What is special education?

Special education means specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability. Special education services are provided at no cost to parents and includes any related services a student needs to access his or her educational program. The law governing special education and related services is known as IDEA. 

Read the statutes and regulations for Parts B & C by clicking here.

The three main components of the IDEA

The three main components of the IDEA are:

A free appropriate public education means exactly that—a free education that meets a student’s unique needs that are provided at public expense and supervised by the local public school system.

Least restrictive environment is not a place—it is a philosophy that guides where a student will learn. Students with disabilities should be educated with students without disabilities as much as possible.

The individual education plan is a legal document that details the specialized instruction, supports, accommodations, modifications and services a student needs to make educational progress.

Quick info guides

The Individualized Educational Program


Schools are responsible for making sure students who need special education services receive them. Teachers, parents, doctors, service providers, advocates and more can bring concerns to the school's attention. 


During the evaluation period, a student receives a variety of assessments, both formal and informal. These evaluations assist in making a determination if the student is eligible for special education and related services.

After the special education administrator receives the referral for an evaluation, an evaluation must be conducted and eligibility must be determined within 65 BUSINESS days. 

Present levels of performance describes the skills the student already has and how his or her disability specifically impacts progress in the general education curriculum


A student must be found eligible under one of the categories listed in the IDEA. This disability must impact the student's education, and the student must need special education and related services.

The IEP must be developed within 30 CALENDAR days of the initial determination of eligibility.

Accommodations change the WAY information is presented to a student. Modifications change the CONTENT of the information the student is learning. 


Students are reevaluated for special education and related services generally every three years. 

Anatomy of the Individualized Education Program

Present Levels of Performance (PLOPs)

Present levels of performance describes the skills the student already has and how his or her disability specifically impacts progress in the general education curriculum. The areas of need can include academic skills the student needs, daily living skills for students who will be transitioning, social and behavioral skills, sensory and/or communication skills. Parent concerns should be documented in the PLOPs. 

Annual goals

The goals describe what the student will learn in ONE year. The goals should be specific and include a time frame in which the goal will be accomplished. 

Special education & related services

Special education and related services identifies how much and what type of specialized instruction a student needs to make progress at school


Placement refers to the start date, frequency, duration and location for specialized instructional services in the IEP. 

Accommodations & modifications

Accommodations change the WAY information is presented to a student. Modifications change the CONTENT of the information the student is learning. 



The IDEA requires IEP teams to use positive behavioral supports. If behavior impacts a student's education, a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) may be scheduled to determine what is the cause of the behavior and identify ways in which educators and other professionals should respond to that behavior through a behavior intervention plan (BIP).


The IDEA requires IEP teams to use formal assessments to determine the student's proficiency and performance in reading, writing, understanding and communicating. After these assessments, the IEP will determine if the student will receive special education services in his or her native language or in English. 


The IDEA states that students with visual impairments may receive instruction in Braille, unless they can be accommodated with other alternative materials, such as large print, audiobooks or magnification devices. 


The IDEA requires that an IEP not only focus on communication on what they have learned, but also their ability to communicate with their peers and members of the school community. 


Assistive technology includes physical devices and services. Schools may not use cost as a reason to deny a student assistive technology supports they may need. 

Extended School Year Services

Extended school year services are those that a student needs beyond the typical school year. IDEA does not give standards to determine who receives ESY and who does not. All students, not just students with certain disabilities, should be screened to determine if they meet their state's criteria for ESY. Most states will consider the regression of the student to determine if ESY services are needed. 

Transition Plan (At age 14)

In Virginia, students MUST begin the process of transition planning by age 14. Transition plans assist students in preparing for life after high school--whether that be trade school, college, employment or other support programs. Transition plans must also be individualized to the unique needs and goals of the student.


Students in Virginia must be assessed using a variety of formal and informal assessments to determine their transition needs. This can be a formalized test, questionnaire or conversation with the student. The assessments should identify areas of need and areas of strength for the student.



Goals and services must focus on:

  • Any educational goals after high school, such as a trade school or college; 

  • Employment that the student would like after high school; and

  • Skills that a student will need to live more independently after high school


Goals and services must focus on:

  • Any educational goals after high school, such as a trade school or college; 

  • Employment that the student would like after high school; and

  • Skills that a student will need to live more independently after high school

Independent living skills are focused on what are necessary and achievable for that particular student.


Adult service agencies are invited to participate in transition plans. Organizations like Social Security, the Community Services Board, Department of Aging & Rehabilitative Services and others are invited to participate to help the student reach his or her transition goals


Safeguards for Parent Participation

  • Schools must tell parents about meetings, in writing, so they have an opportunity to attend and participate; 

  • Schools must make multiple attempts to make sure parents are able to attend the student's IEP meeting. They must document all attempts to notify parents of the meeting; 

Safeguards for Access to Records

Safeguards for Parental Consent

  • Parents have the right to review any document the school has in regards to a student; 

  • Parents also have the right to make changes to documents in the student's records that are not correct.

