The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was enacted in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities have access to a public education that addresses their special needs. IDEA requires states, local school districts and other public agencies to make adequate services available in accordance with the law. In the education profession, these services are commonly referred to as “special education.”

Under the IDEA, the federal government provides financial support for state and local school districts for special education. In order to receive funding, however, school districts must comply with the six main principles of the IDEA, which are as follows:

  • Every child must receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE);
  • When a school professional believes that a student between the ages of 3 and 21 might have a disability that has a significant impact on the student’s learning or behavior, the student should be evaluated in all areas related to the suspected disability;
  • The school should create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the purpose of which is to identify specific actions and steps through which educational providers, parents and the student themselves can reach the child’s stated educational goals;
  • Educational and other services for children with disabilities must be provided in the least restrictive environment. So, again, if possible, students with IEPs should be placed in a general education setting with non-disabled students;
  • The input of both the parent and the child must be considered in the education process;
  • If a parent feels that an IEP is inappropriate for their child, or that their child is not receiving needed services, they have the right under IDEA to challenge their child’s treatment.

What Benefits Does the IDEA Provide?

As of 2004, IDEA contains two parts that are directly relevant to both parents and educators:

  • Part B: This part covers special education and other services for children between the ages of 3 and 21 in the least restrictive environment. Again, If possible, these children should be placed in a general education setting with non-disabled students;
  • Part C: This part covers “early intervention services” for children from birth to 3 years of age when disability or developmental delays are suspected.

The goal of Part B is to ensure that students with learning disabilities have free access to an appropriate education. It helps schools and parents work together to address the specific needs of the child in ways that are tailored and targeted to the student’s special needs. It requires schools to give accommodations during testing to students who need them. Accommodations would be, for example, allowing the student to have extra time to complete a test or having a test accommodator read a test to a student whose reading ability is below grade level.

If a person has a dispute with their child’s school over their education, then they would file a claim under Section B of IDEA after pursuing local remedies.

Under Part C, infants and toddlers up to the age of 3 can qualify for services, including nursing services, physical therapy, family counseling, speech therapy, or audiology services depending on the nature of their disability or developmental delay. So, for example, the parents of children with autism can receive services to help these children with communication and social skills from an early age.

Each state has its own Part C programs, which must comply with the federal IDEA rules and requirements. Part C programs must also comply with their state rules and requirements. Each state has Part C Coordinators who supervise the programs in their states and ensure that they are compliant with Part C of the IDEA.

The IDEA also provides that children who need it are provided with an extended school year, which essentially means that they must be offered the opportunity for a summer school experience and the continuation of services during the summer.

How Do I Know If My Child Qualifies?

Per the provisions of Part B, a parent can request that their child be assessed for a learning disability. If a school or parents suspect a child has a learning disability, the school, along with the parents, conduct an evaluation of the child.

To qualify for special education services, a child must meet the following conditions:

  • Have a disability; and
  • Require special education in order to progress in their education and benefit from school.

Under Part C, infants and toddlers can also receive benefits if they show signs of developmental delay or disability. To be eligible, the child is evaluated for signs of developmental delay and disability. These are conditions that may be present at birth, or they may manifest themselves later in infancy.

The process of identifying a disability varies by state, but it generally requires a child to be assessed by qualified professionals in a manner that is appropriate given the nature of the suspected disability. A child may be given assessments of their academic progress. They would probably be observed in their daily educational setting. If they have speech articulation issues, they would be assessed by a qualified speech-language pathologist. If they have motor skill deficits, an occupational therapist might assess them as well.

What Is an Individualized Education Program?

If assessment discloses that a child has a disability and needs special educational services, then a special educator at the child’s school develops an IEP for the child. It identifies the special services that the child should have to address their individual educational needs. It is reviewed and updated annually.

The IEP must be presented to a child’s parent or guardian and their input considered before it becomes final. Then the IEP should guide the child’s school in the kind of services it provides and the manner in which it provides them. A child’s educational progress should be monitored and the effectiveness of the IEP should be analyzed regularly.

IEPs are highly specialized, and it can sometimes be difficult to execute and implement them in an effective way. On occasion, teachers and parents/guardians disagree about the services that should be provided to a student per an IEP, and parents/guardians want to take legal action, if the teachers or school district refuse to change it. In this case, the parent can file a claim under the IDEA.

A Parent Must Exhaust IDEA Remedies Before Filing a Civil Lawsuit

Under the IDEA, every state educational agency (SEA), e.g. a state board of education or department of education, is required to adopt written procedures for resolving any complaint made under the IDEA. Of course, if IEP services are not provided as they should be, then a parent must first exhaust all local remedies under IDEA. That would mean trying to resolve differences at their child’s school first and then with their local school district’s administration, if a situation cannot be resolved within the school.

If the situation remains unresolved even after a parent has appealed to the administration of their local school district, they can then file a claim with the appropriate state education agency. While each state may differ in how they handle IDEA complaints, these are the general steps that a person should follow:

  • Submit a written and signed (including contact information) complaint that explains how the public agency, e.g. the school district, has violated the requirements of IDEA or failed to implement an IEP properly;
  • Information about the child in question that is relevant to the violation; and
  • A proposed solution for the problem.

The public agency where the violation took place must receive a copy of the complaint. A two-year statute of limitations applies to IDEA violations. This means that a complaint must be filed within two years of the violation.

The state agency must respond within 60 days of receiving the complaint. There are extensive regulations regarding what a state must do in response to a complaint made under the IDEA. Once the state government investigates the claim and makes a decision, they send a written decision to the parent/guardian who made the complaint and to the public agency that committed the claimed violation.

If a person fails to submit any of the above information, they run the risk of having their complaint dismissed for insufficient information or evidence. While it is possible to re-submit a complaint, it is very important to get all of the information before it is re-submitted, so the process is not delayed.

Above all, if a person does not take the above steps then they will not be allowed to file a civil lawsuit. IDEA must be “exhausted”, meaning all possible steps taken as required in the law, before a person is allowed to file a civil lawsuit in federal court.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Get Services under the IDEA?

You do not need a lawyer to apply for services under IDEA; you simply need to communicate with your child’s school. Also, you can submit a complaint and wait for your state educational agency to respond. However, if you do need to attend a hearing under IDEA and you think you would benefit from some help, you want to consult a local government lawyer.

If you have exhausted all of your remedies under IDEA, and the state has refused to require the school district or school to change your child’s educational plan, then you can contact a local special education lawyer for help in filing a civil lawsuit in federal court.