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Back to Basics: Child Find Obligations
This month’s Back to Basics article focuses on school officials’ responsibility to comply with the “child find” requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. School officials must exercise vigilance to identify students with disabilities residing within the school’s boundaries.
The IDEA and its implementing regulations impose an affirmative duty on public schools to ensure that all students with disabilities who need special education and related services are “identified, located, and evaluated.” This mandate is commonly called the school's “child find” obligation. Schools must have policies and procedures in effect that ensure that all students with disabilities will be identified, located, and evaluated. For Thrun Policy Service subscribers, these policies and procedures are covered in the 5600 series – Student Support Services.
These obligations are ongoing and apply to any student suspected of having a disability. This includes students who may “fly under the radar,” such as students who are advancing from grade to grade or students who are considered “highly mobile” (i.e., migrant children). Parents do not have to request an evaluation to trigger the school’s child find obligation. Rather, schools must watch for signs of potential disability and take action when those signs are noticed. Courts have held that school officials who overlook clear signs of a disability violate the IDEA’s child find obligation.
Once a student is identified as potentially eligible for services, the student should be referred for an evaluation to determine eligibility. If school officials suspect that a student has a disability, the school must seek parental consent to evaluate the student within a reasonable time period. If a parent refuses to consent to an initial evaluation, the school may, but is not required to, use the IDEA’s consent override procedures.
Section 504 Requirements
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also has a child find obligation that requires schools to “undertake to identify and locate every qualified [individual with a disability] residing in [the school’s] jurisdiction who is not receiving a public education.” Further, schools must evaluate students with disabilities who may need special education or related services. This broad obligation applies to resident students who attend private schools, students in hospitals, and homeless students. Section 504 regulations do not specify how schools must conduct child find for those students.
Like the IDEA, a parent request for an evaluation is not needed to trigger a school’s Section 504 child find obligations. Hearing officers have found schools to be in violation of Section 504 for failing to evaluate students when they had reason to suspect a disability. For example, a school violated Section 504 when it failed to evaluate a student after the student’s father provided medical documentation supporting the student’s depression diagnosis. Also, a court found that a school should have conducted an evaluation when a student with cerebral palsy began using a wheelchair.
School officials also must ensure that they are not side-stepping their Section 504 child find obligations by relying on a “health plan” or similar document to support students who may be Section 504 eligible. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights maintains that the presence of an individual health plan does not negate the need to evaluate a student for potential Section 504 eligibility. A school’s failure to evaluate may amount to a denial of a free appropriate public education, liability for disability discrimination, or both.
As the school year progresses, school officials should watch for red flags that may require a closer examination of whether a student is a “student with a disability” under the IDEA or Section 504. Red flags may include students who:
- have declining grades,
- are frequently absent,
- are seeing an outside therapist or specialist,
- have serious or increasing behavioral issues,
- are receiving homebound services,
- have a health plan or a known chronic health condition, or
- have an increase in discipline from previous years.
Failing to timely identify and evaluate students with disabilities under the IDEA or Section 504 can have serious consequences for a school including, but not limited to, liability for compensatory education or tuition reimbursement claims.