SRO Addresses Student Absenteeism
A recent decision from the State Review Office may be of interest to blog readers because it involves issues we discuss frequently here – anxiety, evaluations, and eligibility for special education services under the IDEA. SRO Decision No. 18-001 involved a tenth grade student that was diagnosed with Acute Distress Disorder and started missing a lot of school beginning in the eighth grade. She passed her eighth grade classes, but was failing every class except gym after the first marking period of her ninth grade year. The school district did not evaluate the student until ninth grade, and the evaluation did not assess the student’s socio-emotional functioning. The district determined that the student was ineligible for special education services because she had progressed in a general education classroom through eighth grade.
In a thorough, 37-page opinion, the SRO concluded that the school district violated the IDEA on several fronts. I will review two here.
First, the SRO concluded that the school district failed to assess the student in “all areas related to the suspected disability” as required by law. In addition to her academic decline and chronic absenteeism, the student frequently refused to complete or make-up work and failed to attend mandated study halls that were intended to help her make-up missed work. The reasons for the student’s behavior were unclear to the CSE and not addressed in any evaluations before it. In light of this, the SRO concluded, the school district should have evaluated the student’s social/emotional functioning to determine whether it impeded the student’s learning.
The SRO also concluded that the CSE deprived the student of a FAPE when it determined that she was not eligible for special education services. The SRO concluded that the CSE should have classified the student with “emotional disturbance” because the “student’s school refusal, work avoidance, and poor academic performance indicated an inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.” The district argued that the student was socially maladjusted, which did not qualify her for special education services. The SRO disagreed and found that whether the student is socially maladjusted is irrelevant if she otherwise meets the criteria for “emotional disturbance.” The SRO also concluded that the student met the criteria for “other health impairment” because her anxiety was a “chronic or acute health problem” that limited her alertness in school and adversely impacted her educational performance.
I think one important take-away from this decision is that parents must ensure that the school district’s evaluation addresses all areas related to your student’s disability. In this case, a garden variety initial evaluation failed to examine the complex socio-emotional issues that were causing the student to miss so much school. If the parent’s decided to simply accept this result, their daughter’s true issues could have remained untreated.
Additionally, issues with anxiety that impact a student’s ability to learn may qualify the student for special education services. Parents of children that struggle with anxiety should address the issue with the school to make sure that the student has appropriate supports in school.