Putting Education Reform To The Test

Feedback Loop: More On Students With Disabilities And The Law

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Tres Whitlock is trying to enroll in a charter school. The school has said they can not provide needed services.

Last week we ran a story talking to attorneys about what the law requires for students with disabilities.

One expert we spoke with, Joy Zabala with the Center for Applied Special Technology, responded to clarify her position.

Zabala said she’s most concerned that portions of federal disability law intended to provide access to students with disabilities are instead being used to keep those students out of the school of their choice.

It’s worth reading her comments in full, so here they are after the jump:

There are certainly “gray areas” in pretty much every law.  Certainly, there are areas of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that are open to interpretation and to individual case-by-case application.  It is disturbing, however, so see instances in which interpretations of some parts of IDEA are apparently being used to create BARRIERS to the implementation of other parts.

EVERY student with a disability who is served under IDEA is entitled a free appropriate public education education…In these stories it seems to be clearly understood that what this means for an individual student is that a team–made of up of educators, the family and, to the greatest extent possible, the student– develops an individualized educational program (IEP) that is aligned to the general curriculum and reasonably calculated to confer benefit.

In addition to determining educational goals and the supports and services needed by the student, the TEAM is charged with determining the least restrictive environment in which the IEP can be implemented. It also seems to be generally understood that the decisions made by the IEP team are legally binding.

What is of concern to me in these stories is the PROCESS by which placements are determined and what goes into placement decisions.

To be perfectly clear, my overarching concerns are more about how policies and procedures that guide the work of the IEP team in determining placements rather than about individual placements themselves. Placement decisions, like all other decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis by the IEP team. Determination of placement takes place at the end of the development of the IEP with the full range of placement open to  consideration.

After considering the placements that offer instructional programs that match the interests and abilities of the student and identification of the supports and services that COULD be reasonably provided in each placement, the team makes a decision about the best “match” for the student. If the team determines that needed services cannot be provided in some placements, then, of course, those placements would not be the LRE for that student and that placement would be inappropriate for that student.

In these stories it appears that placement decisions are much more strongly influenced by whether the needed services are currently available in a particular placement – charter school or not – than by whether the curriculum and instruction in a particular placement – charter school or not – is the most appropriate LEARNING ENVIRONMENT for the student.

In these stories it also appears that here are predetermined placements that are available for consideration by IEP teams rather than the full range of potential placements.

If the IEP team is only able to consider a predetermined set of placements because other placements have been predetermined not to be appropriate for the student based on the severity of a disability, a good argument could be made that the resulting placement decisions (although legally correct because they are “made by the IEP team”) are made on what constitutes a categorical denial of access instructional programs for which the student is otherwise qualified to participate.  This would not be in keeping with the intent of either education or civil rights statutes.

Joy Zabala, Ed.D., ATP

Reader reaction is an important part of building StateImpact Florida’s education coverage. Feedback Loop will be a regular feature highlighting your questions, criticisms and comments.


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