Referring Your Child for Special Education

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

The decision to refer a child for assessment to determine if they qualify for special education isn’t one to take lightly. Do you err on the side of caution and assess, even if only to rule out the possibility of a special education need, or hope whatever is causing the child problems in school will somehow work itself out?

For a variety of reasons, it is often the case that general education staffs in a public school are hesitant to refer a child for special education evaluation, or don’t even know that they are required to do so if a child presents with signs of suspected disability. Many don’t know how to distinguish the signs of possible disabilities from other factors, so they don’t even realize what they are really looking at.

The implementing regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) make clear that parents also have the authority to refer their children for initial special education evaluations. Referral is the first step to determining if a child is eligible for special education and, if so, what an individualized educational program (IEP) will look like for that child.

Referral triggers an initial evaluation that is supposed to be conducted in all areas of suspected disability and unique student need. That evaluation is supposed to be sufficiently comprehensive to inform the IEP as to the student’s potential eligibility for special education and the student’s unique learning needs.

There are two prongs that have to be satisfied in order for a student to become eligible for special education: 1) the student has to have a disability, and 2) the disability has to create a negative educational impact of some kind that makes specialized instruction necessary that wouldn’t otherwise be provided to a general education student. It’s possible to meet the first prong, but not the second one.

If it turns out that the student has a disability, but not to such an extreme degree that specialized instruction becomes necessary, the student may still be eligible for accommodations pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Unless the instruction has to be modified or supplemented in some way in order for the student to access and benefit from the instruction, an IEP may be overkill.

There are those kids who need just a smidge of help, not a full-blown program of individualized instruction. There are those kids who just need a smidge of special education. Some kids need more, and yet others need a whole lot more. What each kid needs can only be determined by competent, comprehensive-enough assessments.

The federal regulations leave the door open for a local education agency (LEA) to deny a parent referral for initial evaluation, but the denial must conform to the Prior Written Notice (PWN) requirements described by the federal regulations. If the parent referral is declined, the PWN is required to explain why, and it better be a really good reason or the LEA can set itself up for a lawsuit.

States have the authority to add protections for students that the IDEA does not require, however. For example, in California, State law simply states that an assessment plan must be remitted to the parents whenever a referral is received. There is no caveat that says, “Unless it’s from the parents, in which case the LEA can decline it with a PWN.” There is no option for declination. It’s a black-and-white matter of, “When a referral comes in, an assessment plan goes out within 15 calendar days.” California law lists parents as the first party authorized to make referrals for special education assessments.

Every school year, families totally new to the special education process find themselves bewildered and dazed as they try to navigate the system. It’s a journey unto itself just to come to the conclusion that special education may even be necessary, but it’s only the beginning.

Federal law mandates that each State require its public schools to have a system of “child find,” which must actively seek out, identify, and refer those student who may need special education. But, I have shouldered my fair share of “child find” cases over the years where kids went on failing year after year but being administratively passed from grade to grade without ever being referred for special education, only to prove to have disabilities and be due compensatory education.

Parents and taxpayers cannot rely on “child find” to help the kids who need special education. The burden often falls on the shoulders of parents who start doing research and discover they can refer their children for assessment, but then it becomes about learning how to do it, and then learning about what comes after that. It’s involved and exhausting.

So, we thought that anything we can do to streamline the process and help parents advocate more effectively and efficiently would be a valuable thing to add to the growing body of online resources out there to help families of children with special needs. Our first tiny contribution along these lines is a free tool for parents to create a referral letter for their children. Now that we have the means to create tools like this, we’ll be adding more in the future.

Honestly, it was exciting to find out that our site would support this kind of functionality without a whole lot of work. This opens up a lot of doors for us to help a lot of people who we otherwise wouldn’t be able to serve.

The referral letter we created is basic, sticks to language that is legally applicable throughout the United States, and flexible enough to account for each student’s unique circumstance. We will be creating additional customizable downloads like this for other special education situations in the future. We’ll announce them here, though the blog and our social media, when we add them to our site.

Once you’ve created and downloaded the PDF, just print and sign it. Then you can remit it to your LEA by some method that give you proof of delivery. We like Certified mail – you get a tracking number so you don’t need a return receipt and it’s the least expensive method we’ve found for getting proof of delivery on correspondence that trigger timelines or are otherwise important enough to need to remember when they were received.

Be sure to keep a copy of the signed version for your records, along with the proof of delivery. If mailing it Certified isn’t convenient, you can also print and sign it, then make a copy of the signed letter, and walk both copies into your child’s school. Have the person at the counter stamp yours received with the date and, if possible, their initials, and leave the original with the person at the counter. You can also deliver it this way to the LEA’s administrative offices.

So long as you have proof of when it was received, you’ve preserved your evidence. We wish you the best in your endeavors to advocate for your child and hope this tool proves to be useful to you.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has been a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991, a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005, and an educational psychologist, behavior analyst, and curriculum developer since 2013.

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