What is the difference between “placement” and “assignment” when it comes to students who have disabilities? This topic should actually fall under the heading of: Questions parents don’t ask because they don’t know what they don’t know.
“Placement” and “assignment” are often used as though they mean the same thing in conversations about the education of typical students. However, there are some very real differences in how these words are used when talking about students who receive special education services. There are also big differences in how decisions about placement and assignment are made.
Special education placement describes the type and amount of special education and related services a student receives based on their Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP will also describe the location where the services will be delivered. The IEP will state whether the services will be provided within the general education setting, special education setting, or the total school environment. The team of people who create each student’s IEP includes the child’s parent(s), a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and someone who can represent the local education agency (LEA) or school system. The IEP team can include other individuals, depending on what is being discussed or when invited by the parent or school.
Students with disabilities must be educated alongside students who don’t have disabilities as much as possible, as long as their needs can be met. The IEP team has to explain why a student is removed from his non-disabled peers and why they cannot be adequately served in the general education setting, even with the use of supplemental aids and services. The least restrictive environment for each student must be determined based on the unique needs of that particular student and not factors such as age or type of disability.
Some students with disabilities stay in the general education setting all day long, some removed for a short time each day, and other students require a specialized environment for most of their day. There is a wide range, or continuum of alternative educational placements that the IEP team can consider. The amount of time that the student is removed from their non-disabled peers will determine whether their placement on the continuum is described as regular, resource, separate, separate school, residential, home/hospital, etc. The IEP team, including the parent(s), has full responsibility for deciding special education placement.
Educational assignment refers to administrative decisions that are made by people who have been given certain authority to make them, as well as the guidance of school board or other policies. For example, principals typically have the authority to assign students to specific teachers. In North Carolina, principals also have sole authority over each student’s grade assignment or classification, including promotion and retention decisions.
Most school systems have a written policy that details how students are assigned to particular schools. In addition to a “home” school based on the student’s address, there may be other school options that parents can apply for by following certain steps. There may even be an appeal process if the request to change schools is denied.
If the IEP team has decided that a student’s disability-related needs require a specialized setting at, or beyond, the “separate” level of service, that student will be administratively assigned to the school closest to home where his or her needs can be met. School system administrators can decide where to locate various specialized classrooms, and they can be moved from one school year to the next. In most cases, parents of these children will not have a choice about which school their child will be assigned. Parents also do not have a right to pick and choose their child’s teachers.
If there are special considerations that make the standard administrative process or the resulting decision, not appropriate for your child, find out who has the authority to do something different. That would be the contact point where you should focus your efforts to advocate for your child. Communicate with the decision maker(s) to help them better understand all of the issues involved. If necessary, reach out to the school board members and others who actually create the policies that everyone else has to follow.
The IEP team process gives parents a clear role in making decisions about special education placement decisions, but parents can sometimes influence administrative decisions as well. It is important to be clear about which decisions you are talking about.
Part of the excitement of going back to school is thinking about the fun parts of the school experience. Many children look forward to playing with friends during recess, having lively conversations at lunchtime or on the school bus, and field trips that bring history, art and science up close and personal. Many schools also offer extra-curricular activities that range from sports, music, and drama to special interest or service clubs. It is through these activities that many students form lasting friendships, discover gifts and talents, or gain experiences that help prepare them for future careers.
Students that have disabilities should be encouraged to consider becoming actively involved in all parts of school life. By law (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), they should be given an equal opportunity to participate, but sometimes that message is not clearly communicated to the students, or to the adults that make the extra-curricular activities possible. In some schools, notices about club sign-ups, team tryouts or driver’s education courses are not even distributed in the special education classrooms. It’s hard to make a choice when you don’t know what the options are.
School staff may need to be more intentional in their effort to publicize these opportunities throughout the entire student population. Parents can also ask about what’s going on at their child’s school and the process for becoming involved if their child has an interest in a particular activity.
Some students with disabilities may need accommodations, assistive technology or other supports to successfully participate in their chosen extra-curricular activity. They may also need accommodations for some of the non-academic parts of the regular school day. IEP teams and 504 committees sometimes overlook these times when they are discussing the child’s educational needs. In some cases, this amounts to a missed opportunity to enhance the child’s school experience by supporting them through their disability-related challenges, or continue to work on IEP goals in a non-classroom setting. For other children, such an oversight can set them up for avoidable social or behavioral difficulties.
The good news is that IEPs and Section 504 accommodation plans are living documents that can be revised whenever the need to do so arises. Teachers, coaches and other adults also have the freedom to make many accommodations on their own when they identify a need for them. It almost goes without saying that a child may need different types of support for different activities.
The I’m Tyler video http://imtyler.org/index.php/video/ does a powerful job of making the point that students with disabilities are capable of participating in a wide range of activities when the adults around them focus more on what they can do than on what they can’t do. A little effort, imagination and open-mindedness goes a very long way toward giving students with disabilities the chance that they deserve to experience each day as full members of their school and larger communities.