  • Schools must get parental consent IN WRITINGS before they take certain actions, including:

    • Initial evaluations; ​and

    • Reevaluations

  • Schools must receive parental consent before providing special education and related services; 

  • PARENT NOTE: You can agree to some parts of the IEP, but not others

Prior Written Notice Safeguards

  • Prior written notice information that schools must provide to parents IN WRITING any time they want to change anything in the IEP; 

  • For parents who do not speak English, the prior written notice must be written in their native language; 

  • All notices must include:

    • A description of the proposed change; ​

    • Why the change is or isn't needed; 

    • What options were considered and rejected; and 

    • What information was used to come to the decision in the prior written notice

Independent Educational Evaluation Safeguards

  • Parents may ask the school to pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) if they disagree with the school's findings; 

  • Schools are required to CONSIDER BUT NOT FOLLOW THE RECOMMENDATIONS of the independent educational evaluations; 

  • Parents may pay for an independent educational evaluation at their own expense at any time. Schools are required to CONSIDER BUT NOT FOLLOW THE RECOMMENDATIONS of this IEE. 

Disciplinary Protections


  • Students with individualized education programs have some protections that students without IEPs do not; ​​

  • Schools must take additional measures in order to discipline a student with an IEP that remove them from their current IEP PLACEMENT for more than 10 school days; 

  • If a student is expelled or has a suspension of 10 days or more, the student has a right to an administrative and disciplinary meeting to show that the removal was appropriate


  • Students with individualized education programs may be removed from their current IEP placement for 10 school days or less if they violate school rules; 

  • If a student is removed for MORE than 10 school days, it is considered a change in the IEP placement; 

  • PARENT NOTE: Any removal from school for discipline reasons, including picking up a child early from school, counts as one of the 10 days


  • When schools remove students with an individualized education plan for more than 10 consecutive school days, schools must hold a manifestation determination meeting. This meeting is used to determine whether the behavior which caused the student's removal is caused by the student's disability.

  • If the student's behavior is determined to be caused by the disability, then the student cannot be removed from the school any longer and must be returned to their IEP placement immediately.

  • If a student's behavior is NOT a manifestation of his or her disability, the student may be removed according to the disciplinary policies of the school, just as any other student without an IEP would be removed for his or her behavior

EXCEPTION: Schools can remove a student from his or her IEP placement for up to 45 school days if she or he violates any of the following rules:

  • Bringing a weapon to school or a school activity;  

  • Bringing illegal drugs to school or a school activity; and/or

  • Cause serious bodily injury to another person at school or a school activity

Students who meet the criteria for the exception above may be moved to an interim alternative educational setting for the time of his or her removal.

Dispute Resolution

Informal Resolutions

Parents should discuss concerns with a teacher first. If the issue is not resolved, speaking to an administrator at the school may be beneficial. 


Mediation is a voluntary way to solve disagreements with the school regarding services and/or supports. Mediation is confidential, paid for by the school and can be enforced in both state and federal courts. 

State Complaints

Parents can complete a state complaint for an incident that has occurred within the last year. The Virginia Department of Education has 60 days to investigate state complaints and issue a written decision. Complaints can be issued by an individual or an organization. 

If VDOE determines that the school has violated IDEA, they can receive support and technical assistance on how to remedy the complaint. 

Due Process Complaints

Due process is the most formal of all the complaint processes, and allege that a school has not complied with the IDEA within the last two years. Once a due process complaint is received, the school has 10 days to respond to the parents on issues addressed in the due process complaint. 

Once a due process complaint is filed, a hearing officer is assigned. But before a due process hearing can take place, the school and parent have a period of time called a resolution session.

  • Within 15 days of receiving the due process complaint, the school must have a meeting to discuss the complaint with the parent of the student. The school MAY NOT be represented by an attorney unless the parents also have an attorney.

  • The school and the parent then have 15 additional days to come to a resolution. If no agreement is reached, the due process timeline begins. 


Due process hearings

Parents provide evidence that supports their due process complaint. They can bring documents, emails, copies of records, witnesses, etc. Parents and schools must tell each other what evidence they are going to use at least five days before a hearing. A written decision will be provided to the parent and the school within 45 days of the resolution period and hearing. 

  • Both parents and schools can appeal the hearing officer's decision to the state who must review the decision. 

  • Both parents and the school can appeal their case to state or federal court after receiving the outcome from the state or the hearing officer


The Arc of Northern Shenandoah Valley

PO Box 124

Middletown, VA 22645

P: 540.692.9650

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