Your Child's Rights in the School Setting

What’s the Same? Federal Laws for Public Education

 

If your child attends a public school in the United States, they are guaranteed certain protections under federal law.  These boil down to access to Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).  The two main pieces of legislation that protect this right are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (often shortened to “IDEA”), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that governs how states and federally-funded public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to youth with disabilities. Although the law does not mention anxiety or OCD as specific disabilities, children may be eligible to receive special education services through an “Other Health Impairment (OHI)” or “Emotional Disturbance (ED)” classification.

Any parent or legal guardian can request an initial evaluation to determine if their child is eligible for special education services.  Medical reports and/or evaluations may be necessary to establish a child's disability. Further information may need to be collected suggesting that commonly used treatment interventions were ineffective before a student is classified with an OHI. 

To qualify to receive services under an ED classification, a student must display one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time, and to a marked degree that negatively affects his or her educational performance:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors
  • An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
  • A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
  • A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

Additionally, a student’s problematic behavior or emotional responses must be significantly different from age appropriate, cultural, or ethnic norms and data may be needed suggesting that commonly used research-based interventions were ineffective for consideration for an ED classification.

Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Once a student is determined to be eligible to receive special education services, the specific services are then outlined in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP should include the student's present levels of academic and functional performance, their academic and behavioral goals, and the academic/behavioral supports needed to help the child achieve these goals.

Parents/legal guardians must be invited to participate on the team that develops the IEP, which generally includes the student’s teacher, a special education teacher, a school administrator, a school psychologist, and/or other school personnel. A parent/legal guardian also may invite others to attend IEP meetings, such as their child’s therapist, a child advocate, or an attorney.  Once an IEP has been established, it will be implemented and reviewed annually.

If a parent/legal guardian does not agree with the IEP, or the IEP team’s decision regarding special education eligibility, they must be informed how they can challenge the decision.  Parents/legal guardians can choose to have their child independently evaluated by someone outside of the school system, and the school may be required to pay for the evaluation.  While schools should consider all appropriately conducted evaluations, they may not be required to comply with the findings.

IDEA in a Nutshell:

  • IDEA is a federal law, which means it covers public education everywhere in the US, and governs how states and federally-funded public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to youth with disabilities.
  • Though anxiety/OCD are not named as eligible disabilities under IDEA, any parent/legal guardian can request that their child be evaluated to see if they may qualify by having an OHI or ED.
  • Students classified with an OHI or ED are eligible to receive special education services, which will become outlined in an IEP.
  • IEPs describe the student's present level of functioning, and outline specific goals for them to achieve and the supports that will be put in place to help them do so.
  • Parents/legal guardians must be invited to participate in the creation of the IEP, and they are allowed to invite others to participate (such as their child’s therapist) at their discretion.
  • IEPs are reviewed and updated annually, and evaluations of students take place at least every 3 years.
  • IEPs may be transferable (“portable”) to other schools within the same state, but the process may need to be re-initiated if a student moves to a new state.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guarantees rights to people with disabilities. It aims to decrease discrimination and promote equal opportunities by requiring schools to provide reasonable accommodations (e.g., extra time on tests, use of computer-aided instruction, etc.) for children with disabilities. These accommodations can address temporary (for example, a broken leg) or chronic (for example, asthma) problems, and defines disability as a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activity. Thus, 504 accommodations can be implemented quickly and flexibly. 

Children with anxiety and/or OCD may be eligible to receive 504 accommodations if their symptoms significantly limit at least one major life activity (e.g., walking, speaking, learning, reading, writing, performing math calculations, working, self-care) as determined by a school-based team that usually includes the same individuals who sit on IEP teams. 

Section 504 requires the review of multiple sources of information provided by different individuals (e.g., school psychologist, parent, teacher) prior to providing accommodations.  Similar to IEPs associated with IDEA, eligible 504 students receive accommodations through an Individual Accommodation Plan (IAP), more commonly known as a 504 plan. This plan lists specific accommodations and interventions that may help a student with their educational functioning and/or ability to benefit from educational services, as it relates to their disability. These plans often list specific instructional materials that a student may need, modifications to tests or assignments, grading and assessment changes, and behavioral interventions.

Section 504 in a Nutshell:

  • Section 504 is part of a federal law, which means it covers public education everywhere in the US, which requires schools to provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities.
  • These accommodations can address temporary or chronic problems, and uses a broad definition of disability for qualifying impairments.
  • Children with anxiety/OCD may be eligible to receive 504 accommodations if their symptoms significantly limit at least one major life activity as determined by a school-based team, who will review multiple sources before providing accommodations via an IAP/504 plan.
  • IAPs/504 plans list specific accommodations and interventions that may help a student with their educational functioning and/or ability to benefit from educational services, as it relates to their disability.

IEP vs. 504 plan/IAP?

A lot of parents/guardians wonder what the best course of action is for them to pursue for their child.  IEPs and 504 plans/IAPs may seem very similar, and it might be hard to decide which is more appropriate.  The main differences between them are largely in their eligibility criteria and the protections provided. 

Section 504 has a broader definition of disability, and a student would not need to have both an IEP and a 504 plan/IAP.  The decision between which a student receives would depend on the nature of their impairments and the interventions needed.

Both IEPs and 504 plans/IAPs provide school-based interventions and accommodations, including (but not limited to):

  • Counseling (individual or group)
  • Changes in the amount of time available to take tests or complete assignments
  • Changes in where tests will be taken
  • Provision of frequent breaks during instruction
  • Shortened assignments
  • A behavior improvement plan
  • Preferential seating
  • Transition plans
  • A special pass to use the restroom/office

Only IEPs provide:

  • More due process protections for students and parents, including:
    • Protection against the school district terminating services without parental/guardian notice or consent.
    • Ability for the student to continue with their plan while a “dispute” about their services is underway.
  • More specificity regarding exact services provided and goals.

It may seem like IEPs are preferable due to the increased protections they provide.  That said, benefits of 504 plans/IAPs are:

  • Less strict eligibility criteria.
  • Quicker to receive and implement.
  • More flexible – easier to modify/change as your child’s symptoms wax and wane.

 

What may Differ?  Local/State-based Protections

While IDEA and Section 504 are federal laws, and thus govern any publicly-funded education, there may be additional protections based on where you live.  The federal laws are the “bare minimum” of rights that states need to provide, but many states may have additional protections in place.

To learn more about your state’s educational legislation, click here.