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Rights of Gifted/Handicapped/Special Education Children

Your child's teacher notices that your child is having difficulty reading. Maybe he or she is also a discipline problem or, on the other hand, maybe your child has always learned faster than other children and is bored with school. In either case, your child may need, or benefit from, special education help not available in the normal classroom. The United States Government and the State of Pennsylvania provide substantial money each year to your school district so that it may provide special education programs for exceptional children.

In order for a child to obtain a special education program, either the school district or the parent must first request the child be evaluated to determine whether the child requires special education services. An initial evaluation of a child requires notice to and consent by the parents. The evaluation is then reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team which makes a recommendation of whether the child is exceptional and in need of special education services, and identifies the child's areas of strength and weakness. Parents are entitled to participate in this multi-disciplinary evaluation process. If the multi-disciplinary team determines the child is in need of special education services, an individual education plan, or IEP, is developed. An IEP team is made up of teachers, school administrators, other individuals who have special knowledge or expertise regarding the student, and parents. In appropriate cases, the student can participate on the IEP team. The IEP team reviews the evaluation as well as information provided by the child's teacher and parents and then prepares a written plan, including specially designed instruction and related services. The IEP is designed to set forth the plan of special education services that will be provided to the child by the school district. That plan must be reviewed and modified, if required, on a yearly basis. It can also be reviewed at any time a change in circumstances indicates a modification is needed. The child should be reevaluated every three years, except that students identified as mentally retarded shall be reevaluated every two years. Reevaluations require notice to the parents but do not require additional parental consent.

While the process that has been described may be imposing, the law gives parents substantial rights and procedural safeguards. In cases where disputes arise between parents and school districts, they may be resolved through due process procedures, including informal mediation a formal hearing, called a special education due process hearing. A parent can refuse to have his or her child evaluated if he/she feels it is unnecessary or the type of evaluation proposed is inappropriate. When a parent refuses to consent for an initial evaluation, the school district may utilize due process procedures to pursue the evaluation. The parent can also request an independent evaluation under certain circumstances at the school district’s expense. A parent may reject a proposed IEP or portions of that IEP and also propose changes or modifications to the IEP. A school district must obtain parental consent for the initial provision of special education services. If a parent refuses or subsequently revokes consent for such services, a school district may not utilize due process procedures to require the delivery of these services. Under all of these circumstances and others, if the parent cannot reach an agreement with the school district, the parent may request mediation or a special education due process hearing.

At a special education due process hearing a hearing officer, not connected with the school district, will resolve the dispute. During a due process hearing, the child must remain in his or her current educational placement, unless the parents and school district agree otherwise.

There are procedural safeguards regarding parental access to student records, confidentiality of student records, and regulations regarding the exchange of documentation by and between the parents and school district before a due process hearing. Parents are entitled to the names of all witnesses who will testify on behalf of a school district as well as notification of the documents that will be used at least five business days in advance of any scheduled hearing. Parents are also entitled to be represented by an advocate at any due process hearing. An advocate may, but is not required to be an attorney. Parents who prevail at due process hearings may be entitled to recover attorney's fees as a prevailing party under federal law.

Help is available to parents whose children are part of the special education process. If you have general questions about special education, you may contact the Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit. Their phone number is 1-800-677-5610 or 814-734-5610. The Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network may also be able to assist you at any stage of the special education process other than the hearing officer level. You may visit their website at www.pattan.net. You may also call the Special Education ConsultLine at 1-800-879-2301. If you are unable to obtain satisfaction through negotiations with the school district and feel you need to have a due process hearing, you may want the services of an attorney. If you are low income, you may call Northwestern Legal Services at 452-6949 for free legal assistance.   4/18