Navigating the school system to access resources when your child has a specific need can be intimidating. Teachers and administrators want to help your child succeed, but sometimes you may feel like he isn’t receiving the services necessary to be successful.
Several laws on both the state and federal level safeguard your child’s right to an education. Knowing these laws and how to work within the school system to access the best help and resources can help you be his greatest advocate.
The Big IDEA
An important law governing your child’s education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA guarantees children with special healthcare needs a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment.
That means every child with a disability should be publicly educated for free with an individualized education plan (IEP) to help ensure future success in further education, employment and life skills. An IEP is a legally-binding formal document with specific goals for each child during the school year. It allows for accommodations, which may include a change in timing, formatting, setting or the way material is presented. The law requires parents to be notified any time the IEP is changed.
Appropriate free evaluation is mandated with parent and teacher collaboration to determine the best student placement. The law also requires informed consent, “stay put” rights (requiring parents to be notified of any change and allowing the option of remaining until a dispute is settled), parental access to education records, parental participation in all meetings, due process and mediation. In addition, IDEA has protections for confidentiality, transition services beginning at age 16, discipline protections and prohibitions regarding the school forcing your child to take medication.
IDEA also requires school districts to identify kids with special healthcare needs, listing 13 eligible disability categories. In order to qualify, a child must have a disability in one of the 13 categories and require special education services to succeed in school. If your child is making progress in school despite a disability, you may qualify for services under a different law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which allows for your child to be granted certain accommodations in the classroom to promote success.
It also prohibits schools from discriminating against kids with special healthcare needs and requires accommodations as needs arise, supporting the right for needs outside the school day, including extracurricular activities, sports, music lessons and after-school care, affording special-needs kids the same opportunities as other kids. It applies to playgrounds, band programs, assemblies, field trips, clubs, after-school/summer programs, bus transportation and graduation. The Americans with Disabilities Act states schools must meet the needs of children with psychiatric problems.
If you believe your child qualifies under one of 13 Disability Categories Covered Under IDEA listed on the following page and needs help beyond that provided in the classroom, the first step is to meet with your child’s teacher. If the outcome is no satisfactory, the next step to accessing special education services is to send a letter to your school’s principal stating specific concerns about your child. Is he several reading levels behind his peers? Does he consistently fail math tests? Voice your concern about a potential learning disability, and formally request a full evaluation for a learning disability. You can also seek advice from your provider for evaluation of other categories of disability. This letter can be written in the form of an email, or you can send the letter as certified mail with a return receipt requested.
Once the administrators receive the letter, they will either request your consent for testing or deny your request for an evaluation. If the school denies the request, you can appeal the decision. Sometimes schools deny testing requests and offer Response to Intervention (RTI) services first before formal testing. If you are convinced formal testing for your child is the best route, by law, school districts cannot use RTI services as an excuse to delay special education testing. Once you give your consent for testing, the school has 60 days to complete it, after which a meeting will be scheduled to disclose whether or not your child qualifies for special education services. As with all steps in the process, you can appeal this decision. If your child qualifies for services, you will work together with the team at the school to create an IEP and meet yearly afterwards to set new goals and track progress.
If Your Child Is Bullied
There are three types of bullying: verbal, social and physical. Bullying includes an imbalance of power and repetitive abusive behaviors. If your child is bullied at school, there are several steps you should take, beginning with how your child responds to the bully, and ending with school or law enforcement intervention.
It’s important to know the laws in your state, with some requiring specific actions on the part of school or districts (https://www.stopbullying.gov/laws/index.html). Start by empowering your child and give specific actions to take if the bullying occurs again. Bullies feed off emotional reactions, so tell your child to calmly, but firmly, tell the bully to stop it and walk away from the situation. Encouraging your child to be with a buddy during recess and before and after school may also help since bullying often occurs when kids are alone. Remind your child to tell the teacher each time a bullying incident occurs.
If bullying continues after your child has implemented these techniques or if the initial incidents present a significant risk or degree of harm, it’s time to contact the school, starting with your child’s teacher, the school counselor and principal in a face-to-face meeting. Bring a written list documenting the allegations, including times and dates. The more specific information the school has, the easier it will be for administration to help solve the problem. Work together with the school to come up with a plan to stop the bullying. It’s important not to contact the bully’s parents on your own.
If you do not see improvements after the plan is implemented, you may need to meet with school personnel again or contact administration on the district level. If you believe bullying has become a criminal offense, you can also contact your local police department and file charges. If your child is having a hard time coping emotionally, it might be a good idea to take your child to see a professionally licensed counselor, as well. By working together as a team with your child’s teacher and school administration, bullying can often be stopped in its tracks.
Typically, schools send meal applications home at the beginning of the school year. You may apply at any time, however, and should check the income eligibility guidelines, especially if your financial circumstances change (https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/income-eligibility-guidelines). Your application will be reviewed and approved by school or district officials. Families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits automatically qualify for free school meals. More information about applications can be accessed by visiting https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/applying-free-and-reduced-price-school-meals.
While navigating the school system to access resources can be intimidating, finding a support group can be very helpful. Try contacting your school’s parent organization, or reach out to find social media support groups with experienced parents who can help walk you through these processes. You are your child’s best advocate, and knowledge of these resources can be a powerful tool!
Jessica L. Peck, DNP, RN, MSN, CPNP-PC, CNE, CNL, is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas and have been practicing in pediatrics for more than 20 years. She is currently the secretary for NAPNAP.
E. Katherine Larson, MAT, holds a master’s degree in teaching and is pursuing studies to become a Physician Assistant.