School is back in session once again, and districts are confronting the perennial challenge of educating students with a multitude of physical, cognitive and behavioral limitations. Among these conditions, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) stands out in both its ubiquity and its potential to thrust parents and school districts into conflict over appropriate educational programming. In fact, the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has received over 2,000 complaints involving allegations of discrimination against students with ADHD in the past five years alone. The staggering number of complaints is testimony to both the elusive nature of ADHD and the difficulties school districts are experiencing in identifying, evaluating, and providing appropriate programming to students with the disorder. Absent clarification of the rights of students with ADHD and the responsibilities of the school districts that serve them, the surge in complaints and litigation is unlikely to subside in the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, school districts are beginning the new school year armed with guidance for meeting their obligations to students with ADHD under federal law. Over the summer, the OCR published a Dear Colleague letter highlighting the recurring problems school districts are facing with respect to ADHD and emphasizing the need for school districts to tailor their responses in compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The letter was accompanied by a comprehensive Resource Guide outlining the applicable federal law, providing step-by-step instructions for compliance with substantive obligations, and reminding school districts of their duty to notify families of their rights and procedural protections. These publications can aid school districts in revising their policies and procedures in accordance with federal law, which will likely result in better programming for students with ADHD and a reduction in complaints and litigation.

The OCR publications detail the bases for many of the complaints by families of students with ADHD. These allegations include the failure of school districts to identify and properly evaluate students with ADHD, to provide appropriate regular or special education and related services, to educate teachers and staff regarding students’ needs, and to notify families of their procedural and substantive rights under Section 504.

School districts are reminded of their “Child Find” obligation to identify and locate students suspected of having “disabilities” under Section 504. A student has a “disability” if she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and is also protected from discrimination if the student has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. The OCR emphasizes some examples of major life activities that could be substantially limited by ADHD, including concentrating, reading, thinking, and functions of the central nervous system/brain. Once a student is identified as possibly having a disability, school districts are obligated under Section 504 to conduct an evaluation at no costs to the student’s family. The evaluation must be conducted by appropriate personnel, without undue delay, and without regard to the effects of “mitigating measures” such as medication. Importantly, OCR states its own presumption that a student diagnosed with ADHD is substantially limited in one or more major life activities, and thus qualifies as a student with a disability under Section 504 unless proven otherwise. Overall, the definition of “disability” is to be construed broadly, and the determination of whether a student has a disability should not demand extensive analysis.

A student with a disability under Section 504 is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) comprised of regular or special education and related and/or supplementary services, modifications, and accommodations. FAPE must be individually tailored to a student’s particular needs, and provided without inappropriate consideration of administrative and financial burdens. With respect to ADHD, OCR cautions against the “blanket” provision of boilerplate services to any student diagnosed with the disorder. Instead, a “Section 504 plan” should be developed and implemented by a team of administrators and staff knowledgeable of the student’s particular needs. For example, a student with ADHD-predominantly inattentive type may supports such as prompting and redirection, while a student with ADHD-predominantly hyperactive/impulsive type may require a smaller classroom setting and reduced auditory or visual stimulation. The Section 504 plan should be disseminated to all of the student’s teachers in order to ensure uniform and consistent implementation.

Finally, school districts are obligated to notify families of their rights and procedural safeguards under Section 504. If a parent believes her child has a disability, she has the right to request an evaluation at district expense. If the school district refuses to conduct an evaluation, an explanation must be provided, and the parent must be able to challenge the district’s decision. Similarly, a parent must be able to challenge the determination that a student does not qualify as having a disability under Section 504. Finally, if a parent disagrees with the programming implemented for her child, she must be able to challenge the adequacy of the programming before a neutral hearing officer.

The OCR Dear Colleague letter and Resource Guide should be embraced by all school districts as the new school year begins. The existing confusion surrounding ADHD and the obligations of school districts under federal law indisputably drains educational resources and has resulted in a plethora of complaints and litigation. School districts are encouraged to heed the instructions and suggestions detailed in the OCR publications, and to revise their policies and procedures related to students with disabilities accordingly. In doing so, school districts will not only preserve scarce resources and avoid costly litigation, but more importantly, they will ensure that students with disabilities such as ADHD are being provided appropriate programming and afforded an equal opportunity to receive a quality education.

The education team at Berchem, Moses & Devlin, P.C. offers representation and guidance to school district clients across the State of Connecticut. For inquiries regarding Section 504 compliance and more, visit http://www.bmdlaw.com, or email us at mlaubin@bmdlaw.com.