Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

A Brief Overview

  • Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the United States Office of Civil Rights.
  • This law protects access rights to public places and programs for individuals with disabilities. Accommodations that support access are guaranteed, and not providing access is a form of discrimination.
  • All students with qualifying disabilities are part of a protected class under Section 504, including those on 504 Plans and those on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
  • Section 504 protects a person with disabilities throughout life and covers individuals at work and in any public facility or program.
  • Key terms are equity and access to opportunity. A government-funded place or program provides whatever is needed so the person with a disability can benefit from the place or program. The opportunity is equitable when supports provide a way for the person to overcome the barrier of disability (to the maximum extent possible) to access the place or program that everyone else has the right to access.
  • Section 504 defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. If a student in school meets criteria, then the school provides what a student needs to access a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the general education setting. ​
  • A Section 504 Plan determines what a student needs to receive equitable benefit from school.

Full Article

Section 504 is part of a law called the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the United States Office of Civil Rights. This law is about access–to a public place or program. Section 504 protects a person for life and allows every student, employee or guest in a public institution to ask for and expect supports and productivity enhancers–what they need to succeed.

All children with disabilities who qualify for special services in school are protected by the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act. Students who qualify for Special Education are protected by Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Children protected by IDEA have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and children who qualify for some support but do not meet the IDEA’s specific criteria may have Section 504 Plans. This article is primarily about Section 504 Plans. For more detailed information about the IEP, PAVE provides an article, Get Ready for School with IEP Essentials.

Education rights are like a pyramid: At the top of the pyramid is the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which provides a full menu of special education programming and services for qualifying students.  Children at the top of the pyramid have all the protections of each of these laws.

At the center of the pyramid is Section 504, part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which guarantees non-discriminatory rights to equitable access for individuals with disabilities.

ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) is at the bottom, providing all children in the United States the right to a free public education “to ensure that every child achieves.”

Schools are bound by Section 504 as “covered entities,” places or programs that receive money from the U.S. government. Schools provide access to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) by helping students with 504 Plans to succeed in regular classrooms and school settings. The goal is to meet the student’s needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students to offer equity and access to opportunities. Keep reading to learn more about what equity truly means.

Section 504 defines disability as an impairment that impacts a major life activity. A school team considers a variety of information to consider whether a student qualifies for a Section 504 Plan. A formal evaluation is not required, and parent involvement is voluntary. The team asks:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment limit one or more major life activities?

The law is intentionally broad, so it doesn’t limit the possible ways that a student who needs help can qualify for that help. ​A list of possible impairments is, therefore, unlimited. Here are a few examples:

  • Physical disability that might affect mobility, speech, toileting or a human function: Spina Bifida, deafness, dwarfism, loss of a limb
  • Cognitive, psychiatric, or emotional disorder: intellectual disability (Down Syndrome), a specific learning disability (Dyslexia), a brain illness or injury (bipolar disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury), an emotional disturbance (anxiety, depression) ​
  • Major bodily functions: disease of the immune system, digestive or urinary issues, an impairment of the nervous system or heart

​A list of major life activities is also endless. Whether an impairment “substantially” limits a major life activity is determined individually. Some impairments affect the ability to practice self-care, and challenges in basic life tasks like walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working are captured. Someone with sensory challenges might struggle to concentrate, think and communicate—all of those can qualify as major life activities. ​Really, any system in the body might have a challenge that creates a barrier for an individual and therefore can qualify as a disability.

A photo of a slide that states that a Major Life Activity Includes: walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, digesting, toileting, eating, sleeping, standing, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and lifting

Sometimes a Section 504 Plan provides adequate support, and sometimes the family and school consider whether the student qualifies for an IEP with a full menu of special education protections. A 2018 federal court ruling in favor of a student with Crohn’s disease provides an interesting example. Parents had provided the school with information about his diagnosis and requested an evaluation for services. Their request was denied. The Third Circuit Court found the school in violation of the student’s right to appropriate evaluation under the Child Find Mandate. The court also found that the school should have provided special education services, not only accommodations with a Section 504 Plan:

“In seeing Crohn’s as something requiring only a Section 504 accommodation, not IDEA special education, [the district] treated the disease as something discrete and isolated rather than the defining condition of [this student’s] life.” 

An online search can find a range of information related to Crohn’s Disease or other specific medical conditions and how to design a specific educational plan to meet a student’s needs. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, for example, provides a template for a Section 504 Plan for a student with serious medical issues related to digestion.

Equity doesn’t mean Equal

Supports and services for a student with a disability seek to provide equity. Equal opportunity would mean that all students get the same help. Getting the same help doesn’t give all students the same opportunity. In this picture, on the left, the little guy in the light blue shirt can’s see the game, even though he’s got the same platform as the taller guy. ​He needs a different platform to have the same opportunity to see the game.

The depiction of equality through the illustration of three children on a box and then justice is shown by making the boxes different sizes to serve the needs of each individual

The help that makes access to learning equitable puts the word Appropriate in FAPE– Free Appropriate Public Education.

Students with known disabilities get help and productivity enhancers to access the opportunities for success that all students have. If they need a taller crate—or an extra teacher, or a special swing on the playground, or training in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) or something else specific that gives them the same opportunity to learn, grow and benefit from school, then their civil right is to get the boost they need to have an equitable opportunity. ​

Accommodations and services create equity in order to give people a fair opportunity to succeed. This level of fairness can be called justice. 

Under Section 504, individuals with impairments have a right to get into public places—with ramps, elevators, braille labels on doors…whatever is needed for physical access. Other aspects of access are less obvious. Individuals with unseen disabilities have the right to accommodations that will make a program or service as effective for them as it is for the general population.

