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