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ADHD is now classified as a specific disability under federal civil rights law

The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines aimed at preventing schools from discriminating against the growing numbers of students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

In a letter to school districts and a “know your rights” document to be posted on its website Tuesday, the department said schools must obey existing civil rights law to identify students with the disorder and provide them with accommodations to help them learn.

The guidelines come in response to years of complaints from parents who say that their children have been denied needed services and that schools have failed to protect them from bullying. The Education Department, which has received roughly 2,000 such complaints over the last five years, said schools have requested clarification of their responsibilities under the law.

“Many … [teachers] are not familiar with this disorder,” Catherine Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in the letter. “The failure to provide needed services to students with disabilities can result in serious social, emotional and educational harm.” 

The number of children being diagnosed with ADHD — a neurobiological disorder characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity or inattentiveness — has soared over the last decade.

As of 2011, 11% of children ages 4-17 were diagnosed with the disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with ADHD.

California does not specifically track the number of students with ADHD, instead grouping most of them in the broader category of “specific learning disability.” As of Dec. 1, 2015, 288,294 students were in that category.

The rising rate of diagnosis has been controversial. There is no biological marker for the disorder. Kids can be diagnosed after showing symptoms such as carelessness or distraction over six months. But the line between quirky and disability can be fuzzy.

The rise of ADHD can be expensive for school districts, as the services for a single student can cost several thousand dollars a year. Some research though has found that there are hidden costs to not treating the disorder.

Under a 1973 federal law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, schools are responsible for identifying students with the disorder and supporting them by recording lectures, highlighting passages of textbooks or giving them extra time on tests.

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The guidelines make clear that school districts should evaluate students who may have the disorder even if they show high academic performance. Parents are entitled to ask that a district evaluate a student.

Jeffrey Katz, a Virginia-based clinical psychologist who works on public policy for the nonprofit Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, has seen students who have been missed by school districts.

For Maryland tax attorney Ingrid Alpern, co-chair of the nonprofit’s public policy committee, that lack of diagnosis for her son was painful. 

It was only in third grade that a teacher told her that her son probably had the disorder. “I could have kissed that teacher,” she said. “It took all the way to third grade for the district to offer him a 504 plan.”

Before then, the school made her son eat lunch in the principal’s office.

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