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Special Education/IEP/504 for HFAutism in Catholic School

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Question
Thank you in advance for your help! My 7yo son is in 1st grade at a small Catholic school in CT. He has an ISP in place for speech but was recently diagnosed with high functioning autism/anxiety/sensory issues and speech issues. He spent 2 years in a special ed (public school) prek program with an IEP for PDD-NOS. That Dx was removed after prek and we kept him back a year in a private prek program before starting him in K in the Catholic School with the speech IEP. So we are no strangers to the sped system in our school district. We had our son reevaluated this year and he now has the formal Dx of high functioning autism. We have a IEP meeting (called by me) in a few weeks to discuss changing his ISP classification (to include autism Dx) and review his accomodations. Right now he received 30min per week of ST in a group setting. I am told by his teacher that the sessions are more like 15min in length. A ST from the school district comes to the school and administers ST to all students who qualify. The focus is articulation. My son needs much more- ideally 2 hours per week with a ST specializing in kids with autism and expressive language disorder. I will be asking for more ST at the upcoming meeting. I will also be asking for an OT consult (maybe 3x per year) to come in and observe him and offer support and ideas for the teacher. The district did offer this 1x earlier this year and I wish for more. I am reasonable and aware that we are limited in what we can ask for and receive from the district. However, I of course want more. The school tries hard to work with us in regard to my sons exceptional intelligence (3x per week pull out for enrichment and possible grade level advance for math next year) but he needs more ST and OT consult. In an ideal world he would have an aide moving forward because it would help him tremendously with his school work. My confusion lies in what exactly the district is required to provide for my son. I have read about private schools receiving federal funding and them being required to provide for 504 plans. My sons school receives federal lunch program aide and I believe book aid as well. Is this a loophole I can pursue? Ive been told they are not required to provide more than the specific financial allotment for each child in the district at a private school with an ISP. But can they be forced to provide more since they receive federal aid? Can they  simply choose to provide more? I've also read that they are required to provide the minimum, but can choose to provide more if they would like. This district is not top notch and has terrible funding and I realize that. But we believe firmly in Catholic education for our children. I am just having a hard time accepting the seeming discrimination of being asked to sign away our sped rights by placing him in this school and refusing the FAPE. I am desperate for more for him without moving him and trying to find out exactly what we can do. Should he have a 504? Will that get him more from the district? Can they provide him more ST even if I drive him to the public school? I am willing to drive him and I am not asking for his tuition to be paid. Sorry for a long question, thank you deeply for any guidance.

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Hi Courtney,

Thanks so much for writing to me!  I am going to do my best to get to the heart of your question, which I believe is--if my child attends a private school, how much service can he get from the public school system and what is the school district obligation for FAPE?  Also, I think you are asking also what the private school obligation is for FAPE.  

The local education agency (LEA) is responsible for providing each child with a disability a free appropriate public educaton,FAPE, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  A FAPE means that the process from referral to evaluation to IEP development to placement is done correctly, timely, and considers a child's unique needs.  When a child is receiving FAPE, his IEP is crafted so he will benefit and he will make meaningful progress in the curriculum and in the goals set out on the IEP.

When a parent does not believe the child is receiving a FAPE, the parent sometimes removes the child from the LEA and pays for a private school.  The parent is said to have parentally placed the child in a private school.

When a parent removes a child from the LEA so he is then attending a private school, but does not provide proper notice and does not specify that the removal is due to the rejection of the IEP, the child becomes eligible to receive a services plan.  However, the LEA is not responsible for providing a full breadth of FAPE under the services plan.  It's my non-attorney understanding that the services plan may be limited in its scope, and is dictated by the private-parochial school agreement between the private school and the LEA.  So you may want to explore whether you could obtain a copy of such an agreement, if it exists.  

Here is a nice resource defining the requirement for a services plan.

http://www.ideapartnership.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=393&



On the other hand, when a parent removes a child from the LEA to attend a private school and the parent is doing this because she beleives the LEA did not provide FAPE, the parent should give a specific type of legal notice.  Here is a blog by a CT attorney on that subject.
http://www.connecticutspecialeducationlawyer.com/tips-for-parents/ideas-10-day-n

That notice of removal would indicate a unilateral placement, where the parent is seeking reimbursement for tuition and is informing the LEA that she expects the LEA to continue providing FAPE. The notice must specify why the parent does not believe the IEP is appropriate, why she is selecting the private school, that she is going to seek public funding of the private placement, and that the removal is indicating rejection of the IEP.  I have a sample letter in my Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book that can be copied.  

Here is a nice resource which has the law at the end, explaining services plans and equitable services, for children who are parentally placed in private schools.  

http://projectforum.org/docs/ParentallyPlacedPrivateSchoolSWD.pdf

If you did not remove your child as a unilateral placement, we are back to a discussion about a services plan.  You said you are dismayed because you had to 'sign away' your rights and place your child in a private school.  I am thinking if you inform your school district that you would like a FAPE for your child and you would like to revisit his IEP, it may be  

It's my experience that the IEP process continues with the LEA while the child is attending the private school.  For example, the parent may provide the LEA with progress notations, testing updates and other information from the private school.  The LEA would meet with the parent and private school staff and revise the IEP if appropriate, and at these stages, the parent would be able to agree with or reject the IEPs that are developed.  Sometimes, the IEP is revised to the extent that the parent re-enrolls the child in the LEA/public school.  Other times, the parent seeks tutition reimbursement or other services/remedies via a due process hearing or other dispute.  

