Department of Education Releases Guidance on Educating Students with Disabilities

By Lindsay Coker, Program Specialist 

The Department of Education (the Department) recently released three sets of guidance related to educating students with disabilities, including one set explicitly pertaining to charter schools. These documents explain how the Department interprets and enforces federal civil rights laws protecting the rights of students with disabilities, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The guidance offers explanations and examples of how the Department reviews and responds to situations involving key aspects of these laws, such as Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), and discipline procedures. The thorough discussions and use of hypotheticals provide critical insight into how the Department addresses issues related to students with disabilities in public education, including within the charter sector. The documents include:

  • Parent and Educator Resource Guide – Includes overview of Section 504 with examples and definitions of key concepts including provisions related to identification, evaluation, and placement of students with disabilities. It highlights school districts’ responsibilities, steps parents can take, and procedures for handling disputes.
  • Dear Colleague Letter and Q&A on Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities in Public Schools. These documents provide guidance related to disciplining students with disabilities through use of physical restraint or seclusion including defining the terms, applicable legal standards and jurisdictional concerns, and available resources. In light of findings from the Civil Rights Data Collection during the 2013-14 school year indicating that students with disabilities were subjected to seclusion and physical restraint at rates far exceeding those for other students, the guidance reiterates that restraint and seclusion should be avoided when possible and used only in rare cases. The guidance assists stakeholders with better understanding of Section 504 and how it impacts use of restraint and seclusion on students with disabilities, and provides resources for reducing or eliminating the use of these practices in schools.
  • Joint Dear Colleague Letter on Rights of Students with Disabilities in Public Charter Schools from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR - which administers Section 504) and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS – which administers IDEA). The letter explains that students with disabilities applying to or enrolled in charter schools are entitled to protections under both Section 504 and IDEA. Because the two laws differ significantly in application, the letter presents two separate Q&A documents relating to Section 504 and IDEA, respectively:
    • Q&A Regarding Section 504 – Outlines the rights of students enrolled in charter school and those applying to enroll in charter schools on issues such as FAPE and emphasizes that students with disabilities who opt to enroll in charter school have the same rights under Section 504 as those attending other elementary and secondary public schools. This document also provides specific guidance regarding the recruitment, application, and admissions process under Section 504 because the admissions and enrollment practices of charter schools can differ substantially from those of traditional public schools
      • Q&A Regarding IDEA – Emphasizes that IDEA Part B applies to students with disabilities in charter schools just as it would in traditional public schools and addresses the provision of key components of IDEA, such as FAPE, child find and evaluations, procedural safeguards, funding, etc.
      • The Department also issued a Know Your Rights document targeted towards educating parents regarding the rights of students and obligations of charter schools under Section 504 and IDEA

This guidance provides valuable information and suggestions to assist schools, state and local education agencies, authorizers of charter schools, parents, and other stakeholders in understanding how federal laws function to provide protections for students with disabilities in order to ensure they receive a quality education free from discrimination.

LEARN MORE - Upcoming Webinars 

In the coming weeks, NCSECS will be delving deeper into the guidance, including hosting two live webinars to explore the information provided. Additionally, the Department of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement posted a pre-recorded webinar, "Rights of Students with Disabilities in Public Charter Schools" on January 18, 2017 at 12pm EST. Available here