Navigating Epilepsy: The Road Ahead

Individualized Education Program (IEP) and Section 504

neneIf your child has been evaluated by his/her school and classified as “disabled” there are many aspects of educational and civic law that you must become familiar with.  Note, if your child has not yet been evaluated by their school and you believe they should be, please refer to our previous blog post: Educational Assessment of Your Child, to learn how to go about requesting this evaluation and what to expect from the process.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is an important federal law passed in 1975 (and most recently updated in 2004), whose goal is to ensure a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) for children with disabilities.  IDEA requires public schools to educate all of their students in what is known as the “least restrictive environment,” meaning that all efforts will be made to keep a child in their regular classroom (“inclusion”) by offering them special services within this classroom, rather than “pulling out” the student to receive special services in a different setting.  Thus, in other words, the belief behind this act is that students benefit most from being in regular education and that they should only be removed from that environment  when necessary services can not be provided in that environment.  In real practice, however, students’ time is often split between regular education classrooms and “pulling them out” during a portion of their day to attend a “resource room” with a specialist who can focus on specific areas of concern.

IDEA recognizes 13 categories of special education needs, including, among others,  Autism, intellectual disabilities, orthopedic impairments, emotional disturbance, speech or language impairments, traumatic brain injury, and specific learning disabilities.  In order for your child to qualify for special education, he/she must a) have one (or more) of the above-mentioned special needs, and, b) that special need must cause the child to require special education and related services to benefit from the general educational program.  Of note, if your child has a special need but does not require special education, then a 504 Plan is appropriate, which is a separate, but related provision, which will be further discussed below.

School districts use different evaluation standards for determining whether children need special education to benefit from the education programs.  These evaluations, covered in our previous blog post Educational Assessment of Your Child, will help determine if your child qualifies as disabled and whether or not they require special services.  Remember, the main purpose of the initial evaluation is to gather diagnostic information to be used in developing your child’s Individualized Education Plan.

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

The Individualized Education Program, commonly referred to as an IEP, is a written document that is specifically developed for each student who is found to be eligible for special education.

Who develops the IEP?

The IEP is developed by a team including the general education teacher, the special education teacher, a school psychologist, the school principle, and importantly, the parents of the child.  It is important that you come prepared to this meeting, as your input can significantly influence the specifications of your child’s IEP (more on this in our next blog post).

The IEP will include specific details on:

  • Current level of performance.  This section will include a description of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  This data usually comes from testing results as well as observations of child in his/her classroom.
  • Goals.  These will be “measurable” goals to be reached within the academic year.  Goals are based on levels of current performance and needs that result from your child’s specific disability.  It is important to note that goals my be academic, but can also include social and behavioral goals.
  • Measurement of Goals. The IEP will also include a description of how the child’s progress toward the annual goals will be measured.
  • Special Education & Related Services.  This section will specify the “special education services” that will be provided to your child so that he/she can reach the goals outlined in the previous section.  Specifications will include when services will begin, where they will be provided, how often they will be provided, and how long they will last. Some possible service options include, but are not limited to, accommodations in the general classroom (for example, sitting at the front of the class, closer to the teacher), assistive technology or devices (for example  electronic books, voice input/output machines, printed class notes, etc.), and other support strategies.
  • Standardized Testing.  The IEP will also specify if your child will take school standardized tests, and if so, if any special accommodations will be made (for example, allowing them to take extra time to complete the test or allowing them to take the test in a separate, distraction-free environment).

What happens after the IEP is created?

Once the IEP is created, written parent permission is necessary before it can be implemented.  Once you have signed this IEP, you are granting permission to the school to provide the services specified within it.  Although you may change your mind after you have signed the IEP, this process can be very complicated and may even have legal implications.  Thus, it is important that you be fully on board with the specifications of the IEP before signing this document.

Once all parties involved agree on the specifications of the IEP and you have provided the school with signed consent, these services will begin to be implemented.

It is important that you remain in frequent contact with your child’s teacher to ensure that progress is being made toward these goals, waiting until the end of the year to find out that little or no progress was made during the year wastes significant time and possible points of intervention.  If you feel that an IEP review meeting is needed, you should put your request in writing and send it to the school.  However, despite the presence or absence of your request, a formal annual review will always be held in order to ensure that your child is reaching specified goals and in order to make plans for the next academic year.

Section 504 Plan

A Section 504 is often confused with an IEP, and although they are similar, there are key and important differences.  In short, a 504 Plan is appropriate for students with disabilities who do not require specialized instruction but need the assurance that they will receive equal access to public education and services.  A 504 Plan is created in accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination in programs and activities that receive federal funding, such as a public school.

A 504 Plan is less comprehensive than an IEP, and often less financially burdensome to the institution/district.  However, your child has a right to receive the type of plan that best suits his/her needs.  One simple way to determine which program is right for your child is to determine if your child has leaning difficulties and needs specialized instruction, then an IEP might be required.  If on the other hand, your child’s difficulties have less to do with learning (for example a hearing or walking impairment) and does not need special instruction, but DOES need accommodations or modifications to program, facilities, or testing, then a 504 Plan me be appropriate.

Who is covered under Section 504?

Impairment under Section 504 may include any disability, long-term illness, or various disorders that “substantially” reduces or lessens a student’s ability to access learning in the educational setting because of a learning-, behavior- or health-related condition.  Some examples may include specific learning disabilities, diabetes, epilepsy poor hearing, or another chronic illness that substantially limits the child’s ability to receive an appropriate education.

How does Section 504 help my child?

Section 504 ensures that a qualified child with a disability has equal access to education.  The child may receive “appropriate accommodations and modifications” tailored to the child’s individual needs.

“Appropriate Accommodations” may include:

  • Education in regular classrooms,
  • Education in regular classrooms with supplementary services, modifications and/or accommodations,
  • Special education and related services, or
  • Any combination of the above.

How does my child get covered under Section 504?

In order to receive services under Section 504, a child must first be determined to have a disability that substantially limits one or more major life functions, including education, learning, and behavior.  Only the school can determine if your child qualifies for accommodations.  Thus, if you, as parent believe your child my qualify, you should send a request in writing to the school asking that your child be evaluated in order to determine if there is a significant impact on your child’s learning or behavior.

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