It’s the beginning of a new school year, and it’s a busy time for all district personnel, but it tends to be a particularly active time for special education personnel. The end of summer and the beginning of a new school year brings new students to your buildings, and current students are always growing and changing. It is thus critical for your district personnel to be ready to identify students who may need special education. Here are some reminders to make sure your district is complying with federal and state law and ensuring that identified and evaluated promptly.

Child find

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Ohio Operating Standards for the Education of Students with Disabilities, every public school district has an affirmative obligation to identify, locate and evaluate students with disabilities who reside within the district. This obligation is known as “child find,” and it means that identifying students who may need special education is not a passive obligation for districts. Districts cannot simply rely on parents or community resources to identify children who may have special education needs. Rather, districts must have policies and procedures in place, approved by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), Office of Exceptional Children, to ensure that these children are identified. Ohio Admin. Code (OAC) 3301-51-03.

Note that this obligation does not apply only to students enrolled in your school buildings—it applies to any child who resides within the geographic bounds of your school district. District policies must ensure that there is a method in place to identify students who attend nonpublic schools, students experiencing homelessness, students who are wards of the state, migrant and highly mobile children, as well as students who may be homeschooled. Each district is further required to report data related to its child find practices to ODE related to disproportionality with regard to race and ethnicity, including data about the identification of such students as students with disabilities, the educational placement of such children and the rates of disciplinary action.

Evaluation procedures

Once a child has been identified as a child who may be a “child with a disability” and may require special education and related services, districts must act within strict timelines to ensure compliance with IDEA and the Operating Standards regarding an evaluation. A child must be evaluated and determined eligible before receiving special education services. Once a district receives a request for an evaluation, it must, within 30 days, either: (1) obtain written parental consent for the evaluation; or (2) issue a prior written notice to the parent stating that the school district does not suspect a disability and will not be conducting an evaluation, which the parent may challenge by utilizing their procedural safeguards. OAC 3301-51-06(B)(3). After parental consent is obtained, the district must conduct the initial evaluation within 60 days. OAC 3301-51-06(B)(4)(a).

The specifics of the evaluation processes used will differ for each child based on the nature of the child’s possible needs. The evaluation must use “a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about the child, including information provided by the parent” and should avoid using a single source of information to make a determination. The information is then used to (1) determine whether the child meets the eligibility criterion of a “child with a disability” under one of the 13 eligibility categories; and (2) if the child is eligible, to determine what will be in the child’s individualized education program (IEP).

There are many other rules and procedures related to evaluating students. Districts are encouraged to review the IDEA and Operating Standards to ensure that they are complying with the law. Special education is a highly regulated area of law, and evaluations are often a source of litigation and contention with parents. Districts should work with legal counsel to resolve specific controversies over these procedures but are welcome to contact the legal department at (855)-OSBA-LAW with general questions about the law.

Posted by John R. Price on 9/2/2022