School Refusal Defined
School refusal is often described as a disorder of a child who refuses to go to school on a regular basis or has problems staying in school.1 Some of the criteria commonly found in school refusal matters involves a student with severe emotional distresses about attending school.2 This can include depression, somatic symptoms, anxiety and temper tantrums. Often is the case that parents are aware of the student’s absence because the child, despite the willingness to do schoolwork, persuades the parents to stay home during school hours because home is considered the safe environment.
The impact on a child that exhibits school refusal characteristics can be disastrous for both the student and parents. Depression, anxiety, bullying, substance abuse and dropping out of school can be real concerns. A working parent may also have to take family leave or unpaid sick leave to stay home with their child that is showing school refusal tendencies. That is why it is imperative if your child is exhibiting signs of school refusal to immediately be proactive in collaborating with your school district administrators and/or a certified child advocate or special education attorney so that a therapeutic school reintegration program is part of your child’s IEP.
Your Anxious Child’s Educational Rights
School refusal cases are complex. It often involves a labyrinth of understanding local school policies and rules, state and federal statutes and education regulations. School refusal cases may also lead to truancy issues. In Connecticut, “truant” means a child age 5 to 18, who is enrolled in a public or private school and has four unexcused absences from school in one month or ten unexcused absences in any school year.3 The enforcement and investigation of Connecticut’s truancy laws are handled by local and regional boards of education, local police and courts.4
Excessive absenteeism can also trigger various legal protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The IDEA defines “Child Find” as the state having policies and procedures to ensure that all children with disabilities who are in need of special education and related services are located, identified, and evaluated.5 Section 504 also provides that a school district must conduct an evaluation of a student who, because of handicap, need or are believed to need special education and related services.6 Excessive absenteeism may also lead to complications with IDEA eligibility determination, placement decisions and delivery of services, such as the location, frequency and willingness of the student.
Once a child is found with challenges that may include failing grades, excessive absenteeism and/or behavioral concerns the child may be determined eligible under the IDEA pursuant to the disability category of Emotional Disturbance (ED). Emotional Disturbance means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time to a marked degree that adversely affects a child’s educational performance7:
- An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors.
- An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers or teachers.
- A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
- A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associate with personal or school problems.
Common errors can include the failure to identify a student with the qualifying disability of ED under the IDEA, a misdiagnosis, failure to refer for initial evaluation or the complete lack of conducting a comprehensive evaluation. The blame may also be placed on the parents by claiming that there is an issue in the home setting itself.
Addressing School Refusal in the IEP
There are a number of ways and strategies to address school refusal in the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Homebound tutoring is an essential program that needs to become part of the student’s IEP while school reintegration strategies are put into place. Short term goals and objectives should be specific and measurable with regards to homebound tutoring. Student and parent counseling should also be considered as a related service. In addition, positive behavior supports and interventions that address school refusal behavior should also be considered.8 Reevaluations that address the why and what regarding the student’s absenteeism may also be necessary, including psychological, psychiatric, risk assessment and social skill evaluations. Lastly, private placement at a therapeutic based school that emphasizes academic programming may also be warranted along with specialized transportation.
To conclude, school refusal matters are challenging. School districts that do not provide an ambitiously appropriate program for a student’s disability related to absenteeism may qualify for rights under the IDEA.
For more information about school refusal, call 203-257-7999 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment with special education lawyer and certified child advocate, attorney Jeffrey Forte of Forte Law Group LLC.
2Wanda P. Fremont, M.D., State University of New York Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York, Am Fam Physician. 2003 Oct 15;68(8): 1555-1561. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2003/1015/p1555.html
3Connecticut General Statutes Sec. 10-198a
534 CFR 300.11; 20 USC 1401(3); 1412(a)(3)
634 CFR 104.34
734 CFR 300.8(c)(4)(i)
834 CFR 300.324(a)(2)(i)