The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was enacted in 1975 to ensure that children with disabilities have access to public education that is appropriate for their needs. IDEA ensures that states and other public agencies provide adequate services in accordance with the law.

What Benefits Does IDEA Provide?

As of 2004, IDEA contains two parts:

  • Part B: Covers special education and other services for children between 3 and 21 years old
  • Part C: Cover “early intervention services” for children from birth up to 3 years old

Part B ensures that students with learning disabilities have free access to an appropriate education. Part B helps schools and parents work together to address the specific needs of the child. If you have a dispute with your child's school over their education, then you would file a claim under Section B of IDEA.

Under Part C, babies and toddlers can qualify for services, including nursing, physical therapy, family counseling, speech therapy, or audiology services depending on the areas of disability or developmental delay.

How Do I Know If My Child Qualifies?

Part B:  If a school or parents suspect a child has a learning disability, the parents, along with the school, will conduct an evaluation of the child. To qualify for special education services, a child must meet the following requirements:

  • Have a disability; and
  • Require special education in order to progress in and benefit from school because of the disability

Part C:  Infants and toddlers can also receive benefits if they show signs of developmental delay or disability. To be eligible, the child will be evaluated for signs of developmental delay and disability. Such conditions may be present at birth, or may manifest later on.

The process of identifying a disability varies by state, but will typically require that the child was formally diagnosed and have a professional evaluation stating as to the type of medical care they will need.

What is an Individualized Education Program?

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) identifies the special services that the child will receive to further his or her education. It is reviewed and updated annually. While the IEP process varies by state, IDEA requires that it contain:

  • The child’s performance in school;
  • Academic and educational goals for the following year; and
  • Participation in the school’s general education curriculum.

However, IEP's are highly specialized and sometimes it can be difficult to execute and implement then in an effective way. Often, teachers and parents/guardians will disagree as to what the IEP should contain, and parents/guardians want to take legal action if the teachers or school district refuse to change. This is where the most important step comes: filing a claim under IDEA.

Before You File a Civil Lawsuit, You Must Exhaust IDEA

You want to protect your child as best as you can, and this means ensuring that they have the best education possible. So filing a claim under IDEA is the next step after the school district/teacher refused to implement or change aspects of your child's education.

Every state is different when it comes to how they treat people with disabilities. It is important to keep excellent records, which will give you a stronger case. If services are not being provided like they should be, then you must first exhaust all remedies an options under IDEA.

First, be sure to contact the school and let them know why you are dissatisfied with the situation. If the school refuses to change the situation or do not respond to your complaint, then you can file a claim through your state government. While each state may differ in how they handle IDEA complaints, these are the general steps you need to follow:

  1. A written and signed (including contact information) complaint that:
    • Explains how the public agency (like a school district) has violated the requirements of IDEA or failing to implement it properly;
    • Any relevant information about the child in question; and
    • A proposed solution for the problem as far as the submitter’s aware.
  2. A copy of the complaint must be given to the public agency where the violation took place;
  3. The violation must have happened within a year from when the complaint was submitted;
  4. The State must respond within 60 days of when the complaint was received; and
  5. Be prepared to provide other documents and information that prove your claim.

Once the state government investigated the claim and they make a decision, they will send a written decision to the parent/guardian who made the complaint and to the public agency that committed the violation.

If you fail to submit any of the above information, you run the risk of your complaint being dismissed for insufficient information/evidence. While it is possible to re-submit your complaint, it is very important to get all of the information before you submit it again so you do not delay the process.

Above all, if you do not take the above steps then you will not be allowed to file a civil lawsuit. IDEA must be “exhausted”, meaning all possible steps taken under it, before you will be permitted to file a separate civil claim.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Obtain Services Under IDEA?

You do not need a lawyer in order to apply for services under IDEA. You can submit a complaint and wait for the state government to respond. However, if you will need to attend a hearing under IDEA and you think you need extra help, then contacting a local administrative lawyer will be your best chance.

If you exhausted all remedies under IDEA (meaning you heard back from the state and they refuse to force the school district/teacher to change), then you can contact a local civil litigation attorney to file a private, civil claim.