US DOE Addresses Important Special Ed Issues

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that children with disabilities be given a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This right is protected through the use of an individualized education program (IEP) designed to meet the child’s specific academic, social, and emotional needs. Where a child’s disability manifests itself in behaviors that interfere with the child’s learning, the IEP must include behavioral supports and services to address the behaviors. Despite this clear mandate, some local and state educational agencies have been resorting to short-term disciplinary removals, such as suspensions, as a means to address disruptive behavior without considering the specific needs of the child. Citing data confirming the lasting negative consequences of short-term school removal, the letter advises that these removals greatly hinder a child’s educational experience, and are especially detrimental to children of color, who face higher rates of removal.

The guidance letter specifically cautions school districts against using multiple short-term (shorter than 10 days) removals in order to avoid the IDEA’s procedural requirements for longer removals. In some situations repeated use of short-term suspensions could itself be deemed a denial of FAPE, particularly where the student is exhibiting a pattern of misconduct related to the student’s disability.  Instead, a pattern of behavioral issues should prompt the child’s IEP Team to consider whether it needs to add or revise behavioral supports or individualized services in the IEP such as lessons on school expectations, violence prevention programs, mental health counseling, skills training, and anger management groups. It also encourages school districts to restructure their staff training to include lessons on how to address the behavioral needs of children with disabilities.

The letter also aims to inform parents of their rights under the IDEA. It highlights the integral role that parents are supposed to play in the development of their child’s IEP. It also outlines ways in which parents can get involved in the process to ensure that their child’s rights are not violated. Parents have the right to request an IEP meeting, which, if reasonable, must be granted by the school. Parents are permitted to attend IEP meetings, and to be a part of the decision-making process. If parents believe that their child is being denied a FAPE, they can file a formal complaint against the school and request a hearing on the matter.

The Public Interest Law Center commends the Department for issuing this letter, as it is an important step towards ensuring that children with disabilities, particularly those whose behaviors are impairing their access to education, are receiving help rather than being shunted aside. The Law Center has a rich history of fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, and is presently suing the School District of Philadelphia in two federal class actions which allege that the District fails to meet other aspects of its IDEA obligations. The Department’s letter advances the Law Center’s core goal of ensuring that children with disabilities, particularly the children of color or from low income homes, are provided the full benefits of the law and have the greatest opportunity to learn and become healthy, productive adults.

You can read the entire letter here.