Is your child with special needs ready to graduate?

Jan 31, 2017 | Special Education

Written by Mariann Crincoli, Esq.

As a child approaches his or her 18th birthday, most parents feel a loss of control as he or she officially enters adulthood. Parents of children with special needs have even more reason to be concerned because they have the heavy responsibility of determining whether or not their child is ready to graduate high school and transition to the next phase of life.

When evaluating this, it is helpful to know that there are special education laws that will assist you in making informed decisions — one that is best for your child.

Firstly, all children with disabilities in the State of New Jersey have the right to earn a high school diploma, just like their nondisabled peers. The Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) sets two paths for children to go about earning their high school diploma. High Schoolers with a disability can take the traditional route by completing the course requirements set forth by their public high school, or by completing the special education program and modified requirements contained in their IEP.

Under Federal and State Law, children with disabilities have the right to special education and related services through the school year in which they turn 21 or until they graduate, whichever comes first.  However, if a child’s 21st birthday falls on July 1st, services will continue through the end of the following school year. This caveat may prove advantageous to a high schooler with a July 1st birthday not quite ready to graduate.

Parents need to be aware that if their child accepts a high school diploma before reaching 21 years-of-age, the young adult is no longer entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) or special education services. However, if the school district owes their child additional compensatory education services due to the denial of services in the past, they are entitled to receive additional services after their graduation. These added services include summer programs, additional therapy sessions, and other interventions that make up for the school district’s shortcomings and violations of the IDEA.

If the public school district determines that a special needs child who is 18 years or older is ready to graduate, the district must give written a notice to the parent and the young adult student. The public school must provide parents with a written summary of his or her child’s academic and functional performance. The determination summary also includes a consideration about whether the student is prepared to transition beyond high school and either attend a post-secondary school and/or participate in the workforce and independently function to the extent that he or she is able. Transition goals, which are required to be included in the student’s IEP, must have been met. If the student needs additional transitional services, a diploma should not be issued before 21.

If you or your child disagrees with this determination, mediation or due process may be sought, during which time your child must continue to receive educational services. The decision about whether to give a special needs student a diploma prior to the age of 21 must not be based solely on whether that student completed the necessary credits or classwork. Scrutiny must also be placed on whether the student is prepared to transition beyond high school.

Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler can assist you if you are unsure whether your child is ready to graduate high school or believe your child may be entitled to educational services beyond the age of 18.

Mariann Crincoli has worked in both law firm and in-house settings over the last 20 years. For the past decade, she has passionately devoted her practice to education law matters, including counseling clients in the areas of special education, student discipline and harassment, intimidation and bullying, constitutional issues, residency, employment and personnel matters, and contract matters.

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