The U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”) recently reminded school districts about the importance of evaluating and providing special education services to students considered “twice exceptional.” This group includes individuals who have a disability and are also intellectually gifted. Of note, the DOE expressed concern about supporting students with emotional disabilities.
According to the DOE’s memorandum:
“In spite of the guidance provided in [a previous letter], we continue to receive letters from those who work with children with disabilities with high cognition, particularly those with emotional disturbance or mental illness, expressing concern that some local educational agencies (LEA) are hesitant to conduct initial evaluations to determine eligibility for special education and related services for children with high cognition.”
In its letter, the DOE sternly advises school districts to evaluate students suspected of having a disability, including emotional disabilities, regardless of cognitive strengths.
Anecdotally, over the last few years, I have seen a significant increase in referrals and calls from families who have experienced this “hesita[tion] to conduct initial evaluations” first-hand. Often school districts rely on academic achievement (e.g., passing grades, MCAS) as evidence that a student does not require initial evaluation or services, even when the student is falling apart in all other domains.
School districts wait to evaluate, services are delayed, and often a student’s unaddressed social and emotional needs become increasingly significant. I have seen school districts attempt to shift and avoid responsibility, insisting that emotional disabilities are not a school district’s responsibility – even when a student is struggling to attend classes and is socially isolated. Time and time again, I have seen these delays result in self-harm and hospitalizations. Sometimes these delays prevent a student from learning in a less restrictive setting, and result in the need for a residential placement.
Last week, I had the privilege of presenting to families at The Massachusetts Resiliency Center about their special education due process rights. The Resiliency Center is an organization that provides resources to survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing. I was struck by the stories I heard about students who are not receiving support in school despite significant emotional needs.
The mandate to evaluate and provide services to students who have emotional needs is clear, and the importance of doing so in a timely way is critical.
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