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
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
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
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
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
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.