For families of students with disabilities, navigating the special-education system is hard enough. It’s even harder when you’re suddenly confronted with numerous terms you’re unlikely to have heard before your child’s education depends on understanding them.

There are many players involved in teaching students with disabilities, and even more legal terms and treatments. This year, Education Lab is focusing on specialized education: special education and untraditional students. As part of that coverage, we hope this two-part glossary of special education terms will make it easier for you to understand and navigate this world.

This part starts with some of those legal terms, along with the people and programs tasked with making sure students with disabilities get the services they need.

Stay tuned for part two of the glossary, which will focus on specific disabilities, philosophies and tools for helping all students learn.



Paraeducator — Paraprofessional educators are school employees who work with teachers to assist with instruction, manage the classroom and other tasks. In recent years, school districts nationwide have increasingly turned to paraeducators because of teacher shortages and the need for one-on-one instruction for students with disabilities. In Washington, paraeducators have to meet additional requirements to work with students with disabilities.

General vs. special educator — General teachers are those found in most classrooms, certified to teach without a focus on special education — though, because of mainstreaming, they will likely have special-education students in their classrooms. Special educators get a degree like general teachers but also need a special education endorsement. They serve about 130,000 eligible students in Washington state, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the state education agency.

Evaluation team — This team is responsible for first evaluating a student for special education services and developing that student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) beyond that point. There are a few names for the same concept, including IEP team and Admission, Review and Dismissal team. The team is also responsible for future evaluations to determine continued special education eligibility. Teams often include a parent, special education teacher and a representative from a school district. When these meetings get contentious, lawyers sometimes get involved.



Legal terms

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — This law guarantees educational rights to all students with disabilities. Under IDEA, it is illegal for schools to refuse to educate a student because of a disability. All students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), and this education must occur in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Under IDEA, students can receive services until they turn 21, beyond the age of most high school seniors.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — Like IDEA, this is a civil rights law meant to eliminate discrimination based on disabilities, but in all areas of public life and not just schools. This includes equal opportunity for people with disabilities in employment, transportation, government services and all places open to the public.

Individualized Education Program (IEP) — Under IDEA, an IEP is not just a recommended plan, but a binding legal document between a school district and parents that outlines the special education services a student will receive. Learn more about IEPs in Seattle Public Schools here.

504 Plan — A different type of special-education plan, usually simpler than an IEP, derived from a different law. The term 504 plan comes from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil rights law written to make sure schools that receive federal funds do not discriminate against children with disabilities. Under Section 504, a student who has a disability — including students with Attention Deficit Disorder, anxiety, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — must receive accommodations to ensure their academic success.

Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) — If students have disruptive or otherwise problematic behaviors in class, their IEP or 504 plan should include a BIP, or a plan to help teach them alternative behaviors so they can succeed. Read more about the BIP in Seattle schools at the bottom of this IEP page.



Offices and programs

Office of Student Civil Rights, SPS — This Seattle Public Schools (SPS) office handles student complaints regarding discrimination, including discrimination based on disability. Read more about the office and the district’s complaint process here.

General Counsel’s Office, SPS — This office provides legal services to several other offices and people within the district, including the school board and superintendent. The office counsels the district on plenty of matters, including special education.

Special Education department, SPS — This is the district department overseeing everything related to special education, including “tools, guidance, supports, and services needed to ensure access and success for students with disabilities.” Learn more on the department site.

Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC) — This state office established through IDEA advises the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction on special education. The council is made up of people from across the state with a broad range of expertise to tackle statewide issues affecting students with disabilities.

BRIDGES — The BRIDGES program is for SPS graduates with disabilities between ages 18-21 who need special education services beyond high school to meet their goals. Families are often concerned about what happens to their child after turning 21, the age when IDEA services end. BRIDGES helps students transition to life after high school by providing “learning opportunities that build vocational, social, and independent living skills,” according to the program’s website.