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What Churches Need to Know about IDEA

May 3, 2010

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

At the Accessibility Summit in McLean, VA last week, William L.P. Brownley, Esq.of The Brownley Law Group (Reston, VA), explained special education law and many lesser known aspects related to families and their rights.  While churches are not subject to the same federal laws as schools, once a church understands the starting point of parents and the framework of the education system, children’s ministry staff may better interpret and respond appropriately to the requests of parents.   In the meantime, it would behoove churches to be aware of and adopt policies & procedures that are in line with the disclosure requirements of school systems.

“Appropriate” Rather than “Best” Education

One of the requirements o f the IDEA of 2004 is that tax funded public schools are to provide free and appropriate education for individuals with disabilities.  It is important to note the word “appropriate”.    Many school systems and parents differ in terms of what accommodations are needed in order for the child to receive the “best” education.  However, the law does not assert that it is the public school system’s responsibility to provide the BEST education.  Rather, the law asserts that it is the government’s responsibility to provide APPROPRIATE education. 

Since writing on ministry to children with special needs, I have become aware of a handful of churches working through complex disagreements with parents.  Ministry staff and families sometimes differ in their perspective regarding how the church is or is not successfully including a specific child with special needs.  While I am an absolute 100% advocate of excellence in ministry, there are times that the children’s ministry team cannot reasonably achieve the goals of every parent.  Many times churches are already doing all they can and maximizing their available resources (budget, staff, volunteers, etc.).   When a church fails to strive for excellence in any ministry, the corporate body of believers takes a black eye.  But for times when parents’ expectations do not align with what a church can realistically provide, the conversations may be more productive if directed toward goals that are “appropriate” rather than “best”.  In addition, it is never a mistake to document in a dispassionate way the sincere efforts being made by the church ministry team on behalf of the child.


Family Education Rights and Privacy Act Regulations (known as “FERPA”) require that schools provide parents the entire record of their child.  This includes every file, notes, document or email produced within the school system containing the child’s name or a descriptive reference that is unmistakably the child.  Due to the separation of church and state, churches are not subject to these same requirements.  However, it would behoove churches to create policies pertaining to any communication about a specific child.  It is conceivable that parents could ask to see any communications or files the church keeps on a child (keeping files is often wise – especially for children with special needs!).  If emails are exchanged and files created with the idea that parents may eventually see those communications, church staff and volunteers may be more likely to carefully convey sensitive information.  The best church policies would require that any information about a child that could be received negatively be kept out of writing and especially emails!

Please keep in mind that there are special interest groups and advocacy groups that do not consider the church to be their friend.  While it is unlikely we would see a successful court battle regarding an issue related to either special needs accommodation or disclosure inside churches, we could see an unflattering story hit the media if we (the church) do not adopt sound policies that promote positive toned and CAREFUL documentation.  Please consider creating guidelines in your church that eliminate any negative emails or notes regarding any child your ministry

–          Amy Fenton Lee

NOTE:  Bill Brownley is an expert in both federal laws and Virginia laws pertaining to special education.  Mr. Brownley is an excellent source for churches desiring sound and legal policies inside their special needs ministry.   For churches (or parents) needing a legal contact within their own state, Mr. Brownley can provide referrals to the handful of attorneys specializing in this type of law.  See –or-

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