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Developmental Disabilities & High School Graduation

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The school system told us that our son will graduate from high school this June. He is developmentally disabled and has been on IEP's since kindergarten. He is now 18 and far from ready to enter the work force or live independently, though people have said he has the potential. We understand that once he graduates he will not receive any more special education services, but the school system says he has achieved all the goals of his IEP and is now ready to go. Can they force him to graduate? (They have been talking to him directly, too, and urging him to take his diploma so he can graduate with his classmates.)

There are really three questions here: one concerning the circumstances under which a student with special education needs can be graduated; another concerning what procedures and legal remedies are available to parents and/or students when a student has been graduated prematurely; and a third concerning who can act for the student once s/he reaches the age of majority.

Under IDEA, whenever a school system proposes to change "the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of [a child with special education needs] or the provision of a free appropriate public education to the child," the school must provide "written prior notice to the parents." [20 U.S.C. ?1415(b)-(1)(C)] Under current federal regulations that notice must include a description of other options considered, a description of the evaluations which justify the action, and a statement of reasons why the other options were rejected. [34 C.F.R. ?300.505 (This appears in ?300.503 of the proposed new regulations under IDEA 1997.)]

A student's eligibility to receive special education services ends either when s/he reaches age 21 (or 22 in some states) or graduates from high school. Thus in most cases the granting of a high school diploma will terminate services. Because of this, graduation is treated as a change of placement under special education law, and parents are therefore entitled to receive notice of their right to dispute the award of a diploma and to use the due process system to try to prevent loss of services. In one leading case, Stock v. Massachusetts Hospital School, 392 Mass. 205 (1984), the court ordered rescission of a high school diploma declaring that it would be "insidious if graduation proceedings were employed as a device to circumvent the Federal mandate by prematurely terminating special education services."

This is not to say that, for example, a student with a mild learning disability, who requires only minor classroom modifications cannot be expected to earn the same credits toward graduation as a non-disabled peer and graduate upon completing those credits. But students with more severe disabilities typically need to be measured on a different scale. For such a student the TEAM needs to establish criteria for graduation that are based on IEP goals and objectives specific to that student. Criteria for the delivery of a diploma, or the termination of special education services before the student "ages out," should in good sense be based on achievement of functional living skills and employability as well as meeting academic standards.

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