Education Law

What Rights Do Special Ed Students and Parents Have Under Federal Law?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
A federal law known as the IDEA protects the rights of children with disabilities—and their parents—to free and appropriate education, proper evaluation, and a range of services.

If you have a child with mental or physical disabilities (including learning disabilities), you have a range of important rights regarding your child’s public education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Among other things, you’re entitled to:

  • receive “free appropriate public education” for your child in the “least restrictive” setting—preferably in a typical school classroom alongside nondisabled students, and as close to home as possible
  • receive an initial, comprehensive evaluation (with your approval) of your child’s needs, abilities, and eligibility for special education
  • participate as an equal partner, along with a full team of professionals, in the development of a written individualized education program (IEP) that will address your child’s unique needs
  • receive written notice of the school’s decisions regarding the evaluation and placement for your child
  • receive periodic follow-up evaluations of your child’s current situation and progress (at least every three years, or more often if you request it)
  • attend annual IEP meetings and approve any changes in your child’s plan
  • receive other supportive services and technological aids that your child needs to navigate the school day and benefit from special education
  • inspect and review your child’s school records
  • have access to an impartial legal process—including voluntary mediation and/or a hearing—for working out disagreements with the school district over its decisions regarding your child’s eligibility under the IDEA or the specifics of the IEP, and
  • get the public school district to pay for private school for your special ed child, if the district can’t provide an appropriate educational program.

Schools’ Obligations under the IDEA

Alongside these rights for parents and their children, public school districts have a number of legal duties under the IDEA. Not surprisingly, they don’t always meet those obligations. For instance, a school might not follow the proper procedures before suspending your special ed child, or it might fail to provide all of the services that were part of your child’s IEP. When that happens, parents can file an administrative complaint to begin an investigation of the problem. (For more details, see our article on resolving disputes under the IDEA.

Rights for Children With Disabilities Under Other Federal Laws

Students who aren’t eligible for special ed services under the IDEA may qualify for some services under a separate civil rights law known as “Section 504,” which is part of the federal Rehabilitation Act. Unlike the IDEA, Section 504 applies to private schools that receive any federal financial assistance. Also, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires nonreligious private schools (as well as all public schools) to provide reasonable modifications to allow children with disabilities to participate fully in school programs.

Talking With a Lawyer

If you think school officials aren’t meeting their obligation to protect your legal rights as the parent of a child with a disability, consider consulting a special education lawyer. Special education law is complicated and can be difficult to understand. An attorney who’s experienced in this field should be able to explain how federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and policies apply to your situation. A lawyer can also advise or even represent you in negotiations with school officials, IEP meetings, and dispute resolution proceedings. (For more details, see our article on when you need a special education lawyer.)

Go to the main FAQ page on special education and the IDEA.
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