You can always ask for 'more' from the LEA (school system), or you can ask for an evaluation to determine your child's needs in areas in which he is currently struggling and not receiving appropriate services.  

Here is a nice link that shows you the FAPE obligation for the private school.  

http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html

The private school is likely not its own school district, so it cannot act as an LEA (some charter schools are, but generally Catholic Schools are not).  So it is unlikely that it must provide a FAPE under the IDEA.  But, if it does receive public funding, you can argue that it must develop a 504 plan.  A 504 plan can contain special education, related services, accommodations, aides, etc.  So what parents run into is a situation where the school will not recommend something it cannot provide.  The school is unlikely to agree to provide an aide and an intensive level of SLP services such as 2 hours/week, for example.  You can dispute this, but you will have to consider your relationship with the school and whether a dispute is really going to produce the desired result.  Yes, you can contact the archdioses where you live and work with them to provide more services.  But I think you should consider short and long term pros and cons of working with a private school in this way.

It is more my experience that parents have the best chance of success for the child when they send the child to a private school that is truly a match for the child's needs.  

If your child is doing well, but you just want him to do better, that's one thing.  But if he is struggling, and he needs these extra services to learn the curriculum, get along with others, remain regulated and make progress, you likely want to consider changing schools, or consider at least re-developing an IEP to see if the LEA will change its mind about his placement or services.  Then you can decide to reject or accept the IEP. I am not sure to what extent the private school will agree to or provide specialized services.  This can bring up many issues such as their approval or accredidation through the state, what was promised to you if anything in your enrollment contract and the mission and vision of the school.  There is a reality about the lack of school resources, and sometimes it can be an uphill battle to get a school to change its mission perhaps, and increase its resources.

If he is doing well, but you just want him to do better, he will likely not qualify for extra services, anyway, via the services plan or any 504 plan.  But if he is struggling, you will want to consider how you can fund these extra services such as tutoring or speech language or OT services, if you believe he can do well and progress at the private school.   

For the upcoming year, you may want to consider going back to the LEA and asking for FAPE even though your son may not be attending the LEA school.  In this way, the private school staff can attend meetings with you, demonstrating his needs, and the LEA will then have to develop a full and complete IEP.  THen you can accept or reject that IEP and make your decisions about where your son should attend.  If you do not send him to the LEA placement, you can either opt for the private school services plan again, or you can give the notice I mentioned and tell the district you are doing a unilateral placement.  This allows you to potentially enter into a dispute such as a mediation or hearing to request additional services, reimbursement for the private services, etc.  Since much of this is a legal question, I think you would benefit from having a consultation with a special education attorney, to check out whether I'm right and to get advice from a legal perspective. Find an attorney here--copaa.org.

I think this is the most important part of my answer.  You said that you want more for your son, but the emphasis for qualification for more would be what he needs to make progress and access the curriculum.  So the emphasis on any report you provide to the school district will be what your child needs in order to benefit from his program and access the curriculum. If for example, his grades are good, and all the reports say he is progressing well, and you believe he needs more related services, I think you will have to show the connection between his needs and the services.  If he is clearly struggling, you can ask for more services, or provide them privately, to help the current school meet his needs.  But ultimately it's difficult to change a school's methods or resources, so you may have to discover if this is the correct school placement for him, or whether he needs a school that is more specialized.  

If the evaluations you have are complete and address all of his areas of need,I would also analyze whether the current school can provide all the recommendations made in the evalaution reports.  If not, request those services listed in the report recommendations, or find schools that do have what is recommended, or consider going back to the LEA and working with someone like me through the special education process so that the LEA is held accountable.  

I hope this answer has helped answer your questions and I wish you all the best as you advocate for your child!  Please feel free to follow up with me in another question.  

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Michelle R. Davis, M. Ed.

Expertise

I can answer questions about disability definitions and criteria for services, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004, No Child Left Behind, 504 plans, how to craft an IEP that drives the appropriate services, school placement, dispute options, and least restrictive environment. I worked in the public school system as a special educator and am now in private consulting practice where we assist parents as they navigate the special education process. I have expertise in all educational disabilities except blind/visual impairments and deaf/hard of hearing. This includes ADHD and other health impairments, medical conditions, dyslexia and learning disabilities, Autism, emotional disabilities, language processing problems, and interfering behaviors.

Experience

10 years as special educator and administrator in public school system; Director of ABCs for Life Success since 1998; Expert services such as analysis and testimony; Author: Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book: What you can do now to advocate for your exceptional child's education; Special Needs Advocacy Training Institute; internet radio show Teach Your Children Well: Hot Topics in Education; author School Success for Kids with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders released March 2010 (Prufrock Press).

Education/Credentials
Masters in Special Education with Emphasis on Inclusive Education (Johns Hopkins University); B.S.in Special Education (James Madison University); Conduct training for Universities, public and private schools, parent groups. Adjunct professor current George Washington University and prior George Mason University.

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