When Drugs and Special Education Mix

Published on July 30, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano


Many studies show that students with learning and other disabilities are at greater risk for using drugs and alcohol than their non-disabled peers.   Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me much.  The drop-out rate for students with special education needs is higher, as well, and we are all concerned about the “school to prison pipeline” for students with emotional, learning and other disabilities.  It would be interesting to know what percentage of those kids with disabilities who drop out or become incarcerated were also abusing drugs.  Regardless, if you have a child with special needs, he or she is probably “at risk” for illegal drug use.

Despite the vulnerability of the population of students with special education needs the IDEA barely mentions drugs.

The only reference to drugs is in the discipline procedures, which is a complex area of the IDEA that merits a separate blog post.  That part discusses the possession, sale, or solicitation for sale of illegal drugs or controlled substances “while at school, on school premises, or at a school function under the jurisdiction of a State or local educational agency.” 20 USC 1415  It is unfortunate that the primary statute which governs special education entitlements only address drugs, a major obstacle to success in school, when it talks about when schools can kick kids with disabilities out.

What about drug treatment for kids with disabilities?

There is no description of drug or alcohol treatment in the IDEA, nor is it listed as a related service.  That being said, it is also not excluded from the statute.  Many good special education programs include counseling and therapy to address, and prevent, substance abuse, since it is such a common area of need for kids with IEPs.  I have had several clients’ private therapeutic placements funded by school districts, many of which include drug treatment as part of their overall special education therapeutic program.  However, if a program is entirely a drug treatment program, with no component than can arguably be covered as special education and related services, generally those are not considered the responsibility of school districts, and my experience is that getting them funded is a very tough battle.

Teen Angst

When a student with special education needs begins using drugs, disputes between the parents and the school district often get worse.

This is what I regularly see when drugs and special education mix:  As parents watch a child who was already struggling in school succumb to substance abuse, they become very angry with the school for all of the student’s academic and social frustrations.  Indeed, many parents I represent were already expressing their concerns about their child’s poor self-esteem based on their disability prior to drugs becoming an issue.  On the flip side, school districts often begin to assign the blame for a student’s lack of progress on the drug use.  No longer are they questioning whether the IEP is appropriate, because they are assume the student is unavailable for learning due to the drugs.  They generally stop seeing the student as a child with disabilities, but rather, as a drug-user.

Parents should not ignore the drug problem just because a child has disabilities, any more than schools should ignore the special education program just because a child is using drugs.

Regardless of “why” a student starts using drugs, what matters is that the adults do not ignore the underlying special education issues that still exist.  Whether a failure to receive appropriate special education intervention is part of the problem or not, the student may need drug counseling.  Unfortunately, my experience is that many school districts will “wash their hands” of kids once they start down the path of substance abuse, which is just the moment that the student, and the family, need their help the most.

The IDEA doesn’t allow schools to “drop” kids with special needs just because they are using drugs.

Once a student is identified as requiring special education and related services, the school district has to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education; there is no disqualification for kids who are substance abusers.  In fact, the challenges to the IEP team have likely increased.  But what about kids who don’t have an IEP, but who become involved in drugs, and subsequently are identified as having a disability?

Many parents never realized that their child had a disability until a drug problem led to a full evaluation, and a diagnosis.

This is so common it is really sad.  I routinely get calls in my special education law practice in Connecticut from parents whose children are in their teens, have been hospitalized due to drug problems (or its aftermath), and in that process they receive a full “work-up” from a team of psychiatrists and psychologists.  The disabilities that these have revealed include everything from classic learning disabilities, to ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Asperger’s Disorder.  Most, however, are diagnosed with Clinical Depression.

Which begs the question:  which came first, the chicken or the egg?


When I go to a school district to ask about identifying such students as eligible for special education and related services based on the evaluations obtained, we almost always face resistance from the school:  “well, of course he’s depressed, he’s become a drug addict, he’s lost friends, his parents are mad at him, and he’s in trouble at school!” or “how can we rely on these tests if he was high when he was taking them?” And you know what, those are fair points.  Just as it is fair for the parents to ask “is he abusing drugs because he wants to, or is he self-medicating an undiagnosed disability?”

A student’s educational history is part of the decision-making process to determine eligibility; but it is not the only consideration.

I once had a client who had been an excellent, well-behaved, “model” student throughout his life until he reached puberty, at which point he began hallucinating and hearing voices.  There are some disabilities that might not be evident until a student is older, and if that kid also happens to get involved in drugs, that doesn’t mean the disability has disappeared.

It is especially important to make sure that you have a good evaluation of a student might have a disability but is also using drugs.

If you have just learned about your child’s disability, and drug-use is already present, ask whichever professional has issued the diagnosis to be clear in their report as to what has led them to believe that the disability exists apart from the drug use.  You are likely to face an uphill battle if the first time you approach your school district about special education services is when drugs are involved, so be prepared for the questions.

One last insider tip:  special education directors really hate wilderness programs, especially in Utah!

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