Positive behavior supports through a are an example of an accommodation that can help a student with a disability access the major life activity of learning. A BIP can be a stand-alone plan or can accompany a Section 504 Plan or an IEP. A BIP is developed after the school conducts a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA). Parents sign consent for the school to conduct an FBA.

Section 504 Supports Inclusion and Bars Discrimination

Section 504 includes elements of inclusion. A person with a disability has the right to access the regular program unless special help and different options cannot work to provide that person with benefit from the program or service.

This is important in education: Students have the right to get help so they receive an equitable benefit from learning in the general education classroom. They move to a more specialized setting only if those supports fail to provide appropriate and equitable access. ​This is true for students on 504 Plans and IEPs.

Under Section 504, any alternative space or program must be “comparable.” Clearly, that’s subjective, but it’s important language to include in any discussion with the school if parents have concern that a child is not receiving an education that is equitable or comparable to that being offered to typically developing students. ​

According to the Office of Civil Rights, as an institution that receives government funding, a school is bound to avoid policies that might on purpose or accidentally exclude persons with disabilities. ​In other words, if a school’s policy or action creates a barrier to access for a student with a disability, the school might be cited for discrimination if the Office of Civil Rights did an investigation.

Here are examples of how Section 504 might impact a student:

  • The school helps a student succeed with other students in the regular classroom, which is the most integrated setting.​
  • If the student needs extra help or technology or a special place to sit, he/she gets that because the school is ensuring accessibility. ​
  • If the student needs to take a different test or get a homework deadline changed, then the school makes those reasonable modifications, which don’t fundamentally alter the program. ​
  • An auxiliary aid might be a 1:1 para, and the school district provides that. ​

Section 504 Protects Students Everywhere at School
Access rights are not limited to the classroom but include all aspects of school and learning. This is just a short list of school settings that are governed by Section 504:​

  • Classrooms​
  • School bus/transportation​
  • Lunch​
  • Recess​
  • PE (Physical Education)​
  • After-school Clubs​
  • Sports​
  • Field Trips

Are Parents Part of the Section 504 Team?

The Rehabilitation Act doesn’t require schools to involve family members in the administration of a 504 plan. However, the plan is managed by a responsible school staff member who notifies parents before a student is evaluated or placed on a 504 Plan and provides parents/guardians with a copy of the plan.

The school also provides written notification to parents about their rights to disagree through grievance procedures. The document that describes these procedures is called “procedural safeguards.” ​If a parent requests a formal evaluation for special education services, and the school district refuses, the school district must provide the parent with a written copy of the procedural safeguards.

How is a 504 Plan Different from an IEP?
The decision to include parents in 504 team meetings is determined by each school district. ​However, parents may contribute information such as doctor reports, outside testing reports and personal reflections and concerns. Schools are expected to make sound educational decisions about what the child needs to be successful.​

The fact that parent participation is not a guarantee of the law makes Section 504 different from the IDEA, which requires parental involvement in the IEP process. Here are a few other differences between these two laws:

  • A 504 Plan is nearly always implemented within the general education setting, whereas an IEP may include placement in a variety of inclusive and specialized settings.​
  • A 504 will NOT include academic goals, benchmarks, or measurements, which are key features of an IEP. ​
  • Under Section 504, a qualified student with a disability is protected regardless of whether the student needs special education. ​
  • An IEP is an educational program that follows a student through high school; a 504 Plan is a Civil Rights protection that follows a person throughout the lifespan.​
  • Remember, Section 504 is about equity and access, and the protections of the Rehabilitation Act cover students on Section 504 Plans and IEPs. ​

How are Discipline and Behavior addressed by Section 504?

​Students with disabilities are a protected class when schools administer disciplinary actions. If a student with a disability is suspended for multiple days within a school term, the school is required to have a meeting called a Manifestation Determination meeting. This requirement specifically states that schools hold this meeting by the 10th day of suspension.​

The school and family will go through a specific set of questions to determine whether the behavior that led to the suspension was caused by some aspect of the student’s disability. In other words, did the behavior manifest from the disability? ​

At that meeting, the team will decide whether the school followed the 504 Plan, the IEP, the specific behavior plan and/or its own disciplinary policies in making the decisions about what to do. If the team determines that the student’s disability was the cause of the behavior and/or that the school didn’t follow procedure, then the student may qualify for Compensatory Services—additional learning time—to make up for missed education during the suspension. ​

For a student with a Section 504 Plan, this meeting can also direct the school to conduct a comprehensive educational evaluation to see if the student’s disability qualifies that student for the full menu of special education options available under the IDEA—including an IEP.​  A website called School Psychologist Files has an article and a chart comparing Section 504 and IEP.

