What a great IDEA

Contributions by Laura Lajewski (Executive Director), Beth Labbe (Principal), Gregg Grenier (Development and Communications Manager), and Alyssa Kastner (former Communications Intern)

As an organization that serves individuals with different types of disabilities, it is important to be aware of the laws that govern what we do here at COMPASS. The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) is a law that ensures a free and appropriate education (FAPE) to children with disabilities throughout the country, ensuring special education and related services to those children. The IDEA impacts more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. The act was reauthorized by Congress in 2004 and was supported by the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. In the law, Congress states that “disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society.” They continue on to say that improving education for children with disabilities is an integral part in “ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities”.

To be eligible for protection under the IDEA, a child must fall under one of 13 categories of disabilities. They are: autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, speech or language impairment, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment. If a child falls under one of these categories and needs special education to progress in school, they can qualify under this act. Then, they are assured some key principles that the act sets forth.

Firstly, the child is entitled to a FAPE that must be designed to meet the child’s unique needs, preparing them adequately for further education, employment, and independent living. It also requires that schools conduct appropriate evaluations for students that are suspected of having a disability. This means that the student must be assessed by knowledgeable and trained evaluators on a non-discriminatory basis using sound materials and procedures (see In-School Services Page). This further ensures that students do not have to go through excessive evaluations and that every aspect of the process is geared towards helping the child.

If a child is eligible under the IDEA, they must be given an Individual Education Program (IEP). This is a written document developed by an IEP team (composed of teachers, specialists, parents, and the student) and uses the student’s evaluation information to meet their educational needs. The IEP must include a few things, such as a student’s present educational performance level, yearly goals and benchmarking objectives, the services and aids the student receives, and explanations of situations in which the student is not participating in the classroom, among other information. At COMPASS, because all of our students experience some form of disability, most students enter COMPASS with an IEP – occasionally, a student is in the initial phase of IEP development when they arrive at COMPASS.

Another protection under the IDEA is that all parents or legal guardians of eligible students have the right to be involved in the decision-making process regarding their child’s placement and IEP. If the sending school district and the student’s parent or legal guardian experience a severe disagreement over these decisions, parents have the legal right to request mediation or a hearing with state-level education agencies.

COMPASS is categorized as an approved special education private school, also referred to as a Chapter 766 school. This category groups together private schools in Massachusetts that serve students with different types of disabilities. The Chapter 766 law guarantees that children aged 3-21 have a right to an educational program that meets their unique needs. Schools under this category are required to implement programs that are designed to meet the emotional, social, and learning needs of students with disabilities. Each private school can specialize in a subgroup of special needs, and COMPASS focuses on serving students with emotional, behavioral, and other learning disabilities.

The IDEA was enacted to protect the youth that are affected by emotional impairment and learning disabilities, and the legislation has even generated an increase in college enrollment and a decrease in high school dropouts. COMPASS staff work with the IDEA provisions on a daily basis. It is a piece of legislation highly relevant to our mission.

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