Once a student has been identified as being eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA, they remain so until and unless they 1) graduate from high school, 2) “age out” of eligibility, or 3) are determined to be no longer eligible. This last scenario is commonly referred to as being “exited” from special education.
Every three years, or more often if the student’s performance or behavior dictates, a student with an IEP should be re-evaluated to consider continued eligibility. This is typically called the “triennial” evaluation. It would stand to reason, therefore, that it would be after these required reviews that many students are exited, since the very purpose of the triennial is to determine ongoing eligibility. This would seem to be a “natural” point at which students would be released from services.
What is unnatural, however, is how often students are exited, arbitrarily, as they are entering either middle or high school.
I see it all the time. It usually goes something like this: the special education team from the current school gets together with the special education staff from the next level school at the IEP meeting held right before the child is going to make the transfer. With little justification, the student is suddenly considered ineligible by the staff at the new school who haven’t even met him yet! They’ll make comments like “based on the test scores I’m seeing here, I really don’t see how he’d benefit from ongoing services in middle school,” or “the programs we have at the high school level are for much, much more disabled kids than he is, I just think he might feel very uncomfortable going into them.”
Very often these meetings end with the parents reluctantly agreeing to remove the child from special education support. And while many times the parents will leave the meeting feeling that they conveyed a “we’ll agree to it for now and see how it goes” message, they rarely appreciate that, from a legal perspective, they have just agreed that their child is no longer entitled to special education and related services.
More importantly, if the removal of the support DOESN’T go well, and the parents want the services back, the eligibility process will have to start all over again when that request is made.
I have so many problems with this “drop the kid right before he enters a more challenging environment” approach that I hardly know where to begin. But let’s start with the mere fact that this practice flies in the face of the IDEA’s strong focus on the individual needs of the child.
The fact that so many students are, coincidentally, determined no longer eligible for services at the exact same point in their education, is nothing short of remarkable.
And if it were based on the actual needs of the students, it might even be worthy of publication; but it’s not. In some districts here in Connecticut, I can almost predict it. A prospective client will call me from one of these towns that are notorious for this practice, and as they are going through their child’s special education history, I’ll say “don’t tell me…let me guess…and they recommended he be exited from services for at the end of elementary school, right?” The reply? “Oh my god, how did you KNOW that? Yes, that’s exactly what happened!”
Moving on from the fact that these mass decisions are not made based on the unique needs of the students involved, I am also appalled by the way in which this approach is so pedagogically unsound. It is a matter of common sense that the transition from elementary to middle or from middle to high school is tough, even for students who have no special needs. But for kids with disabilities, these transitions are usually even more trying.
Does this seem like the logical time to be REMOVING a scaffolding of support to you? Talk about a recipe for disaster!
But the thing about these systematic terminations of service that most infuriates me is the motivation for it. When districts exit kids from IEPs right before entering a new program en mass, it is usually because they do not have a special education program for that population of disability in place at the new school. Plain and simple. In some districts, it’s the kids with “milder” forms of autism who are exited upon leaving preschool; in other districts, it’s the students with specific learning disabilities who are exited as they move on from elementary school; and in other districts, it’s the kids with AD/HD who are exited after middle school. When you look harder, you discover that the deciding factor is not the child’s needs, but whether that school district has in place an established program for that population of disability at that age range.
The IDEA requires that school districts design individualized programs based on the unique needs of each child who is identified as eligible.
The question is not “does she fit into one of our special education programs,” but rather “what does she need, and how can we create it?” Instead, all too often, we get the “square peg, round hole” appraoch to special education. If your child with disabilities is about to be transitioned to the “next level” of education, be very, very vigilant, and only agree to removal of eligibility if you have actual, unbiased evidence that doing so is appropriate.