At a time when mental health challenges have become a top priority for K-12 schools across the country, on Tuesday the Education Department released new guidance on discriminatory discipline practices for students with disabilities.
The guidance addresses Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability and how it applies to student discipline in schools. It also aims to provide K-12 schools with the knowledge of how to understand and comply with Section 504 while also keeping communities safe by making sure that students with disabilities are properly supported and their disability-related behaviors are addressed.
This is especially important as students prepare to return to the classroom in the fall due to the impact the pandemic has had on students’ mental health.
The number of students enrolled in K-12 schools who require special education services is increasing, according to data released in 2021 from the department’s Office for Civil Rights. Between 2009 and 2020, the total number of students who received special education services in U.S. schools increased from 6.5 million to 7.3 million.
The guidance aims to provide K-12 schools with the knowledge of how to understand and comply with Section 504 while also keeping communities safe by making sure that students with disabilities are properly supported and their disability-related behaviors are addressed.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a call with reporters that special education services have been inadequate for too long.
“The pandemic did not alter the rights of students with disabilities to receive a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment,” said Cardona. “Yet after nearly half a century of the implementation of federal disability laws, we know that the delivery of special education services and aid is still insufficient for too many students.”
He said discriminatory discipline will only worsen students’ mental health and dampen their potential for academic success.
“Exclusionary discipline, such as out-of-school suspensions, can exacerbate these challenges, increasing stress that might lead to a greater sense of social isolation and diminished academic achievement,” said Cardona.
The guidance also offers clarification about restraint and seclusion practices. These strategies are used to restrict an individual’s movement as a form of discipline. Current data shows that nearly 102,000 students were restrained or subjected to seclusion during the 2017-18 school year.
It “offers clarity about federal legal requirements to ensure students with disabilities are effectively served and protected from discrimination,” said Cardona. Schools should use the tools provided in the guidance to “deliver safe and appropriate interventions,” he said.