Parents of children with disabilities have a vital role to play in the education of their children. This fact is guaranteed by federal legislation that specifies the right of parents to participate in the educational decision-making process.
As your child progresses through educational systems, you should know about and follow through on your rights and responsibilities to ensure that you are a contributing partner with the professionals who will influence your child’s future.
What are your rights in the special education process?
The achievements gained under the Education for the Handicapped Act (Public Law 94-142) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (Public Law 101-476) were clearly strengthened by the IDEA Amendments of 1997 (Public Law 105-17). A fundamental provision of these special education laws is the right of parents to participate in the educational decision-making process.
Your rights, more specifically, include the following:
- Your child is entitled to a free, appropriate public education (meaning it is at no cost to you as parents and it meets the unique educational needs of your child).
- You will be notified whenever the school wishes to evaluate your child for potential special education needs, wants to change your child’s educational placement, or refuses your request for an evaluation or a change in placement.
- You may request an evaluation if you think your child needs special education or related services.
- You should be asked by your school to provide “informed consent” (meaning you understand and agree in writing to the evaluation and educational program decisions for your child). Your consent is voluntary and may be withdrawn at any time.
- You may obtain an independent evaluation if you disagree with the outcome of the school’s evaluation.
- You may request a reevaluation if you think your child’s current educational placement is no longer appropriate. The school must reevaluate your child at least every three years, but your child’s educational program must be reviewed at least once during each calendar year.
- You may have your child tested for special education needs in the language he or she knows best. For example, if your child’s primary language is Spanish, he or she must be tested in Spanish. Also, students who are hearing impaired have the right to an interpreter during the testing.
- You may review all of your child’s records and obtain copies of these records, but the school may charge you a reasonable fee for making copies. Only you, as parents, and those persons directly involved in the education of your child will be given access to personal records.
If you feel that any of the information in your child’s records is inaccurate, misleading, or violates the privacy or other rights of your child, you may request that the information be changed. If the school refuses your request, you have the right to request a hearing to challenge the questionable information in your child’s records; you may also file a complaint with your state education agency.
- You must be fully informed by the school about all of the rights provided to you and your child under the law.
- You may participate in the development of your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or, in the case of a child younger than four years old, the development of an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP).
The IEP and IFSP are written statements of the educational program designed to meet your child’s unique needs. The school must make every possible effort to notify you of the IEP or IFSP meeting and to arrange the meeting at a time and place that is convenient for both you and the school.
- You may participate in all IEP or IFSP team decisions, including placement.
- You may request an IEP or IFSP meeting at any time during the school year.
- You may have your child educated in the least restrictive school setting possible. The school should make every effort to develop an educational program that will provide your child with the services and supports needed in order to be taught with children who do not have disabilities.
- You may request a due process hearing or voluntary mediation to resolve differences with the school that can’t be resolved informally. Make your request in writing, date your request, and keep a copy for your records.
- You should be kept informed about your child’s progress at least as often as parents of children who do not have disabilities.
What are your responsibilities in the special education process?
Parental responsibilities can vary depending on factors such as the child’s disabling condition. As a result, parental responsibilities are less clearly defined than are parental rights.
However, some of the following suggestions may be helpful to ensure that your child’s rights are being protected:
- Develop a partnership with the school and share relevant information about your child’s education and development.
- Ask for clarification of any aspect of the program that is unclear to you.
- Make sure you understand the program specified in the IEP or IFSP before agreeing to it or signing the form. Take the IEP or IFSP form home so you can review it before you sign it. You have 10 school days in which to make a decision.
- Consider and discuss with your child’s teacher how your child might be included in the regular school activities program. Do not forget areas such as lunch, recess, art, music, and physical education.
- Monitor your child’s progress and periodically ask for a report. If your child is not progressing, discuss this with the teacher and determine whether the program should be modified.
- Discuss with the school any problems that occur with your child’s assessment, placement, or educational program. If you are uncertain about how to resolve a problem, you can turn to the advocacy agencies found in most states for the guidance you need to pursue your case.
- Keep records. There may be many questions and comments about your child that you will want to discuss, as well as meetings and phone conversations you will want to remember.
- Join a parent organization. In addition to giving parents an opportunity to share knowledge and gain support, a parent group can be an effective force on behalf of your child.
How can you become involved in the IEP or IFSP process?
Parents of children with disabilities should be involved in the IEP or IFSP process as much as they want to be and as much as they can be.
The following suggestions can help parents become more involved:
- Before attending an IEP or IFSP meeting, make a list of things you want your child to learn.
- Bring any information that the school or agency may not already have to the IEP or IFSP meeting. This could include copies of medical records, past school records, and test and medical evaluation results. You can also discuss real-life examples to demonstrate your child’s abilities in certain areas.
- Discuss any related services your child may need. Ask each professional to describe the kind of service he or she will be providing and what improvement you might expect to see in your child as a result of these services.
- Discuss methods for handling discipline problems that you know are effective with your child.
- Ask what you can do at home to support the program.
- Regard your child’s education as a cooperative effort. If you and the school cannot reach an agreement about your child’s educational and developmental needs, ask to have another meeting with the school. Allow time for you and the school to gather more information. If, after a second meeting, there is still a conflict over your child’s program, you may wish to ask for a state mediator or a due process hearing.
Where can you get more information?
Many organizations have information to help guide parents through the special education process. Your local school district’s director of special education and his or her staff can help you obtain such information and can guide you through the process.
Further resources are available from national organizations. Some of them have state and local chapters that can provide more locally based support. In addition, all states now have federally supported parent information and training centers.