Understanding the Special Education Law Maze

Written Exclusively for SeeMyIEP.com by L. Jerry Cohn, M.Ed., J.D. – © 2009 -2011 All Rights Reserved

Dear Attorney Cohn,

My child’s pediatrician had recently referred my six year old son for a neuro-psychological evaluation to determine if he is in need of special educational services from his public school. This is all new to me and I want to know more about which laws may protect my son during the educational process. I’m worried that his school may not be willing to provide for his special needs. What are my child’s rights?

Most children with a physical or mental disability or an acquired or genetic illness are entitled to very specific rights and/or accommodations under several federal, state and county laws, statutes or ordinances. In the public school systems, the two federal laws that most commonly protect this population of individuals with special needs are the Individuals’ with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (section 504). Each law may be enforced individually or collectively. There are other laws which protect individuals with special needs within the schools and the community, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as specific State Education Department regulations.

In 1975 Congress enacted a very important law which required that public schools identify and provide special education to all children who are physically or mentally disabled or under an acquired or genetic illness, including related services such as speech, physical or occupational therapies. Before 1975, many children were otherwise provided with little or no education or special educational opportunities.

The original law was known as The Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act (EAHCA). Several years later the law was amended. It is now known as the Individuals’ with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA). Since 1975, these two laws, which give very specific rights to children with special educational needs, have been brought before the courts by parents, school districts or Civil Rights organizations. From all of those court hearings there arose new methods of understanding the laws and how they apply to the child with special needs. From these court cases there are now very specific legal requirements regarding the provision of special educational services that local school districts must comply with or face the obligation to pay damages or even the loss of federal funding. Other remedies are also available for a child that has been denied special educational services such as tuition reimbursements and compensatory education.