Principals and Special Education Law


Historically, students with disabilities weren’t allowed in schools. In fact, in most states, it was legal to prevent students who wouldn’t reach a mental age of third grade by the time they would graduate from attending school. Students with disabilities wouldn’t get the right to attend school until the late 1970s. It took legal cases to force the government, specifically through Congress, to address the education of students with disabilities. In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. In 1990, it was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA guarantees a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for all children with disabilities, regardless of severity, from ages 3 to 21 years old. It also requires that each student with a disability have an individualized education program.

A principal’s understanding of these rules, while also understanding the purpose behind them, can go a long way toward ensuring all students receive the services they’re entitled to.

Laws governing students eligible for special education services are comprised of six main parts: 

  • Zero Reject – Public schools have an affirmative obligation to provide services for every student who resides in their geographic area. Zero reject states that no student is deemed too severely disabled to receive services. This was an important part of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act when it was passed in 1975, as the law provided access to education for millions of students who had previously been denied.
  • Nondiscriminatory Evaluation – According to the IDEA, school districts must conduct a full and individual evaluation before the initial provision of special education and related services to a child with a disability. Specifically, the assessment must consist of a full and individualized examination. The law also demands that a team of knowledgeable people make decisions about the assessment. Finally, the assessment information must lead to intervention, and the IEP team must collect meaningful data to monitor student progress.
  • Free Appropriate Public Education or FAPE, means that public school services for students with disabilities must be made available at no additional cost to parents. What an appropriate public education looks like for each child with a disability must be determined individually, because every child has their own strengths and needs, and one size definitely doesn’t fit all. Furthermore, a FAPE must meet the standards of the state educational agency, include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education in the state involved, and be provided in conformity with the individualized education program.
  • Individualized Education Program requires that each public school child who receives special education and related services have an individualized education program, commonly referred to as an IEP. The content of a student’s IEP is based on their individual needs and specifies the supports and services the school will provide to meet them. The team responsible for creating the plan – including parents and school professionals – must sign and approve the IEP before it can go into effect. The IEP must be in effect by the beginning of the school year, and school districts are responsible for developing, implementing and revising it. In this way, the IEP acts as a contract between the school and students and their parents.
  • Least Restrictive Environment means that students with disabilities should be educated to the maximum degree possible with access to the general education curriculum in general education classrooms with their nondisabled peers. The placement decision is made by people knowledgeable of provisions, evaluation data and placement options; and is made in conformity with the LRE provisions. A child’s placement is determined at least annually, based on the child’s IEP, and is as close as possible to the child’s home. The child should attend the school they would if not disabled, unless placement requires a different arrangement. When determining LRE, consideration must be given to any potential harmful effects on the child or on the quality of services needed. Lastly, the child with a disability isn’t removed from education in age-appropriate regular classrooms solely because of needed modifications in the general education curriculum.

Question to Ask

A good question that IEP teams and principals should ask is: ‘what’s so unique about the special education placement or segregated setting, and can that uniqueness be reasonably replicated in the general education setting?’ If it can, then the student doesn’t need to be removed for that part of their education.

Keep asking this question for everything in which the student participates.


  • Parental Participation – Parents of students eligible for special education and related services have rights afforded to them as a way of checking what’s occurring related to the education of their child. First, school districts must establish and maintain procedures to assure children with disabilities and their parents are guaranteed procedural safeguards with respect to the provision of a free appropriate public education. Informed consent must be obtained from a student’s parents/guardians before the school conducts a preplacement evaluation, initially places a student in special education, and conducts a reevalation. When obtaining consent, the school must ensure that the parents understand and agree to the proposal in writing.

web-based survey of the RAND Corporation’s American School Leader Panel found that only 25 percent of principals rated their support for students with disabilities as “completely sufficient.” Although principals don’t receive much training on special education services, they are often responsible for decisions related to discipline, transportation, placement, and the overall special education program.

For more information on A Principal’s Role in Special Education, view our webinar with Dr. David Bateman here. The webinar presentation can be found here.

Tags: Special Ed Law