Group serves as guiding light in confusing times
Name : Avi Rutschman [email protected]
The Special Education Advisory Council of Oak Park wants to assure parents of special needs students that they don’t need to feel hopelessly lost when dealing with local education agencies.
The group serves as a guiding light, educating parents about their children’s rights and encouraging compassionate behavior by “normal” students.
The nation has come to realize that it is a responsibility to equip every child with the proper tools to seek and foster knowledge. The right to a free and proper education buttresses the American ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This principle was not always observed in the past, and minority groups were sometimes excluded from America’s public schools. Today, special education students often are ostracized, their attempts to learn still muddled by a labyrinthine educational bureaucracy.
“A strong coalition of persistent and annoying parents has been the driving force of special education reform,” said Allison Brightman, a council member.
In more callous times, the public education system relegated those with special needs to mental hospitals or trade schools. The passage of the Education of the Handicapped Act in 1975 ended such practices.
While the act protected special education children from abuse by public education agencies, objections were raised that it didn’t provide enough support. The act was modified and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The new version of the act promised all students with mental or physical disabilities a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment possible.
Special needs students were guaranteed an education delivered in a manner that suiting their circumstances while not limiting their ability to progress. A child with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who is capable of performing in a regular classroom but needs a special tutor will be provided that tutor rather than being pulled from the class.
To be eligible for the benefits the act guaranteed, a student must be between 3 and 21 years old and fall into one or more categories that include autism, deafness, emotional disturbance, speech impairment and traumatic brain injury.
Students qualifying given an individualized education program (IEP) which sets measurable goals to determine progress, Brightman said.
IEPs are developed and reviewed annually by a board composed of parents, at least one regular education and one special education teacher, an administrator knowledgeable about the local curriculum and resources and another person with knowledge of the pupil. The pupil is included if more than 14 years old.
“Parents are the experts of their own children and they need to bring that expertise to the table,” Brightman said.
Parental consent must be obtained for an IEP to be implemented.
“It’s important to establish measurable goals in the IEP. Instead of saying ‘Johnny will better express his needs,’ the IEP should state ‘Johnny responds to a nonverbal prompt with the phrase I want,'” Brightman said.
Disputes between education agencies and parents can be resolved through mediation, impartial due process hearings, appeal of hearing decisions and ultimately by possible civil action.
In addition to the revised education act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also guarantees a free, appropriate education to people whose severe impairments limit major life activities. Such activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working.
A 504 plan usually assures compliance with state and local policies by following educational act guidelines. But unlike provisions under the act, it is a violation of an individual’s civil rights, a felony, if a child with a legitimate claim is denied protections guaranteed by Section 504.
Committee members encourage parents with concerns about special needs students to attend advisory council meetings. The sessions give parents insights and help to walk them through the often convoluted process of obtaining an individualized education program.
The group is also responsible for running the annual Ability Awareness Fair, a hands-on event that allows children to experience some of the everyday difficulties those with disabilities face.