Here are a few points related to Section 504, discipline and behavior:

  • Students with disabilities can be disciplined. ​
  • Students with disabilities have special protectionsregarding discipline. ​
  • Schools cannot change a student’s “placement” without following the rules. Placement is where the student receives learning.  If the school disciplines a student with a 504 Plan in a way that changes the location where the student receives education, this may constitute a change in placement. The Office of Civil Rights has specific laws that govern what constitutes a change in placement and how schools respond. ​
  • ​Students with disabilities are a protected class. Schools have the right to discipline students to keep everybody safe, but the schools are bound by specific rules and regulations to make sure that their disciplinary actions aren’t discriminatory. ​
  • ​If a student with a disability keeps getting taken out of class because of behaviors, then the disciplinary actions might add up to a significant change in placement. The law states that this change is placement triggers a re-evaluation and opens the possibility that a higher level of special education service might be needed to support and protect this student with a disability. ​

Rules for Schools

Some parents are anxious about questioning actions taken by the school. It’s important to remember that parents also have protections under the law. The Office of Civil Rights maintains specific guidelines that do not allow schools to retaliate against parents for asserting their rights to participate in a student’s education. ​

Parents can reach out directly to the Office of Civil Rights:

  • OCR Seattle Regional Office at: 206-607-1600​
  • National: 800-877-8339 (TTY) or Federal Relay Service (FRS) at 1-800-877-8339 ​

Here are some additional resources for information about Section 504:

The United States Department of Health and Human Services: HHS.Gov

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights:  www2.ed.gov
Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR): parentcenterhub.org
Parent Guide to Section 504: GreatSchools.org
Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI): k12.wa.us
For legal interpretations of Special Education and Section 504 Law: Wrightslaw.com

 

 

What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School

A Brief Overview

  • Students with disabilities are disciplined twice as often as non-disabled peers. Washington is taking actions to remedy the inequities. Read on for examples of the new state rules and where to go for more information.  
  • Schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline. This article includes resources and information to help families ensure that students are receiving the best-practice services they need and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), in collaboration with the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), provides a 46-minute YouTube video about behavior management practices and student rights. Included is information about use of isolation and restraint and OCR data related to compliance reviews nationwide.
  • Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction, says, “We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”
  • Concern is nationwide. The Center for Civil Rights Remedies in 2018 issued a state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect.”
  • If the school calls to send a child home, parents can ask whether the student is being suspended. If the school is not taking formal disciplinary action, parents are not required to take a child home. If the action is a formal suspension, specific rules apply. Read on for more detail.

Full Article

Some disabilities make it difficult for students to communicate distress or manage their behavior in ways that schools expect or require from typically developing students. Data clearly show that students with disabilities are disciplined more frequently than their non-disabled peers. By learning about state and federal guidelines, parents can advocate to ensure that students with disabilities are receiving the services they need to successfully access school and that disciplinary actions are non-discriminatory.

Parents can empower themselves by learning the federal framework for special education protections. Students who receive services or accommodations through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are guaranteed access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Disciplinary actions that deny access to FAPE may be discriminatory. Schools follow specific procedures when they discipline students with special needs to avoid violations of FAPE.

For example, a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) cannot be excluded from school because of behavior that results from a disability: Read on for further information about Manifestation Determination Hearings. Also, schools are required to provide education and support before resorting to discipline for children who struggle with behavior because of their impairments.

Some agencies are researching the impacts of exclusionary discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, on children and their families. Some research shows that trauma and a worsening of mental health are outcomes. Excessive punishments are linked to negative lifelong outcomes, such as reduced graduation rates and more incarcerations. The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (challengingbehavior.org) has a webinar about the impact of suspensions on children in early learning.

Unexpected behavior may indicate that a student has a disability and needs services

Federal laws can protect students who haven’t yet been identified as having disabilities. School districts have a duty to evaluate students to determine eligibility for special education if they exhibit behavior that may indicate a disability. Under IDEA, this responsibility is called the Child Find mandate. Suspension, expulsion, isolation or restraint due to unexpected behavior can initiate an evaluation process, and students who qualify for services can retroactively be afforded protections from the IDEA or Section 504.

The Office for Civil Rights within the United States Department of Education in December 2016 issued a two-page Fact Sheet on Restraint and Seclusion that succinctly describes some federal guidelines related to disciplinary action and disability:

“A student’s behavioral challenges, such as those that lead to an emergency situation in which a school believes restraint or seclusion is a justified response could be a sign that the student actually has a disability and needs special education or related aids and services in order to receive FAPE.”

Washington State has new rules for schools

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees all Washington school districts, in July 2018 adopted new state guidelines related to discipline. OSPI provides a Parent Guide to discipline, available in multiple languages, on its website.

Also available is a Menu of Best Practices and Strategies. Restorative justice, behavioral health support and social skills instruction are on the menu for a more proactive, student-centered approach. The state includes requirements for parent notification and family engagement in the new rules, which are being implemented over two years, 2018-2020.

“The state discipline rules were created four decades ago,” says Chris Reykdal, Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Our students and schools are vastly different today. The new rules provide more clarity and they allow for student, family, and community input in developing local discipline policies.

“While some students do occasionally need discipline, our approach must be different. We should do what we can to make suspensions and expulsions the last option while ensuring our schools are safe. The numbers are clear: This is an equity issue, and some groups of students are impacted much more than others.”

Students with disabilities and students of color are disciplined more frequently

OSPI reports that 3.5 percent of all students were suspended or expelled during the 2016–17 school year. Among students receiving special education services, the percentage was 7.1 percent. For African-American students, the percentage was 7.4 percent. For Latino students, the rate was 4.1 percent. Students of color who also have disabilities are impacted at the highest rates. Seattle’s King 5 News on Oct. 25, 2018, broadcast a news report about the disparities in discipline for students with disabilities.

In 2016, the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 1541 to help close opportunity gaps in learning. OSPI spent two years researching the statutes and guidance. In rewriting the rules that were adopted in July 2018, the agency gathered feedback from families, students, educators, and community members through three public comment periods and eight public hearings.

New state policies are designed to discourage disciplinary actions that take a child out of the learning environment and encourage family engagement and positive behavior supports and other evidence-based practices. OSPI’s one-page introductory handout for parents outlines the new guidance.

