Question: My 15 year-old-child suffers from school-based anxiety and has already accrued multiple absences this year due to her anxiety surrounding school. Although my daughter has an IEP, the school thinks that she just doesn’t want to attend school, and the only solution they offer is to send the truancy officer to our home. If that doesn’t work, they have threatened to bring truancy proceedings against her and/or me. I want to work with the school to address her needs, especially since we’re only a few months into the school year and I believe the relationship can be salvaged. What rights do we have under the law?  How can we partner with the District to get my child back in school so she can access the education that she is entitled to? 

Thank you for your question and for bringing up an all-too-familiar topic: schools blaming and even punishing children who are struggling with mental health issues instead of providing them with the supports they need to access school. It sounds like your daughter’s attendance is impacting her education in two fundamental ways: First, it impedes her ability to receive educational instruction. Second, it hinders her potential for social and emotional growth. These issues are not uncommon, and laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504, and the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) offer your daughter some helpful protections.

Students deemed to have disabling anxiety are typically protected by the IDEA/Section 504/ADA. They are entitled to mental health services from their school. We’ll get to how the mission and reality of these anti-discrimination laws diverge shortly, but right now we want you to understand the rights your daughter has under this law. Under the IDEA, schools must identify and provide special services to students with mental health issues if they require interventions to receive the benefits of school.

The IDEA provides for a menu of interventions and services for students identified with disabling anxiety under these circumstances. The services can be developmental, corrective, or supportive in nature. Such services can take the form of psychological and educational testing, group or individual counseling, specialized instruction, and more.

Although a variety of accommodations and supports for addressing mental health issues exist under the IDEA in theory, the reality is that students often receive insufficient or no services. When students with a qualifying disability experience anxiety, for example, it often manifests as school refusal and looks like reticence. As a result, school districts frequently treat such students as “problem children” instead of students in need of therapeutic help. However, Districts have at their ready disposal a host of well-known interventions that are routinely used to mitigate anxiety-based school refusal behaviors.

For example, as an initial matter, the school can and should perform a functional behavior assessment (FBA) to identify the cause(s) of the student’s school refusal behavior. The FBA entails gathering information from the child, parents, and relevant school personnel, observing the student when he is engaging in the school refusal behavior, and identifying the antecedents and consequences of the student’s behavior. Once the function of the behavior has been identified, the school can implement strategies to address the behavior. Such strategies include 1) “problem solving,” 2) interventions based upon exposure therapy, including temporary homebound instruction, remote access to classrooms, modified schedules, small classrooms, etc. and 3) cognitive behavioral therapy-based exercises. If your child needs these supports in order to make educational progress, then you have a right to them under the IDEA.

Sending a truancy officer to your home, which only increases your child’s fear and anxiety around school, is not appropriate. Your daughter’s school must do more to meet her academic and socio-emotional needs – it must provide supports that address the causes of her anxiety and actually allow her to access an education!

So how can you work with the school to get your daughter more appropriate interventions? First, talk with the school about your daughter’s needs. Let them know that punitive responses (such as truancy proceedings) are only making matters worse. Emphasize the toll such responses are taking on your daughter’s educational progress. Tell the school that you want to partner with them to put in place interventions that will help her reduce her school-based anxiety. If you’re comfortable, involve any mental health professionals who are working with your family. Often therapists, social workers, and psychiatrists can be effective advocates on your behalf and articulate why the school’s “interventions” are failing her. Document your attempts to work with the school in writing – communicating via email accomplishes this. If your efforts are not getting your daughter the services she needs, consider contacting an attorney. An attorney can help the school realize its legal obligations to your daughter, and encourage a timely resolution of the issue.