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Special Education

Addressing the Needs of Students with Disabilities Relocating to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico

To:Superintendents, Administrators of Special Education, Principals, Charter Leaders, School Business Managers, and Other Interested Persons
From:Russell Johnston, PhD, Senior Associate Commissioner and State Director of Special Education
Date:February 1, 2018

This memo provides school districts with guidance about planning for and responding to the needs of students with disabilities and students experiencing trauma as a result of natural disasters who have relocated to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands following the devastation of Hurricanes Maria and Irma. These students may be residing with friends or relatives and may have myriad needs, including disabilities that require special education and related services, or the effects of trauma that require other supportive services. Massachusetts schools have welcomed these students, recognizing they need a safe and stable educational environment. This memo addresses how school districts may meet their obligations to provide students transferring from Puerto Rico, many of whom are English learners (ELs), with timely access to a free appropriate public education and other relevant supports and services.

I. Enrollment and documentation

Students arriving in Massachusetts from Puerto Rico must be enrolled in school immediately, even if they do not have the documentation that a district may normally require upon enrollment. Students may not be held out of school based on lack of documentation such as academic records, Individual Education Programs (IEPs), medical/immunization records, birth certificates, guardianship records, or other documentation usually required to be produced upon enrollment. Upon enrollment, district staff should obtain the name and address of the last school that the student attended in Puerto Rico. The district should also take necessary steps to obtain the parent's written consent to access records from Puerto Rico, and to obtain the records as expeditiously as possible without delaying enrollment or services for the student. It may be difficult to obtain education records from Puerto Rico, given conditions on the island. Therefore, schools should obtain as much information as possible about the student's education from the family in order not to delay services.

II. Identifying and addressing the needs of students with disabilities

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school districts to provide a student transferring from another state with access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), including services comparable to those described in the student's most recent IEP. (34 C.F.R. § 300.323(f).) Puerto Rico is considered a state for purposes of the IDEA.

School districts must take steps to attempt to obtain the student's special education records from the Puerto Rico Department of Education. (34 C.F.R. § 300.323(g)) Where the student's IEP from Puerto Rico is only available in Spanish, the school district must promptly translate the IEP and, consistent with 34 C.F.R. § 300.323(f), provide the student with FAPE (including services comparable to those described in the student's IEP (from Puerto Rico) until the school district (1) conducts an evaluation, if determined to be necessary; and (2) develops, adopts, and implements a new IEP.

If the school district is unable to promptly obtain the IEP from Puerto Rico, and to avoid delaying the provision of FAPE, district staff should ask the students' parent(s) (or the person acting in place of the parent; see section IV, below) for information about the placement and services the child was receiving in Puerto Rico. Upon receiving parental consent, the school district must immediately make a placement and provide similar services to the student using a temporary IEP. The district may then initiate its own evaluation and propose implementation of a new IEP. (34 C.F.R. § 300.323(f)(1)& (2); see also the U.S. Department of Education's Non-Regulatory Guidance on Flexibility and Waivers for Grantees and Program Participants Impacted by Federally Declared Disasters, September 2017, C-16 at page 15.)

Districts may find it helpful to create and use a written checklist while consulting with the student's parent(s) during enrollment in order to identify the student's needs and other relevant information. The checklist may include but need not be limited to the following items:

  • whether the child has a confirmed disability or is suspected to have a disability; the nature of the disability and the manner in which it affects the student's learning;
  • whether the child exhibits behaviors since the hurricanes that are new and concerning;
  • if the child has a confirmed disability, whether the family has a copy of the last IEP implemented in the prior school in Puerto Rico; and
  • a family report of the services provided in Puerto Rico.

For students with disabilities, all information obtained at enrollment or thereafter that is relevant to IEP planning should be provided immediately to the designated special education administrator, or other school or district administrator as appropriate, to facilitate the prompt implementation of services.

III. Identifying and addressing the needs of students experiencing trauma as a result of the hurricanes and relocation

School districts should consider the need for additional counseling and mental health services for students who have experienced trauma related to the disasters and their relocation. The Department recommends that districts establish a screening process1 to assess students in this area, if the district does not currently have one as part of its trauma-sensitive practices. Upon enrollment of a student, the district may wish to obtain written consent for the student to be screened by a professional mental health practitioner trained in trauma screening in order to assess the student's mental health needs.