According to OSPI, the new rules aim to make policies fair statewide. They require districts to include parents and guardians when updating discipline policies. The overarching goal is to keep children in school and learning and avoid severe or exclusionary disciplinary measures. 

In general, Washington’s new state rules:

  • Encourage schools to minimize the use of suspensions and expulsions and focus instead on evidence-based, best-practice educational strategies
  • Prohibit schools from excluding students from school for absences or tardiness
  • Further limit use of exclusionary discipline (suspension, expulsion) for behaviors that do not present a safety threat
  • Prohibit the use of expulsion for students in kindergarten through grade four (children in that age range already cannot be excluded from their classroom placements for more than 10 cumulative days per academic term)
  • Clarify expectations for how school districts must provide students access to educational services during a suspension or expulsion

When are students entitled to a Manifestation Determination Hearing?

In Washington, a student with an identified disability may be suspended for a short period of time if there are safety concerns or if other interventions are failing to control behaviors that cause a significant disruption. However, if a suspension or an accumulation of in- or out-of-school suspensions within a semester or trimester totals 10 days, the school holds a Manifestation Determination Hearing to determine whether the behavior resulted—or “manifested”—from the disability. This hearing is a distinct process for students with IEPS or Section 504 accommodation plans and is separate from any other general education disciplinary hearings or procedures. Removal for more than 10 days is considered a change in placement and could violate the school district’s responsibility to provide the special education student with FAPE.

If a student’s behavior manifested from disability, the school and parents meet to discuss program or placement changes likely to help. A Manifestation Determination hearing can also initiate an evaluation process for students not yet identified as needing special education services or disability-related accommodations. Regardless of whether the student has qualified for services, the hearing can trigger a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA), which can be done for students with or without IEPs or Section 504 plans. Keep reading for more detail about the FBA and how it’s used to generate positive behavior interventions and supports.

The IDEA guarantees parent participation in the IEP process, which includes disciplinary hearings and any other formal meetings in which a student’s educational program or placement is reviewed or amended.  

If the conduct is determined to be unrelated to a disability, then school personnel may use general education discipline procedures. In that case, the school must still provide any special education services that the student has already been found to need. The IEP team decides the appropriate alternative setting and special education services to meet the student’s needs during the suspension.

The school district is required to provide educational services during a suspension

State law requires that all suspended and expelled students have an opportunity to receive educational services (RCW 28A.600.015). According to the Washington Administrative Codes (WAC 392-400-610) educational services provided in an alternative setting must enable the student to:

  • Continue to participate in the general education curriculum;
  • Meet the educational standards established within the district; and
  • Complete subject, grade-level, and graduation requirements.

Note: If a student’s conduct involves Special Circumstances – weapons, illegal drugs, or serious bodily injury—a student may be removed for up to 45 school days regardless of whether the student’s behavior was a manifestation of disability. However, a manifestation determination hearing still is required within the first 10 days of removal from school and educational services still are provided.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington provides a free, downloadable Parents’ Guide to Public School Discipline in Washington. Part III includes information about laws and procedures that are specific to students in special education. The ACLU guidebook encourages parents to gather as much information as possible when a student is disciplined:

“It is important to fully understand the type of proposed discipline, the underlying behavior, how the behavior relates to the student’s disability, and what additional supports may be available in order to fully advocate for your student.”

Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?

The ACLU booklet commits a page to addressing the question, “Do you need to pick up your student every time the school calls?” A parent can ask whether the student is being suspended.  “If your student has not been officially suspended,” ACLU advises, “The school cannot force you to pick up the student.

“If you choose to pick up your student when he or she has not been suspended, the school may not record the removal from class and may not trigger additional protections (such as Manifestation Determination Hearings) that apply when students with disabilities are removed from school for 10 days or more.”

The ACLU points out that without formal paperwork that describes a disciplinary action and its specific start and end times, a school may not be accountable to specific rules that govern special education: “Any time your student misses class time because of a behavior problem, it may be considered a discipline and should be considered as counting towards the 10 days that would be a ‘change of placement’ under the law and trigger additional protections. If your student is having behavioral problems that do not lead to suspension, you may suggest that the IEP team should consider holding an IEP meeting to reevaluate your student’s behavior supports, or that the 504 team meet to consider changes to the accommodation plan.”

The ACLU guidebook includes a list of supports parents can ask for: “The law requires behavior supports to be based on evidence, and so you can ask for additional expert evaluation to determine whether the behavior supports offered to your student are appropriate.”

Schools teach skills for expected behavior

Specialized instruction designed to meet a student’s unique needs can include education in social communication, self-regulation, choice-making and other areas of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) that may impact behavior. These strategies are well recognized as best-practice for keeping children engaged in school and avoiding problems that might lead to discipline.

In addition, schools can conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) to develop a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). A BIP is developed to proactively help a child learn expected behaviors and shift away from circumstances that might lead to escalations. The BIP identifies target behaviors that are disrupting education and determines “antecedents,” which means conditions or events that occur before the targeted behavior. A BIP is intended to support “replacement” behavior so a student can develop skills that prevent escalations and keep the student in school and learning.  

A BIP can be a stand-alone plan or can work with an IEP or a Section 504 accommodations plan. OSPI offers guidance to schools and families about FBA/BIP process. Another place to find valuable information is through the Parent Center Hub, a website operated by the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR).

School discipline is a national topic of concern

On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education published a Dear Colleague Letter for public-school staff: “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs.” The letter included data that 10 percent of all children with disabilities, ages 3-21, were subject to a disciplinary removal from school. Children of color with disabilities faced an even higher rate.

