The Laws Dealing with Special Education in New York

How parents can advocate for the education of a child with special needs

Long before she became a special education attorney, Adrienne Arkontaky of Cuddy Law Firm discovered firsthand how much effort it takes to advocate for a child with special needs. When her daughter Jordan, who is blind and has severe cognitive and physical disabilities, started school, Arkontaky took it upon herself to read up on federal and state regulations affecting her child. She scoured Jordan’s formal evaluations to make sure they were correct and networked with other parents.

“I was lucky because I had a school district that was supportive of special education,” she says. “But I also think it was knowing what the districts were required to do, and really just digging deep and making sure that they were fulfilling the requirements in every way.”

She adds: “You don’t have to be a lawyer to advocate for your child, but you do have to know that there are laws that protect a student’s right to these services. Many parents are so lost in the system they don’t know what to do.”

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, any student with a disability between the ages of 3 and 21 is entitled to receive an appropriate free public education with supports and services, from special seating to smaller classes. Each state is also responsible for its own statutes and regulations. In New York, school districts are required to follow Parts 200 and 201 of the regulations of the Commissioner of Education, which fully outline and define services and protections for students with disabilities.

If some of those terms sound ambiguous, you’re not alone. “The definition of ‘appropriate’ may mean one thing to school districts,” says Adam Dayan, a special education attorney who heads up his own firm in New York City, “and another thing to parents.”

How early should you start working with the school system? As soon as you suspect your child has a disability, both attorneys say. At that point, the local district is required to assess the child and propose an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If the school district can’t accommodate your child’s needs, she may be entitled to private programming or services.

If you’re not happy with the district’s evaluation, you may be entitled to one by an independent evaluator. He or she will help a parent identify the child’s needs and determine what support would be appropriate based on their unique circumstances.

It the district fails to implement the mandated plan, you can pursue a formal administrative legal process to enforce their rights by requesting an impartial hearing before an administrative law judge.

It may sound daunting, and Dayan suggests retaining an experienced attorney early on “to demystify the special education process and reduce stress.” He points to several of his team’s recent successes: One student with an anxiety and mood disorder is now attending a private school at public expense and another child with severe autism—who cannot attend a typical center-based setting—is flourishing in a robust home-based program. Dayan adds that your lawyer may be able to recover his legal fees from the school district as well.

Still, it’s up to parents to keep the ball rolling. It’s important to maintain detailed records, communicate concerns with the school district, and cooperate with requests for testing and information. You should sign up for special education seminars or webinars, or join an advocacy group such as National Allies for Parents in Special Education or Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. Always leave a paper trail—digital or otherwise. “If it’s not in writing,” says Arkontaky, “it wasn’t said.

“For kids in special education,” she adds, “time is of the essence. A lot of times, families will try and work the issues out with the school district, and six months will go by. We find this a lot with underserved populations or even families of some means. All of a sudden, they wake up and it’s a year later and the issues are still there and the child has lost so much time in learning.”

“This is a long road,” Arkontaky says. “It comes with challenges, but they can make a difference.”

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