Resources

FAQs

K
L
What does it mean for a child to have special needs?

A child with special needs may struggle in one or more domains and require some level of specific, individualized attention.

That could mean, for example, a serious developmental disorder such as autism or Down’s Syndrome. It could mean a serious emotional problem such as bipolar disorder, depression, or severe anxiety. The problem could manifest in the academic, social, emotional, or behavioral aspects of an individual’s life.

A child could have a learning disability that interferes with the way he/she learns; visual, auditory, or some other sensory difficulties that impede the child’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis; motor issues; inability to understand social cues and appropriately engage in social interactions; aggression and acting out issues; or a physical handicap that impairs his/her ability to perform basic daily living tasks. Every child is unique and could have one or a combination of the above-described conditions. These are just some examples.

K
L
How do I know if my child has special needs?

In some cases a child may demonstrate signs of significant developmental delays from an early age or fail to reach certain milestones. In other instances where it may be harder to detect, it is especially important to be an active participant in your child’s education to look for signs of struggle. You should pay attention to your child’s exam scores and report cards and look for patterns that might suggest difficulty.

Speaking with your child’s teachers regarding his/her classroom performance and possible areas of struggle is critical – this should take place regularly throughout the year.

  • Does your child spend an inordinate amount of time on homework?
  • Does he/she make remarks like “I’m the stupidest one in my class” or “Why does school have to be so boring?” Children struggling in school sometimes express their frustration in this manner. The nature of your child’s disability could be less academic and more emotional/behavioral or social.
  • Is your child demonstrating a pattern of acting out in class or at home?
  • Does he/she seem overly aggressive?
  • Have you noticed a difficulty in forming friendships and interacting with other children of the same age?

If your child is demonstrating any of these problems they could be also be affecting him/her academically and impairing his/her ability to learn. If you suspect that your child might have a disability but are not sure, you should explore the idea of having a qualified professional conduct a comprehensive psychological assessment to better understand your child’s areas of strength and weakness. This could mean asking the school district to do it or pursuing private testing on your own.

K
L
What is the difference between public and private testing?

When a parent notifies the school district that his/her child may have special needs, the school district is obligated to conduct testing at no cost to the parent. Usually the district has an obligation to test in all areas of suspected disability. This could mean psychological and educational testing as well as a speech and language evaluation, an occupational therapy evaluation, a physical therapy evaluation, and/or some other form of testing – depending on the particular circumstances of the case. In certain cases, if a parent disagrees with the school district’s findings, it may be possible to obtain a private evaluation at the school district’s expense, although there are specific guidelines that must be followed and obtaining this funding can sometimes be a difficult process. If you have the means to do so, it is encouraged to obtain a private, comprehensive evaluation even if reimbursement from the city is not a viable option.

Although a school district is obligated to conduct testing in all areas of a child’s suspected disability, you may determine that their testing neglected some important areas or that their evaluation was otherwise inadequate. You have a right to pursue private testing and the school district has an obligation to genuinely consider those findings at your child’s IEP meeting. How carefully it must be considered has been the subject of litigation and, most likely, the weight that it is given will depend on the particular team you are dealing with. However, if the private testing is thorough and sound and the evaluator is willing to participate in meetings and/or an impartial hearing to bolster the findings, it should prove useful. Parents typically find that obtaining private testing is invaluable for understanding their child’s needs and navigating through the special education process.

K
L
What does special education mean?

Every child is entitled to a free and appropriate publicly funded education regardless of whether he or she has a disability.

If a child has a disability that interferes with his/her educational progress, he/she may be entitled to special education as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the IDEA, special education includes a combination of an appropriate educational program to meet the child’s specific, unique individual needs as well as any related services that may be necessary to allow the child to benefit from that instruction. Related services could include speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, transportation, a paraprofessional/ aide, or a number of other services. Your child’s eligibility depends upon his/her documented needs.

K
L
What should I expect from my child's upcoming IEP meeting?

The IEP meeting is intended to be a collaborative process between the parent and the school district to identify the child’s needs and abilities. Unfortunately, in some districts the process has become increasingly adversarial. Part of this has to do with the financial pressures that school districts face – the tighter the city’s budget, the more difficulty you are likely to experience in securing needed special education supports.

In any event, you should be prepared to voice your concerns about your child’s difficulties and explain to the team the reasons that you believe your child requires special education. You should be well-versed in the types of special education programs and therapies that exist so that you know what to ask for. You should be familiar with the different kinds of classifications that exist for individuals with disabilities so you understand which apply to your child.

