Could My Child Have a Disability? A Parent Primer.

One of the most common scenarios I encounter as an education attorney is when a child gets suspended or expelled but is not currently receiving special education services. A quick look at the child’s school records reveals that the child likely has a disability for which he or she is eligible to receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). However, in most of these cases, the children have never even been evaluated by the school district to determine if he or she has a disability. One of the first things I do in these situations is to request a comprehensive special education evaluation for the child; in every case like this I have encountered in the last year, the evaluation has revealed that the child does, in fact, have a disability and is entitled to special education services. In some cases the evaluation’s results are shockin— I represented a student who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and a speech/language impairment in the second semester of his senior year of high school. How could these disabilities go unchecked for so long?

I think there is a two-part answer to this question. First, many signs of invisible disabilities are difficult to detect and seemingly commonplace. Second, there is an astounding amount of stigma surrounding invisible disabilities, particularly emotional disturbance or other disabilities that can cause behavioral challenges in school, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I have heard many school administrators, school board members, etc. say things like, “This child chose to behave in this manner, which got him expelled” or “The child is sitting quietly and respectfully right now, so therefore her disability is under control and the disability is not to blame for her actions on the day in question.” Statements such as these demonstrate the pervasiveness of disability-related stigma in our public schools: many school staff members see children as just “bad kids” who use a disability as an excuse when they get in trouble instead of acknowledging the broad spectrum of disabilities and the effects that those disabilities can have on classroom academic and behavioral performance.

The best thing to do if you suspect your child has a disability is to request a comprehensive special education evaluation through your school district’s special education department. Be aware, however, that many disabilities do not have obvious symptoms. Below is a list of things parents can look for to determine if their child might need a comprehensive evaluation:

Repeated disciplinary infractions (including “minor” infractions such as insubordination, defiance, disrespect, etc.);

  • A record of failing or near-failing grades in one or more subjects;
  • Difficulty concentrating when given a task/being easily distracted;
  • Difficulty adjusting to a change in schedule or routine;
  • Struggling with listening;
  • Showing signs of impulsivity (not thinking about the effects of your actions);
  • Trouble with writing/dislike of writing;
  • Challenges with paying attention;
  • Being disorganized;
  • Clumsiness/lack of coordination;
  • Poor eye contact/lack of expression;
  • Difficulty making friends; and Repetitive behaviors.

This list is by no means exhaustive. If your child does exhibit some of these traits or others and you wish to request a special education evaluation, be sure to do so in writing. The written request should be dated and include your child’s name and date of birth, your contact information (name, address, and phone number), your child’s school, and why you are requesting the evaluation. When submitting this request to the school, be sure to ask that it is stamped “received” and ask them to make you a copy for your records.

If you attempt to request a special education evaluation for your child and are denied, the Mississippi Center for Justice is here to help. Please contact the Biloxi office at (228) 435-7284 ext. 209 for assistance with getting an evaluation or any other special education needs.

Amelia Huckins is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Mississippi Center for Justice