Special Education Laws: Understanding Your Child’s Rights

by Molly Matava on 02/17/2012

When my daughter was diagnosed with Autism, I realized quickly that I had a lot to learn. Not only did I need to get smart about her disability and the therapies available to her, I also needed to become familiar with the laws that exist to protect her right to an education and to be included with her peers. I joined parent groups, attended trainings, read books, and conducted hours of Internet research. It was overwhelming at first, but the knowledge I acquired soon empowered me to help my daughter in many ways.

Most of us don’t have legal backgrounds. We’re not trained to interpret the law, nor are we experts on how schools educate children whose learning functions operate outside of the norm. But we are experts on our children.  We can learn about their rights, what the law entitles them to, and how we can effectively work with other key players in the system to see that our children are treated fairly. You don’t need a law degree to successfully advocate for your child, you just need to know where to look for the right information.

There is a difference between Federal and State Laws

The Department of Education is a part of the U.S. federal government, but you need to be aware that each state has it’s own Department of Education, as well. State special education laws and regulations can differ from state to state, so it’s important that you find out what the specific laws are in the state where you live.  What’s more, individual schools have the power to write their own rules, and while these rules cannot legally offer fewer protections than your state laws provide, they can have a significant impact on your child’s educational experience. This is why it is critical for you to probe into your school’s policies; get a written copy of your school’s guidelines and practices, and don’t be afraid to speak up if you have questions about it.

On a federal level, there are several laws and statues you should be aware of, and there is a wealth of information online. General education laws protect every student but if they are also covered by an IEP or 504 plan, they have additional rights you should read up on. I have included a few of the main websites here as a reference, but this is by no means a complete list.  Read carefully, take notes, and delve deeper into anything that may pertain to your child’s circumstances.

Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) http://idea.ed.gov/

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law ensuring services to children with disabilities. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities. It is a good place to start, as it will alert you to other areas of concern where you’ll want to conduct further research.

Office of Special Education Policy Letters http://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/guid/idea/letters/revpolicy/index.html

This site provides an index of correspondence that describes the interpretations of IDEA or the regulations that implement IDEA, and will help clarify some of what you find on the IDEA website.

Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act http://www.ada.gov/

Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, or programs receiving federal financial assistance. Virtually all public schools receive federal funding of some kind, so they are mandated to protect students with disabilities. Reviewing this site will give you a good overview of your child’s most fundamental entitlements.  For further clarification, visit Dear Colleague letter providing guidance on Section 504 at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/department-education-issues-ada-amendments-act-dear-colleague-letter-provide-gui.

Getting Your “Game Face” On

In advocating for your child, you are bound to face some uphill battles. Some principals feel they have the right to make the rules at their own school, but the fact is that a student covered under IDEA has rights that supersede anything set forth by an individual school’s representatives. For example, some schools may try to limit the time an outside expert can visit the classroom, however, a private evaluator has the same right to access as any school district staff conducting an evaluation. Knowing this fact is not enough; you must be prepared to challenge anyone who is standing in the way of your child’s proper schooling.

Any time school personnel quote a law or rule that you haven’t heard of, request a written copy of that rule. This is especially important for rules that are specific to a school district. You must determine which rules are actual laws, and which rules are just presented as law because it’s “how things have always been done.”  You must be ready to challenge those in a position of authority in order to be your child’s best advocate.  Even if rocking the boat isn’t your style, you’re going to find in these unfamiliar waters, that’s exactly what’s required of you to get your child where they need to go.

Education is key to everyone’s success, and that is why it is so important that you make every effort to ensure your child receives every opportunity to which he or she is rightfully entitled. Take advantage of the resources provided here, and reach out to other parents in your community and beyond for support. After all, knowledge IS power, so if you arm yourself with as much information as possible, both you and your child will be better for it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Erica Lerea March 24, 2012 at 8:28 PM

Great article!!! I’ve seen too many parents take a step back because they are unaware of their rights. Parents have to be an advocate for their children so they get what they need. Articles like this will encourage people to learn the education laws. Keep em coming!!!!!

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