(a)1. The Legislature finds that disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our public policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.
2. The Legislature also finds that research and experience have shown that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by:
a. Having high expectations for these children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible.
b. Providing appropriate exceptional student education, related services, and aids and supports in the least restrictive environment appropriate for these children.
c. Having a trained, interested, and consistent educational decisionmaker for the child when the parent is determined to be legally unavailable or when the foster parent is unwilling, has no significant relationship with the child, or is not trained in the exceptional student education process.
3. It is, therefore, the intent of the Legislature that all children with disabilities known to the department, consistent with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, have available to them a free, appropriate public education that emphasizes exceptional student education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living and that the rights of children with disabilities are protected.
(b)1. Each district school superintendent or dependency court must appoint a surrogate parent for a child known to the department who has or is suspected of having a disability, as defined in s. 1003.01(3), when:
a. After reasonable efforts, no parent can be located; or
b. A court of competent jurisdiction over a child under this chapter has determined that no person has the authority under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, including the parent or parents subject to the dependency action, or that no person has the authority, willingness, or ability to serve as the educational decisionmaker for the child without judicial action.
2. A surrogate parent appointed by the district school superintendent or the court must be at least 18 years old and have no personal or professional interest that conflicts with the interests of the student to be represented. Neither the district school superintendent nor the court may appoint an employee of the Department of Education, the local school district, a community-based care provider, the Department of Children and Families, or any other public or private agency involved in the education or care of the child as appointment of those persons is prohibited by federal law. This prohibition includes group home staff and therapeutic foster parents. However, a person who acts in a parental role to a child, such as a foster parent or relative caregiver, is not prohibited from serving as a surrogate parent if he or she is employed by such agency, willing to serve, and knowledgeable about the child and the exceptional student education process. The surrogate parent may be a court-appointed guardian ad litem or a relative or nonrelative adult who is involved in the child’s life regardless of whether that person has physical custody of the child. Each person appointed as a surrogate parent must have the knowledge and skills acquired by successfully completing training using materials developed and approved by the Department of Education to ensure adequate representation of the child.
3. If a guardian ad litem has been appointed for a child, the district school superintendent must first consider the child’s guardian ad litem when appointing a surrogate parent. The district school superintendent must accept the appointment of the court if he or she has not previously appointed a surrogate parent. Similarly, the court must accept a surrogate parent duly appointed by a district school superintendent.
4. A surrogate parent appointed by the district school superintendent or the court must be accepted by any subsequent school or school district without regard to where the child is receiving residential care so that a single surrogate parent can follow the education of the child during his or her entire time in state custody. Nothing in this paragraph or in rule shall limit or prohibit the continuance of a surrogate parent appointment when the responsibility for the student’s educational placement moves among and between public and private agencies.
5. For a child known to the department, the responsibility to appoint a surrogate parent resides with both the district school superintendent and the court with jurisdiction over the child. If the court elects to appoint a surrogate parent, notice shall be provided as soon as practicable to the child’s school. At any time the court determines that it is in the best interests of a child to remove a surrogate parent, the court may appoint a new surrogate parent for educational decisionmaking purposes for that child.
6. The surrogate parent shall continue in the appointed role until one of the following occurs:
a. The child is determined to no longer be eligible or in need of special programs, except when termination of special programs is being contested.
b. The child achieves permanency through adoption or legal guardianship and is no longer in the custody of the department.
c. The parent who was previously unknown becomes known, whose whereabouts were unknown is located, or who was unavailable is determined by the court to be available.
d. The appointed surrogate no longer wishes to represent the child or is unable to represent the child.
e. The superintendent of the school district in which the child is attending school, the Department of Education contract designee, or the court that appointed the surrogate determines that the appointed surrogate parent no longer adequately represents the child.
f. The child moves to a geographic location that is not reasonably accessible to the appointed surrogate.
7. The appointment and termination of appointment of a surrogate under this paragraph shall be entered as an order of the court with a copy of the order provided to the child’s school as soon as practicable.
8. The person appointed as a surrogate parent under this paragraph must:
a. Be acquainted with the child and become knowledgeable about his or her disability and educational needs.
b. Represent the child in all matters relating to identification, evaluation, and educational placement and the provision of a free and appropriate education to the child.
c. Represent the interests and safeguard the rights of the child in educational decisions that affect the child.
9. The responsibilities of the person appointed as a surrogate parent shall not extend to the care, maintenance, custody, residential placement, or any other area not specifically related to the education of the child, unless the same person is appointed by the court for such other purposes.
10. A person appointed as a surrogate parent shall enjoy all of the procedural safeguards afforded a parent with respect to the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of a student with a disability or a student who is suspected of having a disability.
11. A person appointed as a surrogate parent shall not be held liable for actions taken in good faith on behalf of the student in protecting the special education rights of the child.