Important New Guidance on the Rights of Students with Disabilities

Photo of a gavel striking its base

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network applauds the Department of Education’s release of new, critical guidance to help ensure students with disabilities are not discriminated against when they are disciplined in schools. The guidance comes from two agencies within the Department of Education: the Office for Civil Rights, and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. There are three documents, a letter, and a fact sheet that helps explain one of the documents. 

Many students with disabilities need services to support their behavior as well as their social, emotional, and mental health. Students with these support needs (including autistic students) are disproportionately suspended, expelled, restrained and secluded, and moved to more restrictive schools and placements. They are often the targets of discriminatory threat assessments and of police attention in schools. 

The guidance provides much needed clarity on when and how disability rights laws protect students with disabilities facing discipline at school. The guidance explains students’ rights in: suspensions and expulsions, restraint and seclusion, corporal punishment, transfers to more segregated schools and placements, the actions of police in schools, and more. The guidance explains how each of these could be discrimination, and describes the legal actions available to families. 

These much-needed clarifications are critical for students who might otherwise face discrimination and be excluded from schools because of behavior related to their disabilities. The guidance makes clear that schools must provide these students with reasonable accommodations for behavior, and modify their discipline policies when modifications are needed. The guidance is also clear about schools’ obligation to provide supports and services for students with disabilities that impact their behavior, social emotional skills, or mental health, and their obligation to educate all students in mainstream classrooms to the greatest extent possible. 

The guidance demands high standards of schools when they are removing students from school because of behavior. Schools must do an individual, case-by-case analysis of whether a student’s behavior is because of their disability. If it is, the school cannot remove the student. The guidance also clarifies that disability rights laws cover “informal removals,” such as when a school shortens the school day or requires parents to accept restraint and seclusion of their child. DOE explains when these too often discriminatory removals violate the law in much greater detail than in prior guidance.  

The guidance is not perfect. ASAN is concerned that it rarely touches on the intersection between race and disability in school discipline. It does not prohibit the use of police in schools, although it does warn that their behavior towards students with disabilities may be discriminatory. While it provides guardrails, it also does not prohibit the practices known as “threat assessment,” which have in the past deemed even elementary school students “threats” due to disability-related behavior.  Even so, the guidance is an important tool for students with disabilities and their families. ASAN will continue to advocate for the strongest possible protections for students with disabilities, and we look forward to putting this guidance into action. 

For more information on how the discipline guidance impacts you or your child’s education rights, please contact our Legal Director, Larkin Taylor-Parker, at

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network seeks to advance the principles of the disability rights movement with regard to autism. ASAN believes that the goal of autism advocacy should be a world in which autistic people enjoy equal access, rights, and opportunities. We work to empower autistic people across the world to take control of our own lives and the future of our common community, and seek to organize the autistic community to ensure our voices are heard in the national conversation about us. Nothing About Us, Without Us!