In a Dear Colleague letter issued last week to chief state school officers, the U.S. Department of Education called for immediate action to reduce gender-based violence in schools. The letter is short and sets forth only a few general suggestions for steps that schools can take to respond to gender-based violence. But the letter must be read against the backdrop of two previous Dear Colleague letters issued by the Department on bullying, harassment and sexual violence. Against the backdrop of those letters, the most recent Dear Colleague Letter is yet another reminder of the high standards to which the Department and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) holds schools with respect to sexual harassment and violence.
By way of background, the letter reportedly was released during a White House event on teen dating violence prevention, which was part of National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month and the Obama Administration’s efforts to raise awareness of gender-based violence. A press release issued by the Department suggests that the purpose of the letter was to make clear that although strategies to improve school climate and reduce bullying are critical, they may not be adequate to address the harms of gender-based violence.
Back to school is a busy time for school administrators, but don’t forget your Section 504 obligations. The following are tips to remember during student registration and the first weeks of school regarding Section 504 identification and eligibility:
- Provide information about Section 504 to parents during the registration process and through the school district website, in addition to other systematic efforts to communicate the school district’s Section 504 policies and procedures to stakeholders. Include a summary of Section 504, the processes used to determine eligibility, and contact information for relevant school administrators.
- Train administrators and staff about current standards for 504 eligibility so that warning signs are not missed. Importantly, under the definition of disability from the 2009 ADA Amendments Act, a student can be eligible under Section 504 even if the student’s disability does not impair learning. Simply because a student has good grades does not mean she is ineligible for Section 504. Look for other impacts of a disability, such as problems with behavior. Our firm issued a summary of the 2009 amendments and their impact on Section 504 that is a good starting point for a review.
- Ask for documentation supporting the student’s claim that he or she has a covered impairment, but don’t demand a medical diagnosis. For those with Special Ed Connection access, the Houston Independent School District special education updates blog has a link (subscription required) to an article warning against requiring a medical diagnosis as a condition for assessing student 504 eligibility.
- Watch for signs that a student is not responding to general education interventions and move toward Section 504 evaluation if necessary. Although it is appropriate to respond to student concerns with such interventions, persisting with them once they prove to be inadequate can spell trouble for the school district (subscription required).
Most if not all districts already have standard Section 504 forms which accurately comply with the 2009 changes to the ADA, the most recent legal update needed. If your district has had usability issues with its forms, Franczek Radelet recently updated the standard forms to make them more user-friendly. If you are interested in these newly formatted forms, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What About Private Schools?
As Nirvi Shah explained at On Special Education, the Department of Education takes the position that unless a private school receives federal financial assistance it is not subject to Section 504. Public schools should seek the advice of legal counsel if evaluation and/or services are sought by a student attending a private school, however, because the issue of whether such a student should receive services under Section 504 is still unsettled.
With guest blogger Amy Dickerson
The story of Karen Klein, the now retired bus monitor from New York who was bullied by students on a school bus, gripped the country this summer. After a viral video of the incident was released, an internet campaign was launched soliciting donations to send Klein on vacation. As the LA Times reported, the campaign raised over half a million dollars.
Internet donors apparently weren’t the only ones paying attention. The Department of Education (DOE) issued a statement after the incident reminding schools of DOE resources to help create a safe and respectful environment on school busses. DOE’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students and the Safe and Supportive Schools Technical Assistance Center offer free presentations and related training modules which are must reads for school officials aiming to provide a respectful bus environment for back to school.