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What does the Americans with Disabilities Act Mean for My Child at School?

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As parents, we often think about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in dealing with schools. Our next week’s newsletter will likely have information about IDEA and Section 504 to support families with back-to-school issues. Typically, school-age families are less likely to think about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its relationship to education, but it is related.

One way the ADA is related to education is its protection of the rights of college students with disabilities to receive reasonable accommodations that allow them to live and learn on campus. It’s important to remember that, unlike IDEA, institutions, such as colleges and universities, have no requirement to find and identify students with disabilities. Students must make themselves known, and, because they are eighteen and over, colleges will deal directly with them rather than their parents.

Another way the ADA is related to education is the general concept that school systems should educate students with disabilities in integrated settings with their peers without disabilities rather than in specific schools or programs for children with disabilities. In 2016, the United States Justice Department Sued the state of Georgia for unnecessarily segregating students with behavior-related disabilities in separate schools and programs within schools. Such programs prevent students with and without disabilities from benefitting from each other. Services, facilities and supports for children with disabilities tend to be inferior for children with disabilities, and there may be less emphasis on helping students with disabilities learn.

Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Mental Health and Substance Use and Calder Lynch, Acting Deputy Administrator and Director Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services, published this Joint Informational Bulletin, GUIDANCE TO STATES AND SCHOOL SYSTEMS ON ADDRESSING MENTAL HEALTH AND SUBSTANCE USE ISSUES IN SCHOOLSon July 1, 2019.

We appreciate the Bulletin’s emphasis on the ADA, keeping children in their classrooms and using academic gains as one outcome of effective mental health support. The purpose of school is for children to learn, so it is vital that everything that happens in a school, including mental health support, work toward that purpose. The Bulletin is addressed to school systems, rather than mental health systems. It encourages school systems to take the lead in determining how mental health supports and community partners can best be integrated into school settings, perhaps to ensure that the focus of all efforts continues to support learning.

These are some quotes from the Bulletin:

“Schools are particularly critical in identifying and supporting students with mental health issues.”

“It is important to also note that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compels states to provide certain services for people with disabilities including mental disorders within integrated settings, and Medicaid’s EPSDT benefit mandates that states provide and arrange for services necessary to meet children’s medical needs, including mental health needs.”

“There are a number of best practice models, which are potentially funded by non-Medicaid funding sources that can assist with supporting students with mental health and SUD-related needs in schools. As detailed below, states also have several options within Medicaid to support school-based services.”

“Mental health and substance-related services in schools may be organized into a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) that ranges from offering services universally to all students to providing more intensive services for select students based on medical necessity. MTSS is an umbrella term for an approach designed to respond to the needs of all students within a system that integrates, but is not limited to, tiered behavioral and academic supports, and is part of the structure of a comprehensive school-based mental health system. MTSS is a whole school, data-driven, prevention-based framework for improving learning outcomes.”

“Key aspects of the CSMHS approach include evidence-based universal prevention efforts, training for school and community members to identify and respond to early warning signs of mental health difficulties, and targeted prevention and intervention programs and services supporting the mental health of students. The CSMHS framework includes integrating mental health care delivery within school settings.”

“States have also received SAMHSA funding to implement Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) or Project Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education (AWARE) grants. The SS/HS framework provides schools and communities with a template for implementing best practices to prevent violence among children and adolescents, and has been found to reduce suspensions and expulsions by half, reduce risks associated with depression by 51 percent, and decrease the number of students staying home from school due to feeling unsafe by 37 percent.”

“Establishing counseling, psychological, and social services (CPSS) coordinators can have a positive impact on the quality and delivery of mental health and other related services. CPSS coordinators can coordinate various providers within and outside of schools to meet students’ needs. Coordination of services can also result in a clear mission, goals, and objectives that promote the integration of procedures and programs. Integration of services within the larger school environment helps secure resources, such as provision of confidential space for providing services, and helps minimize lost class time for students seeking services.”

The Bulletin describes other supports such as school resource officers, behavioral health aides and peer support. It also discusses ways to fund integrated school-based supports for students with disabilities.

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