Special Education

Special education policies help ensure students with disabilities are placed in the most appropriate environments with the accommodations necessary to meet their learning needs. 

How has COVID-19 affected special education?

For students with special learning needs, the COVID-19 pandemic was even more devastating. Many of these students struggled with a lack of routine, virtual instruction that could not accommodate their needs, and the isolating effects of the pandemic. Ninety-three percent of students with disabilities report missing milestones that their non-disabled peers met, for example, reading emotions or code-switching. Children with certain disabilities were also put at a disadvantage since online platforms were not conducive to those with visual impairments or those who are hard of hearing. For some, learning disabilities became apparent while receiving virtual instruction, but they struggled to get diagnosed. These delays resulted in even greater learning loss and frustrations. 

Know Your Rights

The best way for a parent/student to ensure fair and equitable treatment is to know your rights. 

What rights does a child have to access special education services?

IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was created to ensure that individuals with disabilities have access to an “individualized education plan” (IEP) that meets their needs.

IDEA establishes a list of procedures to ensure students are protected during the process. To establish a student’s eligibility for protection, a multidisciplinary team must first complete an evaluation. An evaluation can be requested by the local education agency (LEA), school, parents, or the “Texas Education Agency” (TEA). The LEA must seek consent from the parents and determine eligibility within 60 school days (although the LEA is granted more time if the child is consistently absent for evaluation after the parent has granted permission).

Under IDEA, the following list of disabilities makes students eligible: Autism; Deaf-blindness; Deafness; Hearing Impairment; Intellectual disabilities; Multiple disabilities; Orthopedic impairments; Other health impairment; Emotional disturbance; Specific learning disability; Speech or language impairment; Traumatic brain injury; and Visual impairment, including blindness.

What is an IEP?

An IEP is an individualized education plan for children who quallify for special eudcation under IDEA. Schools must give parents notification of any identification, placement or changes to their IEP within a “reasonable timeframe” (Yell, 2019).

IEP meetings must include the parents, the child’s general education teacher, a psychologist or specialist, and a school administrator. A student must be included if they are 16 or older and may be included if they are younger than sixteen, provided that all parties agree to the student’s presence. However, an IEP meeting may proceed without one of the necessary parties if the other members agree to do so. Should a parent disagree with the decision of the school’s IEP committee, he/she has a right to get an independent evaluation at no cost to themselves. If a dispute continues, parents have a right to free mediation, with or without a hearing. Parents may also request a hearing

What is Section 504?

Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is a civil rights law created to protect disabled individuals from discrimination in federally funded spaces.

Therefore, all students who (1) are regarded as having a disability, or (2) have a condition that impairs a major life activity, are protected under Section 504, even if they’re not protected by IDEA (see here). They are even protected if the disability is temporary. Unlike IDEA, there are no funds to help schools fulfill 504 compliance, so many schools do not fully meet the requirements (Yell, 2019).

Schools are responsible to ensure that students protected under 504 have equitable access to opportunities. Examples of 504 compliance include ensuring that buildings are disability accessible and ensuring that students are not excluded from honors courses based solely on their disability. (Yell, 2019).


What is a 504 Plan?

Once a special needs child is identified, schools will often create a 504 plan, which is usually based on the procedures for an IEP, since there is no formal 504 plan. This plan should be created with the parents and it should explain what the student’s disability is, how it affects a major life activity and his/her education, and what the accommodations will be. Furthermore, school districts should create a plan to notify parents of any changes or periodic reviews to their 504 plan (see here).

What should parents do if they believe their school is in violation of their child's rights under IDEA or Section 504?

Parents may file a complaint or instigate a dispute resolution process with TEA. More information on their dispute resolution process, and the different options available, can be found here. More guidance to filing a complaint can be found on TEA’s website, here.

How could schools better serve students?

No policy is ever perfect. Despite its challenges, the pandemic forced schools to innovate. Coming out of this pandemic, schools and school districts have the opportunity to improve special education policies and practices. To better support special needs students and their families, CHILDREN AT RISK provides the following recommendations:

» Teachers and administrators should keep active and open lines of communication with parents. They should inform the students’ parents of any deviations or accommodations they use that are not on the plan.

» Invest in constructive forms of dispute resolution. Parents, teachers, and administrators do not always see eye to eye, yet all parties must come to an agreement on the plan and resources for a student. Constructive forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation, may help all parties to feel heard and find common ground.