Understanding Special Education: Questions and Answers

Who is eligible for special education services?

A child who has trouble learning or behaving at school and has one or more of these disabilities:

• Mental retardation

• Emotional problems

• An orthopedic disability

• Deafness or other hearing problems

• Speech or language disability

• Autism

• Blindness or other vision problems

• Traumatic brain injury

• A learning disability in math or reading

• Health impairment (can include ADD/ADHD and Tourette syndrome)

• Deaf-blindness

• Multiple disabilities

How old does my child need to be to receive special education?

Special education is for children with disabilities from birth until the end of the school year when they turn 21.

• If your child is under 3 years old, he or she will be placed in the Infants & Toddlers program.

• If your child is 3 years old to school age, he or she will be in the Early Intervention preschool program. The rules for these children are basically the same as for school-age children.

• When your child turns 14, the IEP team should write a transition plan to help him or her prepare for life after high school.

How can I make sure my child receives special education?

You can ask the public school your child attends to form an evaluation team to establish whether your child needs special education. This is called an evaluation. The school cannot do the first evaluation of a child until you agree to it.

Children should be evaluated on everything that is difficult for them at school. The school will ask questions about your child as part of the evaluation. No one test (such as an IQ test) can decide a child’s needs.

How do I ask for an evaluation?

You should write a letter to the school principal and ask for an evaluation of your child. You should explain in detail your concerns about your child, and you should always write the date on the letter and keep a copy of the letter.

You can also request the school’s Permission to Evaluate – Consent Form, sign it, and return it to the school.

How long does an evaluation take?

A school must write a report in 60 calendar days (not counting the summer months) after you sign the Permission to Evaluate – Consent Form. The report is called an Evaluation Report (ER). The ER will say whether your child should receive special education services and what kind of services the child needs.

The school must give you a copy of the ER. If your child is eligible for special education services, the school should then set up a meeting with you and the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team. You should receive the ER at least 10 school days before the IEP team meeting.

What is an IEP?

If your child qualifies for services, you and the team will use the evaluation to write an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for the child. The IEP is essentially a contract between you and the school. The IEP should clearly indicate what the school will do to help your child learn, such as:

• Use a different way of teaching

• Make school materials simpler

• Change the amount or kind of information the child should learn

• Provide help on class work, homework, or tests

• Give your child services such as speech therapy, physical therapy, or counseling

• Provide a person to support your child or his or her teacher

You and the team will write goals for what your child should learn. The team must meet to talk about your child’s IEP and make any changes at least one time a year. You can ask for a meeting any time you have questions during the school year.

An example of the form used to write the Evaluation Report is available from the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN). You can also call PaTTAN at 1-800-360-7282.

How do I and the team write an IEP?

When you come to the first IEP team meeting, the school may have a draft of the IEP for your child. That does not mean that all the decisions have been made. You are an equal member of your child’s IEP team.

• You can talk about all parts of the IEP with the team at the meeting.

• You can ask any questions you have about the IEP at the meeting.

• You can make suggestions about what services and supports should be in the IEP.

• If the team needs more time to finish the IEP, the school should set up another meeting with you and the rest of the team.

• You can also ask the school for another meeting if you have questions or concerns.

Where does a child go to get special education services?

First, the team should think about general education classes. Many students with disabilities can learn in general education classes with supports from the school.

Under the law, children with disabilities should be in general education classes as much as they can with supports.

Some special education students may go to special classes, like a learning support class or an emotional support class, for some or all of the school day. Some students may go to a separate school if the public school is not right for them (although this should not happen often). The team (including you) will decide which placement is right for the child.

What happens when the IEP team is done writing the IEP?

The school will give you a paper called a Notice of Recommended Educational Placement/ Prior Written Notice (NOREP/PWN). This is an important paper that you should read carefully.

There will be boxes to check on the paper that state whether you agree or disagree with the IEP. You can also check that you would like a meeting with the team to discuss the IEP.  You should then sign the paper and return it to the school within 10 calendar days.

What if I do not agree with the school’s recommendation?

If a school says your child is not eligible for special education, you may not agree. If your child already receives special education services, you may not agree with the reevaluation the school did or the program or the placement the school offers.

You can:

• Set up an IEP team meeting or a facilitated IEP team meeting to talk about it.

• Ask for mediation to get help from a neutral person from the Office for Dispute Resolution (ODR).

• Ask ODR for a hearing to deal with the issue.

You must contact ODR to request mediation or a hearing at 1-800-879-2301 or odr-pa.org.

If you do not request mediation or a hearing within 10 calendar days, the school can follow its proposed IEP even if you disagree.

It is important for you to remember:

  • If a school does an evaluation of your child and determines that he or she can be in special education, you are allowed not to agree.

  • The school cannot force your child to be in special education if you do not think it is right.

  • If you agree at first that your child should be in special education, you can later remove the child from special education at any time.

What if my child does not get the services and supports in his or her IEP from her school?

You can file a complaint with the Bureau of Special Education (BSE). For example, if your child is not getting one hour of speech therapy as his or her IEP requires, you can write a letter or fill out a complaint form and send it to BSE.

BSE will call you and the school to investigate the complaint. BSE will send a report to you within 60 calendar days to let them know how it decided the complaint.

Where can parents go if they need more help?

Visit the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PATTAN) website.

DISCLAIMER: This information, from the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, provides a general idea of Pennsylvania and federal special education laws and should not be considered legal advice. For publications, videos, and other information on how to get help with education law questions, please visit www.elc-pa.org.

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