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Know the Laws that Protect Your Child with Special Needs


You want to make sure that your child with special needs is never subjected to discrimination and gets every opportunity he or she is entitled to. To be an effective advocate for your child, however, you need to understand the laws that are in place to protect children with special needs. Federal laws regulate special education services and make sure schools provide accommodations for children with disabilities. Almost all states now have anti-bullying laws on the books as well. With a more thorough knowledge of these laws, you’ll better understand your child's rights and how to defend him or her against unfair or discriminatory treatment.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Enacted in 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that all qualifying children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate public education. The law outlines the special education benefit, including individualized special education services. States have different procedures for implementing the law, but they all must be consistent with the IDEA. In accordance with the six basic principles outlined in Part B of the IDEA, schools must

  1. Provide free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Schools are required to provide an education at public expense, under public supervision and direction.
  2. Conduct an evaluation. Schools must gather the information necessary to help determine the child's educational needs and guide decision making about appropriate educational programming.
  3. Produce an individualized education program (IEP). To ensure that the child's individual needs are met, schools must create a written statement of the educational program designed for the child.
  4. Provide the least restrictive environment (LRE). Children with a disability are entitled by law to receive an appropriate education designed to meet their special needs. They must be separated from their nondisabled peers only when the nature of the disability is such that they cannot achieve in a general education classroom, even with supplementary aids and supports.
  5. Offer opportunities for meaningful participation. Schools must provide opportunities for parents and students, when appropriate, to get involved throughout the special education process.
  6. Implement procedural safeguards. Procedural safeguards ensure that the child's and his or her parents' rights are protected, and establish clear steps to address disputes. Procedural safeguards guarantee that parents can participate in meetings, examine all educational records, and obtain an individual educational evaluation (IEE).

The IDEA's Part B also establishes the educational requirements for children with a disability from ages three to twenty-one. To further explore how this legislation helps to safeguard your child's rights, visit the IDEA website, which covers such topics as discipline, early intervening services, identification of specific learning disabilities, individualized education programs, and much more.

Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 provides civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities. The ADA defines an individual with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.

Title II of the ADA "prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public entities, including public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools, regardless of whether they receive federal financial assistance. Title II requires that qualified individuals with disabilities, including students, parents, and other program participants, are not excluded from or denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or otherwise subjected to discrimination by a public entity, by reason of a disability."

At the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) ADA website, you'll find the full text of the ADA and additional information about the Act, including lists of questions and answers about child care centers and the ADA and the Amendments Act of 2008 for Students with Disabilities Attending Public Elementary and Secondary Schools.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects the rights of people with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance, including federal funds. Public school districts, institutions of higher education, and other state and local education agencies may all be recipients of these funds.

Section 504 helps children with disabilities to access school services by requiring schools to provide accommodations and modifications. But, unlike IDEA, it does not provide for an individualized education program. Even if a child does not qualify for special education services under the IDEA, he or she may be allowed special accommodations with this law. For example, a child who must use a wheelchair but does not require special education services would be protected by Section 504.

The regulations implementing Section 504 in the context of educational institutions appear at 34 C.F.R. Part 104. This comprehensive list of more than forty common questions and answers about Section 504 and the education of children with disabilities further explain how this legislation protects your child's rights.

Anti-bullying laws

The federal government's anti-bullying website defines bullying as "unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance." Making threats, spreading rumors, physically or verbally attacking someone, and deliberately excluding another person from a group all constitute bullying. In recent years, bullying has become the subject of increased media attention, particularly as technology and social media websites have given rise to "cyberbullying," occasionally with tragic consequences.

As of April 2012, every state in the nation, with the exception of Montana, had passed anti-bullying legislation. Using an interactive map at the StopBullying website, you can research your own state's laws and policies and find out more about the eleven key components of state anti-bullying legislation, including specification of prohibited conduct, development and implementation of local education agency policies, and training and preventive education.

The website also includes guidance prepared especially for kids, including "Facts about Bullying," "What You Can Do," and more than a dozen "webisodes" (cartoons that portray bullying situations and show kids how to address bullying) with accompanying quizzes.

School policies

Your school may have a policy related to discrimination, harassment, or bullying. Familiarize yourself with your school's policy by reading the parent handbook or policy manual. If you can't find any information in the parent handbook, ask your school for a copy of its policy.

For more detailed information on the range of laws protecting children with disabilities, you may be interested in the DOJ's Guide to Disability Rights Laws.


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