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The Law Requires School Districts to Identify Students with Special Needs

The Child Find Mandate of IDEA



On his first day of Kindergarten, Jason’s mother watches as he nervously fiddles with his backpack strap and paces around the other children. She has always wondered if there were something different about Jason, and she worries about how her high-energy son will fare in school. She does not know that Jason has long showed signs of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Fortunately, the law does not require parents to be educational experts. Instead, the law places the full responsibility for identifying Jason’s educational needs on his school district, a legal responsibility called Child Find.

What is Child Find?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the federal law that provides for IEPs — Individualized Education Programs) obligates your child’s public school district to identify the children in their schools who might be eligible for special education services. Per the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, “A child’s entitlement to special education should not depend upon the vigilance of the parents (who may not be sufficiently sophisticated to comprehend the problem). Rather, it is the responsibility of the child’s teachers, therapists and administrators — and of the multi-disciplinary team that annually evaluates the student’s progress — to ascertain the child’s educational needs, respond to deficiencies and place him or her accordingly.”

In other words, parents really do not have to know or do anything. Parents often blame themselves for not recognizing that their child required special services in school, but legally the educators must recognize the signs and evaluate the student appropriately.

Child Find violations also can occur when the district doesn’t identify all of a child’s educational needs. That includes not only academic needs but also social, emotional and behavioral needs. Take the example of Jason. If the district evaluated him only for ADHD, it would miss the fact that he also has a learning disability and severe anxiety that cause him to struggle in school. As a result, the district would not address all of Jason’s needs, which is why the law requires that the district evaluate students in all areas of suspected need. They have to find the whole child, not just part!

Why Child Find matters

Serious consequences affect students when districts fail in their Child Find obligation. Unidentified students will go longer without needed services and fall further behind. If the district does not identify Jason’s needs until he is in middle school, he will have spent years in school being distracted during lessons, missing important material and failing to comprehend concepts. If the district identifies Jason in Kindergarten, he has an excellent chance to be on track by middle school.

What can I do?

You now know that the district has full responsibility to identify your child’s eligibility for special education services. However, you should understand that you do not have to wait for them to come to you with concerns. As a parent, you have the right to request a comprehensive evaluation of your child by the district, at no cost to you, in all areas of suspected need.

You may wish to speak with an experienced special education attorney before you submit a written request for evaluation to learn your rights and determine the appropriate evaluations for your child. If your child has not received supports he qualifies for, or if the district deems your child ineligible for services and you disagree, an attorney can help you determine if your child is entitled to “compensatory education.” This legal remedy usually takes the form of supplemental educational services or a fund you can use to pay for appropriate educational services such as tutoring, evaluations or therapy to help your child catch up.

Remember, even though your child’s rights do not depend on your vigilance, your child can benefit from it. Your voice matters, and you should never remain silent if you have concerns.

Andrew Wollaston, Esq., is a special education attorney with Frankel & Kershenbaum, LLC, in Bryn Mawr, PA. 

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