Lessons in Special Education

It’s hard enough discovering your child has a disability. Things get even tougher when you have to fight for your child’s rights to receive special education services in the public school system.


For Morgan Hill resident Jorge Munoz, it has been a fight that’s lasted for years. It started with his son having behavioral issues in the second grade. He has since been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, impulse control disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.


Now a fifth-grader, his son is finally receiving some of the special services he needs at his school, Munoz says.


After a lot of squabbling with school district officials and the filing of a civil rights discrimination complaint on his family’s behalf, his son has a one-on-one aide and therapy sessions.


“I don’t want to say they’re doing nothing. It’s just taking them awhile to get things done,” he says. “They just put things aside. They’re not very helpful.”


If you are the parent or guardian of a special-needs child you have to learn how to be his or her best advocate, says Ann McDonald-Cacho, education advocate for Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), a federally-funded program that helps people with disabilities.


“Knowledge is power,” says McDonald-Cacho, who works in DREDF’s Berkeley office. “That’s why we do training. The more they (parents) can understand what their rights are, the more they can advocate for their child.”


Public schools are responsible for providing a free and appropriate education for disabled students ages 3 to 22, unless they receive a high school diploma before then. School district officials want to help these students and their parents, McDonald-Cacho says.


“There are plenty of people on your child’s side,” she says. “There’s plenty of expertise in schools districts. There’s plenty of amazing teachers. As a parent, you need to try and seek out those people.” 


Put Everything in Writing


The first thing parents should do if they either suspect their child has a disability or or their child has already been diagnosed by a doctor, is to write an assessment letter to the school district’s special education director or the appropriate person asking that their student be evaluated. The district has 15 school calendar days to respond to the letter.


Once the district has agreed to evaluate your child, they have 60 school calendar days to complete the assessment and have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting. In the IEP meeting, parents, teachers, administrators and others who have worked on the assessment will discuss if the child qualifies for special education and what kind of services they need.


IEP meetings are one of the most important aspects of getting a special-needs child a good education. The team examines the child’s current level of functioning, the appropriate environment for the child to be educated in, goals and support services the student may need.


If the family is denied services the parents can challenge it.


“A good percentage of the calls we get here are, ‘my child was assessed and the district said they don’t qualify for special education,’” McDonald-Cacho says. “There is some suspicion that the system can be gamed. Resources are tight and children that need special education need specialized services that cost money.”


For Munoz’s son, the school district put off providing services because they said his problems were mostly behavioral. But Munoz says his son needs counseling and other help because often times he can’t control himself in class.


One of his biggest mistakes in the beginning was not putting all of his communication with the district and school officials in writing.


“If you don’t put everything in writing they will just prolong it,” Munoz says. “It’s also a good idea to bring an advocate to the IEP meeting because they usually know the system.” 


Be Flexible


Often parents of disabled students have to be patient, says Peter Burchyns, adviser to the superintendent and board of the San Mateo County’s Office of Education, which provides special education services to students whose districts don’t have the resources to help their disabilities.


“It’s not like a flat tire that can get fixed immediately,” he says. “Some of the complexity is due to the nature of the disabilities. They take time and energy to sort out and figure out what’s right for your child.”


Working effectively with the IEP team is very important, Burchyns says. You need to believe these people have good intentions for your child so you can work well with them, he says.


Special education families have to deal with a lot of transitions that can make their lives very difficult, Burchyns says. For example, oftentimes a service a child needs isn’t available in their school district and they have to travel to another school or county program where it is available.


And the lack of state and federal funding for special education programs makes things even more complex, he says.


“We have never been fully funded for the services districts are required to provide and that does exasperate things,” he says. “It does slow down the process.” 


When Things Go Wrong


It’s not often that parents of disabled students must file a formal complaint, McDonald-Cacho says. Only about 1 percent of all families with children in special education must take their cases to due process.


They usually always try to encourage families to solve their problem at a local level with the district before filing a formal complaint, McDonald-Cacho says. Writing a letter to the special education official in the district is always a good way to start.


“There is no special education police,” she says. “The only way to ensure your child’s rights are protected is to solve it at a local level or file a complaint. It always falls on the family to bring it to someone’s attention.”


Some typical complaints may include district officials not following the student’s IEP, disagreements over an appropriate plan for the student, disputes over a student’s eligibility for special education services or discrimination against a disabled student.


Families who do want to file a formal complaint should consult with an advocate or attorney, says Joseph Feldman, executive director of Community Alliance for Special Education in San Francisco which provides legal support, training and other help to parents of disabled children in the Bay Area.


Understanding the system can be very difficult, he says, and there has been a trend over the last few years to add more special education laws making it even more complex.


“School districts don’t always follow the IEPs. Sometimes they’re making their decisions based on district policy and not the law,” Feldman says.


But many parents have a positive experience getting special education services for their children.


It was a terrible blow for San Jose resident Anne Quaranta when her son was diagnosed with severe autism at age 3.


Now 15, she says he has received a great education and she works really well with school district staff. He just graduated from the eighth grade and will be attending Campbell Union High School next fall.


“I think the school district and parents are after the same thing which is the education of the child,” she says.


