Category Archives: special education

ECATS is Here!

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It has taken years of planning and preparation, but the Every Child Accountability and Tracking System (ECATS) is finally operating in all North Carolina public schools that serve students in grades K-12. ECATS is a data system made up of three modules: Special Education, Service Documentation, and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). ECATS provides a way to capture high quality information in a consistent way for a variety of purposes.

The Special Education module will help the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) better do its job of monitoring and assisting Local Education Agencies (LEAs). The goal is that children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. NCDPI also has to collect data and make reports to the U.S. Department of Education.

Changes were made to several special education forms as part of the transition to ECATS. When their child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is re-written, parents will notice that some sections of the form have been moved around and/or changed in some way. The new IEP form still contains all of the information required by federal and state laws.

The biggest change is that all of the child’s Present Levels of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance (PLAAFP) statements are clustered together in the one section of the IEP. The new IEP form has a place to list the results of an initial evaluation or re-evaluation, as well as other data. For each skill area included in the evaluation, the IEP Team then has to decide (and document) if the student requires specially designed instruction (i.e., special education) in that area. Sometimes the answer will be “yes,” and sometimes it will be “no.”  For students with existing IEPs, there should be PLAAFP statements for all skill areas where there are concerns.

The Annual Goals are also clustered together, but in a different section that will probably be two or more pages after the PLAAFP. This may make it more challenging to compare the proposed goals with the relevant PLAAFP statements. That comparison helps determine whether the goal is appropriately ambitious, yet reasonable for the student.

Parents can request a hard copy of the draft IEP so they can have the PLAAFP statements in front of them while the annual goals are developed. Other IEP team members may find this helpful as well.

Change happens, but it is easier to accept when you are prepared. If you would like to look at the new Exceptional Children Forms, you can find them here:

https://ec.ncpublicschools.gov/policies/forms/state-forms-directions

What is a Facilitated IEP Meeting?

Did you know that the Exceptional Children Division of the North Carolina Department of Public instruction (NCDPI) has a group of trained individuals who can serve as independent facilitators for IEP meetings?

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You will not find IEP meeting facilitation mentioned in the N.C. parent rights handbook because it is not a requirement of the federal special education law, IDEA. However, North Carolina is among many states who offer facilitation as a way to help IEP teams work through challenging situations. Facilitators are often able to help keep problems from getting to the point where formal dispute resolution steps are necessary.

IEP Team members are expected to work together and make good decisions on behalf of children who have disabilities. Sometimes, however, IEP team members have different ideas about what is in the child’s best interest. At other times, emotions, personality conflict or past experiences make it difficult for teams to have serious discussions without meetings becoming uncomfortable or unproductive.

NCDPI has cross-trained selected individuals who have backgrounds in special education or professional mediation to serve as IEP meeting facilitators. These independent facilitators are not employed by NCDPI or by any school district, but NCDPI does pay them for their services.

When to consider requesting a facilitator:

  • It has been difficult for the IEP team to make decisions, even after much discussion
  • Previous IEP meetings have been tense; Team members feel they are not being heard
  • The IEP meeting will have many participants, and complex issues to address.

 

How to request a facilitator:

 

What to expect:

  • The Facilitator will contact the school and family to identify the issues and create an agenda for the IEP meeting. They make sure that the meeting time is long enough to address each issue.
  • Ground Rules are established and the Facilitator will “run” the meeting. Facilitators do not have a say in IEP team decisions. They keep the team focused on the child, and the purpose of the meeting. They make sure that everyone has a chance to ask questions, provide information and offer ideas for consideration.
  • If necessary, the Facilitator will create a list of follow-up Action Items. Individual team members take responsibility for each item on the list, and a target date for completion is set.

 

If all goes well, the FIEP process can serve as a model of how the IEP team can work together effectively to help each student get the free appropriate public education that they deserve.

What counts as a disciplinary removal?

Grunge black answer word round rubber seal stamp on white background IDEA requires schools to take certain steps when students with disabilities face a disciplinary change of placement. At that point, schools are required to hold a meeting to conduct a Manifestation Determination Review (MDR). The purpose of the MDR is to determine whether the behavior that the child is being disciplined for is caused by, or substantially related to their disability. If it is, the child returns to their current educational placement, a Functional Behavior Assessment is conducted, and a Positive Behavior Support Plan is either developed or revised.

