The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with disabilities be educated in the “Least Restrictive Environment.” For students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), this means that to the maximum extent appropriate for the student, they should be educated in the same classrooms that are attended by students who do not have disabilities. In order to fulfill the requirement that students be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment, IEP teams strive to have children with disabilities educated in their assigned public school (home school) with needed modifications, supports and services in place.
Sometimes, however, even with extensive modifications, a student’s home school cannot adequately meet a child’s needs. In this case, the IEP team will determine if there is another public school in the county that could appropriately accommodate the student’s special needs. If not, the IEP team must consider a non-public school placement (paid for by the school system). Typically, they will look to a school that has been certified as a special education school.
Most special education schools belong to MANSEF – the Maryland Association of Non-Public Special Education Facilities. There are more than 90 MANSEF schools across the state. Some MANSEF schools specialize in serving students with a specific disability; for example, they only serve students with autism or those with an emotional disability. Other MANSEF schools serve a diverse group of students with a range of disabilities; for example, one school serves students with intellectual disability, speech or language impairment, emotional disability, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, specific learning disability, multiple disabilities, traumatic brain injury and autism. Depending on the school, students might be as young as 2 or as old as 21.
MANSEF schools have a wide array of resources that some students with special needs require. Along with highly specialized academic instruction, they emphasize the social and emotional well-being of each student, and are staffed to provide specialty services that are critical to certain students, such as intensive behavior programs, crisis management and medical support.
If you have a child with a disability and you are concerned that they have intensive, specialized educational needs that are not being appropriately met, you have the right to request that the IEP team consider a non-public school placement. You should know, however, that school systems are often reluctant to place a child in a non-public school. There are cost considerations – some local school systems put an enormous amount of resources into supporting children with special needs in their schools, and a non-public school placement is a significant expense. Also, school systems may be concerned that the student will not be in the Least Restrictive Environment. This is a legitimate consideration. However, for children with very complex instructional, environmental and/or behavioral needs, the Least Restrictive Environment may likely be a non-public school. IDEA requires that there be “a continuum of alternative placements” for students with disabilities. Non-public schools are an important part of that continuum.
To learn more, download the MANSEF directory. Of particular interest is page 4 which talks more about the role of non-public schools and page 121 which gives a brief summary of the special education process.
You can also connect with an MCF staff member in your community for help with issues at school.