School Districts

School districts have specific responsibilities related to the provision of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to school-aged individuals with disabilities under Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In CA, special education services from the school district may begin as early as child’s birth and can continue until the student reaches the age of 22. Specifically, children with disabilities younger than 3 years of age may qualify for early instruction and intervention from the school district if they have a visual, hearing, or severe orthopedic impairment. All other children in this age range with developmental delays or established risk conditions causing harmful developmental consequences may instead qualify for early intervention services from their local Regional Center. Preschool children (i.e., ages 3 to 5) may also qualify for special education if they have one of the listed eligible disabilities or an “established medical disability”, a disabling medical condition or congenital syndrome very likely to require special education services.

Eligibility of students with disabilities for special education is determined by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team according to specific criteria for each of the categories. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) lists the following 13 different disability categories under which 3- through 21-year-olds may be eligible for services:

  1. Autism (AUT)
  2. Deaf-Blindness (DB)
  3. Deafness (D)
  4. Emotional Disturbance (ED)
  5. Hearing Impairment (HI)
  6. Intellectual Disability (ID)
  7. Multiple Disabilities (MD)
  8. Orthopedic Impairment (OI)
  9. Other Health Impairment (OHI)
  10. Specific Learning Disability (SLD)
  11. Speech or Language Impairment (SLI)
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
  13. Visual Impairment (including blindness) (VI)

Note that the aforementioned categories are considered special education eligibilities rather than clinical diagnoses. Also, a student cannot be eligible for special education if the determining factor for eligibility is a lack of appropriate instruction in reading or math or solely because they are an English learner.

Besides identifying special education eligibilities based on a child’s educational abilities and needs, the IEP provides a written plan for special education that can consist of educational placements and services to address the student’s unique needs. To the maximum extent appropriate, the law also requires that students with disabilities be educated with children without disabilities, which is referred to as the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) placement. While children with disabilities are recommended to attend the school they would ordinarily attend if they were not in special education (i.e., home school), this requirement may be waived when a student’s IEP requires it through justifiable reasons, such as a more appropriate educational setting.

IEP’s must be reviewed and potentially revised at least once a year or more often depending on the student’s needs, which are always changing across time and development. IEP’s also indicate how the school district will measure the student’s progress towards meeting specific educational goals through short-term and annual objectives, educational services, instructional programs, and class placements.

As IDEA only protects a subset of students who have disabilities (i.e., those who satisfy its definition for “child with a disability”, Section 504 can help many young individuals with disabilities who do not meet that definition and in turn prohibits discrimination in schools. Thus, schools and districts comply with Section 504 through the following process: identify students with disabilities, evaluate those students, and create a written accommodation plan, often called a “504 Plan” if the student is eligible. A 504 Plan is similar to, but often shorter, than the IEP and can provide educational accommodations and services to student. 

To meet the criteria for Section 504 protections, a student must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • Have a record of such impairment
  • Be regarded as having such an impairment