The IEP Process Explained by an Attorney

The IEP Process Explained by an Attorney

Christopher Knauf is the founder of Knauf Associates in Santa Monica, CA. His law firm specializes in disability rights and education-related legal disputes. He has also served as an independent hearing officer for Section 504 special education disputes. Mr. Knauf was kind enough to speak with SpecialNeeds.com and answer some questions about the overall IEP process.

 SN: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Let’s begin with how the IEP process gets started.

Mr. Knauf: Sure. The idea is that there is a certain population of kids who have what we generically call special needs. It could be anything from diabetes, to ADD, to autism, to orthopedic disabilities to blindness. Federal law requires that these kids, regardless of abilities or disabilities, are provided with free appropriate public education. That’s the term under the law. States that are taking federal money are obligated to provide that to kids who qualify. 

SN: How do they qualify for these special education services?

Mr. Knauf: If a teacher or a parent suspects that there is some kind of condition affecting their child’s performance at school--and it’s specifically at school--what we’re talking about is school-related performance and behavior, the first step is to get the student assessed. There is a formal process for requesting that. All schools have forms for it. Basically the parent is provided a form that says we’re going to assess your child or you have requested an assessment of your child, and these are the things that we’re going to assess. The most generic type of assessment is called a psycho-educational assessment, which is a full-blown assessment of all areas of potential needs of a kid in a school setting. The law says that nothing is going to be done for a kid without his parent’s consent. So, nothing can ever be done unless the parent is fully notified in writing and provides knowing consent to whatever is going to happen. In this case, the very first step is the initial assessment.

SN: What happens once the parent signs the assessment plan?

Mr. Knauf: The assessment occurs and is done by someone who is qualified under state law to perform the assessment. They have to meet certain criteria to be able to do it. A lot of times it’s just the school psychologist, and there are standard published assessment tests that are widely used to evaluate academic ability, memory, speech and language, and so forth. Each aspect of the initial assessment has to be performed by someone who is sufficiently trained in the area that they’re assessing.

SN: Could a parent request that their child be assessed by someone of their choice? 

Mr. Knauf: Under the law, the school gets the first shot. You cannot just arbitrarily take your kid, get them assessed, and say, here. Or, you can, but what would happen is the school would say, “Okay, thank you, now we’re going to assess.” Generally, they want to use the people and the methods that they’ve been trained to use.

SN: What happens if a parent disagrees with an assessment?

Mr. Knauf: If, once they review the assessment, the parent says, you know, I don’t think the assessor was qualified to do this, or I think that they made mistakes. Or maybe they simply disagree with the validity of the assessment results, then what the parent can say to the school is, “I disagree with this assessment. I would like you to fund an independent educational assessment evaluation.” At that point, the school has to make a choice: are they going to agree to fund an outside assessment or are they going to say to the parent, “Sorry, we think our assessment is perfectly valid; we’re not going to pay for it”? At that point, you can invoke the administrative review process--the litigation process--to resolve that question.

SN: What happens after the assessment is done?

Mr. Knauf: Then the school convenes what’s called an IEP meeting. IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. That is the primary document that contains special education and related services that a particular kid is going to be receiving over the next calendar year. The professionals who are convened for the student’s IEP meeting are usually the student’s teacher, the assessors, a school principal or somebody from the administration, and then the parents and anybody that the parent wants to bring. The law provides that the parents can bring in whomever they want, and that can include an advocate, a lawyer, or someone who knows the child well. It could even technically be someone there to support the family. Generally one or more parents come in to review everything to hear the school give its two cents about what should happen to the child.

SN: What can parents expect to hear at an IEP meeting?

Mr. Knauf: Basically the first thing that they look at is, is this child eligible for special education under the law? They look at the assessments, look at the child’s needs. Are there any special needs? Are they severe enough to require some kind of special education or other service? That’s a threshold question that has to be met before the child will receive services outside the general education classes. All of this is just basically looking at, should a given child get additional educational services beyond the general curriculum? Should there be a special placement? Should there be particular services like speech and language or reading intervention or occupational therapy or any number of other things. 

Through the discussion at this IEP meeting, once they determine a student’s eligibility, they look at a student’s needs and identify a student’s areas of need. Those are going to be written into the document saying this kid has speech and language issues or attention issues. They have global developmental delays across the board, needs in every area, behavioral needs. Whatever the needs are, they are identified and written down as saying this is what is affecting this kid’s ability to access the general curriculum--meaning that the kid is having trouble progressing in school. 

SN: Is this when they decide annual goals?

Mr. Knauf: Once those needs are defined, then what the team does is come up with annual goals. They say, in this area of need, this child can’t say basic vowel sounds, so we’re going to provide a goal in that particular area so that he or she is going to be able to say these things within a year with this amount of success (in eight out of 10 trials or something like that). It’s a very clear, measurable goal that can be tracked and followed and assessed so that at the end of the year you can say, Okay, he or she met this goal and they’re making progress. Then the team might revise the goal the next year. Basically this is done for each and every area of need in the IEP. The goals are developed and they are agreed on by everybody. It’s a consensus agreement. Parents don’t have to agree. Any team member can voice disagreement. Presumably it’s been discussed and some sort of compromise is reached. Or, sometimes there’s just disagreement. Basically there is the right to disagree.

