School Districts’ Responsibilities for Students with School Avoidance Issues
By Caitlin E. McAndrews
There are many reasons students may avoid school, among them fear of academic failure and struggles with social skills. School officials frequently tell parents there is nothing the school can do to assist an absent student; and parents often do not know where to turn for help addressing their student’s school avoidance issues. To make matters worse, extended absences that go unaddressed can lead to truancy problems for parents and their children. The truancy system generally does not properly address the student needs that give rise to school avoidance issues, and tends to ignore the truth that absence from school does not make school avoidance any less of a school-related issue.
In fact, school avoidance often has very much to do with a student’s experiences at school. Fortunately, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) provide a variety of tools to address these students’ problems.
If a student has already been identified as having a disability, the law provides concrete solutions that can help a child with his school avoidance issues. Schools must provide related services that allow students to benefit from special education, which in the case of a student who avoids school involves getting him to the schoolhouse door. These related services can include counseling, psychological services, social skills help, and parent training. The student’s parent may also ask the school to conduct an FBA, or functional behavior assessment. This evaluation addresses why the student avoids school by identifying what events tend to precede school avoidance and what consequences result. Using the FBA, the school can then create a behavior improvement plan, or BIP. A BIP sets individualized, target behaviors for a student and describes the strategies that the school will use to support the student in reaching those goals.
If a student who avoids school has not been identified as having a disability, but her parent suspects that she may have one, the parent should request that the local school district conduct an evaluation. The evaluation should investigate all suspected areas of disability, and can include an FBA. If after the evaluation the school district determines that the student has a disability, the school must provide services to enable the student to benefit from special education, such as counseling or social skills help, as mentioned above.
Once schools acknowledge that school avoidance is an issue that they can and should address at school, students with disabilities can better access their special education and make academic progress.