Since 1975, when Congress passed what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special education has become increasingly mainstream. In Massachusetts, 18.1 percent of students in prekindergarten through grade 12 in the 2018-19 school year had individualized education programs, the highest percentage since at least 1994. And officials say that strides have been made in including students with disabilities in general classrooms, albeit with an aide or other supports.
Russell Johnston, special education director for Massachusetts, says parents should understand that such education often is no longer tied to a specific location. “The more that we think about it as a set of services as opposed to a place you go in the school, the more we can think very creatively about how to support our children well,” he says.
Parents and guardians, then, should think of today’s IEP as a road map for their child’s learning, tailored to his or her special education needs, often executed within a mainstream classroom. Johnston notes that changes for kids with disabilities usually come in the form of both accommodations and modifications. Accommodations refer to supports teachers provide to help students access the curriculum in a classroom, such as listening to an audio book instead of reading. Modifications might involve an adjustment to the child’s actual curriculum, woven into a typical school day.
But how do you know if your child could benefit from an IEP, and ensure it’s written correctly? And what happens if you get pushback from your child’s public school about what it can offer?
1. Talk to the teacher.
If you think your child isn’t making progress in school or suspect a learning disability that requires specialized instruction, seek out your child’s classroom teacher or teachers, if they haven’t brought it up first. “This is the person who is in the trenches day in and day out with your child,” says Gina McClellan, a parent advocate based in Braintree. A teacher could start by implementing informal accommodations — say, moving the child’s desk to an area with fewer distractions — or could refer him or her for formal evaluation.
2. Get an in-school evaluation.
A parent can request an evaluation from the school district’s special education team at any time, says McClellan, but the request must be put in writing to the district’s administrator of special education. Typically, the evaluation includes observation, academic testing, psychological testing, a health assessment, parent input, and sometimes student interviews — at no cost to the parent. The testing period must occur within 30 school days of the school district receiving parental consent for the evaluation. A student typically leaves class for this testing.
The evaluation should answer these key questions: Does the child have a disability, and what type is it? Does the disability cause the child to be unable to progress effectively in regular education? Does the child require specially designed instruction to make progress or does the child require a related service or services to gain access to the general education curriculum?
After the evaluation, a meeting date with the school’s special education team will be set. This must happen within 45 school days of the parent or guardian signing off on the evaluation. Parents should make a point to ask in advance to see a copy of the school’s report, which the school district must provide not later than 48 hours before the meeting, so parents can prepare. McClellan urges parents to make the request in writing. “If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen,” she says.
Parents also have the right to obtain an independent educational evaluation by a professional in the area in which they have concern, if they disagree with the school’s findings. These usually cost more than $1,000, though insurance sometimes will cover them. Any student eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch, or in the custody of a state agency with an appointed educational surrogate parent, is entitled to receive an equivalent evaluation at public expense.
3. Know the nuts and bolts.
If a student is deemed eligible for specialized instruction, special education services begin right after the district receives the parent or guardian’s signed IEP. IEPs are written for one year, setting out goals for the child. Parents or guardians meet at least once a year with the district to review the IEP and set new goals. IEPs are not necessarily permanent — at least once every three years, the school district must reevaluate whether the child remains eligible for special education. The district can at any point suggest the student no longer requires special education, but it must honor a parent or guardian’s request for a complete reevaluation prior to taking any action to end services. A district can’t change an IEP without parental consent.
School districts also must provide reports indicating if and how well a student is progressing toward the goals of an IEP. These reports should go out as often as the district sends out report cards.
4. Connect with other parents.
Massachusetts state law requires each public school district to maintain a Special Education Parent Advisory Council, open to parents and guardians of students with disabilities. These councils offer resources such as classes on parents’ rights with respect to IEPs and monthly meetings on various subjects, says Jeffrey Sankey, a special education attorney in the Boston area. The advisory councils help parents in two main ways, he says: Parents learn what their rights are, and they get access to a network of people who have experience dealing with the system.
5. Hire an advocate.
Even with advice from other parents, the IEP process can still feel overwhelming. If this happens to you, and you have the means, consider hiring an advocate to help you.
“The special education process is very stressful, it’s very emotional, and it’s very confusing for parents,” says McClellan. “I hear from [parents] that they just need help or someone to interpret what the educational team is saying because they talk in acronyms. A parent feels at a disadvantage. There’s one or two of them walking into a meeting and often times there are easily six people from the school district sitting at a table.”
McClellan says an advocate will help a family analyze the child’s educational needs, find professionals in the disciplines in which the child has an actual or suspected disability, and determine the elements of an appropriate program. “Most importantly, a strong advocate is the parents’ voice at all meetings, with their child’s goals at the forefront of their mission.” Visit the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates or the Federation for Children with Special Needs for resources.
6. Manage worst case scenarios.
Most parents and guardians are able to agree with school districts about an IEP. But if an impasse arises, parents can contact the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Problem Resolution System, or a request can be filed with the Bureau of Special Education Appeals. The latter could suggest mediation, or schedule a hearing.
For a hearing, a hearing officer presides over the proceedings, which take place in a conference room, not a courtroom, and last roughly three days, Sankey says. “Hearings are like a trial,” he says, and the parent or guardian “has the burden of proof” to show their child isn’t making effective progress. The school district will be represented by a lawyer, and parents will have to “understand and present legal arguments, cross-examine witnesses, work with experts, and write closing briefs based upon research of legal principles,” Sankey says. He would typically call experts such as the child’s neuropsychologist to testify.
Parents may find it difficult to represent themselves, and Sankey says statistics show parents and guardians without a lawyer are less likely to prevail against school districts. Of course, lawyers cost money, although if the parent wins, the school district pays the attorney’s fees. Some lawyers will take cases on a pro bono basis; Sankey says he takes one or two per year based upon a family’s circumstances and the severity of the child’s needs.
The hearing officer will file a decision in approximately 40 days, and if the district loses, it must implement the hearing officer’s orders — including paying tuition at a specialized school.
These extreme situations are rare — there were just 22 decisions issued by the Bureau of Special Education Appeals in 2017.
7. Stay respectful.
Living with an IEP is not without stresses, experts caution. There can be a stigma around special education, no matter the reason for it. Children may dislike feeling singled out for attention, even when it’s meant to help them succeed in school. McClellan says parents must strive to be professional and respectful with teachers and school officials throughout the life of an IEP.
Ultimately, she says, the IEP process needn’t be disheartening — even if it’s daunting at times. “The special education process is just that — a process. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Kara Baskin is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story has been updated to give the correct evaluation period starting point, and to clarify that timelines are measured in school days.