Did you know that recent revisions to Washington truancy laws require schools to screen students for a disability when they have two or more unexcused absences and there is reason to suspect a disability?
The law, RCW 28A.225.020, took effect in 2017. It requires schools to take a closer look at any student who is truant more than two times and, where appropriate, inform the student’s parent of the right to obtain an appropriate evaluation (at no cost to the parent) to determine whether the child has a disability or impairment and needs accommodations, related services, or special education services.
There is reason to suspect a disability when a student is acting strangely or in an unusual manner because emotional or behavioral disorders qualify as emotional or behavioral disabilities as defined in WAC 392-172A-01035. Signs of an emotional or behavioral disability can include: change in demeanor, sudden new habits or tics, strange conduct, plummeting grades, suspicions of mental health problems, social difficulties, and behavioral challenges. In a recent federal case out of Washington State, Edmonds School District v. A.T., 299 F. Supp 3d 1135 (W.D. WA 2017), the student at issue had behavior and anger issues. He was diagnosed with and given services for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. However, his behavioral issues escalated to dangerous behavior, drug use, and, ultimately, psychiatric in-patient treatment. The parents placed A.T. in Provo Canyon School in Utah and sought reimbursement. The District denied reimbursement, arguing that the placement was driven by A.T.’s medical conditions and not his educational needs. A.T.’s Parents argued that the residential placement was necessary for him to benefit from any educational services. The administrative hearing officer and the district court judge in this case agreed with the parents that the District failed to evaluate and diagnose prodromal schizophrenia, which constituted a denial of FAPE. The signs that should have triggered an evaluation included increased truancy, strange changes in behavior, failing grades, and teachers’ unvoiced suspicions that he had mental health issues, and possible signs of disorders associated with food.
Truancy has always been one factor that can trigger the suspicion of a disability, but the law now requires schools to step in quickly and screen students as soon as attendance appears to be a problem. The screening must take place between the second and fifth unexcused absence. RCW 28A.225.020(1)(c)(iii).
A public school’s duty to screen and evaluate students for disabilities is a nondelegable duty. In A.G. v. Paradise Valley Unified School District, 815 F.3d 1195 (9th Cir. 2016), the appellate court examined whether parental consent to placement for special education purposes absolved the school district of any alleged failure to accommodate a student with a disability. The Court concluded that evaluating and accommodating a student was a non-delegable duty and that a parent could not be expected to have the expertise or legal duty to determine what accommodations might allow the child to remain in her regular educational environment.
If the school obtains consent to conduct an evaluation, time should be allowed for the evaluation to be completed. And if the child is found to be eligible for special education services, accommodations, or related services, the school must develop a plan to address the child’s needs.
Don’t let an undiscovered mental or behavioral disability stand in the way of your child’s progress in school. Truancy might be a sign of distress, not a misbehavior that needs to be punished.
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