If the special education committee recognizes that your child has a disability, it will create an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a legal document that sets out your child’s present levels of performance, the nature of his/her disability, what type of program would be appropriate, goals and objectives for the upcoming school year, what related services are needed, etc. Depending on the district, the team may or may not discuss a particular school site recommendation. In New York City, that determination is made by a separate group of individuals within the Department of Education.

For purposes of developing an appropriate IEP, you should ask any professionals involved in your child’s case to participate in the meeting to provide feedback about your child’s abilities and progress as well as to answer any questions that the committee may have

K
L
Am I obligated to sign anything at the IEP meeting?

The IEP team may ask you to sign any number of documents at the IEP meeting. They will ask you to sign an attendance sheet which will be incorporated into the IEP. They may ask you to sign a copy of the meeting minutes to verify that it is an accurate representation of what took place. Other than that, you should not feel obligated to sign anything on the spot and it is recommended that you avoid signing any documents asking you to state that you agree with a recommended program, that your child will attend a public school program, or that you agree with the level of recommended services.

It is appropriate to explain that you would like to review the documents at home and will then return them to the committee.

K
L
What if I disagree with the information in the IEP?

There are a few different options if you disagree with the information in your child’s IEP. Your first step might be to communicate to the school district the reasons that you disagree with the information in the IEP and the conclusions reached by the team. You might ask to convene a new IEP meeting if you believe you have new information not yet considered by the team that would support different conclusions than the ones previously reached.

An example of additional support would be psychological testing that was recently completed or report cards reflecting the child’s progress/difficulty, which were not previously available.

Alternatively, a parent also has a right to an impartial hearing, should a hearing be necessary.

K
L
What does a special education attorney do?

Special education attorneys are familiar with the various laws and regulations that govern a child’s rights to special education and can guide you through the process of securing appropriate programs and services that your child may be entitled to by law.

Special education attorneys are useful resources for helping a parent identify his/her child’s specific difficulties because they can refer the parent to psychologists or other qualified professionals experienced in testing and evaluating children with similar difficulties. If you have existing evaluations, special education attorneys will review those documents and advise you about what resources your child may be entitled to and whether further testing is necessary.

Special education attorneys are experienced in litigation, mediation, and negotiation with school districts and can advise you about the benefits and risks of pursuing further legal action.

In sum, a special education attorney is in a position to tell parents what they need to know. Some parents are unaware that they have rights and procedural safeguards and it is a special education attorney’s duty to educate them. Once parents know what their rights are, they can determine how to enforce them.

K
L
How do I determine if I need to hire an attorney?

The best way to determine if you need to hire an attorney is to consult with an attorney. As soon as you suspect your child might have special needs, you should arrange for a consultation even if it is just to get a sense of what would be involved in your case or if there even is a case. Some issues may be resolved with a simple phone call or letter while other issues may be more complicated.

An attorney can advise you about the nature of the special education process and what actions you should or should not take. In some instances, obtaining a certain form of relief may take months of advance planning. If you have not taken the proper steps, you may have unwittingly jeopardized your claim for some or all of that academic year.

It is never too soon to consult an attorney and there is nothing wrong with saying “I think I may need an attorney but I’m not sure.”

K
L
What is an impartial hearing?

An impartial hearing is a way to resolve a dispute with the school district in a manner similar to a trial. Both the parents and the school district are parties to the case, each side represented by an attorney, advocate, or representative. Witnesses are presented and evidence is introduced.

An impartial hearing officer, like a judge, listens to both parties and, at the conclusion of the proceedings, determines the outcome of the case, which is binding on both parties unless appealed. Relief may include an award for reimbursement, an order for the district to take corrective action for its failure to provide certain services, or various other remedies. An impartial hearing officer’s decision can be appealed by either party administratively and/or on the state/federal level.

K
L
When does it become necessary to have an impartial hearing?

If you are unable to resolve a particular dispute with your local school district, an impartial hearing may be necessary. You have a federally mandated right to request an impartial hearing before an impartial hearing officer. Not all cases for which an impartial hearing is requested end up reaching an impartial hearing. Instead, many such cases may reach a settlement during the course of negotiation between the parent’s attorney and the school district.

K
L
Who is eligible for tuition reimbursement?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) sets out that if a school district fails to provide a child with an appropriate program and placement, and the parents enroll the child in an appropriate private special education program, the parents may be entitled to reimbursement for the cost of the private school program. Various state and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have clarified what this means and what the parameters are for recovering funding in this manner.

