Compliance Corner – November 2023

By Cindy Soo Hoo, TAP Consultant

FAPE in the LRE as Written in the IEP! (Part 3 of 3)

In the first two articles of this three-part series, we explored the definitions and applications of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for students who are eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Whew!  That’s a lot of acronyms!  Now, we are going to explore how those facets of IDEA get addressed in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).  Oh, dear, more acronyms in such a short amount of space!

Speaking of a short amount of space, if you have been in the field of special education for quite some time, you may remember how IEPs were just a few pages long, at least in the district in which I was employed.  Those few pages seemed to address the major components of an IEP such as the child’s present levels, goals, least restrictive environment, and prior written notice. The IEP came in triplicate with the white copy being kept by the district and tucked away in the child’s confidential file (in our district it was known as “the red file”), the yellow copy kept by the primary provider of the child in the student’s working folder and the pink copy being given to the parent.  You even had to press hard enough when writing out the information in order for all three copies to be legible.  These IEPs seemed to take no time at all, often finishing within a 30-minute timeframe. 

A lot has changed over the decades.  Little by little, we saw IEPs getting longer and longer requiring IEP Teams to address more aspects of the child’s unique needs. Today’s IEPs now include many more components required under the IDEA pertaining to the services, supports and setting(s) the child requires.  Many of these components have been discussed in previous articles with others to be addressed in the future.

In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in a case involving a dispute as to whether the student in question received a Free Appropriate Public Education.  As a result, the Supreme Court issued a standard by which all districts must adhere.  That standard states:  “To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Meeting that standard is no easy feat.  Not only is the IEP a document consisting of many of the components required by both federal regulations and state rule, it is also a process.  As a document, it describes what the Local Education Agency (LEA) will provide to address the unique needs of the student.  As a process, it paves the way in preparing, developing and implementing the IEP.

Developing Quality IEPs is a technical assistance manual offered by the Special Education Division of the New Mexico Public Education Department (NM PED).  The manual is intended to provide guidance to educators and others while providing information about what is required in an IEP as well as many “tricks of the trade”.  The manual offers sample documents so school districts do not have to create them on their own. These include parent questionnaires intended to gather information about what they feel is necessary for enhancing their child’s education, sample forms that must be completed and examples of various ways to develop a goal, to name a few.

Being prepared for an IEP is crucial.  School districts must ensure that all pertinent information regarding the child is available to all members of the IEP Team.  This information would include all applicable information at your disposal, whether it is a diagnostic report, grades, absences, behavioral data, anecdotal records, work samples, to name a few.  More often than not, this information is inputted into the document ahead of time with the understanding that the information is in a draft format.   

Not only is it important for staff members to be prepared, but it is also important for parents and students (as applicable) to understand the process and know what to expect when attending.  This may be no truer than for those parents and students for whom this process is new.  Reaching out to parents and students to describe the process and letting them know what to expect goes a long way in building relationships with families and is more likely to keep parents involved in their child’s education.  Making yourself available to answer any questions they may have is extremely important.  It is also important to schedule the IEP at a mutually agreeable time with the parent.  This will ensure that both parties have the time available.  In addition, it’s important to schedule the meeting for the anticipated length of time needed and communicate that timeframe to the parent. 

In addition to the information to be considered being available ahead of time, it is important that required members and others who are knowledgeable about the child or the information to be presented are indeed present at the meeting.  In a previous article, requirements under the IDEA regarding the required members of the IEP Team and the allowed provisions for when a required member cannot be present were discussed.   It is important that school districts adhere to the regulations in IDEA.

Once the meeting commences, those who are facilitating and/or capturing the information have an important job to do.   It is important that a welcoming atmosphere be made available to all members of the team and that all voices are heard from those participating.  As discussions are held, it’s essential that all information, including decisions, are captured succinctly and accurately.   This is an official document that describes the responsibilities of the school in working with the student.  It is imperative that everyone has a good understanding of what services and supports are to be delivered to the student. 

Following the IEP, those responsible for implementing the services and supports must have a genuine understanding of their responsibilities.  Any decisions involving these services and supports must be fulfilled as prescribed in the child’s IEP. 

In sum, the IEP serves as a contract of what the district will provide for the student.  It should be developed using a wide variety of information that is available about the child.  After careful analysis of the information and rich discussion of what the child needs, it should be written so  the student is able to make progress appropriate in light of his/her circumstances. 

The information included herein is not intended to provide legal advice.  Should you need legal advice or guidance on any issue involving special education, please contact the appropriate person for your district.

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