Tennessee has mostly folded federal law into its own code regarding rights for students with disabilities. Two departments, Education and Human Services oversee the implementation of rules, policies, and programs for Tennesseans with disabilities. Most students will work predominantly with the Department of Education.
The majority of state laws passed in Tennessee primarily apply to K-12 students. In addition, most colleges have their own offices and policies for assisting students with disabilities. Prior to enrolling in any college or university, a student with disabilities should check to ensure the school has the necessary resources to support them.
Rights for Students with Disabilities
The Tennessee Department of Education includes information on Special Education Evaluation and Eligibility. Recognizing that disabilities cover the mental, physical, and emotional and that each comes with its own unique issues, the state's criteria are broken down by type of disability. A student with autism will be evaluated differently than a student with a hearing impairment.
These criteria are useful for parents and educators in that they set out clear guidelines. In rare cases, these criteria may be detrimental to students who need support but do not fall into a certain category or display unusual or rare symptoms.
Tennessee also includes a timeline calculator to give students, parents, and guardians an idea of how long an evaluation and determination should take.
Tennessee Implementation of Federal Law
Tennessee highlights the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law focused on providing support and assistance for students with disabilities. IDEA requires students with disabilities receive free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. IDEA also establishes the guidelines for Individualized Education Program, or Plan, (IEP), a document for K 12 students with disabilities. IEPs set out the programs and support that children need to succeed in school and can be
In Tennessee, most students with disabilities will predominantly fall under the Department of Education. The state has a Special Education framework, which was last revised in 2018. For K-12 students, the Tennessee State Board of Education establishes the rules, policies, and guidance. The third category, guidance documents, is not binding but intended to provide support and interpretation for educators and students.
One of the more unique features of Tennessee's educational system is that the state offers four options for high school diplomas. In addition to the regular diploma, Tennessee offers an alternate academic diploma, an occupational diploma, and a special education diploma. The latter three categories are reserved for students with disabilities who are under the IDEA or have an IEP plan.
The state recommends that, even if a student has an IEP, educators and administrators presume that the student will qualify for a regular diploma. What diploma best fits a student should be determined on an individual basis by school administrators and staff. One quirk of this program is how it affects student eligibility under IDEA.
When a student earns a regular diploma, they no longer qualify for support under IDEA. The other three options allow students to retain their eligibility for IDEA until the Age of 21.
Tennessee recommends that schools and students consider the student's postgraduation plans when deciding which diploma the student wishes to obtain. Some postsecondary options may require a regular diploma.
Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, Tennessee introduced three courses on postsecondary readiness that were designed for students with disabilities. The three courses are all electives, and some require that students have an IEP as a prerequisite.
The purpose of these courses is to prepare students for adulthood in college, work, and as a member of the larger community. These courses also provide guidance on how to navigate the world as an adult with disabilities.
Disability as a Defense or Mitigating Factor
For Academic Progression Issues
Tennessee emphasizes a comprehensive general education program for all students. The state believes that this type of comprehensive education is one of the best ways to minimize academic issues. As much as possible, the state encourages students with disabilities to take general education classes.
Some students, however, will not be best served by general coursework and will succeed better in other classes. A student's IEP plan should explain which option is best for that student. If a student is struggling even after following an IEP, the IEP may be in need of revision.
The 2017-2018 revisions to the Special Education Course code redefined how comprehensive courses count toward general education requirements. Special education classes currently do not meet the general high school eligibility requirements but instead qualify students for the special education diploma.
For Disciplinary Issues
Tennessee offers guidance for schools dealing with students with disabilities who violate the code of conduct. Schools must ask the following questions when evaluating a student's violation of the code of conduct, known as a manifestation determination:
- Is the conduct a direct result of the district's failure to implement the IEP?
- Does the conduct have a direct and substantial relationship to the disability?
If a school determines a student's misconduct was not a result of their disability, any and all relevant disciplinary policies will apply.
If a student's misconduct is the result of the school's failure to properly implement an IEP and/or is related to the student's disability, schools will need to schedule a manifestation determination review (MDR) meeting within a specific timeframe. The timing requirement varies depending on the factors involved in a specific case.
MDR meetings should include a student's parents or guardians, relevant administrators, and members of the student's IEP team. The team will determine how and why the student's disability and/or the school's failure to properly implement an IEP led to the misconduct. They should adjust or modify the student's current plan as needed to address the problem.
Tennessee Special Education Advisor
Although Tennessee largely follows federal law, students and parents should be aware of the state's organization of its special education and disability rights laws. Knowing these policies can enable students to receive the support they deserve and, in some cases, challenge a school district when they are not receiving the accommodations and support to which they are entitled under Tennessee or federal law.
Hiring a law firm with experience in disability rights is one way to assist your student. The Lento Law Firm works with parents, guardians, and students nationwide, and we use that knowledge to assist our clients. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or