how long, in what academic setting, and in what manner the support will be implemented. This section often includes things like testing or homework accommodations and supports.

  • What is the participation section?

The participation section details who attended the meeting and what was discussed at the meeting. It may also contain important information regarding decisions the team made with respect to assessment, general education time, and other information relating to specific concerns or suggestions for the IEP team. This section should accurately and sufficiently describe what happened at the meeting. If you feel that the section needs to be changed, you can request the school district make corrections to the record of what happened at the meeting. 

  • What is the parent consent page and do I have to sign it at the meeting?

IEPs may contain a page with a signature line for parents to consent to the implementation of the IEP. An IEP cannot be applied without your consent, but you do not need to consent to the entire IEP. If you only agree with certain parts, you can give your consent to those parts of the IEP and not to other parts. If there is a significant amount of new information to review, you may want to take the IEP home and provide your consent after the IEP meeting. However, until you provide your consent, no new aspects of the IEP will be implemented, so make sure to provide the school district with your consent or partial consent in a timely fashion if you want the new IEP to be applied. 

The IEP process can feel overwhelming and confusing, especially if you do not know what to expect. However, you can remove some of that anxiety by knowing what to expect and by preparing for your child’s IEP meeting. You are your child’s best advocate, if you feel that your child has been denied their educational rights, please contact a lawyer at Montgomery Law today for your free consultation. 215-650-7563. 

[Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is intended to be used for informational purposes only. This information should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as creating of any form of attorney-client relationship.]