Our country is experiencing a mental health epidemic and our government is failing to adequately address it. More than one in five incarcerated individuals and approximately 70% of adjudicated youths suffer from mental health conditions. Furthermore, one-third of adult homelessness is attributed to mental health issues. With a struggling at-risk youth community and nation-leading homelessness population, these figures have a compounding impact on Washington.
A rarely discussed but important contributor to our mental health crisis is our education system’s failure to address the needs of students with mental health conditions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, students with mental health disabilities have higher drop-out rates and receive lower grades than any other group of students with disabilities. This failure appears to be driven, in part, by courts–including courts with jurisdiction over Washington–interpreting our special education laws in a manner that denies these students equal access to important supports and services.
The predecessor law to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”), the federal law that requires school districts to provide special education services to children with qualifying disabilities, was passed in 1975. The IDEA requires school districts to identify students with disabilities and provide them the special education supports they need to become self-sufficient, independent adults. Special education services include, among other things, learning supports, counseling, behavioral interventions, social skills training, one-on-one assistance, and accommodations to class material. In order to receive special education, a student must have an enumerated disability that impacts her educational progress. There is a debate in the literature and within the judiciary regarding whether educational progress includes social, emotional, and behavioral development. The majority of courts to consider the issue have interpreted “educational” in this context to mean “academic.” This narrow interpretation has a disparate impact on students with mental health disabilities.
Mental health issues typically affect areas of development that are non-academic, such as forming interpersonal relationships, regulating behavior, and interacting in community settings. Needless to say, these skills are critical to becoming an independent adult–a key priority of the IDEA. As a result, the “academic” approach leads to students with mental health conditions being denied the services they need to achieve Congress’ goal of self-sufficiency.
In G.H., et al. v. Great Valley School District, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied the student special education services after narrowly construing the meaning of “educational.” In the course of a school year, the student in G.H. engaged in at least five violent tantrums in which she threatened her parents with boiling water, knives, and scissors; had a number of problematic social interactions at school; and was admitted into a mental health facility for several weeks. Given these behaviors, the court found that the student had a mental health disability. But, because the student achieved satisfactory grades and performed well on state assessments, the court found that her disability did not impact her educational performance. Accordingly, the court held that the school district properly denied the student IDEA services.
Similarly, in a recent decision by the District Court for the District of Columbia, the court specifically distinguished the socio-emotional needs of children from their educational needs. In D.C. v. Walker, the court concluded that the key question when considering whether a student should receive a special educational placement due to her disabilities is “whether full time placement may be considered necessary for educational purposes, or whether the residential placement is a response to medical, social or emotional problems that are segregable from the learning process.” Hence, the court assumes that “social and emotional problems” are not education-related and, therefore, the court excludes students with such problems from certain services.
Beyond being discriminatory, this approach is legally flawed. First, as noted above, the IDEA’s goal of fostering self-sufficient, independent adults requires a broader interpretation of “educational.”
Second, teaching students social skills and how to manage their emotions and behavior is a key objective of schools. Both before and presently due to the adoption of the Common Core, schools offer classroom-based programming geared towards these areas, including lessons on feeling identification, goal setting, conflict resolution, and interpersonal problem-solving skills. Schools also provide informal social and emotional learning opportunities. School is where students learn to, inter alia, interact with their peers and authority figures, overcome adversity, and collaborate on group projects. Thus, education in today’s schools clearly involves much more than academics.
Finally, the text of the IDEA illustrates that Congress intended “education” to include more than academics. The IDEA specifically references “academics” in several sections, illustrating that Congress explicitly considered this term when drafting the Act. Nonetheless, the drafters used “educational” rather than “academics” in the provisions of the Act specifically addressing eligibility and special education services.
Given schools’ institutional resources and unique position in the lives of children, they have the capacity to play an important role in addressing our mental health crisis. Moreover, the IDEA requires schools to do so. But, decisions like G.H. and Walker are undermining this pursuit. Courts must do better. At the same time, our community must also do better. It is our responsibility to ensure schools are taking care of all of their students–including those with mental health disabilities.