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Florida Law Enhances Special Education Rights

Florida enacted a new law this week intended to reiterate the rights of parents of special education students, including a provision that parents must agree to have their child placed on a track to earn a non-standard diploma, and that schools cannot discourage parents from bringing an adult of their choice to individualized education program meetings.

The text of the law, Senate Bill 1108, has been helpfully summarized by Disability Rights Florida, an advocacy group. The advocacy group supported the changes, said Ann Siegel, the managing attorney for the organization's education team.

Many of the new provisions underline rights that were already a part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but that parents nevertheless had a difficult time enforcing, Siegel said. Parents have always been a part of IEP team meetings, but Siegel said she has heard of cases where schools were shifting students onto special diploma tracks without giving parents an opportunity to object, or to even see the information that was prompting such a decision. The parents were then forced to shoulder the burden of proving that such a placement was inappropriate. Special, non-standard diplomas also cannot be used to enroll in college or the military, so a student with a special diploma can have limited options after graduation, she said.

The burden has now shifted to the school. Schools must also show why it is necessary for a student to be enrolled in a school that only students with disabilities attend.

Parents can also request an exemption from state testing for their children, in certain "extraordinary" circumstances. Such requests must come with a description of the student's disability, a description of why he or she cannot take the test, written evidence that the student has had a chance to learn the material, and evidence of appropriate instructional accommodations, among other requirements. This piece of the law has the potential to run afoul of federal testing rules, according to an article in the Orlando Sentinel, though state lawmakers say they're ready to defend the provision.

In addition to the enhanced rights for parents, the Florida law also defines the term inclusion, namely:

A school district shall use the term "inclusion" to mean that a student is receiving education in a general education regular class setting, reflecting natural proportions and age-appropriate heterogeneous groups in core academic and elective or special areas within the school community; a student with a disability is a valued member of the classroom and school community; the teachers and administrators support universal education and have knowledge and support available to enable them to effectively teach all children; and a student is provided access to technical assistance in best practices, instructional methods, and supports tailored to the student's needs based on current research.

The law requires that every three years, each school district and school shall complete a Best Practices in Inclusive Education evaluation, conducted by a facilitator with the Florida Inclusion Network.

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