What You Need to Know About Special Education

As special education attorneys, we help parents navigate the administrative and legal structures that shape the landscape of special education throughout Michigan. Discover everything you need to know in order to produce the outcomes your child deserves.

Parents of students with special needs are the first line of representation and advocacy to ensure their children’s special education needs are being identified and met. However, there are complicated legal, financial, and administrative issues they’ll undoubtedly face.

Special education law is complex, and parents need to be aware of their legal rights so that they may advocate effectively on behalf of their children to be sure that they are not denied access to the education they are entitled to receive.

Luckily, parents of special needs students need not be alone in their legal battle. A special education attorney can be you and your child’s best ally in securing the placement and services the state of Michigan is required to provide.

Special education attorneys help parents of students with special needs navigate the difficult process of securing the appropriate services designed to address their child’s unique educational needs. The right lawyer can make all the difference when it comes to ensuring your child’s best interests are being addressed in this area.

The bedrock law for special education is the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the “IDEA”). It requires that schools throughout the country that receive federal funds for education, including all Michigan public and most private schools, must provide every special needs student with a Free Appropriate Public Education (a “FAPE”). To provide a FAPE, a school must develop an Individualized Educational Program (an “IEP”) for each special needs student.

An IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable the student to receive educational benefits” and it must be tailored to your child’s specific needs. The law requires that an IEP include, among other things:

—a statement of measurable annual goals and

—a description of how your child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals will be measured

It’s important to note Michigan law requires that a student with special needs receive a FAPE through age 26, which is five years longer than the federal minimum of age 21 under the IDEA.

For older students, an IEP also must include postsecondary school goals based upon transition assessments. These transition assessments are related to training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills. These older students, as a corollary to those postsecondary school goals, must receive transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist the student in reaching those goals.

Before the IEP document is finalized, there is a meeting regarding what should be included in the student’s IEP. This IEP meeting is held among the student’s parent/s, a representative of the student’s school district, and members of the student’s educational team.

Other optional participants at an IEP meeting, who can be very helpful in ensuring special education needs are being identified and met, can include a special education attorney retained by the family, as well professionals who have done evaluations of the student in preparation for the IEP meeting with respect to various areas of the student’s ability and need. These potential specialists include, but are not limited to, Speech Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, ABA Providers, and Neuropsychologists.

As a parent of a special needs student, in Michigan if you believe that the IEP which is issued after the IEP Meeting is inadequate and does not provide your child with a FAPE, the IDEA provides a procedure by which you may challenge it. A special education attorney can assist you in connection with any or all of the following steps:

—The first step is to submit a complaint to the school.

—If that complaint fails to resolve the issue, then you and the school may enter voluntary mediation.

—If the matter is not resolved through mediation, or if you as the parent or the school choose not to pursue mediation, next, you as a parent can file a Due Process Complaint (“DPC”) with the Michigan Department of Education (“MDE”) Office of Special Education (“OSE”).

—The MDE OSE then assigns an independent Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to hold a “Due Process Hearing”.

—At a Due Process Hearing, you as a parent will have the opportunity to testify, submit supporting documentation, and call on other witnesses you believe support your position that the IEP is not adequate to meet your child’s needs. The School District will also have the opportunity to defend the IEP. Both parties will have the opportunity to cross-examine the other side’s witnesses.

—Once the ALJ rules, if you remain unhappy with the IEP as ratified by the ALJ, you may file suit in federal district court to challenge the decision.

—You can also file suit in federal court if the ALJ orders an educational program or services which you are seeking outside of the IEP as drafted, and the District fails to comply with the ALJ’s ruling.

Many parents have found it difficult to find a good attorney with the necessary knowledge and skills to navigate the complicated educational system and advocate on behalf of their children.

At FBMJ, we will put the family at the center of what we do to help your special needs student, and when you partner with us, our firm will always be there when you need us to protect your child’s rights.

For more information on Michigan Special Education Law, IEPs, Due Process Hearings, and the other issues outlined here, please contact  Matthew McCann at 734-742-1800. 

Matthew has significant experience successfully representing dozens of families who have navigated this procedure – including representing students and their families at IEP meetings, negotiating with the school district following the issuance of inadequate IEPs, drafting and filing DPCs challenging IEPs, conducting due process hearings before ALJs, and, where necessary, bringing the case to federal court. He is also the parent of a child with significant special needs and has navigated these roads not only as an attorney but as a father.

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