The 1997 amendments to the IDEA added requirements for transitioning disabled students to life after school. Specifically, the IDEA states, as a goal, its intent “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living” [Public Law Number 105-17, Section 601(d)]. Although access to education is its own end under the law, the supreme goal of the IDEA and special education is clearly preparation for self-fulfillment in the adult years.
Accompanying the IDEA regulations, a notice of interpretation includes a statement borrowed from other legislation that is a powerful rendering of the post-school objective for students with disabilities. Section 701 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 describes the philosophy of independent living as encompassing consumer control, peer support, self-help, self-determination, equal access, and individual and system advocacy in order to maximize leadership, empowerment, independence, and productivity of individuals with disabilities and enable the integration and full inclusion of individuals with disabilities into the mainstream of American society (IDEA Regulations, Appendix A, IEPS, III).
In requiring that a student’s IEP include a transition component, the IDEA stipulated until 2004 a two-tiered approach: one commencing when the student turned 14 and the second when the student turned 16. However, the law stated that in both cases the program could begin at a younger age if the IEP team considered it appropriate. The requirement at age 14 emphasized transition services that focused on courses of study, such as participation in advanced placement courses or a vocational education program. The requirement at age 16 was much more focused on practical outcomes and included the critical requirement that non-education agencies, where appropriate, be involved in the provision of services. State vocational rehabilitation agencies and state employment and training agencies are obvious examples of such agencies.
The movement to mandate full-blown transition services at age 14 acquired special urgency because of the still disturbingly high dropout rate among students receiving special education services. In fact, experts argued that starting transition services for students with disabilities at age 14 (or earlier) constituted sound policy for three pragmatic reasons: 1) “The sooner, the better” makes eminently good sense for all students who have special challenges that may last throughout their lifetime. 2) If these students should still drop out, hopefully they will leave with useful life skills gained at a relatively early time. 3) Because of meaningful, future-oriented transition services, these students are more likely to be motivated to complete their education, obviously a more highly desired outcome than the preceding item.
However, in a move broadly condemned as a giant step backward, the 2004 IDEA amendments moved the age of initiation of transition services to 16. This significant setback occurred during Senate and House negotiations to produce a final joint bill. Even though the House bill had included services at both 14 and 16 and the Senate bill had required the initiation of all transition services at 14, 14 was stricken and 16 was inserted into the final bill without comment or justification from the conferees. The student’s participation in the IEP meeting is not an apparent or professional option when the IEP team is considering transition services. The regulations require that the student be invited, regardless of age. If the student does not attend the IEP meeting, the education agency “must take other steps to ensure that the child’s preferences and interests are considered” [34 CFR section 300.321 (B)].
Having been developed and refined over two decades, the IDEA’s definition of transition services offers a reliable and useful summary for the practitioner. The term “transition services” means a coordinated set of activities for a student with a disability that (A) is designed within an outcome-oriented process, which promotes movement from school to post-school activities, including post-secondary education, vocational training, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation; (B) is based upon the individual student’s needs, taking into account the student’s preferences and interests; and (C) includes instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and, when appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation [Public Law 105-17, section 602 (34)].
Consideration of a student’s behavior under the IDEA is most often associated with the controversial discipline procedures added to the due process section of the law in the 1997 reauthorization. Too frequently overlooked, however, is the addition of an important requirement focused on behavior consideration and the development of IEPs for all children eligible for special education services. Under the heading of “Consideration of Special Factors,” the law stipulates that the IEP team must, “in the case of a child whose behavior impedes his or her learning or that of others, consider, if appropriate, strategies, including positive behavioral interventions, strategies, and supports to address that behavior” [Public Law number 105-17, section 614 (D) (3) (B)].
Further, if the IEP team decides strategies like the ones outlined in the law are necessary, a statement to that effect must be included in the child’s IEP. Not only is behavioral intervention a crucial component of support for the child, but it also provides a potentially important protection for the other students in an inclusive learning environment. Early behavioral intervention may, in actuality, provide an “ounce of prevention” against future behavior problems. Another important reason for utilizing early behavioral interventions is the possibility that failing to do so may be a violation of FAPE.
Overall, the behavioral intervention requirement is meant to promote the participation of the child and the regular education environment as opposed to a more restrictive setting. That stipulation is an important safeguard in the guarantee of LRE for the child is amply reinforced by another statutory mandate that regular education teachers participate in determining appropriate positive behavioral interventions and strategies as members of the IEP team. (Public Law number 105-17, section 614 (D) (3) (C)).
Finally, including behavioral strategies — again, only if appropriate — may be an important protection for the child if there should later be a disciplinary infraction resulting in the need to determine whether the behavior was a manifestation of the child’s disability. As a result of both growing concerns over school safety and improved research and behavioral interventions for special needs children, two terms have permanently joined the lexicon of special education: functional behavioral assessment (FBA) and behavior intervention plan (BIP).
Deferring to the expertise of the professionals, Congress and the administering agency have not defined these terms. Nonetheless, the law expects the states, as part of their ongoing professional development programs, to “enhance the ability of teachers and others to use strategies, such as behavior interventions, to address the conduct of children with disabilities that impede the learning of children with disabilities and others” [34 CFR section 300.382 (F)].
Thus, as both a professional and legal responsibility, special and general educators are expected to be conversant with what might be called the behavioral sequence, which includes: 1) determination that a BIP, which encompasses positive behavioral intervention strategies and supports, is needed; 2) development of the BIP, following FBA; and 3) implementation of the BIP, with periodic review and modification, as needed.
Under the IDEA, the federal government holds each state responsible for full compliance by all parties within its jurisdiction. The law requires that states engage in active monitoring and enforcement in all of their school districts and other participating entities. States are required to keep a written record concerning their policies and procedures related to the IDEA. These policies, which must be available for public review, are most likely to be housed in the special education division of the state education agency. Many of these documents are available on state education agency websites. Correspondingly, the US Department of Education actively monitors the states for continuing compliance. The monitoring of state IDEA compliance is typically done by the agency’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), which is housed within the larger Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS).
State monitoring typically occurs on a rotating basis. It involves onsite visits by federal personnel and often includes public hearings, which can be highly valuable in discovering compliance shortcomings. OSEP advises states of any gaps in compliance, and those states that are out of compliance are expected to design a corrective action plan with a timetable for revisions and modifications. The law requires full transparency to the public in all aspects of the monitoring process, meaning that any document declared “classified” or any denial of access to information should be treated suspiciously.