As the pandemic continues to fuel concerns about children’s mental health, schools should be aware that students with conditions like depression and anxiety may qualify for accommodations under federal law, the Biden administration said Wednesday.
“Students with mental health disabilities are protected by Federal civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,” said a new fact sheet from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. “These laws require K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions to provide students with an equal opportunity to learn, free from discrimination, including during public health crises.”
Ongoing disruption and social isolation sparked by COVID-19 precautions have led to concern about mental health in general. And federal officials have encouraged schools to target federal relief aid to students’ mental health and emotional well-being in addition to the academic recovery.
The new guidance, released in honor of World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, specifically says schools must provide “reasonable modifications to school policies, practices, and procedures, as appropriate for an individual student.” Failure to do so could amount to “discrimination based on disability,” which could lead to a federal civil rights investigation, the fact sheet says.
Schools face challenges with mental health efforts
The instruction comes as schools struggle to meet students’ mental health needs. Groups like the National Association of School Psychologists said schools already had inadequate numbers of support staff like psychologists, social workers, and school counselors before the pandemic.
Even with new funding, school administrators must confront a staffing crunch that has affected all sectors of the economy and has made it difficult to recruit staff in all areas of the school, including teachers and bus drivers. In a recent survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 19 percent of responding district leaders and principals said they had difficulty hiring new mental health counselors.
School psychologists who help address student mental health concerns must also tackle a backlog of special education evaluations to determine which students are dealing with expected academic challenges posed by interrupted learning time and which may have unaddressed disabilities.
But mental health disabilities may also call for individual plans to accommodate students’ needs, the new fact sheet says. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, schools are required to provide a free and adequate public education to students with disabilities. In the case of conditions like diagnosed depression, schools might consider “reasonable modifications” to policies related to things like attendance for individual students, the agencies said.
Schools should also train staff to recognize and respond to signs of suicidal ideation and “develop trauma-informed crisis management procedures that include an individualized assessment of the student’s circumstances,” they urged.
The document details several hypothetical situations that might prompt a federal investigation from the Education Department’s office for civil rights. They include an example of a parent who reports that their student has developed severe depression for the first time during the pandemic.
“Despite the school’s Section 504 [free and adequate public education] obligation to evaluate any student who needs or is believed to need special education or related services because of a disability, the principal does not refer the student for evaluation,” the fact sheet says. “Instead, the principal says that all students are struggling because of the pandemic and suggests that the parent should hire a private tutor and find a psychologist for the student.”
Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg wrote in a letter to educators accompanying the guidance, “Importantly, these Federal disability-rights laws require that when students with mental health disabilities need help or are in crisis, schools and postsecondary institutions make decisions about how to respond based on each student’s individual circumstances, rather than on myths, fears, or stereotypes about people with mental illness.”