Special Education Laws and Rights for the Military Child
Growing up in a military family has its advantages and adventures, but for kids with learning disabilities (LD) and others who need special education services, the road can be rocky. Whether your child is being evaluated for special education services or is already enrolled, you’ll want to understand how special education works in both civilian public schools and those governed by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), because you’re likely to experience both when you’re a military family.
Note: The DoDEA is essentially a subdivision of the Department of Defense (DoD). Military parents whose children have physical disabilities that require special education will probably deal with the DoD in general for the child’s medical needs and with the DoDEA specifically for special education issues.
Differences Between Civilian and DoDEA Schools
In both civilian schools and those operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), the processes for assessment and special education implementation are essentially the same. However, there are some important differences.
- In DoDEA schools, the term Case Study Committee is used to describe the team of professionals and parents who make decisions about a child’s special education program. Public schools may use other terms, such as IEP (Individualized Education Program) team or Committee on Special Education (CSE) team.
- The DoDEA schools use a standard IEP form. Public schools use a variety of IEP forms which may vary slightly from state to state.
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that ensures a free and appropriate education for children with certain types of disabilities and prevents discrimination against them. IDEA lists and defines disability categories, but each state, and the Department of Defense, sets their own criteria. All states differ in their specific criteria. The DoDEA schools in the United States and overseas use the same criteria, but the criteria may differ from that used in some state public schools. Heather Hebdon, founder and director of STOMP (Specialized Training of Military Parents) explains one reason for this is that today’s DoDEA schools are still operating under IDEA 1997 (not the most current version).
Challenges for Military Children In Special Education
Military children who are enrolled in special education, or who are being assessed for learning disabilities and eligibility in special education, often face the following challenges:
- When a child with an IEP moves to a new school district, his or her IEP may not be immediately recognized and enforced in the new school. Parents must navigate a new system each time they move. Heather Hebdon explains the challenge. “I often hear about this happening when a child transfers from a non-DoDEA school to a DoDEA school. The DoDEA school may not be well-informed about special education rights, so parents need to educate the school about what resources the school is required to provide to their children. But parents are not as aware of their rights as they might be. This is gradually improving as both parents and DoDEA schools become better informed.”
- IDEA 2004 mandates that a child’s new school district must provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and “comparable services” until an evaluation is performed and a new Individualized Education Program (IEP) is created. When districts interpret this broadly, they may provide inferior services to the child and ignore the prior IEP. (This happens with both interstate and intrastate moves.)
- The assessment of a child for a disability and eligibility for special education is sometimes delayed and disrupted because the family is transferred during the process. In Hebdon’s experience, “Transfers from one state to another are the toughest. It’s true that any data collected at the former school needs to be considered by the new school district, but the criteria for a learning disability—and for special education eligibility—vary from state to state.” Deadlines for finishing the evaluation start all over again in the new locale.
Fortunately, some of these issues have been recognized and remedied through new legislation, particularly the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act.
Recent Improvements to Special Education for Military Children
The National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009. This new legislation mandates a program to support military families with special needs, establishes a Defense Department Office of Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs, and requires a comprehensive policy on support to families. Some key provisions of this important act include:
- Military personnel who have family members with identified special needs will be assigned to locations where care and support for those needs are available. Assignment of those families will remain stable for a minimum of four years.
- Timely and accurate evaluations of family members with special needs.
- Enrollment of family members with special needs in military departments that support them.
- Staffing and funding of an adequate number of case managers through the Department of Defense to provide individualized support for those families.
- Improved development, monitoring, record keeping, reporting, and updating of an individual services plan (whether medical or educational) for each special needs family.
- More support for U.S. military families worldwide in obtaining referrals for services and help securing services.