Sometimes, the disciplinary change of placement is very clear. A decision was made to move the student to an alternative school, give them a long-term suspension, or restrict them to homebound services.

An unofficial change of placement occurs when students have missed more than 10 days of school due to disciplinary removals. Most schools do a good job of documenting out-of-school suspensions. However, many schools do not keep an accurate count of the days when students are sent home early, given in-school suspension (ISS), or forced to sit in someone’s office for hours at a time because of their behavior. In each of these situations, students are removed from their normal educational placement for disciplinary reasons. When these shorter removals happen again and again, they can eventually add up to a disciplinary change of placement.

Principal school. Parents kids teacher meeting in office. Unhappy mom, son talk with angry principal. School educationParents should keep track of the number of times that they are called to pick up their child from school early because of behavior. Be sure to note the time of day. Ask your child to tell you when they are sent to the office or ISS. When the total removal time reaches the equivalent of more than 10 days, ask for a Manifestation Determination Review.

The MDR requirement exists so that students are not repeatedly punished for having a disability. Instead, schools are supposed to look for better ways to support each student and help them develop the skills needed to function more successfully. Learning appropriate ways to get needs met is critical to long-term success in school and in life. Frequent undocumented removals also cause students to miss valuable instructional time, which places them at an increased risk of falling behind academically.

Poor record keeping is not an excuse to deny students the behavioral support and instruction that many of them need to receive a free appropriate public education.

FAQ: Private Schools and Students with Disabilities

questions-and-answersQ: What are private schools required to do in order to serve students with disabilities?

A:  Unlike public schools, private schools (K-12) are not required to follow federal and state special education laws. If parents make a decision on their own to enroll their child in a private school, they should understand that the school has a lot of power to decide how much they are willing to do in order to serve that child. This is true whether the child has a disability or not.

Private schools do have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires basic access to a private school’s buildings and programs. Students cannot be discriminated against, treated unequally, or isolated because of their disability. Private schools can set admission requirements, but they cannot intentionally screen out applicants with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to attend.

Private schools must make “reasonable modifications” to policies, practices and procedures to provide equal access. They are required to provide aids and services to allow people with vision, hearing or speech impairments to communicate effectively. Private schools are not required to provide modifications, accommodations, aids or services that would create an excessive burden for them. When deciding exactly how to meet the needs of a student, parent or employee with a disability, factors can be considered such as how the cost of the aid or service compares to the overall resources available to the school. If resources are very limited, a school can choose less expensive options.

Private schools do not have to provide special education instruction or services like speech, occupational or physical therapy.

Private schools do not have to fundamentally alter their program in order to accommodate a student’s disability. For example, a school that has an identity based on having an advanced curriculum can remove a student who was working well below grade level. A school that focuses on hands-on learning in the natural outdoor environment can refuse to serve a student who is extremely fearful of most animals and insects.

We are often asked about what private schools are required to do by law. However, there are many private schools that voluntarily go beyond the minimum requirements. Some offer extra academic instruction for struggling students. Some will try hard to work with a student who has behavior challenges. If your child has a disability and you are thinking about private school, you should look at more than test scores or college acceptance rates. Ask if they offer additional support for students who need it. Pay attention to body language and other clues when you speak with school staff. Those may tell you a lot about how willing the school is to make an extra effort to help all of their students succeed.

Worried that your child may be retained?

Mother and daughter using smart phoneAt this very moment, many parents are very worried about the possibility that their child might be required to repeat their current grade. Many of these parents have received one or more letters notifying them that their child was at risk for retention because they were not meeting grade-level expectations for learning. These are often form letters that are sent automatically based on the child’s performance on academic testing done at several points during the school year. In many schools, the warning letters do not take into account that the student may have an identified disability.

With only a couple of exceptions, North Carolina’s public school law gives principals sole authority to determine what grade a student is assigned to. The exceptions include 3rd grade, when the Read to Achieve law mandates retention of any child who does not demonstrate “proficient” (grade level) reading skills on the End-of-Grade (EOG) assessment. Principals can request a “good cause exemption” for students who meet certain criteria. Students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) based on disabilities that impact reading are eligible for such an exemption. The tricky thing about this is that the principal is not required to request the exemption. They can still choose to retain students who have this kind of disability. In high school, students are assigned to a grade based on the number and type of course credits they have earned. However, a high school principal can decide to assign a student to a homeroom that is different from the grade shown on their official transcript.

