In response to 2,000 complaints of discrimination against students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in the last five years, the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education released another Dear Colleague Letter and 35-page Resource Guide on school districts’ obligation to provide assistance to students with ADHD under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The DCL states that through its enforcement efforts, OCR has gleaned that many school districts are inadequately identifying and evaluating students who require special education due to an ADHD diagnosis.

The DCL noted common themes in these complaints, including school districts’ failure to: 1) identify and refer students with ADHD for evaluations to determine eligibility for special education and related services; 2) evaluate students with ADHD in a timely manner after a referral; and 3) conduct comprehensive evaluations to review student eligibility. Additionally, OCR noted that many students with ADHD who are properly identified do not always receive required educational services as part of their programming.  As a result, the Resource Guide discusses in detail how schools must identify, evaluate, and make programming and placement determinations for students with ADHD pursuant to Section 504.


The Resource Guide provides guidance on specific difficulties students with ADHD have in school for special education identification and referral purposes. Under Section 504, a student with a disability is one who: (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) has a record of such impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. The Resource Guide stresses that an impairment that substantially limits any major life activity, not just a major life activity related to learning or school, is considered a disability under Section 504. Some examples of major life activities limited by ADHD include concentrating, reading, and thinking.

When identifying students who may have an ADHD-related disability, staff may see signs from students that include the following: restlessness or inattention inappropriate for the student’s age; trouble organizing tasks and activities; or communication deficits. In addition, schools should consider conducting an evaluation if a student demonstrates difficulty in beginning tasks, organizing or recalling information, and completing assignments. The guidance also notes that a student with high academic achievement may nonetheless show signs of a disability if, for example, that student must spend additional time or effort to read, write, or learn compared to others.


Once school staff members believe a student has a disability and may need special education or related services, Section 504 requires the school to conduct an evaluation. The Resource Guide specifically points to the fact that schools often first implement intervention strategies for students with ADHD-related symptoms before conducting an evaluation. While interventions can be effective, the guidance states that schools should not use these strategies in lieu of a prompt evaluation.

The guidance also cautions schools about the evaluation process. While one student with ADHD may be substantially limited in the ability to learn, another student may be substantially limited in the ability to concentrate. In addition, if a student is taking medication or any other mitigating measure, a school cannot consider the ameliorative effects of that medication when evaluating whether a student has a disability. The guidance also suggests considering a medical assessment when evaluating a student with ADHD-related symptoms.

Programming/Section 504 Plans

After a school determines that a student has ADHD, it must determine whether the student requires special education or related services. The guidance stresses that each student’s needs may be different, and Section 504 requires schools to provide for those individual educational needs that the placement team decides are appropriate, regardless of cost or administrative burden. Services included in a Section 504 plan should be clear so that both the school and the parents understand its requirements. Finally, the Resource Guide reminds schools that they must allow parents to appeal decisions regarding the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of students with disabilities, including ADHD.

In response to this new guidance, school districts should ensure staff members are trained appropriately to identify academic and behavioral challenges that may be due to an ADHD-related disability requiring an evaluation under Section 504. For the full text of the Dear Colleague Letter and Resource Guide, click here.

Please contact Michelle Todd with questions about this new guidance.