Q: 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.
Ask ECAC will occasionally discuss a situation or question that repeatedly comes to us from parents. We will offer an answer that will be of use to the vast majority of our readers. As with all things related to special education and people with disabilities, there are factors unique to each child that may have some bearing on how to best handle your particular situation.
Question: My 5 year old son has Autism Spectrum Disorder and he receives special education services at school. His kindergarten teacher has already told me that she is concerned about my son’s safety and he will only be able to go on field trips with his class if I come along to personally supervise him. Do I have to agree to this?
Answer: If extra conditions or restrictions are put on your son’s ability to participate in a school activity solely because of his disability, this would be considered to be a form of discrimination that would be inconsistent with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits any program that receives federal funds from denying a person with a disability the equal opportunity to access, participate in, or benefit from that program. Our public schools receive some federal funding, and any child that has an IEP is a person with a disability under Section 504.
One thing that you may want to do is call for an IEP meeting and make sure that your child’s IEP clearly includes field trips and extra-curricular activities as part of his General Education Program Participation. Regardless of whether he will be taking the field trips with a special education class or a regular education class, any accommodations or supports that your child will need should be clearly listed and described. Such accommodations could include things like: close-proximity adult supervision at all times, preferential seating away from interior and exterior doors, or adequate staffing to allow for removal to another area, if needed. These accommodations are not on the drop-down box of the computer programs commonly used for IEP writing, but they can be added as “Other”. Also, preparation ahead of time so that your child knows what to expect, and communication with the teacher about how to handle some “what if…” scenarios should reduce the chances of running into any significant problems on the day of the trip or special event.
If you still find that there is resistance to including your child in these activities, discuss your concern with the school principal and, if necessary, your school system’s Section 504 Coordinator (they may be listed under “Federal Program Compliance” or some similar title). In North Carolina there is a Section 504 Consultant at the Department of Public Instruction, but the entity officially charged with enforcing Section 504 in schools is the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education. Formal Complaints about disability discrimination would need to be submitted to OCR for investigation. Hopefully, things will be resolved long before that step becomes necessary.