Why you should care about transition planning in special education

Issue December 2011 By Peter A. Hahn

Transition planning in special education sounds pretty boring. Not so! In fact, the topic garners a lot of interest among attorneys in the field because the law and practice on the issue is evolving. Even more interesting is the fact that transition planning is essential to building strong communities of diverse individuals throughout the commonwealth.

How could that be? The goal of transition planning is for special education students to learn how to function self-sufficiently as adults in the areas of post-secondary education, employment and independent living. The law sets out clear, practical steps necessary to achieve that goal.

Let's first review a few basics about special education. School districts are required by state and federal law to provide special education services and accommodations to students with disabilities who require them to make effective educational progress. These students are guaranteed a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

Ideally, school staff and the family collaborate as a Team to discuss and create an Individualized Education Program for the student. The IEP describes the student, details necessary services and accommodations, and establishes goals and benchmarks for evaluating progress. Students may be placed in settings ranging from inclusion or substantially separate programs within the district to day or residential schools outside the district. Special education benefits begin as early as age three and end when a student graduates or turns 22 years old.

Massachusetts law requires the Team to start transition planning in the year the student turns 14 years old and to review the plan annually. The Team must assess the need for transition services, create and monitor a transition plan, and implement transition services. School districts must conduct age-appropriate transition assessments related to training, employment, education and, where appropriate, independent living skills.

As a result of the assessments, the Team must develop a transition plan with specific services to address a student's unique needs. Transition services may include instruction, community experiences, the development of adult living objectives and, where appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and a vocational evaluation.

A transition plan facilitates a student's movement from school to post-secondary school activities, including higher education, work, adult services and community participation. Transition planning, therefore, must be predictive. What can be done now to avoid likely issues in the future? If a student has pragmatic language and social skills deficits, the IEP must address these deficits, not only in the current educational program, but also with an eye toward future community-based needs. If a student needs vocational training, the training must be meaningful and community-based rather than simply a way to receive basic skills in a high school setting.

Transition planning takes a lot of thought and preparation. Unfortunately, transition plans are often summarily done, if they are even discussed and written at all. Goal: student to attend college. Service: meet with guidance counselor to discuss options. Goal: vocational training. Service: vocational classes in the high school. Such post-graduation goals and services are perfunctory without reflecting any thought as to how current services help to ensure future success.

Of course, there are disputes regarding legal issues throughout the special education process, from eligibility to termination. Transition planning is no different. School district attorneys advise clients of obligations under the transition planning law. Attorneys for families remind parents that transition needs must be assessed and plans implemented to the extent required by law.

When a dispute arises, the case heads to the Bureau of Special Education Appeals. The BSEA is the administrative law agency that hears and renders decisions in special education matters between school districts and families. The hearing decision may then be appealed into court.

A BSEA decision (#08-5330) from 2009 focused primarily on transition planning. The hearing officer concluded that the school district failed to provide adequate transition assessments and to propose and provide transition services reasonably calculated to facilitate the student's successful transition to post-secondary life, all of which was a denial of the student's right to a free appropriate public education. The hearing officer ordered the school district to provide compensatory services to the student.

In addition to transition planning, schools in Massachusetts also have a separate but related responsibility to consider and facilitate a Chapter 688 referral for students with severe disabilities in order for adult state service agencies to step in once special education ends. These state agencies include the Department of Developmental Services and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.

The stakes for the state as a whole are high. We all want students to develop into adults who function competently and independently at college, at work and in the community. Transition planning in special education must be meaningful and individualized to each student's needs to meet this ideal. We also do not want years of special education resources rendered meaningless and worthless once high school is over. Because what does special education really mean if these students cannot function self-sufficiently as adults?

Peter A. Hahn represents clients in special education, student discipline, juvenile, criminal and DCF matters.