The educational placement of a child with disabilities is an important aspect of a child’s education. [pullquote position=”right”]Evaluations of children with disabilities must be conducted by the school district at least every three years.[/pullquote]The options range from an inclusive educational environment where children with disabilities are educated alongside typical students, to the most restrictive environments where children with disabilities are educated in schools that do not include any typical students. Placement decisions are made following evaluations. There are two types of evaluations. The first evaluations are conducted by school district professionals. Then, in some instances, additional evaluations may be conducted by professionals who are not employees of any school district. Evaluations are the starting point in the decision making process for determining which educational setting will be appropriate for the child.
Evaluations of children with disabilities must be conducted by the school district at least every three years. Evaluations can be done more frequently, even annually, if requested by school administrators or by parents/guardians (for the purposes of this article, “parent(s)” will also refer to legal guardians). The law requires that school districts evaluate the child in all areas related to the suspected disability and must include an educational assessment. School administrators or parents can also request an array of other assessments such as speech and language, physical therapy and psychological evaluations. Following the school evaluations, the school and parents (the “Team”) make a decision about the appropriate placement. If parents do not agree with the placement recommendations contained in evaluations conducted by school district professionals, they have the option of seeking independent evaluations.
An independent evaluation is a second opinion conducted at the parent’s request. It is conducted by an outside evaluator who is not affiliated with the school district. In some instances, the school district is obligated to pay for the independent evaluation. The first step is for the parent to contact a special education administrator with the request. Parents may select the particular independent evaluator as long as the evaluator is properly credentialed and, if the school is going to be responsible for the cost of the evaluation, the evaluator agrees to be paid an amount set by the state. It is important that the independent evaluators observe the school’s recommended program. This is especially true when the independent evaluator is recommending a program other than an inclusive, or “least restrictive environment” (LRE) recommended by the school.
The concept of LRE can be difficult to understand and apply to a particular child’s special education needs. The federal regulations use the following language to explain the concept: LRE “means that to the maximum extent appropriate, special education students should be educated alongside regular education students”. Just as the law mandates that students should not be segregated on the basis of race, the unnecessary segregation of students with disabilities from typical students is prohibited by law. School districts are required to provide what is known as a “continuum of placements” to special education students. The “continuum” refers to the degree of restrictiveness of the placement, with placement in a typical education classroom being the least restrictive. The most restrictive environments are special education-approved day and residential private schools which as a matter of law cannot include typical students.
These schools generally serve students whose behavioral and/or academic needs are more intensive than special education students attending inclusive schools. Parents who want a more restrictive placement than what is being offered by the school district must carefully consider the options about how to proceed. In some instances, an agreement between the parents and a school district for a more restrictive placement happens only after the child has struggled in an inclusive school placement.
This struggle may be academic, behavioral or a combination of both. The Team then convenes and makes the recommendation for a more restrictive placement, often without the need for additional evaluations. For instance, when a special education student receives a long term suspension from public school, the school district often agrees to a more restrictive placement. It is understandably difficult for parents to accept that their child may have to struggle in public school before the district will agree to a private placement. For this reason, parents occasionally opt to place their child in a private school at their own expense and then seek retroactive reimbursement if they prevail in a due process hearing. The obvious problems with this strategy are that most parents cannot afford to pay the school tuition before seeking reimbursement and there is no guarantee that they will be awarded retroactive reimbursement by a hearing officer. Even when parents and school districts agree that the child needs a private placement, it can take several months or more to find a private school which can meet the educational needs of the child and has an opening for a new student. In these situations, parents should explore with the school district ways to provide interim services until a placement can be found. The interim services can include academic tutoring, speech therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy or any other services the parties agree on. Parents also have the right to seek compensatory services when their child is not provided with the services specified in the Individual Education Plan (IEP) for a substantial period of time.
For a child with disabilities, the decision about the appropriate educational setting is a very important aspect of a successful school experience. Evaluations, by the school and in some instances, by independent evaluators, provide information as to the best choices for the child. Deciding upon the appropriate placement for a child may take time but it is time worth spending to ensure a child’s success in school.
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Editor: Matthew Engel
Matthew Engel has twenty-six years of experience as an disability law attorney in Massachusetts. He recently started his own private practice. In addition to representing parents and students, Mr. Engel provides trainings and consultations to advocates and parents throughout Massachusetts. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at (413) 527-3157. [/call_to_action]