Graduation and Termination of Special Education Services
August is here, and at the beginning of the school year it’s time to think about graduation. That’s right, it’s never too early to plan for a student’s graduation and transition to post-secondary life. Waiting until spring to prepare for this change can lead to trouble. Here’s what you need to know.
When do services end?
The basic rule is a student’s eligibility terminates upon reaching the maximum age of eligibility or graduating with a regular high school diploma, whichever occurs first.
Maximum Age of Eligibility
The maximum age for eligibility under the IDEA is 21, unless a different age is specified in state law. In Texas, that age is 21 years old. An eligible student receiving special education services who is 21 years of age on September 1st of a school year is eligible for services through the end of that school year (unless they graduate with a regular high school diploma first).
A student who has passed the maximum age for eligibility may be eligible for continued services as a remedy for a prior denial of FAPE. A hearing officer can order compensatory services that are provided after the student would otherwise age-out of special education to make up for missed or inadequate services when the student was eligible. School districts should consult with legal counsel to respond to such requests for compensatory education.
So what does a “regular high school diploma” actually mean? We can start by looking at what it’s not. The term “regular high school diploma” does not include an alternative degree that is not fully aligned with a state’s academic standards, such as a certificate of attendance, certificate of completion, or a general education development credential.
Generally, when a student enters a test prep program in lieu of the pursuit of a regular high school diploma, the student is not entitled special education and related services. The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has explicitly stated that districts are not required to provide special education services to students who have withdrawn from school and entered a GED test preparation program unless the state considers that program to be a part of an appropriate secondary education.
Additionally, parents who demand continuation of special education services after graduation with a regular high school diploma are really demanding post-secondary services, which are not required under the IDEA.
What is the process?
A student’s IEP team plays an integral role in planning for a student’s graduation. The IDEA requires IEPs for older students (16 and older, but planning starts at 14 Texas) to include a plan for a coordinated set of services so that students can successfully move from high school to post-secondary settings such as college or vocational school. Transition assessments are required to help guide the development of postsecondary goals and services.
The IDEA requires districts to evaluate an IDEA-eligible student before making a determination that the child is no longer a child with a disability. However, such an evaluation is not required before terminating a child’s eligibility due to graduation with a regular high school diploma or exceeding the age eligibility.
While an evaluation is not required, the procedural rights related to graduation are very important. Because graduation is a change in placement under the IDEA, districts must provide the student and parents with adequate notice. This means that whether the student is graduating or reaching the maximum age of eligibility, the district must provide prior written notice (PWN). The district must also provide the student and parents with a summary of the child’s academic achievement and functional performance at this time.
If parents disagree that the student is ready to graduate with a high school diploma, they can exercise their procedural rights to challenge the decision through a due process hearing request. In analyzing a district’s decision to graduate a student with a disability, the standard is not whether the student is prepared for independent living. Rather, the correct standard is whether the district, by virtue of a reasonably calculated IEP, made educational benefit available to the student in light of the student’s unique circumstances.
But what if…
What if the student has stopped engaging in school and fails to cooperate with the services offered? The district continues to have an obligation to provide FAPE to the student. A student’s lack of participation should trigger the ARD Committee to re-examine the student’s IEP and determine if changes in the program should be made. Convening an ARD meeting to review the student’s post-secondary goals, needed courses, and transition services can help get the student back on track.
For more information or details, please contact any member of the Thompson & Horton special education team.