Parents have a vital role to play in the education of their children with disabilities. This roll is guaranteed by federal legislation that specifies the right of parents to participate in the educational decision-making process. Parents must become informed members of the educational team to assure a successful outcome for their children.
What Are Your Rights in the Special Education Process?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) is the federal special education law providing for students with disabilities. A fundamental provision of IDEA is the right of parents to participate in the educational decision-making process. These rights include:
- Your child is entitled to a free appropriate public education (meaning it is at no cost to parents and 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 will 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 Your consent is voluntary and may be withdrawn at any time.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 request 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.
- 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 appropriate. 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 guidance.
- 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/IFSP process as much as possible. The following suggestions can help parents become more involved:
- Before an IEP/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/IFSP meeting. This could include copies of medical records, past school records, and test and medical evaluation results. Real-life examples demonstrating your child's abilities in certain areas may be discussed.
- Discuss related services (speech therapy, counseling, transportation, etc.) 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 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. Links to these information sources can be found on our Resources page.
Produced by Autism Speaks, this guide is a valuable resource to help families make informed decisions and advocate for students that qualify for special education, irrespective of their diagnosis.