SPED Procedures, Policies, and the Individual Education Plan (IEP) –
All children are “assumed” to have no needs beyond whatever regular education program is offered in a particular school district until & unless someone alleges, in writing, otherwise. When that happens, the schools are required to conduct an evaluation (called a “CORE” evaluation in Massachusetts) to determine whether it is true, and if so, what those needs are. In Massachusetts, such an allegation can be made by anybody. A parent, a teacher, a doctor, a therapist, or even a stranger! If the school janitor states in writing that he thinks a particular child has “Special Needs”, that sets the “process” which is required by law into motion.
In Massachusetts, the CORE evaluation process is supposed to be completed within 90 days (although it is unclear whether this means 90 calendar days, 90 school days, or 90 business days). It is the school’s prerogative to determine how the evaluation is completed and what it consists of. It can include any testing which they deem appropriate, and that testing can be carried out by school employees, private professionals under contract, or anybody else whom they designate. There is no single standard battery of tests either mandated by law or universally agreed upon by school professionals.
Once whatever testing process deemed appropriate by the school is complete, the next step is to have a meeting. This meeting is normally attended by the SPED director of a school, the child’s parents, some of the child’s teachers, and any other interested parties (often including some of the evaluators, although this is not required), and also often involving Guidance Counselors, Speech Therapists, or other school staff who may be involved with a child. Doctors (Neurologists, Developmental Pediatricians, Psychiatrists) who may have evaluated the child rarely attend such meetings, mostly because it is difficult to get health insurance to cover the cost of such attendance. That is unfortunate since their presence would certainly be helpful. The purpose of the meeting (which in Massachusetts is called a “CORE meeting”) is to present to the parents and the rest of the Team members the results of the testing as well as a proposed Individual Education Plan (IEP).
An IEP can call for almost anything. At one extreme, it could simply say that the child has no special needs and will be returned to the regular education setting with no SPED services. At the other extreme, it can say that a child needs to and will be placed in a substantially separate setting outside the mainstream designed for their particular LD. The majority of IEP’s designate some level of need and some type of service between these two extremes. These services could include tutoring, small classrooms taking a different approach to teaching, Speech or Occupational Therapy, counseling, or almost any other thing which might be necessary.
Parents have several options following a CORE meeting. It is important for them to be aware of these options going into the meeting, since often times the school staff will not fully explain them or will emphasize one and de-emphasize the others.
- One option is to accept the IEP in full. This should only be done if parents are totally satisfied that both the conclusions of the evaluation and the planned services are appropriate. Accepting the IEP in full has the affect of “locking in” that plan for the next year – the school is under no obligation to change or renegotiate it sooner.
- A second option is to reject the IEP in full. This should only be done in rare circumstances. It is the equivalent of a parent saying, “I do not feel my child has special needs, I want no services, and I want my child returned to the regular education classroom”. At that point, parents give up all rights to their child receiving any SPED services for another year.
- A third option amounts to a “line item veto”. Parents can choose to accept portions of the IEP and reject others. This should be done only by parents who know very specifically what they want and why, usually with some outside expert advise.
- A fourth option is simply to delay a decision. Parents have the right to take the IEP and think about it or consult with anyone who they choose outside of the school, and delay a decision for up to a month after the CORE meeting. This would be a good option if, for instance, you wanted to have one of the providers at our office review the IEP before you sign it.
- Finally, parents have a right to delay a decision pending an independent evaluation, and they used to** have the right to request the independent evaluation be provided (paid for) by the school. In this instance, the outside evaluation needed to occur at a place mutually acceptable to both the parents and the school system. Obviously because outside evaluations are very costly and they mean that the parents are not trusting the results of the school testing, school officials were rarely pleased when this option is chosen. It also must be borne in mind that, although the school was paying for an independent evaluation, they were under no obligation to heed it’s recommendations. Usually, once an independent evaluation obtained in this way was completed, a second CORE meeting will be held.
(** This right is one of the things that was seriously curtailed by new regulations in Massachusetts adopted by the DOE in 1999 – now paying for “second opinions” or outside assessments is usually the parent’s (or their health insurer’s) responsibility, unless a hearing before a DOE panel finds the school’s evaluation to be “inadequate”.)
If the school and the parents cannot reach agreement over an I.E.P., there are mediation procedures in place that can be resorted to at a state level. Parents who find themselves in this situation will usually want to have the assistance of someone familiar with the process such as a child advocate (available privately or through the Federation for Children With Special Needs or through the a variety of internet sites) or perhaps even a lawyer.
If the mediation process fails, the parents can take the school system to court. Fortunately, most families never reach this predicament. A more common scenario is the IEP which is agreed upon by parents and the school but which either is not fully implemented or isn’t implemented to the parents satisfaction. The truth is, what exists “on paper” in an IEP and what actually goes on in the classroom rarely correspond exactly. These things always depend on the motivation, training, experience and instincts of the teacher(s) involved. Another common scenario is the IEP does not seem to be working and needs to be re-thought and re-written. When parents and teachers agree that this is the case, usually, there is not a problem, but if the parents think this and the school does not, a dispute can occur.
Normally, IEP’s are re-written once every year. A repeat CORE evaluation is mandated once every three years for those who continue to receive SPED services. Evaluations sooner than three years can be conducted by the school at their own prerogative but are not required. They can also, of course, be obtained privately at any time by the parents. Once again, however, schools are under no obligation to pay any heed to independent private evaluations.
A final word is in order about reading IEP’s. Generally, IEP’s can be divided into three sections. The initial section (first few pages) describes the child in question. It is important to read this carefully as it reflects the school’s understanding of what is wrong. It is important that a parent be satisfied that a school understands their child. Distortions or omissions from this section should be considered serious things that ought to be corrected. The middle section of an IEP, ranging from one to more than 20 pages, consists of individual “instructional goals“. Within these pages are the specific techniques which are supposed to be used by the teachers, their purpose, and goals for educational attainment by the child during the next year. As the year goes on, there is often a large discrepancy between reality and what is written in this section. That usually does not matter very much. Although the most detailed, this is also usually the least important part of the IEP. The final section of the IEP is a statement of services and overall level of service. This summarizes such things as how many hours or minutes per week of tutoring, LD assistance, Speech Therapy, etc. a child is to receive and in what location. In Massachusetts, this service level has traditionally been “**coded” or categorized in a system of 502.x.The code is as follows:(** This is another feature that was done-away with by regulation changes in 1991 – supposedly to “increase flexibility” for schools but the real impact has been to make it harder for parents and outside professionals to judge the level of service actually being provided. I encourage parents to ask schools what 502.x level an IEP would have been under the old system.)
- 502.1 meant monitoring by the Special Education Dept. but with no direct services.
- 502.2 meant some direct service but the majority of the child’s time is in the regular education setting.
- 502.3 meant a substantial amount of direct services encompassing the majority by not all of the child’s time.
- 502.4 indicated full time placement in a special setting (or it’s functional equivalent in an inclusion model).
- 502.5 meant an outside private placement in an alternative educational institution.
- 502.8 was a special temporary diagnostic placement.
This final service-delivery specification page should be closely scrutinized for accuracy, as it matters more than any other portion of the IEP. It constitutes the “bottom line” regarding how much the child is to receive, where, and by whom. There are also sections here for specifying whether any alterations to the normal disciplinary code and/or graduation requirements apply to this particular child.