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Graduation of Students with Disabilities – Common but Invalid Reasons Schools Give for Forcing Students with Disabilities to Graduate


By Amanda Glass, Staff Attorney

As explained in our earlier blog posts on this topic, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Arizona law, IDEA-eligible students are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) from ages 3 to 21 (or to age 22, if their birthday occurs prior to the end of the school year). A student’s receipt of FAPE is directed by their Individualized Education Program, or IEP.

Once a student receives a regular high school diploma or “ages out” of special education, the public school district or charter school’s obligation to continue providing FAPE ends. If a student has not met the requirements set by the Arizona State Board of Education and their school for the receipt of a regular high school diploma, the student should not be forced to graduate before the end of the school year in which they turn 22 years old.

Sometimes schools will provide reasons for graduating a student other than the student earning a regular high school diploma or aging out of IDEA eligibility. Parents and students might be given reasons such as:

  • We don’t have enough funding
  • We don’t have a teacher for next year
  • We don’t have enough resources to continue providing services to students after four years of high school
  • Your child’s IEP team does not believe there is more your child can learn in school

None of these are valid or legal reasons to graduate a student who has not earned a regular diploma.

Lack of resources, teaching staff, or funding is never a valid reason for a school to deny a student FAPE. By accepting federal IDEA funding, the state of Arizona and its schools have agreed to provide all qualifying students with FAPE regardless of cost. Schools in Arizona continue to receive funding for students with disabilities until such time as they graduate or age out, and the graduation of a student’s four-year cohort does not impact the school’s ability to receive funding for a student with disabilities who requires more than four years to graduate.

Stating that a student “cannot learn any more” or has “stopped benefiting from school” are not valid reasons to require a student to graduate. If a student is not making progress in his or her educational program, then the program should be reviewed and revised. The entire idea of an IEP is to develop a tailored, individualized educational program that is reasonably calculated to allow the student to make progress, so if that program is no longer meeting the student’s needs, then the program must be changed. In fact, lack of student progress may be considered evidence that a student has been denied FAPE and is entitled to compensatory services, as opposed to a reason to stop providing services altogether. Lack of student progress cannot be used to legitimize the premature graduation of a student with a disability.

If you hear these reasons and your child has not aged out or received a regular high school diploma that aligns with state standards, you can challenge the school’s decision. Look back at the first blog post in this series for information on how to dispute a graduation decision.

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