SN: What is the next step after the goals are determined?

Mr. Knauf: Once the goals are at least proposed, the meeting moves on to the IEP placement. Where should this kid get his or her education? Should it be in a general education classroom with additional services? Should it be in a special day classroom that’s taught by a credentialed special ed teacher, where it’s smaller and much more capable of allowing a student to focus? Where is this child going to be successful? The law says it has to be in the least restrictive environment, meaning as close to the general education environment as possible. If it’s not in a general ed classroom, it needs to be on the general ed campus, if possible. If for some reason you’re not able to do it on the general ed campus, it has to be as close by as possible, or with opportunities for the kid to interact with typically developing peers.

If a kid needs something and a school district doesn’t have it, they have to find it somehow. That’s their obligation under the law. Because a kid doesn’t get held back just because of resources or something else. The district is obligated to find what the kid needs. In cases of extreme emotional distress where children have very, very severe emotional issues, if they cannot make progress in a general ed school, they have to be provided a special school, whether it’s a nonpublic school in the area, or in some cases when the behavior is so severe, they have to actually go out of state and the school district has to pay for those placements. The law basically says we give kids what they need, wherever that may be.

SN: How does an IEP meeting end?

Mr. Knauf: At the end of the discussion of placement services, a document is drawn up. It is given to the parents, the parents are able to review it, and ultimately they are asked to sign it. The school district says, “We believe this is the free appropriate public education that your child is entitled to.” The parent decides whether or not they want to sign it. If they sign it, the plan is implemented and the school district is held accountable for implementing what it says. As time goes on, the plan is reviewed. It has to be reviewed at least once annually, and it can be revised as needed. Any changes have to be agreed upon by the IEP team, including the parent. Teachers cannont modify things in the IEP unilaterally. It has to be through the IEP team. 

SN: Could a child get an IEP at any time or is there a particular “IEP season”?

Mr. Knauf: A child could get an IEP at any point in the school year. An IEP season is just a term that refers to the beginning or end of the school year when a lot of IEPs tend to happen. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything other than that. There are specific timelines: once a parent makes the request for an assessment, the school district has to reply within a short time period. Once the assessment plan is signed, they have to finish the assessment and convene an IEP meeting in a given amount of time as well.

SN: What is the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan?

Mr. Knauf: It depends on qualification and eligibility for services. The student has to be eligible under the law, which is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in order to have an IEP. That particular term is from the IDEA law. Some kids don’t qualify. Either their conditions aren’t severe enough or the IEP team determines that a kid doesn’t meet the IEP eligibility criteria. 504 refers to a different law. It’s section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is a different federal law than the IDEA. 504 plans are basically for kids who don’t qualify for an IEP but still have some kind of disability, and it’s a similar kind of administrative system, along the same lines but certainly different than under the IDEA. They have a 504 team meeting just like for an IEP. You just don’t end up getting special education under it. You might get some related services, like potentially an aide or transportation or certain access if there are parts of the school campus that aren’t physically accessible to the kid. Children with diabetes sometimes have 504 plans to have special ed health services in place in case there’s any kind of blood sugar problem.

SN: Mr. Knauf, do you have any advice for parents who may just be beginning this IEP process?

Mr. Knauf: I think the IEP process is generally very daunting for anybody unfamiliar with it. Once you feel like you have a kid that’s in this situation, there’s a lot of ways to become informed about the process, about your rights, about the kid’s rights, and what all these various terms mean. There is a lot of information on the internet, there are organizations around the country in every city that will have information on it, and there’s lots of attorneys and advocates out there that can help you understand the process. The one thing that I would say is that it’s really important if you’re going to work with someone like an advocate or an attorney, that you get someone who is very reputable--someone who you have references for. I’ve seen time and again that parents get hooked up with people who really don’t know enough about the system and often steer parents in a particular direction and sell them on a particular therapy or placement and it’s just setting the parents up for difficulty with the school district. In a lot of cases, you can’t avoid difficulty and that’s fine. Just make sure you have a really good, reputable advocate, or preferably an attorney, to assist you. There’s a lot to know and understand about the process and about your rights. For a lot of parents it’s great to have that sense of comfort to have an advocate with them. It’s certainly not necessary, but it can be helpful. Again, I’ve experienced in person a lot of advocates who do the child more harm than good, making issues where there don’t need to be. And there are some very good advocates out there who are very helpful. You just need to make sure you get hooked up with the right one.

Please note that this interview is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice.  Rules and laws differ by state, so please consult a local attorney before taking any action on your or your child’s behalf.

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