The letter encourages all schools to develop robust programs for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and provides specific guidance for IEP teams. “In the case of a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, the IEP Team must consider – and, when necessary to provide FAPE, include in the IEP – the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior.”

The federal guidance includes statements about staff development: “School personnel may need training, coaching, and tools to appropriately address the behavioral needs of a particular child. Supports for school personnel may be designed, as appropriate, to better implement effective instructional and behavior management strategies and specific behavioral interventions that are included in the child’s IEP.”

In 2014, the federal government issued guidance to discourage disciplinary actions that discriminate against students with disabilities, particularly students of color. A variety of federal sources have highlighted disparities, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice in April 2018 issued the first state-by-state estimate of lost instruction due to discipline for students with disabilities. The data include a finding that children of color who also have disabilities lost 77 more days of instruction because of disciplinary actions than peers who are Caucasian.

“These data on lost instruction are rarely reported,” the report concludes in its executive summary. “Although many could guess that the racially disparate impact is large, these dramatic disparities were derived from reliable publicly reported federal data, and they should be cause for alarm. Students with disabilities receive much more than classroom instruction when they are in school. For example, they often receive related counseling services, occupational and physical therapy as well as additional small group or one-on-one tutoring. Therefore, they lose much more when they are removed from school.”

Inappropriate discipline may be a denial of FAPE

The full report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies includes this statement in its introduction: “Schools once routinely denied students with disabilities access to public education. Federal law makes it clear that such denial is unlawful, yet some schools may still be meting out discipline in a manner that has the same effect. To suspend a student because of behavior that is a result of their disability is the equivalent of denying that student access to education.”

However, in December 2018, a federal school safety commission recommended that the U.S. Department of Education rescind the 2014 guidance intended to prevent discriminatory practices. OSPI responded by stating that Washington State’s policies and updated guidance would be unaffected. “Rescinding the 2014 guidelines will have no effect on Washington’s laws and rules related to student discipline…and will have no effect on OSPI’s enforcement of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the administration of student discipline,” OSPI stated.

Washington State student discipline laws apply to all K–12 students. Students with disabilities are subject to both general education and special education rules and statutes. For the most up-to-date information about general education discipline procedures and the rules changes underway, visit OSPI’s Student Discipline page. For more information about special education discipline procedures, visit OSPI’s Special Education Behavior and Discipline page.

Guidance related to isolation and restraint

The state has specific rules related to the use of isolation and restraint, which are implemented only when a student’s behavior poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm and are discontinued when the likelihood of serious harm has passed. Isolation and restraint are not used as a form of standard discipline or aversive intervention.

The Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) offers an online resource page that details state guidance related to isolation and restraint. Included is this statement:

“Schools in Washington State are not allowed to use restraint or isolation as a form of discipline or punishment, or as a way to try to correct a child’s behavior. Restraint and isolation are only allowed as emergency measures, to be used if necessary to keep a student or others safe from serious harm. They can continue only as long as the emergency continues.”

School districts are required to collect and report data on the use of restraint and isolation. That data is posted on OSPI’s website as part of the School Safety Resource Library. 

If emergency responses and/or severe disciplinary actions become frequent, schools might ask the parent/guardian to sign an Emergency Response Protocol (ERP) for an individual student. Families are not required to sign this. The ERP specifically explains what the school’s policies are related to isolation and restraint and what the training requirements are for staff who are authorized to provide isolation and restraint. Parents can request a copy of the district’s general education policies on this topic. The ERP can include a statement about how parents are contacted if the school uses isolation or restraint. Schools are required to provide a report to the parent/guardian and to the state any time formal disciplinary or emergency actions are taken.

Equity work in school discipline is ongoing statewide

A graph that shows disparity in discipline is provided on OSPI’s website, which includes training and materials for schools to support improvements. “Like other states, Washington has experienced significant and persistent disparities in the discipline of students based upon race/ethnicity, disability status, language, sex and other factors,” OSPI’s website states. “While overall rates of exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion) have declined over the last decade, significant disparities persist. These trends warrant serious attention from school districts, as well as OSPI, to work toward equitable opportunities and outcomes for each and every student.”

 

Isolation and Restraint Practices Attract Media Attention

Disability Rights Washington (DRW) has published a video about school use of isolation and restraint. The video, which is posted to YouTube, was produced by DRW’s media program called Rooted in Rights. DRW is a private non-profit organization with a mission to advance the dignity, equality, and self-determination of people with disabilities. The agency is staffed with attorneys who pursue justice on matters related to human and legal rights.

In Washington State, isolation and restraint may be used if “reasonably necessary to control spontaneous behavior that poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm,” as defined in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 70.96B.010). The isolation/restraint ends when the imminent likelihood of harm has passed. These practices are considered emergency responses and not disciplinary actions.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) describes specific reporting requirements for schools to inform parents and the state about isolation and restraint incidents.

PAVE’s website, wapave.org, provides several articles that include information about isolation and restraint practices. Articles also describe ways to incorporate positive behavior supports into school programs to reduce the need for emergency response. An article titled, Ideas and Resources to Support Your Child’s Behavior at School, is a place to start.

Another option to research information on the topic is to type the word “Behavior” into the search bar at wapave.org to find additional articles. A comprehensive article about policies related to discipline is titled, What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.

Educators and policy makers generally agree that an evidence-based method to keep everyone safe and learning at school is to incorporate Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) into a school-wide program that focuses on a healthy school climate. PBIS is described in several of PAVE’s articles, including one contributed by University of Washington researcher Kelcey Schmitz: Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) in Schools.

Implementation of PBIS varies widely across the state. Parents can ask their school district administrators about whether a PBIS framework is being used within the district.