Parents do not have to just sit and wait anxiously for that last report card. There are things that they can do to try to help their child.

If you get a letter in January or February warning you about possible retention, you can contact your child’s teacher(s) to get more information about why the letter was sent. If your child is not learning at the expected rate, you can ask about what actions have been, or can be taken, to help them make more progress. For a child who does not have an IEP, this might mean starting or intensifying research-based interventions as part of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS).

If your child has disability and receives supports as part of a Section 504 Accommodation Plan, you might want to consider asking for an evaluation to see if the child now needs special education services. If your child already has an IEP, you can request an IEP Team meeting to consider making adjustments to instruction and/or supports to improve learning.

Under any condition, it would still be a good idea to meet with the school principal to discuss your concerns about possible retention. Most public schools are too large to expect a principal to know each child well. You can discuss potential pros and cons for your child. For example, you can explain why it might make more sense to promote your child to the next grade with targeted supports and services, than to require the child repeat the entire curriculum of his/her current grade. You can also take that opportunity to share additional information about your child that the principal can consider as he/she makes their decision.

The principal does have the authority to make the final decision about retaining or promoting your child. However, you can try to influence that decision before it is made. You can also continue to advocate for your child to get the instruction and services that he/she needs next year, regardless of the grade they are assigned.

Get ready for next school year

As one school year winds down, its good to start thinking about the next year. Perhaps you have a child who will simply be moving from one grade to another in the same school. Maybe your child is facing a more dramatic transition such as:

  • Starting Preschool for the first time
  • Entering KindergartenToday's Preparation... Tomorrow's Success!
  • Moving from Elementary to Middle School
  • Beginning High School

It is time to move from thinking to planning!  Take steps to make this transition as smooth as possible by gathering information about what might be coming up, and sharing important information about your child with the right people.

If your child is staying at the same school, find out what might be different for the coming year (e.g. class size, number of teachers/aides, daily schedule, curriculum, meal times, etc.).  Each of these factors could impact your child and may require some changes in how your child’s needs are met.  You might also want to speak with the Principal about the classroom environment and/or teacher styles that are likely to be successful or unsuccessful for your child.  Hopefully the Principal will use this information to make a good match when class assignments are made.

If your child is moving to a new school, you will still want to know the things mentioned above, PLUS:

  • Visit the new school to check out the physical layout and ask about a typical day
  • Think about any possible barriers or challenges that your child might have in the new setting
  • If your child is entering middle or high school, ask about required courses and any options that may exist. Some courses are offered at multiple difficulty levels, and there may be other ways to help make sure that your child gets a course schedule that will work for him/her
  • Request a transition IEP meeting to discuss and make decisions about any changes that may be needed in the accommodations, modifications, supports, services and/or goals
  • For many children, it is helpful for them to have an opportunity to walk through the new school and possibly see their classroom(s) and meet their teacher(s) sometime before school starts. There may also be other steps that you can to help make this transition a smooth one.

Most importantly, stay positive and help your child feel good about the upcoming school year!

“School Safety” and Students with Disabilities

Columbine, Newtown and now Parkland. We knew this would happen… again.  The tragic shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida was bound to trigger heightened sensitivity to anyone and anything that seems to be even remotely threatening.  While we should all be thinking about what can be done to keep our schools safe, we have to be careful that we do not react in a way that produces, rather than prevents, harm to students.

Some students with disabilities are at particular risk of becoming victims of hyper-vigilant policies and practices.  Recently, a distressed parent called because her son’s school was planning to conduct a “threat assessment” on her son after he drew pictures of guns during class.  My guess is that this was not a new behavior for that child, but it was now considered to be a potential threat after being viewed through post-Parkland “school safety” lenses.  This child had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the parent was (rightfully) worried about what he might say when questioned by the school’s guidance counselor and principal.  There are several things about that situation that raise questions, but I will approach the topic at hand with recommendations rather than criticism.

