The Role of School Personnel: Understanding the Law

Understanding the Law as It Relates to Students with OCD

School personnel are likely to be familiar with the federal laws that protect a child’s right to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment:

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA).

But when a student has OCD, it’s not always clear how to ensure that the student receives the best education.  What’s important is that school personnel, the parents, the therapist (when the student is receiving treatment) and the student, as appropriate, are all working together to make sure that the student gets the best education possible.  Everyone should be on the same side -- the student’s side.

The information in several sections of the OCD Education Station web site provides background on OCD, the effect of OCD on learning, social, behavioral and emotional development, how to recognize OCD (or possible OCD) and how to communicate effectively with parents.  Additionally, best practices in intervention (including accommodations and support strategies) are presented to give school personnel practical suggestions that can help them manage OCD in the school setting.

The ideas and specific tactics outlined help many educators, administrators and school staff effectively work with students who have OCD, and today countless students currently benefit from their use.  But school personnel, parents, or both may want or need to develop a more structured approach to managing a student who has OCD to maximize his or her academic, social, behavioral and emotional development.  That’s when considering the laws pertaining to a student's civil rights, the provision of special education and related services, and the safeguarding of privacy is a good course of action.

Making the Best Choices for the Student Who Has OCD

School personnel can play a critical role in helping a student with OCD get the education he or she needs in the least complicated manner.  Schools do not have a uniform approach to working with students who have OCD.  The way a student with OCD is treated -- and the education he or she receives -- depends on school personnel’s knowledge about OCD and experience in working with students who have the disorder.  It can also depend on school personnel’s willingness to find a way to help and, of course, individual school and school district policies.

Some students with OCD need easy-to-implement accommodations (such as many of those detailed on this web site) that can be put in place without additional cost or extra time for existing personnel.  Individual schools differ on their approaches to making even simple accommodations but, in certain cases, students with OCD may receive simple accommodations and supports without going through the more formal processes associated with Section 504 and IDEA.  It is important to note, however, that many parents prefer having even simple accommodations documented in writing under Section 504, rather than an informal verbal agreement with a teacher or other school staff member.  Circumstances change; the teacher with whom a verbal agreement about accommodations was made, for example, may leave the school.  A plan developed under Section 504 (504 plan) documents, in writing, decisions that have been made regarding a student's services. 

Having a 504 plan in place can also be important because accommodations and supports may be needed during periods of heightened OCD symptoms (when symptoms wax) but not at other times (when symptoms wane).  Equally important, if a student is seeking eligibility for accommodations for college entrance exams, during the college years, or later in life, the presence of a history of prior formal recognition of the disability is important documentation of the disability and need for accommodations.  By contrast, informal accommodations are less useful as documentation later on.  Moreover, Section 504 plans may contain important procedures for managing learning, behavior or medical problems that sometimes occur when a student has OCD.  For example, procedures for managing a student who has an OCD-related outburst or dispensing emergency medications may be documented in a 504 plan.

The essential purpose of Section 504 is to "level the playing field" for children and adolescents with disabilities.  In other words, Section 504 ensures that reasonable accommodations and supports be provided to students with disabilities so they can access educational opportunities and learn in a manner similar to their peers.  Importantly, support strategies may be needed only temporarily, and should be discontinued as the student recovers from OCD and is able to overcome his or her obsessions and compulsions.

In many cases, Section 504 is the appropriate vehicle for providing students necessary accommodations and supports.  In other cases, special education and related services under IDEA will be necessary for students with OCD who have more serious needs.  The most important objective is to meet the individual needs of the student and provide the best opportunity for academic, social, behavioral and emotional success.  The information below outlines some of the differences between Section 504 and IDEA.

Differences between Section 504 and IDEA

Section 504

Many students with OCD -- frequently those with milder cases -- are served under Section 504.  Section 504 is a civil rights law which provides that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under” programs that receive federal funding.  This includes any education agency (e.g., schools) if even a single of its activities or programs receives federal funding.  Thus, all qualified children with disabilities within a school district are entitled to a free, appropriate education.

Under Section 504, a person qualifies as having a disability if he or she (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the person's major life activities; (2) has a record of such an impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.  Many different disabilities are recognized under Section 504, including illnesses such as asthma and diabetes.  Although not specifically listed in Section 504, OCD qualifies as a disability under this law.  When a health professional has made a diagnosis of OCD, formal documentation of the diagnosis will be required by school officials.  Even without a formal diagnosis, however, a student's school performance may be such that he or she is regarded as having an impairment.

