How does IDEA ensure that families have meaningful opportunities to participate?
The evidence is clear and consistent: When schools and families work together, student learning and outcomes improve. (1) So do:
- children’s attitudes toward school,
- their social skills and behavior, and
- the likelihood that they will take more challenging classes and pass them. (2)
This holds true across families of all economic, ethnic/racial, and educational backgrounds—and for students of all ages. (3)
Given the power that family involvement has to influence how our children achieve in school and in life, it’s not surprising that the nation’s special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), strongly supports parents’ right to be involved in the special education their child receives. As IDEA states:
Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by… strengthening the role and responsibility of parents and ensuring that families … have eaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home. (4)
One of IDEA’s foundational principles is the right of parents to participate in educational decision making regarding their child with a disability. The law is very specific about what school systems must do to ensure that parents have the opportunity to participate, if they so choose.
Parental rights of participation can be summarized as follows:
Parents have the right to participate in meetings related to the evaluation, identification, and educational placement of their child. (5)
Parents have the right to participate in meetings related to the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to their child. (6)
Parents are entitled to be members of any group that decides whether their child is a “child with a disability” and meets eligibility criteria for special education and related services. (7)
Parents are entitled to be members of the team that develops, reviews, and revises the individualized education program (IEP) for their child. (8) If neither parent can attend the IEP meeting, the school must use other methods to ensure their participation, including individual or conference calls. (9)
Parents are entitled to be members of any group that makes placement decisions for their child. (10) If neither parent can attend the meeting where placement is decided, the school must use other methods to ensure their participation, including individual or conference calls, or video conferencing. (11)
The specifics of these rights are discussed in multiple other CPIR documents—see the resources section of this Q&A—but, at a glance, you can see how comprehensively IDEA supports parental involvement in school-related decision making. You have the right to be involved at virtually every step along the way from your child’s identification as possibly having a disability to the special education and related services he or she receives and where those will be provided.
You are not required to participate, however; that is your choice. What IDEA guarantees is that you are given the opportunity to participate. The rest—whether to participate, how much to participate—is up to you. Parents vary in the amounts and ways in which they become involved in their child’s education; many have written eloquently about its challenges and benefits. It’s especially interesting to note that successful partnerships between schools and families grow over time in a climate of mutual respect and consideration, where there’s a strong common focus on the well-being of the child. (12)
Let’s take a look now at how the school system will ensure that you have the opportunity to participate, if you so choose. It all begins with what IDEA calls providing prior written notice.
1. What’s prior written notice?
Prior written notice refers to messages that you’ll receive from the school system at specific times. At its heart, prior written notice is meant to inform you, as parents, as fully as possible about any actions the school system is proposing to take (or refusing to take) with respect to:
- your child’s identification as a “child with a disability” as defined by IDEA and State policy;
- your child’s evaluation;
- his or her educational placement; and
- the school system’s provision of FAPE to your child. (13)
Prior written notice includes notifying you of upcoming meetings far enough in advance to ensure that you have the opportunity to attend and scheduling those meetings at a mutually agreed-on time and place. (14)
2. So the school will tell me about upcoming meetings?
Yes. The notice regarding meetings that the school provides to you will:
- include the purpose, time, and location of the meeting;
- indicate who will attend the meeting; and
- let you know that you may invite individuals with knowledge or special expertise about your child. (15)
If your child is moving from early intervention services (known as Part C of IDEA) to school-aged services, including preschool (funded under Part B of IDEA), the notice the school sends you will also let you know that you, as parents, may ask that the Part C service coordinator or other representatives of the Part C system be invited to the initial IEP meeting. The purpose of inviting Part C staff to the meeting is to help your child make a smooth transition from one set of services to another. (16)
3. What is NOT a meeting?
Some gatherings are not considered “meetings” that require schools to give you prior written notice. Meetings that do not require that parents be given notice are:
- informal or unscheduled conversations between school system staff;
- conversations on issues such as teaching methodology, lesson plans, or coordination of services; and
- the preparations and activities of school staff developing a proposal (or a response to a parent proposal) that will be discussed at a later meeting. (17)
4. Are meetings the only time the school will provide parents with prior written notice?
No, there are other times when school systems will need to provide parents with prior written notice. As we mentioned, these include whenever the school system:
- proposes to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of your child or the provision of FAPE to your child; or
- refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of your child or the provision of FAPE to your child. (18)
This means that the school system must give you prior written notice notice before it may take action or refuse to take action with regard to identifying your child as a “child with a disability,” evaluating your child, determining your child’s placement, or changing it. Notice is also required regarding providing FAPE to your child—in other words, the school system must provide prior written notice a reasonable time before it begins providing FAPE to your child, refuses to provide FAPE, or changes (or refuses to change) what that free appropriate public education involves (e.g., the services and supports that your child receives).
