Why Schools Shouldn’t Reject Your Child’s Diagnosis

Recently, I have heard (far too many) stories from parents that the schools are taking away services from their child and/or denying providing services because the school does not believe the child’s diagnosis.  This is wrong and illegal on so many levels, but I will adress the three (3) most important reasons why schools should never deny or reject a child’s diagnosis.

1. Only licensed physicians (medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, and/or nurse practitioners depending on your state law) may provide a diagnosis and most IEP team members from the school district are NOT licensed physicians (school psychologists are not licensed physicians).

As an example, in New Jersey (and most states have similar laws to my knowledge) a person must have a license to “practice medicine or surgery”.  N.J.S.A. 45:9-6.  Diagnosis is practicing medicine.  N.J.S.A. 45:9-5.1.

If one of the school staff suggests or takes the position that your child doesn’t have a diagnosis that has been confirmed by a physician, ask such person if he/she holds a physician’s license in your state.

2. Many diagnoses are “hidden” disorders or neurological problems, but should not be denied simply because you can’t “see” them.

If a child has Down Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy or Muscular Dystrophy or is an amputee, the disability is likely obvious.  (I prefer not to automatically assume it is.)  However, many disorders like Autism, ADHD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Dyslexia, Cystic Fibrosis, Sensory or Auditory Processing Disorder, Krohn’s Disease, Depression, and others are what I call “hidden” disorders because they are often not obvious just observing a child.  This is another reason that only licensed physicians who understand what tests need to be performed in order to make the proper diagnosis should do so.  I’ve heard teachers and school administrators (people who should know better) say, “But [he/she] looks normal!”  What an awful comment about a child with a disability.

Frankly, I can’t understand why school personnel even question this.  For example, I have diabetes – a neurological disease.  Looking at me, you would not know this.  I do long charity bicycle rides of 70+ miles.  Most people would say, “He seems fine.”  While that may be the outward appearance, does it mean that I don’t have diabetes or that the disease does not affect me? It is wrong to deny that.

The huge problem with this is that when services are denied because the school does not observe the disorder, the child’s disorder may have devastating effects.  Children with Autism may have meltdowns; children with ADHD may be distracted in classes; children with Auditory Processing Disorder may become disoriented or frightened; children with Krohn’s Disease may become exhausted; etc.  Once this occurs, access to education is impeded.  This is exactly what IDEA, 504, ADA, and other laws are designed to prevent.

3. Schools may respond that they don’t witness how the disability impacts the education, but they also don’t see the aftermath when the child arrives home.

While it is true that under IDEA and 504, there are two parts to the question: (a) does the child have a diagnosis that fits them within an eligibility category? and (b) does the child need special education and related services or accommodations because of the disability?  20 U.S.C. 1401(3)(A); 29 U.S.C. 794.

However, children have amazing capacity to overcome their disabilities.  In colloqual terms, they can “hold it together” during school hours, but then come home and “let it all out”.  Children know home is their “safe space” and if anxiety, frustration, fear, depression, anger, or similar emotions build up during the school day because the disability is not being recognized by the school, the parents must bear the brunt of those released emotions in the home.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance letter that states “IDEA and the regulations clearly establish that the determination about whether a child is a child with a disability is not limited to information about the child’s academic performance.”  USDOE Guidance, Letter to Clarke (2007).  That means behavior should also be considered – whether in school or in the home, because remember a parent is a critical member of the IEP team.  20 U.S.C. 1414(d)(1)(B)(i).

Conclusion

Schools should not reject a child’s diagnosis made by a licensed physician because (1) it is unlikely that an IEP team member is a physician; (2) just because they can’t “see” the disability doesn’t mean it’s not there; and (3) they need to consider all effects of the disability, including behaviors at home triggered by the failure to address the issues at school.

If a school rescinds services to your child under an IEP or takes away the IEP because they don’t believe your child has a disability, contact a special education lawyer ASAP.

 

Relentless – A Michigan Man

I’m going to tell you something about myself, but first I’m going to tell you a story.  You’ll wonder for a paragraph or two where this is going, but stick with me.  You will learn why this post is on my special education law blog.

What is a “Michigan Man”?

There are many articles and blog posts and other sources that try to explain this undefinable quality.   In “What Does It Mean To Be a ‘Michigan Man’?”, author John U. Bacon (a frequent writer about things Michigan, including the football team), admitted that “ultimately, to define it, I have to resort to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of pornography: ‘I know it when I see it.’”

He’s right.  And you have to be a Michigan Man to understand why he’s right.  First, you need a deep association with the University of Michigan (no, not that silly green and white agriculture college in East Lansing, but the Maize and Blue Wolverines of Ann Arbor).  [Note: I hate when after telling people where I graduated, they say “Oh, yeh, Michigan State.” Grrrrr.]

Not this!

Second, you need a passion about doing good work.  That passion requires hard work, sound ethics, and a focus unmatched by competitors.  This quality could be no better demonstrated than in the Amazon Show “All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines”.  [Outstanding television if you haven’t seen it yet.]

