State Proposes Special Ed Decisions Without Parents 

The state Board of Education is considering changes that could fundamentally alter the rights of parents of children with disabilities.

Education Department officials say the proposal, which limits parent participation in decisions related to the special education services their children receive, is in line with federal special education requirements. But critics say what the federal government requires isn't necessarily what's right for Virginia, a state long considered progressive for its inclusion of parents in special education decisions for students.

"The federal law is the minimum threshold," says Cheryl Ward, a parental rights advocate with the Virginia Coalition for Students with Disabilities, one of dozens of disabled-rights advocacy groups around the state that take umbrage at the new regulations. "We see … the potential for students to be deprived of a free and appropriate public education."

What's at issue is a provision in the new regulations that would allow school districts leeway to initiate the "partial or complete termination of special education and related services" without parental consent.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, a revision of a decades-old law, provides for the education of students with disabilities, requiring certain minimum provisions. It also guards students' rights by requiring that students identified as needing special education services have an Individual Education Program outlining what services will be rendered according to their individual needs. Currently in Virginia, parents participate in the creation of that plan and must approve revisions to it.

Parental consent is "a long-standing protection for Virginia's parents and families -- this is something that's been on the books for many, many years," says Emily Dreyfus, community education and outreach director with JustChildren, a child advocacy program with offices in Richmond. "Say the child is getting a hour of speech therapy and a half-hour of physical therapy — if the school decides the physical therapy is no longer needed, they can terminate that."

The state defends the proposed changes.

"This is an opportunity for the state … to ensure that Virginia's rules are in line with the federal rules," says Charles Pyle, a Department of Education spokesman, suggesting advocacy groups may be overreacting to the proposal's provisions.

"Here's what this actually means — and again, it's a proposal: If children are entitled to a service under the law, then children will receive the service," Pyle says. "The intent here is to make sure the services are provided appropriately."

And protections for parents are still built into the proposal, he says, including the right to call for mediation of a due process hearing to determine whether proper services are being rendered.

"You have to strike a balance here," Pyle says.

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