Evaluations are critical to the development of an appropriate IEP. School districts have an obligation to identify, locate, and evaluate all children with disabilities who may be eligible for special education. A child may be referred for assessment by a parent, guardian, teacher, or other school personnel. A school who decides not to evaluate a student must give notice (called “prior written notice”) to the parents in 15 days.
The threshold for assessment is relatively low. The duty to assess doesn’t rest on whether the student will actually qualify for services, rather whether the student has a suspected disability. A disability is suspected when the district is on notice that the child has displayed symptoms of that disability or the child may have a particular disorder. (Timothy O. v. Paso Robles USD (9 Cir. 2016) 822 F.3d 1105) The court emphasized the importance of early identification of disabilities.
The courts have established extensive obligations to ensure a high quality IEP. The initial evaluation must be designed to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information about the child. The school must evaluate a student in all areas of suspected disability. The school cannot focus on one area, such as reading, and ignore other areas, such as behavior or organization. The school must use a variety of tools to gather this information. An informal observation does not constitute a formal assessment. The tools used must vary, be technically sound, and administered by trained and knowledgeable professionals.
A district’s failure to assess a student in all areas of suspected disability deprives the IEP team of critical information. As such, the failure to properly assess a student renders it difficult to formulate an IEP based on the student’s unique needs. This inability to design an IEP to meet the student’s unique needs constitutes a denial of a FAPE.
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