The very first thing to do is talk to your children about school safety concerns and how the behavior of individuals can be seen as a sign of problems or threats.  We want them to recognize danger when they see it. We also want them to avoid doing things that others may see as dangerous. Even if the child does not fully understand why someone would consider their comment, joke, writings or drawings to be threatening, you have to give them specific examples of behavior to avoid.  Mention or representations of guns, knives, bombs, explosions, killing, etc., are topics to be avoided just about every place except home.  Even if the child is studying a particular time of war in a history class, they should limit their comments to the specific questions being asked. For example: DO NOT speculate about what could have happened if the good guys had a super hand-held weapon that could wipe out hundreds of people with the press of a button).  We can encourage other forms of imagination, as well as broader interests for those children who seem preoccupied by violent themes.

If you have a child that likes to carry or use a pocket knife, sticks, rocks or anything else that could be considered to be a weapon, check their pockets and backpacks frequently to make sure that they don’t accidentally or intentionally end up bringing something to school that will get them in trouble.  Keep in mind, when weapons, drugs or serious bodily injury are involved in a disciplinary situation, a student can be moved into an interim alternative educational setting even when the behavior is found to be a manifestation of the child’s disability!  Such removal is not required though, and school administrators have the authority to look at each incident on a case-by-case basis. You may need to remind them of that.

Be proactive! Review your school system’s Code of Conduct and disciplinary/school safety policies.  If you see glaring problems with the policies, address them with your School Board. If the policies include the possibility of a required “threat assessment”, make sure that the assessment must be done by qualified individuals with expertise in mental health and any identified disabilities that a child may have. Even if your school system’s policy does not clearly state such a requirement, you should raise the issue if your child becomes involved in this type of situation.  Some disabilities can impact the child’s ability to truly understand the questions that will be asked during this type of assessment, and how his answers might be interpreted by others.  The disability may also have contributed to the behavior itself.

Those making decisions about how to respond to a potential threat should have enough knowledge and experience to understand all of the factors involved, and take actions that are appropriate to each specific situation.  One-size-fits-all does not work for special education, and it also does not work for discipline or school safety!

What happened to the EC teacher in middle school?

When IEP teams plan for a student’s transition from elementary to middle school, many parents are surprised to find out that their child’s special education services are going to be quite different. Children who have had pullout resource services for years may suddenly be expected to survive in general education core courses without any dedicated special education support time. It is a challenge to explain this reality to parents, while still making them aware of the IDEA requirement that a full continuum of services be made available so that IEP teams can decide what is most appropriate for each child.

There was a time when middle schools had sections of core academic subjects that were taught by special education teachers. These classes typically followed the standard course of study, but the smaller class size allowed the teacher to move at a pace that  students could handle, and to explain concepts in a variety of ways. This worked for a lot of children.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) changed all of this with its definition of “highly qualified teacher” and requirement that core courses in middle and high schools could only be taught by a teacher who was highly qualified in that specific academic subject. Before NCLB, North Carolina, as did many states, certified special education teachers in “special education” and not each separate academic subject.  Under NCLB in-service teachers had to take specific steps in order to be declared “highly qualified” in a core subject. To make matters worse, one of the options that North Carolina had developed to accomplish this  was rejected by the U.S. Department of Education after many teachers had completed that process. All of this led to a shortage of special education teachers who were available to teach core subjects at the secondary school level.

The solution that most school systems came up with was to have general education teachers serve as the “teacher of record” for these core courses, while having a special education teacher also in the room to provide extra support for students who needed it. These courses are generally referred to as “co-taught” or “inclusion classes.” Most middle schools offer such courses in English Language Arts and Math. Some schools also include Science and Social Studies.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to special education. The inclusion classes meet the needs of some students, while others continue to need additional support. Many schools also offer “curriculum assistance” or “resource support” classes as elective courses. (The actual class titles vary from one school district to the another.) These classes are taught by special education teachers who often introduce study skills, along with other content and strategies that are useful for most of the students to know. However, the chief benefit of these smaller classes is that they provide an opportunity for students to get extra help with their general education coursework as well as their IEP goals.

No Child Left Behind is no longer the law of the land, yet many schools continue to deliver special education services the same as they have for years. Schools and parents  should be aware that the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides room for a wider variety of ways that special education students can be served.

As parents begin to think about their child moving on to middle school, they should consider making contact with staff at the middle school to discuss the existing options. However, they should also keep in mind that if those options do not meet their child’s needs, they can challenge the IEP team and the school system to create additional options. With more choices, IEP teams have a much greater opportunity to create an educational program that will meet each individual student’s unique needs. At the end of the day, that is what special education is all about.

