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Office for Civil Rights Blog - 20211013


October 13, 2021

Protecting Students: Sex Discrimination


World Mental Health Day, which we observed on Sunday, October 10, recognizes the importance of raising awareness and reducing stigma about mental health challenges experienced by so many individuals around the world. To mark this day and strengthen protections for students with mental health disabilities, OCR has joined with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to issue a new fact sheet, Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Students at Risk of Self-Harm in the Era of COVID-19 and a Dear Educator Letter. Both provide information on Federal civil rights laws that protect students with mental health disabilities and help schools, postsecondary institutions, and families meet students’ mental health needs.

Students with mental health disabilities are protected by Federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on disability, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Here are three important points:

  • These laws require elementary and secondary schools and postsecondary institutions to make decisions about how to respond to students at risk of self-harm based on an assessment of each student’s circumstances rather than on fears, generalizations, or stereotypes about mental illness.
  • In making these decisions, schools and postsecondary institutions generally must provide students who have mental health disabilities with reasonable modifications to school policies, practices, and procedures, as appropriate for an individual student.
  • Public elementary and secondary schools must also provide students with mental health disabilities a free appropriate public education, also known as FAPE, after an evaluation, as described in the Section 504 regulations.

These protections have taken on special importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. As explained in OCR’s report, Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students, students have reported heightened levels of stress and anxiety, feelings of disappointment, sadness, loneliness, and isolation. Early research from the first months of the pandemic also shows increased risk of suicidal ideation.

In addition to general trends, the pandemic’s stresses have had disparate impacts on certain groups of students. LGBTQI+ students, for example, have been more likely to report mental health challenges and, during periods of school closure and remote learning, have been particularly affected by a lack of access to in-person supports at school.

Against this backdrop, OCR recognizes that it is more important than ever to support students with mental health disabilities. We also recognize that stigma—about depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions—can keep students and families from seeking services and reasonable modifications and it can prevent educators from recognizing and responding to a student’s needs.

We hope that today’s letter and fact sheet prove helpful in our collective effort to support students with mental health disabilities. To those students who are currently feeling lonely, isolated, depressed, or even considering hurting yourself: you matter, you are not alone, and there are resources to help.

Suzanne B. Goldberg
Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Operations and Outreach
Office for Civil Rights
U.S. Department of Education

Last Modified: 02/18/2022