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Department of Education Discipline Guidance Improves Outlook for Students with Disabilities

For Immediate Release             

Contact: David Card
202.408.9514 x122

WASHINGTON – The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) is pleased to see the release on Thursday from the U.S. Department of Education of an important and much needed “Dear Colleague” letter that will have a significant impact on children with disabilities and their families. The letter clarifies the responsibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide children with disabilities appropriate behavioral interventions and supports that are necessary to ensure they have meaningful access to their education. NDRN has long advocated on these issues and applauds the Department for the release of this critical “Dear Colleague” letter.

Research has shown that school removal can have serious and lifelong consequences.  Published data shows that children with disabilities are removed from school at much higher rates than their non-disabled peers, and that children of color are disproportionately impacted. Tragically, unaddressed behavioral issues that are caused by, or related to children’s disabilities, often result in their removal from school, referral to the juvenile justice system, or the use of restraint and seclusion.

Fortunately, we know other evidence-based techniques to manage behavioral issues at school, ways that ensure less disruption of learning. Many school districts already implement these positive techniques. This guidance document provides critical tools for schools to use to improve rates of student success and reduce these negative outcomes.

As the Nation’s largest provider of legal representation to students with disabilities (nearly 12,000 individual cases in 2014), the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agencies are often referred cases of students with disabilities who have been sent home from school day after day because of their unaddressed behavior. When children are sent home repeatedly from school, parents often lose work hours and may even get fired.  Children may be placed in cobbled together, inadequate child care, informally placed in alternative programs with uncertified and unsupervised staff, virtual education programs in lieu of receiving education in a school setting, or tutored in non-school settings like a fire station.

P&As hear from parents about students expelled and arrested by school resource officers for behavior related to their disability. When behavior plans are not thoughtfully revised after a serious incident, behavior problems may repeat, resulting in frustrated school staff. These staff may use overly punitive techniques, including “hands on” to remove a child to a time out room or other form of seclusion. In addition to being physically dangerous, these situations may frustrate and humiliate students and staff.  These practices do not assist these students in learning the social and academic skills they need to be successful.

The “Dear Colleague” contains a number of key points of importance:

•    Positive behavioral interventions and supports are not optional when the child’s behavior impedes his or her learning or that of others, and are not dependent upon a child being eligible in any particular disability category.

•    The failure to provide appropriate behavioral supports can result in a denial of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and/or a violation of the Least Restrictive Environment requirement of the IDEA.

•    Incidents of misbehavior and classroom disruption may indicate the need for positive behavioral interventions and supports – not just formal school code violations.

•    Program modifications and support for school personnel may be required in these situations, including staff coaching.

•    Shorter removals (under 10 days) can give rise to a need to revise the IEP and consider the addition of behavioral supports.

•    Informal removals (such as “sent homes” and shortened school days) can in some cases require disciplinary due process and reporting, as they can be considered a “suspension.”

You can access the letter here:

You can access a summary of the letter here:

You can access the Department of Education’s “Rethink Discipline” which includes the letter and additional resources here:

NDRN applauds the U. S. Department of Education’s release of the “Dear Colleague” letter and believe it will go far in improving the lives of children with disabilities, their families, and their communities. However, we remain hopeful to see additional important guidance on other topics, including restraint and seclusion, before the end of the Obama Administration.

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The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) is the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and the Client Assistance Programs (CAP) for individuals with disabilities. Collectively, the Network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States.