As schools welcome and continue to engage students from Puerto Rico whose families have fled the devastation of the hurricanes, or work to support current students and their families who may have family or friends who are suffering from the effects of the hurricanes, it may be helpful to remember the impact that trauma can have on learning, behavior, and relationships for students whose lives have been dramatically disrupted. It is equally important to recognize the positive influence that a safe and stable environment at school can have as well. For example, building relationships with students can positively influence their experience at school, can help them and their families to feel safe and welcomed, and can help school staff to understand better their strengths and their needs. These students, along with all other students, whether or not they have experienced trauma, benefit from safe and supportive and trauma-sensitive learning environments.

As defined by the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI), "a trauma-sensitive school is one in which all students feel safe, welcomed, and supported and where addressing trauma's impact on learning on a school-wide basis is at the center of its educational mission. It is a place where an on-going, inquiry-based process allows for the necessary teamwork, coordination, creativity and sharing of responsibility for all students, and where continuous learning is for educators as well as students." TLPI provides information, resources, and guidance for schools and others.

The Department's Leading Access Education Project (LEAP) offers some information and resources on interrelated topics. Some districts may also find helpful resources through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, such as the Psychological First Aid for Schools Field Operations Guide and Teacher Guidelines for Helping Students after a Hurricane. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) also offers resources, such as Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers. Information can also be found from the School Social Work Association of America's page: Crisis Response & Intervention: Responding to Tragedy.

Additionally, the National Associational of School Psychologists (NASP) has recently published relevant resources:

  1. For more information on helping children adjust to new location after a natural disaster, see the NASP Natural Disaster resource page; and
  2. The NASP School Safety & Crisis resource page offers many resources, including addressing grief and trauma.

Some of these resources have been translated into Spanish and other languages. Referrals to local culturally and linguistically appropriate resources can provide further support to students and their families.

Questions for the Department may be directed through the Office of Student and Family Support via or 781-338-3010.

IV. Parental consent

Parental consent and parental participation in the IEP process are hallmarks of state and federal special education law. Some displaced students may be living here with a family member or friend who is not their parent while their parents remain in Puerto Rico to rebuild. A school district may (but is not required to) request a letter or Caregiver Authorization Affidavit from the parent or legal guardian authorizing the individual or family member with whom the child is residing to participate in educational decisions and sign necessary forms. In the absence of an authorizing letter/caregiver affidavit and in circumstances where the school district cannot obtain parental consent directly through correspondence or other modes of communication despite making attempts, school districts can look to the person "acting in the place" of the parents - such as a grandparent or other relative - to sign IEPs, consent to evaluations, participate in Team meetings, and authorize educational decisions. This is because the term "parent" in the IDEA includes "an individual acting in the place of a natural or adoptive parent (including a grandparent, stepparent, or other relative) with whom the child lives." (20 U.S.C. §1401(23)(C); 34 C.F.R. §300.30.) Parent is also defined broadly in the state special education regulations to include someone who is "acting as a parent." (603 CMR 28.02(15).)

V. Needs of English learners and their families

Many students relocating from Puerto Rico are English learners. School districts must identify in a timely manner English learners in need of language assistance services, and provide such services in accordance with the applicable laws, regulations, and guidance. (See Guidance on Identification, Assessment, Placement and Reclassification of English Learners for more detailed information about identifying and serving English learners.) School districts must ensure that assessments and other evaluation materials used to determine eligibility for special education services are provided and administered in the student's native language or other mode of communication and in the form most likely to yield accurate information on what the student knows and can do, unless it is clearly not feasible do so. When developing an IEP for an English learner, the IEP team must consider the language needs of the student as those needs relate to the student's IEP. School districts must provide language assistance and disability related services simultaneously to students who are found eligible for both.

If the student's parent, guardian, or person acting in place of the parent has limited English proficiency, the district must provide important information to them in a language they understand. See Appendix P (Parental Engagement) in DESE's Guidance on Identification, Assessment, Placement and Reclassification of English Learners for additional information.

Thank you for your efforts to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all students, including students arriving in the aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes. If you have questions about the matters covered in this memo, please contact Problem Resolution System at or 781-338-3700.

1 For sample screening tools for enrolling homeless students who have may experienced trauma and may be English learners, see The Education Law Center 's Toolkit4(a)–4(c), pages 42–49, at School Success for Students Without Homes: A Toolkit for Parents and Providers.

Last Updated: July 10, 2020

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