Once a formal request has been put it for evaluation, the school must respond with a summary of the evaluations that will take place for your approval. Once approved, they must conduct the appropriate evaluations within 60 days and set up an eligibility meeting with you in order to discuss the results. Seiger, L.M. (2017) IEP Guide How to Advocate for your Special Ed Child (9th Ed.) NOLO.
Despite these calendar guidelines the IEP process can take very long time. It can be a full academic year before eligibility is established and appropriate services are put in place. This can be very frustrating for parents who are trying to do the best for their child. It is important for parents to understand that they have a lot of power legally under the IDEA to keep the process moving and get the needed supports in place. Keep in mind that staying in regular contact with the special education team at school or with the district is the best way to keep things moving. Parents can also be involved in local special education support networks which can provide valuable insight and moral and legal support as well.
In some cases, the school district literally does not fulfill their obligations under IDEA such as the recent debacle with Chicago Public Schools. However, most often districts and individual schools want to see every child succeed and are ready and willing to help an exceptional student and their family. As much as possible, it is best practice to not view the school personnel as the enemy, since you will want people on your side as you walk through the process, and it is helpful to avoid alienating a potential ally.
The evaluations conducted by the school and/ or district determine eligibility based on two criteria:
1) Does an identifiable disability exist as determined by IDEA?
2) Does that disability significantly impact the individual’s ability to participate in and benefit from the regular school setting?
These criteria are important to understand, since if they are not met a parent has no legal footing to demand individualized supports for their child. Regarding the first of these two critera, there are 14 categories of disability. These categories cover most common conditions that can impact a child’s learning. The second criteria does not mean that the child must be flunking. However, it must be shown that the identified condition is negatively impacting the child’s ability to access the learning environment.
In the eligibility meeting, the team reviews the evaluations to determine whether a Special Education placement is the best route for the struggling learner. If the child is found eligible, the initial IEP meeting will be set. At this meeting, the evaluations and other documentation are reviewed, and specific measurable goals are set for the student as well as a means of charting progress towards those goals. If the team decides that the student is not eligible for Special Education under IDEA, alternative placements will be discussed such as a 504 accommodation plan or other district or state based supports for the child.
In their interactions with the Special Ed team at the school, parents hear a lot of technical terms; FAPE, LRE, and Mainstreaming, among others. Good legal guides such as the one referenced above are available at the local bookstore or library. If you are new to this process, it is very helpful to consult one or more of these guides. An internet search can also provide a good idea of what these terms mean. In the next series I will focus on the law, including technical wording, the rights it guaranties, as well as what it does and does not do.