This is a heavily litigated area of the law with a lot of wrinkles. If you think you may be eligible for reimbursement, consult with an attorney.

K
L
What if I find a private school that can do a better job teaching my child than the public school can?

This is an important point because a school district does not have an obligation to provide the best, most suitable learning environment. Paraphrasing from a famous case on this issue, a school district does not have to provide every service that loving parents would find desirable for their children. All loving parents want what is best for their kids. Unfortunately, the law does not require school districts to satisfy that lofty threshold.

A school district must provide an appropriate educational environment. “Better,” “best,” “ideal,” and “optimal” do not really have a place in this discussion. Parents and school districts frequently differ about what constitutes an appropriate program. If parents and the school district cannot agree about what that means, the parents are entitled to request an impartial hearing and that determination will be made by an impartial hearing officer.

NOTE: The above distinction between “best” and “appropriate” is just one example of the significant implications of using subtly different language. This applies to other areas as well and knowing about what language to use and avoid is another important reason to consult with an attorney experienced in this field. Making certain statements or taking certain positions without consulting an attorney first could result in rights being forfeited.

K
L
Is my child entitled to related services?

If your child requires certain related services in order to derive benefit from the classroom, he/she may be entitled to receive those services from the school district at no cost to the parent. School districts have been known to say “If the only service you need is [fill in the blank], then I’m sorry but we cannot give you anything.”

If your child has a disability that is interfering with his/her educational progress and he/she requires one or more related services in order to benefit from instruction, the district has an obligation to provide that support.

Whether your child attends private school should not have any bearing on his/her eligibility for related services. Children who attend private school are entitled to related services in the same manner as students attending public school in that district.

K
L
If I am appealing a decision, what happens to my child during the interim?

A special education attorney will advise you about the implications for your child’s special education program and services during the time that your case is being appealed. The IDEA provides that, for the sake of stability and consistency, a child should remain in the last program which both the parent and school district agreed was appropriate. Whatever that last agreed upon program was, the school district will have to provide it at public expense until appeals are concluded, even if the parents ultimately do not prevail on the merits of their case.

K
L
Will I win my case?

Few attorneys will guarantee a successful outcome in your case because the likelihood of success in your particular case depends on a number of variables. Examples include what action has been taken by the school district, what the child’s evaluations demonstrate, the disparity between what the child needs and what the district has offered, whether the parents have cooperated throughout the process, the child’s progress, the particular impartial hearing officer, the relief being sought, etc.

A good lawyer will review your case and advise about the likelihood of success on the merits and the weaknesses and risks in your case.

K
L
How long does this whole process take?

How long a particular case will take to reach resolution really depends on the specific circumstances of the case and what is at issue. It would be very difficult to give an estimate without discussing the history of your case and the relief you are seeking.

Having said that, you should understand that if you pursue litigation and your case is not resolved ahead of time through some form of settlement, the process can be lengthy. It can take months or years to reach a final resolution of the matter, especially if appeals are pursued.

K
L
Do I have to go through this process every year?

The administrative system requires that a school district convene for an IEP meeting at least once a year to assess the child’s needs and progress. If the child’s needs have changed, the recommended programs and supports may be different. Therefore, a parent will need to be active year after year to participate in meetings, consider recommendations, and determine what is appropriate for the child. That is not to say that the process will be exactly the same every year. Some years may be easier than the years before, and sometimes the process will get progressively more difficult, depending on the particular circumstances of your case. But you should expect to go through some form of the process every year.

K
L
Is there a time limit regarding how long I have to sue the school district?

As it stands right now, a parent has a two-year statute of limitations from the time he/she learned about the actions that form the basis of the complaint to bring an action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, although exceptions apply in certain circumstances. There have been efforts to shorten the statute of limitations. For the most part they have been unsuccessful. You should consult with an attorney to make sure this time period has not changed.

K
L
What happens when my child becomes an adult?

Individuals with special needs are generally covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from birth until (a) high school graduation with a diploma, or (b) reaching the age of 22, whichever happens first. At that point, the IDEA no longer applies and an individual will need to look to other laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, for protection.

NOTE: Long-term planning is critical for any family with an individual who has special needs. Issues such as securing government benefits, setting up special needs trusts, and resolving issues about guardianship should be carefully explored with your attorney.

Children with special needs deserve a quality education and long term financial security.

We make sure they receive both.