Understanding your rights as a special needs parent

  • Published
  • By Maj. Richard Ghazal
  • 66th Air Base Group Judge Advocate Office
HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – For Air Force families that have a child with special needs, changing duty stations every two or three years can present a unique set of challenges, such as securing an education program best suited for their child.

While the Air Force provides support in the form of Exceptional Family Member Program coordinators and school liaison officers, parents must nevertheless be their child’s most zealous advocate. Armed with knowledge of their rights, parents will be better equipped to ensure their child gets the best possible, custom-designed education.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, or IDEA, children with special needs must receive free, appropriate public education between the ages of 3 and 21. These exceptional children are to be educated in integrated environments to the extent possible.

Also under IDEA, children suspected of having a disability are entitled to a free evaluation. If a child is determined to have special needs, that child is entitled to an early intervention program before the age of 3. There is, however, great flexibility in how each state implements this federal standard, such as qualifying thresholds and who pays for the services provided.

School-aged children with special needs are legally entitled to a specially-tailored education program and other services, to aid their progression toward their educational goals. This Individualized Education Program, also known as an IEP, is a negotiated agreement between the parents and the public school system, which details the programs and services the child will receive. IEPs are reviewed annually for modification or revalidation. In creating the IEP, parents have the right to meaningful participation in the decision-making process.

If transferring to a new school district across state lines, the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children requires that the new state initially provide comparable services, based on the current IEP. The new state may then modify the IEP upon annual expiration. Families are encouraged to create and enforce a new IEP prior to a PCS.

When it comes time for annual re-evaluation of the IEP, parents have the right to challenge the school’s recommendations and decisions. If a school district wants to change or reduce services, parents should point out measurable progress that resulted under the previous IEP. If parents disagree with a change in their child’s IEP, they may provide the school district with a “stay put” written demand, which would continue the services as previously agreed until the matter is settled.

As their child’s primary advocate, parents must not feel pressured, embarrassed or obligated to agree to an inadequate IEP. It is ultimately the parents’ decision whether to sign the proposed agreement.

For further information on Individualized Education Programs, contact the Hanscom Legal Office at 781-225-1410.