 

 

Tips for Parents: Summer Provides Time to Reinforce Positive Behaviors at Home

A Brief Overview

  • A tidal wave of emotional meltdowns can douse a family during summer break. Read on for tips to create a positive home environment that encourages expected behaviors.
  • A key concept from Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is that punishment doesn’t teach children and youth what they should do instead. Adults can direct a child toward a better choice of actions or interrupt an escalation cycle.
  • The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right.
  • Parents might find success with strategies they can share with school in the fall!

Full Article

Summertime brings relief and grief in different measures for families. Taking a break from school can mean more time to sleep in, take a vacation or simply daydream. Still, a change in routine can disrupt some children who prefer days that are all the same amount of busy—and disruption can lead to dysregulation. A few strategies, described below, might help smooth troubled waters. In addition, parents might find success with strategies they can share with the school in the fall!

Experts in education are excited about a framework for creating a positive environment with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Currently a popular topic for webinars and in-service trainings nationwide, PBIS has been implemented in more than 26,000 U.S. schools. The PBIS framework has been shown to decrease disciplinary removals and improve student outcomes, including grades and graduation rates. When done well, PBIS provides positive social skills, communication strategies and “restorative justice,” (working it out instead of punishing) and may prevent 80-90 percent of problem behaviors.

Punishment doesn’t teach

PBIS requires an understanding that punishment doesn’t help a child know what to do instead. Researchers have learned that a child who is being punished enters an emotionally dysregulated state (fight/flight/freeze) that blocks learning. Adults who calmly direct a child toward a new way of problem-solving can interrupt or prevent an escalation. De-escalation strategies might include:

  • Remove what is causing the behavior
  • Get down to eye level
  • Offer empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
  • Provide choices
  • Re-teach expectations
  • Reinforce desired behaviors
  • Communicate care instead of control

Simple, consistent, predictable language is a critical component. Insights about these strategies and more were shared in a webinar by Change Lab Solutions on April 30, 2019.

Among experts talking about PBIS are staff at the University of Washington’s School Mental Health Assessment, Research and Training (SMART) Center, where staff lead the School Mental Health supplement of the Northwest Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (NWMHTTC). These agencies, in collaboration with the League of Education Voters, in June 2019 hosted a webinar: How to Implement Mental Health Supports in Schools, focused on the importance of blending school and community supports with PBIS.

A University of Washington (UW) expert who participated in the webinar is Kelcey Schmitz, a former OSPI staff member who has written articles for PAVE about positive behavior supports and state initiatives and has experience helping families and schools implement PBIS.

“PBIS is a game changer for children and youth with behavior challenges and their teachers and caregivers,” Schmitz says. “In fact, everyone can benefit from PBIS. Behavior is a form of communication, and PBIS aims to reduce problem behavior by increasing appropriate behavior and ultimately improving quality of life for everyone. The same approaches used by schools to prevent problem behaviors and create positive, safe, consistent and predictable environments can be used by families at home.”

Schmitz, an MTSS training and technical assistance specialist, provides the following specific tips for creating a PBIS home environment to create fun, surfable days instead of emotional tidal waves.

Tier 1: Support Positive Behavior before there’s a problem

First, it’s helpful to understand the structure of PBIS, which is set up with three layers—called tiers—of support. The parent-child relationship is strengthened by loving and positive interactions at each tier.

Tier 1 support is about getting busy before there’s a problem. Much like learning to wash hands to prevent getting sick, expected behavior is taught and modeled to prevent unexpected behaviors.  Parents can take a look at their own actions and choices and consider what children will see as examples of being respectful, responsible and safe.

Tiers 2 and 3 are where adults provide a little more support for specific behaviors that are getting in the way of relationships or how the child or youth functions. Tier 2 is for students who need a social group or some extra teaching, practice and reinforcement. 

Tier 3 supports include conducting a functional behavior assessment to find out why the behavior is occurring and then matching the student’s needs to an individualized intervention. Any student should be able to access supports that include aspects of Social Emotional Learning at all three Tiers. At home, Tiers 2 and 3 naturally will be more blended and may include support from a community provider. Note that targeted interventions in Tiers 2-3 work best when Tier 1 is already well established.

Define, teach and routinely acknowledge family expectations

  • Discuss how you want to live as a family and identify some “pillars” (important, building-block concepts) that represent what you value. Talk about what those pillars look like and sound like in every-day routines. To help the family remember and be consistent, choose only 3-5 and create positive statements about them. Here are a few examples:
    • Speak in a respectful voice.
    • Be responsible for actions.
    • Be safe; keep hands, feet and objects to self.
  • Identify a couple of “hot spots” to begin. Challenging behaviors often occur within routines.  Perhaps mornings or mealtimes create hot spots for the family. After discussing 1-2 ways to be respectful, responsible and safe in the morning, teach what each looks like. Have fun with it! Set up “expectation stations” for practicing the plan and assign each family member one pillar to teach to the rest.
  • Behaviors that get attention get repeated. Notice when a child does the right thing and say something about each success: “I noticed you stopped to pick up your shoes in the hallway. Thanks for putting them away and keeping the walkway safe for others.” The easiest way to change a behavior is to point out what a person does right!
  • Remember this catchy phrase, “5:1 gets it done” to ensure five positive interactions for each negative interaction. When the expected behavior becomes routine, the reinforcement can fade away.