You may choose to receive prior written notice by email communication, if the school makes that option available. (19)
5. What type of information will the notice include?
Prior written notice is meant to give parents a full explanation of what the school system is proposing or refusing to do, so that parents have the opportunity to meet with school personnel, discuss what’s proposed (or refused), provide input, and agree or disagree. That’s why IDEA requires that prior written notice contain specific information, as follows:
- A description of the action proposed or refused by the school.
- An explanation of why the school proposes or refuses to take the action.
- A description of each evaluation procedure, assessment, record, or report the school used as a basis for its decision.
- A statement that the parents of a child with a disability have protection under IDEA’s procedural safeguards and, if this isn’t a referral for the child’s initial evaluation, how the parents can obtain a copy of them.
- Sources for parents to contact to find help in understanding these provisions.
- A description of other options that the IEP team considered and the reasons why those options were rejected.
- A description of other factors relevant to the school’s proposal or refusal. (20)
Clearly, providing prior written notice requires the school to give you concrete, specific details to explain the action in question. To help schools meet their obligations to provide parents with notice, the U.S. Department of Education makes available a model form of prior written notice at: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/modelform2_Prior_Written_Notice.pdf
6. What else should I know about prior written notice?
Parents may also find it useful to know that IDEA requires that prior written notice be:
- written in language understandable to the general public; and
- provided in the native language of the parent or other mode of communication used by the parent, unless it is clearly not feasible to do so. (21)
If the native language or other mode of communication of the parent is not a written language, the school must take steps to ensure that—
- the notice is translated orally or by other means to the parent in his or her native language or other mode of communication;
- the parent understands the content of the notice; and
- there is written evidence that these requirements have been met. (22)
7. You mentioned that parents have “protection under IDEA’s procedural safeguards.” What kind of protection? What safeguards?
As mentioned under question #5, the prior written notice that parents receive needs to:
- include the statement that parents have protection under IDEA’s procedural safeguards; and
- let parents know where they can obtain a description of those safeguards. (24)
If the prior written notice has to do with your child’s initial referral for evaluation, the school will actually include a description of the procedural safeguards. (25) This description is called the procedural safeguards notice, which is an important reference tool to your rights as a parent under IDEA and the policies and procedures used in your State or school district. The procedural safeguards notice is a full written explanation of all procedural safeguards available to parents and their children under IDEA. (26) The 13 specific safeguards that must be described in the notice are as follows:
The 13 Safeguards that the Procedural Safeguards Notice Must Describe and Explain:
- independent educational evaluations
- prior written notice
- parental consent
- access to education records
- the opportunity to present and resolve
- complaints through the due process complaint and State complaint procedures, including the timeline for filing a complaint, the opportunity to resolve the complaint, and the differences between the two procedures (such as their jurisdiction or authority, issues covered, filing and decisional timelines, and relevant procedures)
- the availability of mediation
- the child’s placement while any due process complaint is pending
- procedures for students who are subject to placement in an interim alternative educational setting
- requirements for parents who unilaterally place their child in a private school at public expense
- hearings on due process complaints, including requirements that evaluation results and recommendations be disclosed
- State-level appeals (if applicable in the State)
- civil actions, including the time period in which to file those actions
- attorneys’ fees (27)
To help schools meet their obligations to provide parents with the procedural safeguards notice, the U.S. Department of Education makes available a model form of such a notice at: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/modelform_Procedural_Safeguards_June_2009.pdf
The Department’s model form is 47 pages long—true testament to how comprehensive the procedural safeguards notice is intended to be. Its purpose is also clear: to ensure that parents know their specific rights and recourses under the law and that they understand those rights and recourses.
