An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, provides special education and related services to a child with a qualifying disability. IEPs are governed by the federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.  

How to make a Referral for special education

To start the process for determining if a child qualifies for an IEP, someone needs to make a request in writing. The request is called a Referral. The Referral can come from a parent, legal guardian, teacher, principal, vice-principal, guidance counselor, teacher’s assistant, or any other school employee who has information about how the child is functioning at school.   

If the parent is making the Referral, it should be in writing, such as a letter or an email. The parent should send the Referral to the child’s principal and teacher, as well as the school district’s Exceptional Children’s Director. If your district does not have an Exceptional Children’s Director, you can send it to the Superintendent instead. To find the name and contact information for the Exceptional Children’s Director, call the Superintendent’s office or look on the school district website. Some school districts list that information under “special education,” while others call it “exceptional children.”  

The Referral needs to include a reason why the child needs help. This means you must describe the problems the child is having with school. The Referral also should discuss, at least briefly, the child’s strengths and needs. If the child has been diagnosed with a disability by someone outside of the school system, such as a private doctor or psychologist, you could include that information, too.    

Referrals for IEPs are discussed in the NC Policies Governing Services for Children with Disabilities, beginning at NC 1503-2.1. A copy of the Policies about the Referral process appear at the end of this document.   

A sample Referral letter is included in this packet. You will notice that the sample letter includes a specific request that the child be evaluated under IDEA, to make clear that the request is for an evaluation for an IEP and not for a 504 Plan or other accommodation plan.   

The 90 Day Timeline

As soon as the parent submits the Referral letter for an IEP to the principal, by law, a 90 day timeline starts. The school system has 90 days—calendar days, not school days—to act on the Referral. This means that by the 90th calendar day after the parent submits the written Referral, the following things must have happened:  

  1. The school must have evaluated the child.  
  2. The school must have held an IEP meeting that included the parent(s) to determine if the child is eligible for an IEP.  
  3. If the child is determined eligible for an IEP, the school must have written the IEP.  

The 90-day timeline cannot be extended, even if the school and parents want to extend it.   

Sometimes school employees think that the 90-day timeline starts when the parent signs the paperwork giving permission for the school to begin evaluating or testing the child. That is not correct. IDEA specifically says that timeline starts when the written referral is made, and the Referral is the written request by letter or email for evaluation, not the consent for evaluation.   

The 90-day timeline applies even in summer and during breaks from school, like school holidays. For example, if a Referral letter or email is sent to the principal on June 1, the eligibility process—the 3 steps of evaluation, eligibility, and IEP—must be completed by August 29, 90 days from June 1. This is because the definition of “day” in Policies is calendar days, not school or business days. A copy of Policy NC 1500-2.7 with this definition is included at the end of this document.   

After the referral and resources

After submitting a Referral, it is a good idea to follow up with a phone call to the principal or Exceptional Children’s Director after a few days to make sure the school has begun the Referral process.   

For additional information about the IEP Referral process and eligibility for an IEP, see check out the resources on the website for the Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center (ECAC). ECAC is the Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) for North Carolina. Parents can call the center to get information and resources related to special education. They also offer webinars on special education topics, including the IEP process. 

Another useful resource is the Wrightslaw website.

View sample letter. 

Excerpts from NC Policies Governing Services for Children with Disabilities for IEP Referrals

NC 1500-2.7 Day; Business Day; School Day  

(a) Day means calendar day unless otherwise indicated as a business day or school day.   

(b) Business day means Monday through Friday, except for Federal and State holidays.  

(c) (1) School day means any day, including a partial day, that children are in attendance at school for instructional purposes. (2) School day has the same meaning for all children in school, including children with and without disabilities. (Authority: 20 U.S.C. 1221e-3; 34 CFR 300-11)  

NC 1503-2.1 Referral  

When a public agency, as defined at NC 1500-2.27 or parent suspects that a child may be a child with a disability, he/she shall provide in writing the reason for referral, addressing the specific presenting concerns and the child’s current strengths and needs. This referral shall be given to the principal of the school, the child’s teacher or other school professional, or the Superintendent or other appointed official of the LEA. For preschool children with disabilities, the referral may also be given to the person designated as the person in charge of services for preschool children with disabilities.  

NC 1503-2.2 Initial Evaluations   

(a) General. Each LEA must conduct a full and individual initial evaluation (including progress monitoring data) in accordance with NC 1503-2.4 through NC 1503-2.7 before the initial provision of special education and related services to a child with a disability under these Policies.   

(b) Request for initial evaluation or determination of eligibility. Consistent with the consent requirements in NC 1503-1, either a parent of a child, or an LEA may initiate a request for an initial evaluation to determine if the child is a child with a disability. Upon an oral request for an initial evaluation from a parent, the LEA shall provide assistance, as needed, in completing a written referral.  (c) Timeline for initial referral  

  1. Evaluations must be conducted, eligibility determined, and for an eligible child, the IEP developed, and placement completed within 90 days of receipt of a written referral; and   
  2. The IEP Team must determine (i) If the child is a child with a disability under NC 1500-2.4; and (ii) The educational needs of the child.   

(d) Exception. The timeframe described in paragraph (c)(1) does not apply to an LEA if–

  1. The parent of a child repeatedly fails or refuses to produce the child for the evaluation;   
  2. The parent of a child repeatedly fails or refuses to respond to a request for consent for the evaluation; or   
  3. A child enrolls in a school of another LEA after the 90 day timeline has begun, and prior to determination by the child’s previous LEA as to whether the child is a child with a disability under NC 1500-2.4.   

(e) The exception in paragraph (d)(3) of this section applies only if the subsequent LEA is making sufficient progress to ensure a prompt completion of the evaluation, and the parent and subsequent LEA agree to a specific time when the evaluation will be completed.  (Authority: 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a); 34 CFR § 300.301)