Create engaging and predictable routines

  • Children crave structure and routine. Adults may look forward to a relaxing evening or weekend, but kids often need regular activity and engagement. Consider that either the kids are busy, or the adults are busy managing bored kids!
  • Use visuals to create predictability. A visual schedule can display major routines of the day with pictures that are drawn, real photos or cut-outs from magazines. Create the schedule together!  Parents can ask a child to check the schedule – especially when moving from a preferred to non-preferred activity. It’s hard to argue with a picture!

Set the stage for positive behavior

  • Teach, pre-teach and re-teach. Children need to learn behavior just like they learn colors and shapes. A quick reminder can help reinforce a developing skill: “When we get in the car, sit up, buckle up, and smile!”
  • Give transition warnings or cues to signal the end of one activity and the beginning of another: “In five minutes, it will be bath time.”
  • First/then statements set up a child for delayed gratification: “First take your bath; then we can play dolls.”
  • Focus on Go instead of Stop. Children often tune out words like No, Don’t and Stop and only hear the word that comes next, which is what an adult is trying to avoid. Tell a child what to do instead of what not to do: “Take your plate and put it in the sink.” Save Stop and No for dangerous circumstances that need a quick reaction.  
  • Choices prevent power struggles: “Would you rather play for five more minutes or get in the bath now?”  “Feel free to choose the pink pajamas or the green ones.”

While these strategies may not eliminate all problem behaviors, they create consistency, predictability and a more positive atmosphere. They teach new skills to help children get their needs met. The solid foundation will help even if challenging behaviors persist by creating a bedrock for additional layers of support.  

Here are places to seek additional information:

Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior 

Home and Community Based Positive Behavior Support Facebook Page

Home and Community PBS Website

Parent Center Hub Positive Behavior Supports Resource Collection

Intensive Intervention: An Overview for Parents and Families

The Association for Positive Behavior Support

Getting Behavior in Shape at Home

Family Resources for Challenging Behavior

The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations (NCPMI) Resource Library, articles in multiple languages

Ideas and Resources to Support Your Child’s Behavior at School

A Brief Overview

  • Behavior specialists generally agree that difficult behaviors arise from unmet needs. How adults respond is critical if a child is going to learn new ways to communicate.
  • Humans spend about 80 percent of their brain energy trying to belong. This can explain a lot when a child with a disability feels isolated or unwanted and starts to act out.
  • Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a framework that a growing number of schools nationwide are using to improve school climate, which refers to the way a school feels to students and staff.
  • Members of the U.S. Congress discussed PBIS on February 27, 2019, when a committee heard public testimony regarding a bill that would regulate use of isolation and restraint in public schools. Positive behavior interventions are considered “protective” by behavior experts, and there is evidence that isolation and restraint cause trauma.
  • Read on for questions families can consider when they are trying to understand what’s happening with a child and how to intervene for the best outcomes.

Full Article

Families and teachers often struggle to figure out what to do when a child’s behavior at school is getting in the way of learning.  How adults respond to unexpected behavior can impact whether an incident leads down a path of worsening problems or toward improved learning. Parents can help by understanding as much as possible about what the child might be trying to communicate or overcome.

“Difficult behaviors result from unmet needs,” says David Pitonyak, PhD, an educational consultant, author and public speaker who specializes in behavior supports for children with disabilities. Pitonyak speaks nationally and provides a variety of online tools to help families and educators.

One example is a free, online presentation, “All Behavior is Meaning-full.” In it, Pitonyak includes a list of what might be missing when an unmet need leads to a behavior incident:

  • Meaningful relationships
  • A sense of safety and well-being
  • Power
  • Things to look forward to
  • A sense of value and self-worth
  • Relevant skills and knowledge

“Supporting a person requires us to get to know the person as a complicated human being influenced by a complex personal history,” Pitonyak says. “While it is tempting to look for a quick fix, which usually means attacking the person and his or her behavior, suppressing behavior without understanding something about the life the person is living is disrespectful and counterproductive….

“Our challenge is to find out what the person needs so that we can be more supportive.”

A running theme in Pitonyak’s work is that adults need to strengthen their own social and emotional skills in order to effectively help children. He often quotes another specialist in the field, Jean Clark: “A person’s needs are best met by people whose needs are met.” In other words, parents and teachers need to practice self-care and regulate their own behaviors and emotions to provide the best examples to children. Read on for a check-list that adults can use to develop their own skills while they help children.

A brain’s biggest job is to belong

Pitonyak is among specialists who believe that children act out because they feel misunderstood, devalued, lonely or powerless. Other growing themes are the importance of belonging and the human need to contribute meaningfully to a social group. Neuroscientists have found that humans spend about 80 percent of their brain energy trying to belong. This can explain a lot when a child with a disability feels isolated or unwanted and starts to act out.

Parents can use these concepts in a variety of ways to participate in their child’s educational program. Here are examples of questions to ask in any meeting with a school:

  • Who are the adults at school that my child trusts?
  • Does my child have special jobs or responsibilities, so he/she feels important at school?
  • Is someone regularly checking in with my child to see what’s going on?
  • How are positive behavior skills being taught and reinforced?

Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a framework that a growing number of schools nationwide are using to improve “school climate,” which refers to the way a school feels to its students and staff.

Schools that embrace PBIS generally create programs to help all students participate in well-being and then offer more targeted social, emotional and behavioral help to students who struggle the most. These different levels of intervention are called Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). According to the federal PBIS website, “PBIS improves social, emotional and academic outcomes for all students, including students with disabilities and students from underrepresented groups.”

Information about federal guidelines and programs related to PBIS and MTSS are available online from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education (OESE). PAVE provides an article about PBIS, with parenting tips by Kelcey Schmitz, a longtime MTSS expert who previously worked for OSPI and now is part of the University of Washington’s School of Medicine and the School Mental Health Assessment, Research, & Training (SMART) Center.

