Child Find: No, it’s not a new app, it’s an important concept in Education Law

As an educator or as a parent, seeing a child struggle in the school environment can be both difficult and concerning.  These struggles can manifest in a variety of ways:  difficulty grasping academics or retaining lessors, acting out, or simply “shutting down” and not participating.

The purpose of this article is to discuss both the parent and a public school’s obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) when faced with such circumstances, namely the concept of “Child Find.”  The Child Find mandate is a critical tool to help get a struggling child back on track to succeed in school.

What is Child Find?

The IDEA was enacted to ensure that all children with disabilities are provided a free appropriate public education (also called “FAPE”).  A critical part of FAPE is the Child Find mandate. Child Find requires educational institutions to identify, locate, and evaluate all children, from birth to age 21, who may be in need of special education services and related services, such as counseling or speech therapy.  Child Find effectively requires educational institutions to be proactive in evaluating children who are suspected of having a disability.

The Child Find obligation is not limited to students who are performing poorly academically.  The Child Find obligation can be triggered even if a student has passing grades or is advancing grade-to-grade, as the student may still have emotional, social, or motor impairments that could constitute a disability and adversely affect a student’s ability to meaningfully progress.

When the educational institution suspects that the child has a disability, the educational institution has a duty to evaluate that student to ascertain whether that child has a disability and requires special education services, which can include an “individualized education plan” (“IEP”) or a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (also called “504 Plans”).

Parents play an important role in this process.  For one, if a child is struggling and may be triggering an educational institution’s Child Find obligations, the parent should communicate his/her concerns to the school.  This may require consulting an educational institution’s evaluation policy – to the extent that the district has such protocols – and participating in the evaluation process.  This can include providing insight as to the student’s developmental and behavioral history or providing the educational institution and evaluators with insight as to the student outside of school.  Further, if the parent is dissatisfied with the results of the educational institution’s evaluation (or refusal to evaluate), the parent may have additional rights to challenge that decision.

What happens after a child is diagnosed with a disability?

If the evaluation identifies that the student has a disability, schools must then create and follow an IEP for each disabled child. The process for the development of an IEP is a complicated matter that could be the topic of a series of articles.  However, simply summarized, the IEP must include a statement of the child’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, a statement of measurable annual goals, criteria for measuring progress toward those goals, and a statement of the specific services that the school will offer.  It is important to note that one of the goals of this process is not to result in the alienation of the child, which can adversely affect a child’s social development.  For that reason, the IEP is supposed to place the student in the “least restrictive environment” to allow the student to progress.

The development of an IEP is intended to be a collaborative and cooperative exercise between parents and schools.  The parents can contribute meaningful input in forming the IEP along with the teachers and other educational professionals.  However, that is not to say that the educational institute has to agree to all of the services or demands sought by the parent.  Similarly, the parents may appeal decisions related to the IEP that they find inappropriate.

How does Child Find impact school discipline?

An important component of Child Find is the impact it has on the disciplinary process in schools. Child Find adds an element of protection to disabled children by ensuring that disabilities that may result in discipline are identified and services provided to address those disabilities.

Further, if an educational institution is determined to have violated the Child Find mandate, then the student may be afforded the protections of a disabled student under the IDEA as it relates to discipline, which can include the protection of a “manifestation determination” when the student is suspended for either more than 10 days in a row or more than 10 days in total over a school year, if the behaviors that lead to the suspensions are substantially similar.  The purpose of a manifestation determination hearing is to determine whether the misconduct is a manifestation of the disability which may necessitate further interventions (a Functional Behavioral Assessment or a Behavioral Intervention Plan).

In short, by understanding educational institutions’ obligations under the IDEA, both parents and those educational institutions can ensure that the child’s access to free appropriate public education is satisfied in the least restrictive and most inclusive manner possible.  For further information on the IDEA or education law, in general, please contact Eric A. Maher, Esq. and Elaina L. Hoeppner, Esq. at (603)778-0686.