8. Will the school system automatically send me the procedural safeguards notice, or do I have to ask for it?
The school system will automatically provide you with this important description of your rights under IDEA. Specifically, the law requires that the procedural safeguards notice be provided to you, as parents, only once a school year and at these other times:
- when your child is first referred for evaluation or when you ask that your child be evaluated;
- when the school system receives the first due process hearing complaint in a school year;
- when the school system receives the first State complaint in a school year;
- if your child violates a code of student conduct and is subject to a disciplinary change of placement by the school; and
- when you ask the school to provide the procedural safeguards notice. (28)
Regrettably, explaining each of the procedural safeguards is beyond the scope of this Q&A. Only “parental consent” will be discussed here (in the next section). Consult the Resources section at the end of this post, where we’ve listed key sources of information on procedural safeguards. Most to the point, however, your school system’s procedural safeguards notice should certainly contain detailed information on IDEA’s protections and local policies and procedures. If you need a copy of that notice, we would recommend that you contact your school system and ask for it. Many systems also make their procedural safeguards notice available on their Web site, although this is not required by IDEA. (29)
Being notified by the school system about meetings and other actions regarding your child’s education is a critical aspect of your right as a parent to be involved in that education—but not the only critical aspect. At certain times and for specific things, you also have the right to give or refuse your parental consent. Let’s take a look at how IDEA defines parental consent and when the school system must ask for (and receive) your consent.
Consent within IDEA means that you, as parents, have been fully informed of all information that’s relevant to the activity for which your consent is being sought and that you agree to the activity in writing. (30) The school system will use prior written notice to inform you fully. Prior written notice, you’ll recall, must include a comprehensive description of the activity the school system is proposing. Only by building a foundation of understanding can your informed consent be given.
9. When will the school ask for my consent?
There are specific times the school system must make reasonable efforts to obtain your informed written consent before it may proceed on a proposed action. The most prominent of these times are:
- before it may conduct an initial evaluation of your child;31
- before it may begin providing special education and related services to your child for the first time (32); and\
- before it may reevaluate your child. (33)
10. What’s considered a “reasonable effort” to obtain my consent?
While IDEA does not specifically define how much effort to obtain your consent is “reasonable,” it does require that school systems keep a record of their attempts, such as:
- detailed records of telephone calls made or attempted and the results of those calls;
- copies of correspondence sent to you and the responses received; and
- detailed records of visits made to your house or your work and the results of those visits. (34)
11. What if I don’t give my consent?
There are two ways in which a school system would not obtain your consent for a proposed action:
- You explicitly refuse to provide consent.
- You don’t respond to a request to provide consent.
When school systems cannot obtain a parent’s consent for either of these reasons, their choices about what to do next are limited. IDEA includes what are called consent override procedures, which permit schools to use IDEA’s procedural safeguards (such as mediation or due process) to try and obtain parental agreement or a ruling that overrides the parent’s lack of consent—but only for certain proposed activitities. Consent override is only an option for schools when the child is enrolled in a public school (or seeking to be enrolled there) and parents have not given consent for:
- an initial evaluation of their child; or
- their child’s reevaluation. (35)
Further, school systems may only exercise their consent override options to the extent that doing so does not violate the State’s law regarding parental consent. (36)
Schools may not attempt to override a parent’s lack of consent:
- for a child’s initial evaluation or reevaluation, if parents are home schooling the child or have placed the child in a private school at their own expense (37); or
- for the initial provision of special education and related services to the child (regardless of where that child is being schooled—at home, in a public school, or in a private school at parents’ expense). (38)
12. So I can revoke my consent for special education and related services after initially providing it ?
Yes. At any time after providing initial consent, you may revoke consent, in writing, for the continued provision of special education and related services. (41) Once you revoke consent, the school system may no longer provide special education services to your child, and they may not use mediation or due process procedures to try to override your revocation of consent.
Once you revoke consent, your child will be no longer receive the services and supports that were included in his or her IEP. Additionally, there are also a number of other consequences that may arise, such as how your child will be disciplined. Therefore, it is important for you to ask questions about how your child’s education will be affected before revoking consent.
That said, it’s important to work out disagreements with the school. As we mentioned at the beginning of this Q&A, children benefit when families and schools work in partnership, and that includes resolving differences that arise. IDEA wisely gives parents and schools several approaches they can use to work toward agreement. If you’re interested in learning more about these, we’d recommend two resources to start:
Resolving Disputes Between Parents and Schools, at:
CADRE, the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education
Resources of More Information