As we start preparing for the school year, we need to remember that for many of our children, school is a place of failure. Children with trauma have a very hard time fitting into school routines. For those kids, we need to be prepared to advocate for them.  I have never recommended being a helicopter parent, but there are some tasks beyond a child’s skill set.  Dealing with entrenched bureaucracies is one of those problems, and we need to help them find their way through the educational maze.  In this post, I’ll talk about general principles, and in the next I’ll discuss specific tactics.

Children who have suffered trauma may suffer from physical disabilities, but most often they suffer emotional damages that cause or exacerbate mental health problems.  We are  likely to have to help our kids make it through depression, anxiety, attention deficits, and similar issues.  The good news is that federal and many state laws require schools to accommodate those mental health disabilities to the same degree as physical impairments.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the best known of the federal statutes. An earlier statute, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation of Act of 1973 (Sec. 504), has overlapping requirements, and both create a web of requirements for schools.  A third statute, Individual Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), creates another layer of regulations for programs connected with public education. This law is the one that requires Individual Education Plan (IEP) teams. You can find a good comparison of the three laws here.

Which Statutes Govern Which Schools?

The ADA is the broadest statute, governing all places of public accommodation including camps, child care centers, mentoring groups, and other organizations that serve the public. The main exception is for activities controlled by religious entities. Church schools, for example, generally are exempt. Programs that merely use religious facilities, such as a school that leases space from a synagogue, are subject to the ADA.

You also need to check your state and local anti-discrimination laws and licensing regulations. Even if the ADA itself does not apply, state and local governments are free to adopt their own more restrictive rules. Furthermore, voluntary organizations, such at the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the American Camping Association incorporate the ADA into their accreditation standards.

Section 504 governs all organizations that receive federal funds. The flow of money can be direct, such as block grants administered by states (e.g., lunch programs), or indirect, such as tuition assistance. Section 504 has no exception for religious groups.  Any group that receives federal funds must accommodate disabilities, including mental health problems.

The IDEA applies to all public education agencies that receive federal funds, and any groups with which those agencies contract to provide education. Thus, IDEA covers charter schools, private special education schools and residential placements receiving education funds. IDEA also makes available grants for preschool and kindergarten programs. Anyone receiving such funds, generally through a block grant to states or a Head Start program, must accommodate your child.

General Standards

The ADA and Sec. 504 prohibit discrimination against a child with a physical or mental impairment that “limits one or more major life activities.” In general, a facility must make “reasonable modifications” to their programs to accommodate a child’s disability. There are three important exceptions, namely that a program (1) can exclude children who pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, (2) need not make accommodations that would fundamentally alter the program, and (3) need not take steps that place an undue burden on the program.

Few of our children will fit into those exceptions.  Most of them will be much less disruptive, usually causing discipline problems or falling behind in classes.  We will have to help the school distinguish between trauma and attitude problems, explaining that our child may not be able to control their trauma responses.  Anxiety and depression present in different ways, and children will not always be able to identify what they are feeling at any given point in time.  

Once we know the laws and school policies, we can start working on specific accommodations for our children.  My next post will discuss some ways to make that happen.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.