Mark Coleman, left, holds a stack of books that his son, Drew, has chosen to check out from the Central Branch of the Kansas City Public Library over break. Drew has Down syndrome and receives special education services through his school. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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Mark Coleman is used to navigating special education services for his 9-year-old son, Drew. But that doesn’t mean it ever gets easy. 

Drew, who has Down syndrome, is a Shawnee Mission School District student. He has an Individualized Education Plan to ensure he receives schooling that is appropriate for his needs. 

“I know that at some point in time I will become emotional whenever I’m in an IEP meeting discussing Drew,” Coleman said. “You have to go through and list the deficits and talk about the deficits your child has to for everyone to agree that the IEP is called for.”

Coleman, who has served on the board of disability nonprofit Advocacy in Motion since its founding, has had largely positive experiences with his school district. But he has also learned from his own experiences and those of other parents that having support and information can make the process more manageable.  

“The more you know, the more informed you feel as a parent and the better you feel you can do for your child,” Coleman said. “And it can be overwhelming when you feel as though you don’t know the answers, or you don’t even know where to turn.”

Since 1975, federal law has protected the right of students with disabilities to receive a free and appropriate public education.

State laws also govern how children with disabilities should be treated, such as protecting them from certain forms of discipline. 

But an appropriate public education can look different for each child, and parents have a huge role to play in determining which services their child may need. 

The process is complicated, but there are resources to help you communicate with your school, advocate for your child’s needs, and resolve any disagreements between the school and parents. 

Here are some of the basics you need to know. We cover advocacy strategies in more depth in a separate story. 

Your legal special education rights

Several federal laws protect the rights of students with disabilities. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids discrimination at schools of any kind that receive federal funding. 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, says students with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education. Under the law, students with qualifying disabilities must have access to special education services. Those services are coordinated through an IEP. 

Students must also be taught in a “least restrictive setting,” meaning they should be in the general education classroom whenever possible.

IDEA also grants parents the right to have a voice in their children’s education, and includes a number of “procedural safeguards” to ensure parents are able to exercise their rights. 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 defines disability more broadly, meaning students who don’t qualify for services under IDEA might still be eligible. 

But a “504 plan” doesn’t have the same safeguards as an IEP and can be harder to enforce, said Diane Woodard, an advocate with the Disability Rights Center of Kansas. 

If a student has “more of a medical or a behavior issue and not an academic need, then they’re likely going to qualify for a 504 plan,” Woodard said. 

States develop their own plans to implement federal education laws, but several experts told The Kansas City Beacon that much of the advice about how to navigate the process or communicate with schools would be identical for Missouri and Kansas. 

States also have laws that affect the rights of students with disabilities. 

For example, both Missouri and Kansas regulate when schools can use restraint and seclusion to discipline students or control their behavior after parents complained the tactics were especially harmful to students with disabilities. 

Columbia Public Schools reevaluated its policy even before a Missouri law change was passed this May after families said the district was inappropriately using the tactics

Woodard said the Disability Rights Center still gets calls about restraint and seclusion, but has received fewer since Kansas passed a law regulating the practices in 2017.

Making sure your IEP is functioning well can also help prevent schools from using extreme discipline or involving law enforcement, experts told the Beacon this fall. According to a recent Beacon investigation based on data analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, schools call the police on students with disabilities disproportionately often. 

Resources for families of children with disabilities

  • Missouri Parents Act: Offers information, training and one-on-one support to help you learn how to advocate for your child. 
  • Families Together, Inc.: A federally funded parent training and information center like MPACT, serving Kansas. 
  • Disability Rights Center of Kansas: Offers advocacy and legal aid and publishes guides on a variety of issues affecting people with disabilities, including educational issues. 
  • Missouri Protection and Advocacy Services: Nonprofit law firm providing advocacy and legal services to people with disabilities, including on education issues. 
  • Advocacy in Motion: Offers educational advocacy, including support at IEP meetings, for families in Missouri and Kansas. Fees can be reduced in the case of financial need. 

How the IEP process works to help children access special education

If you think your child has a disability that is affecting their performance in school, you can start the IEP process by requesting the school evaluate your child — in writing. 

“If you just ask the principal, or you just ask the teacher, they can ignore you,” Woodard said. “But if you make it in writing, they have to respond.”

Having your concerns in writing also helps with having documentation. The school will review the available information and decide whether to fulfill your request. 

If it moves forward with the evaluation, the school will meet to discuss the areas that need to be evaluated and then complete the evaluation within 60 days. The school will then decide whether the child needs special education services. 

If the school agrees the child needs services, it has 30 days to meet with parents and develop an Individualized Education Plan. 

Once the plan is developed, the school should quickly start to implement it. It will revisit the plan every year to examine whether it is meeting the proper goals and to make adjustments. Your child also may be reevaluated every three years. 

What to do if you disagree with the school about special education access

If you disagree with your school about any part of the process, from whether an evaluation is necessary to whether a plan is being implemented well, you can start by communicating with your child’s case manager or teacher, moving up the chain of command to the principal or area coordinator if needed. 

“We start at (the) lowest resolution as possible, and then continue until we get what we need for our children,” said Alisha Ogden, a foster and adoptive parent of children with disabilities and a multicultural coordinator based in Kansas City with Missouri Parents Act (MPACT). The federally funded nonprofit provides parents with information and training related to special education. 

Another less formal option is to invite an impartial facilitator to an IEP meeting to help you reach a decision. 

If those strategies don’t work, the law also provides methods of seeking recourse. 

If you can’t reach agreement about your child’s education, such as the results of their evaluation or what should be included in their IEP, you can file a Due Process Complaint, which can lead to a legal proceeding called a Due Process Hearing where both sides present evidence. 

If you believe the district has violated IDEA, you can file a Child Complaint. Examples of violations could include if the child is not receiving a service or technology they were promised in the IEP. 

The Disability Rights Center provides Kansas-specific guides to filing a Due Process request, a formal complaint or a complaint about seclusion and restraint.

Schools are also required to have mediation available for families. During mediation, both parties seek consensus with the help of a qualified mediator who helps them reach agreement. 

Mediation is more formal. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education keeps a list of professional mediators and will pay for one if the issue is something that could be addressed in a Due Process or Child Complaint hearing.

The state of Kansas will also pay for mediation.

Ogden said she initially became involved with MPACT when a school district wanted to switch her son, who has cerebral palsy, down to two-hour school days. 

“His entire life he had been in school full time,” she said. “There was no reason to do this.”

After getting support, Ogden went through IEP meetings, facilitated IEP meetings and mediation, where the issue was resolved. 

But she said that in her years seeking special education services for children, she has had a wide variety of experiences getting the results she needed. Sometimes everything goes smoothly, but “I’ve had situations that have gone all the way to federal court,” she said. 

“I just think it’s important as parents to be the best advocates that you can for your children.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.