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Legal Protection of Children’s Educational Rights

Originally published on November 10, 2009
Most recently updated on January 8, 2014

There are laws to protect the rights of children who are left with learning disabilities, physical or health limitations that keep them from participating in regular educational programs.

Certain federal laws require all public schools and some private schools to provide appropriate education and services to children with disabilities and special needs. The three main federal laws that may apply to your child and your child’s school are the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990. The ADA is the most general of the three federal laws, and although it does not directly deal with schools or children’s educational needs specifically, it may help in making sure your child gets the support he or she needs.

The IDEA applies to all public schools and covers children with one of 13 classifications of specified disabilities or special needs. A child with a brain tumor might fall under the classification of “traumatic brain injury” or under the more general classification of “other health impaired”—that is, students with “limited strength, vitality, or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems . . . which adversely affect their performance.”

Under the IDEA, your child is entitled to an evaluation and a resulting individualized education plan (IEP), which educators will write for your child. The IEP will establish what your child’s needs are and the specific accommodations and services that are appropriate for your child’s education. Once your child has an IEP, the school must provide the accommodations and services that the plan requires. The federal government gives money directly to school districts to cover eligible students.

Section 504 applies not only to public schools but to any school that receives federal funds. As a result, many private schools are subject to the requirements of Section 504. Section 504 generally prohibits discrimination against a child or individual with disabilities. A child with special needs is entitled to appropriate educational accommodations to ensure that his or her education is comparable to that provided to nondisabled students.

As a general rule, every school is required to have guidelines for accessing special education services. Public schools typically have guidelines that explain how the IDEA works in their particular school district. For a child with a brain tumor or one undergoing cancer treatment, the first step is to identify whether there are special educational needs and what those needs are. A parent, a health care professional, or school personnel may request an evaluation. You might want to have your child privately evaluated before you ask the school to do an evaluation, so that you have an idea of what the evaluation will uncover and, if necessary, to prepare yourself in case you need to challenge the school’s evaluation.

Infants and toddlers (birth through age 3 years) who experience the trauma of life-threatening illness and treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy are entitled by federal law to early-intervention programs that try to head off developmental delays. These services do not depend on a family’s ability to pay. According to a child’s and a family’s needs, the child may receive physical and occupational therapy, speech therapy, and special instruction. The family may be entitled to family services, such as training, counseling, or case management help to coordinate services.

A state’s education department is typically responsible for children between ages 3 and 21 years, and a state health department is typically responsible for children from birth to age 3 years. They refer parents or health care team members to early intervention services. After an assessment of a child younger than 4 years of age, an individualized family service plan (IFSP) will be developed by the early-intervention team, which must include the parent or guardian.

Both IDEA and Section 504 give schools 30 days to perform the evaluation and then another 30 days to put a program in place. If you disagree with the classification, evaluation, or program provided for your child, IDEA and Section 504 entitle you to an impartial hearing.

If you have questions regarding disclosure of your child's disability on their school records, Friendship Circle has an article that outlines the differences between what can be shown on a report card versus school transcripts.

Getting your child the help he or she needs can be a complicated and frustrating experience. Remember that you are not alone and that there other families in your community who have children with special educational needs and have gone through this before you; they can help you. You may want to connect with families through the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation’s Parent-to-Parent Network (P2P). There are also social workers and groups who specialize in helping parents deal with schools.

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