(This month’s Board Room is a special education primer for school board members. Next month’s edition will address potential problem areas and questions board members should be asking their administrators.)
By Jennifer Wohlleb
Special education is not an area where school board members are expected to have a lot of expertise, but with some grounding on the subject, they can help districts stay on the right path.
Teresa Combs, KSBA’s director of Legal and Administrative Training Services, said federal law specifies that only a team of educators knowledgeable about these students may make placement decisions. Further, federal money for special needs students may be spent only on education programs for students who qualify under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Schools must make accommodations that will allow students with disabling conditions to access the education services needed for them to make progress.
“School boards have no controls over whether the child is in a regular education classroom, a resource classroom part of the day, or how much assistance the child will get,” Combs said. “Decisions about the placement and specialized services the child needs to be able to access school and progress have to be made by that team of professionals and the board cannot interfere with those decisions.”
Districts must serve two different categories of students with disabilities: IDEA and Section 504. Broadly, students identified as IDEA have educational disabilities while Section 504 students have medical disabilities or conditions.
“Section 504 is generally more about accessing school programs safely, like special transportation, being able to carry medication when other kids can’t, getting a specialized health service during the day like having to get an insulin shot or special food in the cafeteria because you are allergic. It’s more about a health diagnosis,” Combs said. “IDEA provides specially designed instruction for students with educational disabilities. And in order to comply with IDEA, you’ve got to comply with Section 504 to get students to school, but the difference is the specially designed instruction.”
School districts receive some federal and state money to provide services for IDEA students, but not for the services for Section 504 students, Combs said.
“With 504, there’s no federal or state money to provide 504-mandated services, even though they may include nursing services,” she said. “And there is specialized training and things you have to do for kids who, for example, have severe allergies, special food needs. You have to have areas where the food is prepared so there is no cross contamination. We’ve had situations where they’ve had to strip the latex out of a bus because of an allergy, and that parent has the right to have that child transported by the school because other kids are transported.”
Combs said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that if a service is needed for a child to be able to access education programs, the district must provide it regardless of cost, if it’s the only thing that works.
“They don’t have to provide the most expensive service; they have to provide what will allow the child to access and progress,” Combs said. “But the Supreme Court said discussing money is irrelevant if it’s a service the child must have to access his or her public education services.”
Combs said the law requires students with disabilities to be placed in the least restrictive environment possible.
“The only way that a special education child is moved out of the regular education classroom is if that IEP (Individualized Education program) team decides that that is the least restrictive environment for that child,” she said. “A child can be placed in a more restrictive environment due to not being able to progress, either academically or socially in the larger regular education setting. If that team determines the child’s behavior is disruptive to that child’s education or to the education of other children, that’s the only way that child can be placed in a more restrictive environment.”
Federal law also demands that in addition to academics, these students have access to extracurricular activities, when it can be safely done.
And when it comes to test scores, Combs said board members need to be aware that IDEA students are a gap category, which means they are part of a school’s accountability index.
“That’s a category for which even if you have good tests scores across the board, if that one group is not where it should be, it can cause your school to be placed in the ‘needs improvement’ category,” she said.