You strive to be a champion in everything you do, but you are not arrogant or presumptuous in that effort.  Perhaps, most importantly, you must be RELENTLESS.  Opponents always want to take you down and if you let your guard down for a moment, they will defeat you.  [Much like Michigan’s loss to Division II Appalachian State in 2007.]

You must be relentless to be a Michigan Man.

What Has This Got To Do With My Law Practice?

I am a very proud 1984 graduate from the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science & the Arts.  I received a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major and a double minor.  I guess even in my undergraduate studies I was eager.

I don’t pretend to satisfy all of the qualities of a Michigan Man, but I will admit that is my goal.  That is where the practice of law, especially in the area of special education, comes into play.

I am relentless – in my search for justice; in representation of my clients; and in enforcing special education legal rights.

To my clients: Know that I will be relentless on behalf of you and your child with a disability.  If a school district is not meeting the requirements of the law, I will fight to change that so they come into compliance.

To my adversaries: Know that I will be relentless against your tactics.  I have been in litigation for nearly all of my 30 years of practice.  I have witnessed every strategy and method by opponents to try to get clients to back down.  [Some lawyers call this a “Scorched Earth” approach, because the lawyer will try anything – including burning everything – in order to get a favorable result.]  It won’t work with me.  I won’t give up.

Why?

Because I’m relentless.  Because I strive to be a Michigan Man.

 

 

What is a “reasonable accommodation”?

Recently I was asked to explain what a “reasonable accommodation” is.

The person put the question in some context:   Their child’s “special education school thinks a table in classroom with curtain is a reasonable accommodation for his bathroom needs. The class is coed teenagers with different cognitive and physical abilities.”

I doubt this is a “reasonable accommodation”, but let’s explore how we get there.

504 and ADA, not IDEA

First, “reasonable accommodation” is 504  and ADA language, not IDEA.  Under IDEA, a school must develop an IEP that meets all needs of a student with a disability.  This is not an ‘accommodation’; rather it is a legal requirement so that a child may receive a FAPE.

What does 504 require?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504 for short) is a federal law that prohibits a  facility that receives federal funds from discriminating against a person with a disability.  Under 504, a public school must ensure that a child with a disability has equal access to education and services.  To accomplish that, the school must provide modifications to education and services or a “reasonable accommodation” to such student so that he/she is not discriminated against because of his/her disability.

What does the ADA require?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is very similar to 504 and applies to schools equally.  The purpose is to prevent and prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities, so it requires the same as 504.

How is “reasonable accommodation” defined?

Unfortunately, neither 504, ADA, nor their regulations define this specific term.  We know from caselaw that schools are required to make reasonable accommodations according to a person’s disability unless such changes would fundamentally alter the nature of the school’s purpose, i.e. providing educational services.

There are obvious accommodations like making sure there is wheelchair access to all parts of the school for a student confined to a wheelchair.  There are slightly less obvious accommodations like assigning a staff member or student to assure that child in a wheelchair can get out of the building in case of fire or a fire drill.   But this is still reasonable.

Types of “reasonable accommodations”

There are several types of accommodations already determined to be reasonable.  They fall under categories.

a. Accessibility: This includes the wheelchair example above and a special needs bus or transportation.

b. Service Animals: For children who need the assistance of a service animal, schools must allow access to accommodate that child’s needs.

c. Interpreters: Access to sign language interpreters or hearing aids for those who have hearing disabilities or access to other interpretors like Braile materials or interpreters when a child with a disability does not speak English.

d. Auxiliary Aids and Services: A school may need to provide a medical plan or extra access to a nurse for a child with diabetes, epilepsy, or other illness requiring medication and/or monitoring during the school day. Or perhaps a child’s disability requires a smaller classroom, less noise, less distraction, different lighting, etc.

e. Removal of Barriers: If doors or stairways or other typical structural aspects of the school are a barrier to a child with a disability, the school must find alternate ways to accommodate that student.

There are several others, but these are the major categories in which schools must provide accommodations.

Is the accommodation reasonable?

Reasonableness is going to be determined by what the disability is and how it interferes with the child’s access to educational services.  So, accommodation may be decided on a  case-by-case basis, but, again, can’t change the fundamental purpose of the school.

Some guidelines (not legal advice):

– Identify your child’s specific needs

– Suggest an accommodation (don’t necessarily rely on the school to design one themselves, as it may not be appropriate)

– If the school finds your suggestion unreasonable, ask them to state why

– Ask the school to suggest an accommodation

– Provide medical documentation if appropriate

– Ask the school to respond to request in a reasonable time

Is the bathroom example in the question reasonable?

Although the person did not reveal what the disability of the child is, a desk in a room with other children with a curtain does not seem reasonable for numerous reasons: anxiety of the child because of the location; potential health risks because of unsanitary conditions; and may not appropriately address the need of the child.

Final word

Follow the guidelines above (and think of more yourself) to determine a reasonable accommodation that the school should make in order for your child with a disability to access the educational services.  If the accommodation that the school provides seems shocking or inappropriate, it is not likely reasonable.