PBIS is a protective strategy

The United States Congressional Committee on Education and Labor received training about PBIS on February 27, 2019, when they heard public testimony (YouTube video): Classrooms in Crisis: Examining the Inappropriate Use of Seclusion and Restraint Practices. Congress is considering legislation that would create a federal standard on accepted practice, accountability and training for teachers who might use isolation or restraint in an emergency.

National Public Radio reported about isolation and restraint in a June 5, 2019, broadcast that included personal comments from two families in Vancouver, Washington.

The State of Washington allows isolation and restraint by trained school staff if a student’s behavior poses an imminent threat of serious bodily harm. PAVE’s comprehensive article about discipline at school includes more information and resources about isolation and restraint, which is described by state law as an emergency response and not a form of disciplinary action.

Among those who provided public testimony for the U.S. Congress was George Sugai, PhD, professor of special education at the University of Connecticut who was a key developer of the PBIS framework. At the public hearing, Sugai spoke about the reduction in trauma among schools who embrace PBIS. He said teachers report more positive feelings toward their work and that students show more progress toward specific educational goals. “PBIS is a protective strategy,” he said.

The behavior itself holds the clues about what to do next

Sugai, who holds a Master of Arts and a PhD in special education from the University of Washington, spoke about understanding a child’s unmet needs. “We have to understand what children are communicating through their behavior,” he said. “The behavior itself holds the clues about what to do next.”

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), which oversees the state’s school districts, has a variety of programs underway to address school climate and improve staff training in Social Emotional Learning, equity in student discipline and development of Compassionate Schools. The state encourages use of a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP), which promotes positive support and skill-building for expected school behavior. The plan is to prevent the need for disciplinary action or emergency response. A BIP is developed with data collected through a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA), which is a best-practice tool for schools to figure out what help a student with challenging behavior might need. OSPI’s website includes examples of the FBA and BIP in its Model Forms.

OSPI’s family and community liaison, Scott Raub, partnered with a special services director from the Puget Sound’s Educational Service District 121 to create a slide presentation about isolation and restraint that is available as a free, downloadable PDF. The document is titled, Stop Using Restraint and Isolation: An Evolution or a REVOLUTION? The presentation includes specific guidance for school staff to use a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) as a strategy for managing behavior. A flow chart shows how early intervention might diffuse a situation to allow a student to remain in a more regulated state and stay in class. The document also provides detail about recent OSPI rulings about isolation and restraint raised through the Citizen’s Complaint process.

In accordance with the Revised Code of Washington (RCW 28A.600.485), “Restraint or isolation of any student is permitted only when reasonably necessary to control spontaneous behavior that poses an imminent likelihood of serious harm. Restraint or isolation must be closely monitored to prevent harm to the student, and must be discontinued as soon as the likelihood of serious harm has dissipated. Each school district shall adopt a policy providing for the least amount of restraint or isolation appropriate to protect the safety of students and staff under such circumstances.”

In the slide presentation, designed for schools and publicly available, OSPI provides detail about what “imminent likelihood of serious harm” can look like and provides direct guidance to staff, including these statements:

  • Emergency Response Protocols are NOT a substitute for BIPs.
  • BIPs must be updated as part of student’s annual IEP [review].
  • The time to end isolation and restraint is as soon as the likelihood of serious harm has dissipated; this is not equivalent to waiting until the student has calmed.

A state workgroup to study Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in October 2016 proposed a set of Standards and Benchmarks to help school staff identify how best to help children who struggle with their behavior, social skills and emotional regulation. The group established six standards with specific benchmarks. A report from that workgroup includes a chart of the standards (Page 3). Families can share this information with schools when trying to identify what’s happening with a child and what interventions might help.

Below is a brief overview of those SEL standards and a few questions parents can bring to the table. In each target area, parents can ask what school staff are doing to help. This check-list also can be a good starting-point for adults who want to work on their own emotional regulation and coping strategies.

1. Self-Awareness

  • Can the student identify and understand emotions?
  • What is the student good at or interested in?
  • How are family, school and community agencies helping as a team?

2.Self-Management

  • Can the student express emotions and manage stress constructively?
  • What problem-solving skills are in place or need to be learned?

3. Self-Efficacy (self-motivated/seeing self as capable)

  • Can the student understand and work toward a goal?
  • Can the student show problem-solving skills?
  • Can the student request what he/she needs?

4. Social Awareness

  • Can the student recognize another person’s emotions?
  • Can the student show respect for others who are different?
  • Can the student accept another cultural perspective?

5. Social Management

  • Does the student have ways to communicate?
  • Can the student take steps to resolve conflicts with other people?
  • Does the student have constructive relationships with a variety of people?

6. Social Engagement

  • Does the student feel responsibility as part of a community?
  • Can the student work with others to achieve a goal?
  • Does the student contribute productively and recognize his/her contribution?

Additional Resources

PAVE provides a series of three articles with more information and resources about Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

Many parents struggle in their communications with the school when a child’s specific disability and its impact on behavior is not well understood. A place to research specific disabilities related to mental health, such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) is the Child Mind Institute.

A resource for better understanding how children might behave in response to trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the Children’s Health Foundation.

An agency called GoZen offers an online article about Eight Ways a Child’s Anxiety Shows up at Something Else. Included in the list: difficulty sleeping, anger, defiance, lack of focus, avoidance, negativity, over-planning and “chandeliering,” which refers to a full-blown tantrum that seemingly comes out of nowhere. In addition to its free online articles, GoZen provides fee-based programs on resilience.