But it’s possible her son receives such good services because it’s so obvious he’s autistic, Quaranta says. Some parents have a more difficult time navigating the system when their child’s case isn’t as clear.


Volunteering at her son’s school has helped a lot, too.


“I feel like making a presence at the school helps facilitate working with the services,” she says. “You are your child’s best advocate and no one will do it for you. It’s up to you to educate yourself and stand up for your child.”


Teresa Mills-Faraudo is a calendar editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of a 2-year-old son.



Step-by-Step Process

Here are the steps you need to take to get your child special education services. 


Request an assessment. If you suspect your child needs special education services write a letter to the appropriate district official asking that your student be evaluated. The district has 15 school calendar days to come up with an assessment plan for your consent. You have another 15 days to ask questions. 


Completing the assessment. The school district has 60 school calendar days to evaluate your child. They may be evaluated by teachers, psychologists, therapists or nurses. 


Individualized Education Plan. Within those 60 days, the district is also required to hold an IEP meeting with parents, teachers, administrators and any others involved in the assessment process. The IEP team will discuss the student’s current level of functioning, goals and objectives, and services and instruction. They will measure the child’s success and the go over the process for reporting progress to the parents. These meetings are usually held annually. Parent should request all documents. 


Implementation of the plan. Once the IEP is approved by the team, the school district is required by law to implement it.



Alphabet Soup: Terms Your Need to Know


Here’s a glossary of terms and laws you should know when navigating the special education system.


No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). A federal education law for all students with a focus on traditionally under-served students. It calls for school accountability to increase student performance and outcomes. 


Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). A federal education privacy law for all students giving anyone the right to inspect and review any records school districts keep. It also allows anyone to request that records be corrected if they are inaccurate or misleading. 


Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. A federal anti-discrimination law protecting people with disabilities that impair one or more major life activity. It prohibits discrimination in any program that receives federal money and removes barriers to learning and opportunities. 


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A federal education law that says students with at least one of 13 qualifying categories of disability must be provided with a special education plan which includes specialized instruction and related supportive services. 


Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). A legal term describing what special education students are entitled to. 


Request for Assessment. Letter parents write to the school district’s special education director, or others if needed, asking that their child be assessed to determine the need for special education services. The district has 15 days to provide an assessment plan for parents’ consent. Parents can take 15 more days to ask questions. Upon parents’ consent, the district has 60 calendar days to evaluate the child and hold an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting. 


Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE). If a parent disagrees with the district’s assessment they can file an IEE. The district must agree to either pay for the IEE or file for a due process hearing to show assessment was appropriate. 


Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This is the student’s educational plan which examines their current levels of educational performance, goals and objectives, services and instruction that are needed and student progress. IEP meetings with parents, teachers, administrators and students are held regularly to discuss the plan. 


Present Levels of Performance (PLOP). This looks at how the disability affects the student’s involvement and progress in the general curriculum. 


Related Services Professionals. This includes any related services special education students may need to help them with their educational plans. It may include counseling, medical services, occupational therapy, speech/language pathology services or transportation. 


Testing Variations. When a student needs either “accommodations” or “modifications” to take state and district standardized tests.


Accommodations remove barriers but do not alter what is being tested. Examples would be frequent breaks or math problems being read aloud.


Modifications alter what is being tested. For example, a student needing modifications could use a calculator. 


Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The extent to which a student will or will not learn and participate in regular classes with non-disabled students and why. 


Prior Written Notice (PWN). A school district is required to provide prior written notice when it proposes or refuses to do something that involves a special education child’s identification, assessments, placement or Free and Appropriate Education. It must include: a description of the action, why it plans to do this, any supporting documents the district used in making its decision, a copy of the parent’s rights to challenge this action, sources of advocacy assistance for parents, other options the district considered and why they were rejected and any other reasons for the district’s decision. 


Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). An informal way to resolve special education disputes. It usually involves parents writing a letter to the school district about their “compliance complaint.” Sometimes a free trained mediator from the state may get involved. 


Civil Rights Discrimination Complaint. Filed with the Office for Civil Rights, this complaint alleges an education institution receiving federal funding has discriminated against a student on the basis of their disability. It must be filed within six months of alleged violation. 


IDEA Compliance Complaint. Filed with the California Department of Education, this complaint alleges that a school district failed to carry out a student’s IEP and/or violated procedural safeguards in IDEA law. It must be filed within one year of alleged non-compliance. 


IDEA Due Process Complaint. Filed with the Office of Administrative Hearings, this usually involves big disputes between school district and parents such as eligibility for special education services or whether services offered provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education. It must be filed within two years of alleged complaint.

– T.S. Mills-Faraudo




Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. A federally-funded program dedicated to furthering the rights of people with disabilities. dredf.org. 510-644-2555. 


Community Alliance for Special Education. This organization provides legal support, free technical assistance consultations and training to parents of disabled children throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. caseadvocacy.org. 415-431-2285. 


Parents Helping Parents. A family resource center that provides information, education, advocacy and support for families with children in special education. php.com. 408-727-5775. 


The Family Resource Network. Provides support and resources for families of children with special needs. 510-547-7322. 


United States Department of Education: Office for Civil Rights. This is a federal enforcement office which serves students facing discrimination because of race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age. ed.gov. 415-486-5555.

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