 

Understanding the role of the LEA Representative

In many IEP meetings one of the school system staff members is introduced as “the LEA” without further explanation. If there is a lot of discussion and debate around an issue, it will often appear that this LEA has more influence than most other members of the IEP team. This may not seem fair to parents, who usually are outnumbered in the first place. However, it is important to understand that the LEA Representative does have a unique role in the IEP process.

First, let’s clear up some education jargon. LEA is short for Local Education Agency. Each individual school system that has a central administrator, usually known as the Superintendent, and School Board is actually a distinct LEA. Some LEAs are county-wide, some just cover a particular city, and some are public charter schools. Charter schools will typically have a Board of Directors rather than an elected School Board, and their central administrators have a variety of job titles, such as Headmaster, Dean or Principal.

IEP teams are required to include someone who can represent the LEA. The person who serves in the role of LEA Representative must meet certain criteria:

  • Be qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of special education instruction;
  • Be knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and
  • Have knowledge of the resources available to that LEA.

Every student with a disability who qualifies for special education services must be provided with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). It is the LEA (school system) that has the responsibility for delivering FAPE to its students. It is also the LEA that is held accountable when that does not happen.

To a large extent, the contents of an IEP define what FAPE looks like for that particular student. This makes the decisions of the IEP team extremely important and legally binding. IEP team decisions are expected to be based on data and the input of every member of the team. Most of the time IEP teams are eventually able to reach decisions that everyone can live with. That’s called reaching a consensus. If the team fails to reach consensus about a relatively minor issue, the matter may be put on hold until more information can be gathered.

When the IEP team cannot come to agreement about a really important proposal, the LEA Representative has the authority to make the decision. This allows the team to move forward with finalizing the IEP so that the student can be served. Having a clear decision also gives the parent the right to formally challenge that decision through one of the options available for resolving special education disputes. Those options are detailed in the Procedural Safeguards Notice* that is often referred to as the “Parent Rights Handbook.” Parents should be given a copy of the handbook at least once each year, but they can ask for a copy at any time.

In rare cases, individuals who serve as the LEA Representative over-use their decision making authority and the IEP team is not able to function properly. If this happens, a higher-level special education administrator should be notified so that corrective action can be taken.

* North Carolina Parent Rights and Responsibilities

What are surrogate parents?

Our federal special education law places a lot of importance on the role of the parent in decision making. It is understood that parents’ number one priority is looking out for the best interest of their child. But what happens to those children who don’t have a parent who can speak on their behalf?

First, let’s look at how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 defines “parent.”

  • A biological or adoptive parent of a child;
  • A foster parent, unless state law, regulations, or contractual obligations…prohibit a foster parent from acting as a parent (e.g. therapeutic foster parent);
  • A guardian generally authorized to to act as the child’s parent or authorized to make educational decisions;
  • An individual, with whom the child lives, acting in the place of a biological or adoptive parent, or an individual legally responsible for the child’s welfare; or
  • A surrogate parent who has been appointed in accordance with IDEA ’04

For children who are wards of the State, or for whom no parent can be identified or located, or unaccompanied homeless youth, a trained volunteer must be appointed  by the public school system, or local education agency (LEA), to protect the rights of the child in special education processes. The LEA has to develop a procedure to identify children who may need a surrogate parent, and a way to assign surrogate parents to those children. For children who are wards of the State, the judge overseeing their case also has authority to appoint a surrogate parent.

Surrogate parents are involved in the same decisions that require parent participation. This includes decisions related to evaluation, determining eligibility for special education services, development and review/revision of the Individualized Education Program (IEP), educational placement and the provision of a free appropriate pubic education (FAPE). Surrogate parents also participate in the Manifestation Determination Review meetings that look at the possible role of disability when students are facing disciplinary changes in placement.

Surrogate parents must have sufficient knowledge and skills to adequately represent the child so many LEAs provide training to volunteers. Surrogate parents have access to the child’s educational records and should be expected to have some familiarity with the child and his/her needs before attending an IEP or other school meeting.

Good surrogate parents provide an important service to children that may have no other adult who can stand up and speak up for them when critical decisions are made about their education. If you, or someone you know has the time and flexibility to volunteer as a surrogate parent, please consider this as a great way to make a real difference in the life of a child who is facing multiple life challenges in addition to having a disability.