The Imperative for Trauma-Responsive Special Education
Recent, robust research makes clear that childhood trauma, such as abuse or neglect in the home or the chronic lack of basic necessities, is common and can cause and exacerbate disabilities in learning and behavior. These disabilities prevent many children from making educational progress, but evidence-based strategies now exist to give these children access to education. To appropriately implement these strategies, the nation’s educational disability rights laws—the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (together, “Section 504”)—must become “trauma-responsive” or “healing centered.” The imperative to make education for children with trauma-induced disabilities trauma-responsive is not just moral, however; it is also legal. IDEA’s “Child Find” and Section 504’s “Locate and Notify” mandates require public school systems to identify and provide an evaluation and individualized education to all children with disabilities. This is the first article in the legal literature to describe the need to make IDEA, Section 504, and their implementation trauma-responsive. This article is also the first to propose three ways to meet this need: 1) requiring assessment of trauma’s impact when trauma is suspected to be a cause of disability in a child; 2) amending IDEA to add a stand-alone, trauma-specific disability category through which children can become eligible for special education and recognizing that trauma causes disability under Section 504; and 3) putting trauma-responsive specialized instruction, related services, and accommodations into individualized educational programs developed under IDEA (“IEPs”) and programs developed under Section 504 (“504 plans”).