When your child seems to be struggling academically, it can be difficult to determine why, and what level of supports are required to help get him/her back on track. Things become more confusing when you can feel your child is having difficulties, but the school doesn’t seem to see the same issues or concerns. You may have heard that special education services are available but are not sure how to go about requesting them.
The first step in determining if your child is eligible for special education services is the assessment process. As a parent, the right to have your child evaluated is a firm one. This article will give you a quick education on your rights and what to expect in the process to get your child evaluated to determine the level of support a school will be able to provide.
When Does the School District Have to Assess My Child for Services?
A school district is required to refer a student for evaluations to determine if a student qualifies for special education services when there is any knowledge of or reason to suspect that the student suffers from a disability and that special education services may be required to address the disability.
That means that the school team only needs to be aware of a suspicion that a student may have a disability that might require special education supports and services. This suspicion standard sets a pretty low bar, requiring that school teams refer students for special education evaluations any time there is a reasonable chance the student might require services . This is known as a district’s “child find” obligation.
Note that the standard requires only a suspicion that a student might suffer from a disability. Accordingly, a parent cannot be required to provide a private medical diagnosis before the school team will start the assessment process.
Writing a Referral for Special Education Assessments
Although it is the District’s obligation to seek out and identify students who may qualify for special education services, parents do not need to wait for school teams to proactively initiate the assessment process. Parents with concerns that their students may require more specialized supports should submit a written request for their child to be evaluated.
This written referral request for services should be concise but comprehensive. List out your general areas of concern for your student, focusing not only on academics, but also on social skills, communication, motor skills, behavior, and emotional needs. Remember that grades are not the sole factor in determining whether a student requires services—a child’s entire educational experience must be considered.
If you have received any private diagnoses, feel free to list them, but you do not have to share medical information if you aren’t comfortable with it. If you have some specific examples of concerns, note those briefly, as well. If you are working with a private tutor or other provider, they may be able to assist you in writing this referral and identifying all areas of need.
Helpful Tip: Send all communication via email, so there is a clear paper trail.
What if the School Says My Child Won’t Qualify?
It’s easy to believe teachers or other school staff members when they say a student doesn’t need to be evaluated because they won’t qualify for services. Some common reasons given include that a student is doing grade level work, is performing better than some peers in the class, or is too young for the school to determine if services are required.
The appropriate question for a referral for assessments is not whether the student will qualify, but whether he or she should be evaluated. This means the school cannot refuse to evaluate based on a predetermination that a student won’t qualify for services—they can only refuse to assess if they determine that there is no suspicion that the student might suffer from a disability that might require special education services. No single person can make the final determination regarding a student’s eligibility for services, so one person’s opinion that your student won’t qualify for services should not inhibit the initial assessment referral.
Remember: Trust your gut! If you feel your child is struggling and requires support, push for it, even if the school team pushes back. You know your student best.
What if the School Offers Informal Supports Instead?
Many times, when a parent first raises concerns that a student may require special education services, the school team’s initial response is to offer a Student Support Team (“SST”) meeting or to provide informal supports in class. This wait-and-see approach is just that, a delay tactic that avoids the District’s assessment obligations.
While you can certainly agree to meet for an SST or to allow additional academic supports to be implemented, you should still insist that the District begin the assessment process, as well.
Note: If the school team is offering to implement additional academic supports, this suggests there is at least a chance that the student requires services in order to address some area of need (supporting that assessments are necessary).
Important Timelines to Note: 15-15-60
Once you request that the school evaluates your student for special education services, the school team has 15 calendar days to send you a written response, either agreeing to the assessments or refusing to conduct them and explaining why. If the team agrees to conduct the evaluations, an assessment plan will be provided listing all areas in which the team proposes to evaluate.
Once you receive the assessment plan, you have at least 15 days to review it and provide a signed copy back to the District. At that point, the ball is in your court to keep the process moving so your child is assessed as soon as possible. Once you submit that signed copy, the school team has 60 days in which to complete the evaluations and review them at an IEP team meeting. Some tolling provisions and exceptions do apply for school breaks longer than 5 days.
Note: This timeline for assessments is lengthy, so if you have concerns, start the referral process ASAP and do not let the school team delay its response by agreeing to SST meetings or informal interventions without also insisting that these timelines be followed. You can agree to implement informal supports while also initiating the assessment process.
What if the School Refuses to Assess, or I feel the Assessments Were Inappropriate, or I Still Have Concerns?
If you disagree with the assessment results, you can request an independent educational evaluation (IEE). These can only be requested once the District has conducted its own assessment, and only in the areas previously evaluated. The District does not have to agree to fund this type of assessment, but if it does, you are able to contract with a private qualified evaluator to obtain an unbiased assessment of your student, which the District will pay for.
If the school refuses to conduct the evaluations, refuses to fund an independent evaluation, doesn’t respond to your requests, or otherwise fails to address your concerns, there are legal remedies available. Contact a special education attorney for a free consultation to discuss your options.
Frequently, resolution of special education matters is quick and relatively amicable, allowing parents to maintain positive relationships with school teams. Importantly, legal representation can often be provided to parents for low to no cost, as fees can be recovered through settlement agreements with the school district. There is no risk to you in reaching out to an attorney to discuss your concerns in more detail, and immense value to be gained in learning about your options.
Remember, parents are always the first and foremost advocates for students with special needs. While a school has the responsibility to follow through with requirements for evaluation based on special education law, teachers with 20-30 or more students in a classroom are not always attuned to the needs of every child, especially with learning impairments that do not affect behavior in the classroom. As a parent, it’s always better to err on the side of over-concern rather than caution when it comes to requesting help for your child. You’ll never regret speaking up and finding out if there is a problem that can be helped sooner than later.
About the Author
Jazmine Gelfand is a special education attorney who offers education and disability legal representation to the greater San Diego community. She is dedicated to zealously representing children with disabilities and their families, through a collaborative and results-oriented approach.