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Is it Time to Think About High School Graduation?

Accessibility, Education

It is never too soon to check in with your school district about proposed graduation plans for your son or daughter, if they are in special education and at least 16 years old.

Some parents report that public school districts and charter schools act to graduate students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) once they have completed their minimum required credit hours for graduation, regardless of whether they have received appropriate services to help them transition into life after high school. The purpose of this post is to briefly discuss graduation and transition requirements and to provide some general tips for parents or adult students if they disagree with an IEP team’s decision to graduate an IDEA-eligible student.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that ensures students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that is tailored to their individual needs.

This post presents legal information only and should not be used as a substitute for legal advice. Laws vary by state. If you are in Arizona and want assistance regarding your child’s individual situation, please contact DRAZ or another attorney.

IDEA – Graduation Requirements

Under the 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).  Under Arizona law, public school districts and charter schools are responsible for developing graduation requirements for students in special education programs, and students with disabilities may be eligible to receive regular high school diplomas upon completion of these requirements.

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 a FAPE ends. However, graduation with a certificate of completion or other certificate does not end this obligation. For these reasons, graduation is a very important topic for students with disabilities.

The Problem: School Districts Prematurely Graduating Students with Disabilities

There is no federal or state law requirement that IDEA-eligible students with disabilities must graduate when they meet the minimum required credit hours. Despite this, many school districts and charter schools will justify graduating a student with a disability before age 22 by maintaining that the student has met their required minimum credit hours. School districts and charter schools may also claim that they are concerned about resources, or that the IEP team does not believe there is more than the student can learn.

If your child’s school district or charter school is requiring them to graduate, regardless of the reasoning, this decision constitutes a change of placement under the IDEA. If you disagree with the decision to graduate your IDEA-eligible child, this may be in part because your child received inappropriate transition services to prepare them for life after graduation.

IDEA – Transition Requirements

The IDEA requires IEP teams to determine appropriate transition services for IDEA-eligible students that are based on the student’s individual interests, strengths, and preferences, in order to help them prepare for life after high school. All transition planning should begin with appropriate transition assessments, and transition services should begin no later than the student’s sixteenth birthday.

Because each student is different, appropriate transition services and goals will vary depending on the student’s specific needs. Some examples of potential transition services include habilitation and independent living skills training, travel skills training, career shadowing, and other transition-related community experiences. Failure to provide an appropriate transition plan or services can constitute a denial of a FAPE and violate the IDEA.

If you disagree with the decision to graduate your IDEA-eligible child and wish to challenge it, a first step is reviewing your child’s IEP. Some common issues to look into include:

  • Whether your child’s IEP has a transition plan that includes measurable transition goals;
  • Whether the transition plan includes age-appropriate transition assessments were conducted in developing your child’s transition plan;
  • Whether the transition goals were sufficiently ambitious;
  • Whether the transition goals were met;
  • Whether appropriate services were provided by the school district or charter school to support your child’s transition goals; and
  • Whether your child received all of the transition services listed in their IEP.

After you have reviewed the IEP, here are some tips for discussing your graduation and transition concerns with the district and/or challenging the graduation decision that you disagree with:

  • Ask the school in writing for an IEP meeting to discuss graduation and transition issues.
  • Come to the IEP meeting prepared to discuss your concerns with your child’s transition services and/or transition goals, and why you believe graduation is inappropriate at this time.
  • Ask the IEP team to decide that your child needs more than four years of high school in order to receive appropriate transition services.
  • Make sure that all relevant IEP team members attend the meeting, including representatives from any outside agencies involved in providing student’s transition services (such as Vocational Rehabilitation or the Division of Developmental Disabilities).
  • Ask the school district for written notice of its decision to graduate your student, making sure that the school district has documented in the notice the concerns that you raised in the meeting.

If you are not satisfied with the results of the IEP meeting, you can:

  • Contact the Arizona Center for Disability Law to do an intake to request services.
  • Ask for a Facilitated IEP meeting. Learn more about Facilitated IEP meetings here.
  • Ask for mediation with the school district. Learn more about mediation as a way to resolve disputes here or call 602-542-3084 to schedule.
  • File a written complaint with the Arizona Department of Education. Be aware that there are time limitations on when you can file complaints. You can learn more about the Arizona Department of Education’s complaint process here.
  • Ask for mediation with the school district. Learn more about mediation as a way to resolve disputes here or call 602-542-3084 to schedule.

Visit the Parent Center for Information and Resources website to learn more about transitions services and resources.

About the author: Attorney Jessica Jansepar Ross represents children in special education matters and provides state-wide training to parents and others about their rights.

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