Emotions run high for any parent when your student is struggling at school. The student is frustrated, teachers can be frustrated, and you may be anxious and frustrated. The charged nature of these meetings can be lessened if all parties have a shared context and understanding of what can and can't be done and under what circumstances. This happens most frequently in public schools because the laws and procedures are clearly laid out, and the school district has the responsibility of informing parents of their rights in the advocacy process. Private school parents don't have this shared context. Private independent schools are just that, independent. They have unique missions, educational philosophies, and cultures. Having said that, private schools are public accommodations and are under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In this article, I hope to create this shared context, provide you, the best advocate your student can have, with what can help you be effective, and address your questions about how to get your student's learning and social/emotional needs met a private independent school.
WHAT LAWS PROTECT THE RIGHTS OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES?
“Private independent schools are just that, independent. They have unique missions, educational philosophies, and cultures.
There are three. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects the rights of persons with disabilities in institutions that receive federal financial assistance or are under an executive agency. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 provides a "free appropriate public education" for all students with disabilities. It also provides the right to services that "meet their unique needs." As mentioned above, the legislation that affects private schools is Title III of the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This Act "prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public accommodations." It considers a "nursery, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, or postgraduate private school, or other place of education," to be a public accommodation. However, Title III of the ADA does not apply "to any private club or to any religious entity."
WHAT IS CONSIDERED A DISABILITY AND HOW IS IT DETERMINED UNDER TITLE III OF THE ADA?
By disability, the Act means, "with respect to an individual, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual." Major life activities include learning, working, walking, hearing, seeing, etc. Emotional, intellectual, and specific learning disabilities fall under this definition, as do physical disabilities.
WHO DETERMINES THAT A STUDENT HAS A DISABILITY?
An individual is considered to have a disability if he or she "has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having an impairment." In the school environment, it is generally understood that a licensed and qualified person has determined that the student has a diagnosed disability. It is typical for a family to get neuro-psychological testing done by a licensed neuro-psychologist. A private school family may even avail themselves of their local public school's services and have the appropriate staff prepare an educational assessment of their student. Depending on the assessment type, a pediatrician, speech-language pathologist, licensed mental health professional, or occupational therapist may also provide documentation of a disability. It is important to talk with the learning specialist, school counselor, or administrator who handles accommodations at your school to determine what the school requires for a student to receive accommodations.
WHAT BASIC PROTECTIONS DOES THE ADA ENVISION FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES?
The Act specifies that schools must allow the student with a disability the opportunity to participate and benefit from what the school's program offers to all students. It may not deny participation or require unequal or separate benefits to students with disabilities unless it is necessary for safety and well-being.
WHAT ACCOMMODATIONS DOES A PRIVATE SCHOOL HAVE TO MAKE FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES?
The ADA does not specify what accommodations or modifications a private school has to make. Rather it states that the school "shall make reasonable modifications … or accommodations to individuals with disabilities." The paragraph goes on to state that this is the rule unless the private school can demonstrate that making the "modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations." As a parent advocate, it is critical that you understand the school's mission, educational philosophy, and culture to advocate effectively. For example, if your student attends a school with a dual language program, it would be a significant change in its program if you requested that you be exempt from taking a second language.
WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS MEAN FOR YOU, THE PARENT ADVOCATE?
From this basic overview of Title III of the American with Disabilities Act, I hope you have taken away the following: The Act does provide you with the opportunity to advocate for accommodations and modifications for your student with learning disabilities in the private school setting. To advocate effectively, it is important to do some homework and be prepared:
Identify the person at your student's school who can answer questions about how to document a learning disability.
Discover what accommodations and modifications the school considers to be reasonable for its program and mission.
For many schools, the answers will be readily available. For other schools, you may be a trailblazer, helping the school to create a policy in response to your questions.
WHO CAN HELP ME ADVOCATE FOR MY STUDENT?
An educational advocate, attorney, or consultant is capable of guiding you through the process of advocating for your student. Each has a different specialty or expertise, and it is important to discuss with each professional where you are in the process and what your needs are.
Disclaimer: I am presenting the basics here for those initial meetings you will have with your school to agree on accommodations and modifications to your student's academic program. This is advocacy advice (to coin a term) for your student and not legal advice. Should you need legal advice, please consult with an educational attorney about how the law applies to your particular situation.
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