What is Compensatory Education for Special Needs Students?

Your special needs child has the right to an appropriate education.

The Legal Requirements Surrounding Special Education

In the world of special education, students have a legal right to a "free and appropriate education" in the "least restrictive setting" possible. The definition of exactly what these terms mean will vary from student to student and from school to school. It may also vary depending upon parents' preferences, philosophies, and (very often) willingness to confront school officials and threaten legal action.

Once decisions about a child's academic setting, program, therapeutic services, goals, and supports are agreed upon, they are written up in a document called the IEP (individualized educational program). The IEP is actually a legal document, meaning that the agreed-upon program and services MUST be provided. This fact, however, is often ignored by school districts -- and it is a rare parent who, seeing that the IEP has not been followed, will actually take legal action.

Why Parents Take Legal Action Against Their School Districts

Why would a parent sue -- or threaten to sue -- their own school district?  Here are a few examples of the type of issues for which parents take their districts to court:

  • The district did not identify the child as having special needs, did not make the family aware of their legal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and thus did not create an appropriate IEP or provide appropriate free education.
  • The district did not provide an appropriate IEP with achievable goals and benchmarks intended to show progress in a child's academic, social, or behavioral skills.
  • The district pulled a child with special needs out of school and/or suspended him or her for more than 10 days as a result of behavioral or other issues.
  • The IEP includes therapies, such as speech, occupational, or physical therapy and those therapies are not provided.
  • The child is denied access to school offerings such as inclusion in after school clubs, field trips, band, etc. that are available to general education students. Reason given for this are usually financial (we can't afford an aide/adaptive technology/special services to support your child) -- but the reality is that the school is legally bound (within reason) to make programs available to all students.

If You Take Legal Action: What to Expect

If your child has been denied a free and appropriate education, and you are unable to make progress with the special education administrators in your district, you may choose to file a due process claim. You must do so within two years in order for your claim to be considered.

If your claim is supported, the district must then provide "compensatory education." This does not mean that the district must pay the parents. Instead, it means that the district must provide a free and appropriate education, and must rectify the problems they created.

In one case, for example, a young man was pushed through high school with a diploma despite the fact that he was unable to complete grade level work or pass standardized tests. The purpose of this was to allow the district to wash its hands of the student, who would otherwise have been entitled to services until he was 22 years old.

The court decided in favor of the parents and student, and ordered the court to reimburse the young man's parents for expenses they had incurred in continuing his education after the district "graduated" him. The court also required the district to continue paying for and providing educational services until the young man turned 22.

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