The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, frequently referred to as "IDEA" or "IDEA 2004," is the major federal law that creates and defines the right to individualized special education for many children with disabilities. In general, IDEA (and related state laws) entitles eligible children between the ages of 3 and 21 to a free and appropriate public education (often referred to as "FAPE") that includes individualized special education and necessary related services. In addition, certain services are also available for children with disabilities from birth to age three.
Under these laws, school districts must thoroughly evaluate any child suspected to have a disability that impacts his or her ability to learn in school. After completion of this initial evaluation, the district is required to convene a team of knowledgeable persons, including the parents, to determine whether the child is eligible for special education services. If eligibility is established, an individualized education program or "IEP," is prepared for the child.
The IEP Process
The individualized education program, or IEP, is a basic and essential component of IDEA. It describes the child, sets measurable educational and functional goals, and establishes the level of services that the district must provide to attain those goals. A district must provide all IEP services in the least restrictive placement environment that would allow the child to reach IEP goals. In 2017 the U.S. Supreme court decided a case called Endrew F.,
holding that an IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in the light of the child’s coircumstances” and that “the educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances.”
Although IEP and placement must be reviewed annually by the IEP team to review progress and make any changes necessary, both parents and districts have a right to request additional meetings if necessary.
Children who are served by IEPs must be reevaluated at least once every three years unless the IEP team and parent agree that no additional information is needed to determine continued eligibility and state so in writing.
Under most circumstances, children who are served by IEPs cannot be disciplined by procedures such as expulsion or long suspensions for behaviors that are substantially caused by their disabilities.
IDEA broadly requires that parents must be given reasonable opportunities to participate in meetings about evaluation, eligibility, placement and other matters related to a free and appropriate public education.
In addition to participating in decision-making, parents are entitled to written notice from the school district whenever important decisions are made that affect or alter special education services. They also have the right to written notice whenever the district refuses a parental request related to eligibility, evaluation, placement or the nature and implementation of the IEP.
Parental consent is required before the school district initially evaluates a child for eligibility, places the child in a special education program for the first time, or reevaluates the child. However, districts do have a limited right to pursue some actions without parental consent by obtaining permission through a hearing before a neutral hearings officer.
If parents disagree with an evaluation completed by the school district, they may request and are usually entitled to an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at school district expense.
School districts must maintain detailed written policies that describe parental rights and must provide and explain those rights when eligibility is sought, at IEP meetings, and upon request.
If parents have concerns about special education services and cannot resolve problems through normal contact with staff or administrators, the first step is to request an IEP meeting. If disputes are not resolved at that level, parents can take further steps, including mediation, a written complaint to the Oregon Department of Education or a request for a due process hearing.
Mediation is a voluntary process. Both the parents and the school district must agree to try it before a mediator will be appointed. A mediator is a neutral person who is trained in strategies to help people come to agreement over difficult issues. The cost of mediation is paid by the district or the Oregon Department of Education. More information about mediation can be obtained by calling the Oregon Department of Education in Salem.
If parents believe the district has violated the IDEA and can’t resolve their dispute through an IEP meeting or mediation, they can file a written complaint with the Oregon Department of Education. Such complaints, often called an administrative or state complaint, must describe the problem that occurred within the 12 months before filing and include specific supporting facts. The Oregon Department of Education investigates such complaints and then prepares a written order within 60 days, absent supporting circumstances (or an agreement) to justify exceeding that limit.
Parents may also file a special education complaint by requesting a due process hearing. This is a formal legal proceeding before a neutral hearing officer. It is different than an administrative or state complaint (see above) in a number of respects. First, it is somewhat similar to a trial and can be a long and complicated process that is difficult to navigate without legal assistance. Second, a due process complaint can allege facts and violations that occurred within two years of the date on which the complaint is filed. Parents may request a due process hearing if they disagree with the evaluation, placement, educational program or other aspects of FAPE. The decision of the hearing officer is final, except that the losing party may challenge the decision by filing a civil action in court within 120 days of the final order. Parents who prevail in a hearing or in court may be reimbursed for some or all of their attorney fees, but are not entitled to recover costs for any experts involved. Requests for due process hearings are made to the Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction at the Oregon Department of Education.
Some children may have disabilities that affect major life activities but do not entitle them to special education services under IDEA. These children may, however, be protected by a different law: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (often referred to as "504.") 504 rights are largely similar to those under IDEA, but the protections of 504 are generally less robust. Each school district has a Section 504 coordinator who can provide more information about these rights.
For more information about the education rights of children with disabilities, see the disabilities resources list
Legal editor: Joel Greenberg, July 2019