The Department of Education recently issued a Dear Colleague Letter explaining the obligations of school districts to students with ADHD under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The guidance notes that over the last five years, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has received more than 16,000 complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of disability; more than 10% of which involved a student with ADHD. OCR identified the following issues that frequently arise: students not being referred for an evaluation; students not receiving a timely evaluation; districts not conducting adequate evaluations; districts not providing appropriate services and aides; districts failing to inform all relevant staff of a student’s 504 plan; and districts considering inappropriate administrative or financial burdens when selecting aides and services. Along with the Dear Colleague Letter, OCR published a Resource Guide that further explains districts’ responsibilities related to students with ADHD, including details on evaluations, eligibility, and 504 plans.

Highlights from the Resource Guide include:

Evaluations and Eligibility

  • Districts have a Child Find obligation to identify and evaluate students with disabilities in need of special education and related services. OCR lists signs that can indicate that a student may need to be evaluated and reminds districts to evaluate in all areas of educational need.
  • A student who is suspected of having or who is diagnosed with ADHD may need to be evaluated even if that student is achieving commensurate with peers.
  • OCR will presume, absent evidence to the contrary, that a student with an ADHD diagnosis qualifies as a student with a disability under Section 504 as a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
  • Intervention strategies must not delay or deny an evaluation.
  • The eligibility decision should be made without regard to mitigating measures, including medication and interventions (i.e., would the student exhibit a substantial impairment absent medication, intervention strategies, and outside supports). Academic success does not necessarily indicate that the student does not have a disability, as that success may be the result of extra time, support, or coping strategies.
  • When considering eligibility, districts must consider whether the student’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity, including but not limited to learning, concentrating, thinking, and reading.
  • Section 504 does not require a medical assessment or diagnosis for a student to be eligible for services and supports. If a district believes a medical assessment is needed in an individual case, that medical assessment must be at district expense.

Placement, Services, and Aids

  • If a district determines, after evaluation, that a student has a disability under Section 504 but does not require special education or related aids or services, that student is protected by the nondiscrimination provisions of Section 504 and its procedural safeguards, but the district would not be obligated to provide aids or services.
  • “Not every student with ADHD needs the same set of services, or any services at all.” A stock set of accommodations for students with ADHD based on generalizations or stereotypes is not appropriate, 504 plans should be individualized based on student needs.
  • The aids and services a student may need to receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) under Section 504 are not limited to those that are free or low-cost and districts cannot deny aids and services determined necessary by the 504 team based solely on expense.
  • Districts must ensure that school personnel understand their obligation to implement students’ 504 plans.

Procedural Safeguards

  • In addition to a district’s grievance procedures, districts must also have a due process system for parents to challenge a decision related to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement (including aids and services) of students with ADHD.
  • Districts must notify parents of this due process system as well as evaluation and placement decisions, and provide access to student records.
  • Each district must identify a Section 504 coordinator.

The Resource Guide provides a useful reference on districts’ responsibilities related to meeting the needs of students with ADHD under Section 504. While the guidance is focused on ADHD, as OCR has observed this as an area of need for schools, the directives are applicable to meeting the needs of students with disabilities under Section 504 generally. Note that in addition to Section 504, students with ADHD (as well as other disabilities) may be eligible for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).