To determine whether a student's OCD substantially limits one or major life activities (including learning and/or behavior), a team of school staff members must evaluate information from a variety of different sources such as teacher reports, information from parents, the student's grades, school-administered tests, etc.  Although parents must be notified about this evaluation, their consent is not required.

Once it has been established that a student with OCD qualifies for services under Section 504, a plan must be written that is designed to meet his or her individual needs to the same extent that the needs of students without disabilities are met.  Although interventions are usually implemented in the general education classroom, an "appropriate" education under Section 504 may also include regular or special education and related services.  If desired, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) required under IDEA (see below) may be used for the Section 504 written plan.  A Section 504 plan will enable school personnel to have procedures in place to manage learning, social, behavioral or emotional problems that may occur when a student has OCD.  These procedures may include some of the accommodations and support strategies listed on this web site. 


Many students with OCD, particularly those with more severe cases of OCD, are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, the federal law governing special education and related services in the United States.  Under IDEA, a student must be between the ages of 3 and 21 (or as defined by state law) and meet the definition of either a preschool child with a disability or one or more of 13 disability categories listed under IDEA (e.g., Learning Disability, Emotional Disturbance or Other Health Impairment).  In addition, the disability must have an adverse effect on the student's learning, social and emotional functioning, life skills and/or behavior at school.

In the past, students with OCD have been identified under the category of “Emotional Disturbance”  and many of these students continue to be classified under this category today.  However, most OCD experts recommend that a child or teen who has OCD be classified under the “Other Health Impairment” (OHI) label.  This is because OCD is neurobiological in nature rather than emotional.  Tourette Syndrome and AD/HD, both of which also have a neurobiological basis, are already included under the OHI category of IDEA.

Eligibility for special education services under IDEA is based on a comprehensive evaluation that assesses the student in all areas related to the suspected disability.  After the evaluation is complete, a multidisciplinary team that includes parents, teachers, and others (as set forth in IDEA) convenes.  If it is determined that the student has a disability that adversely affects his or her education, the student becomes eligible for special education and related services.  It is important to note that, if a student is found to be eligible for services under IDEA, he or she is still protected under Section 504.  Also, if a student is not found to be eligible for services under IDEA, he or she may still qualify for Section 504.

IDEA mandates that, after the evaluation, the team develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for eligible students (the law specifies who participates in the IEP development and specifically includes the parents of the child).  The IEP is an extremely detailed document that serves as a blueprint for how the child is to be educated.  A very important stipulation of IDEA is that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment” (i.e., settings with nondisabled peers) to the greatest extent possible.  If the child cannot participate with nondisabled children in the regular classroom for any part of the school day -- even with accommodations and supports -- an explanation must be provided in the IEP. 

The results of some exploratory research conducted in the state of Illinois indicated that the large majority of students with a primary diagnosis of OCD served under IDEA were included in regular classrooms, alone or in combination with resource services or part-time special classes.  This research suggested that the IDEA provision of the least restrictive environment was a guiding principle in decisions related to educational placement for students with OCD.

IDEA also specifies procedures for monitoring special education services, including annual reviews of a student's progress toward his or her IEP goals, and a three-year reevaluation of the special education services provided to the student.  In addition, it provides numerous safeguards for protecting the rights of children with disabilities and their parents.

An important component of IDEA: Functional Behavioral Assessment and Positive Behavior Intervention Plans

The Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1997 -- the predecessor to IDEA 2004 -- introduced a number of new concepts that are also included in IDEA 2004.  Two of these concepts were crucial to students experiencing behavioral difficulties, including students with OCD: (1) positive behavior support, and (2) functional behavioral assessment.  One instance in which IDEA '97 refers to these concepts relates to suspending a student with a disability.  Specifically, IDEA '97 states that, within 10 school days of a decision to change the placement of a student with a disability due to a violation of a code of student conduct, school officials must hold a "manifestation determination" -- a meeting to determine whether the behavioral offense was related to a student's disability or poor implementation of the IEP.  If it is determined that the behavior was related to the disability or poor implementation of the IEP, a functional behavioral assessment, or FBA, must be conducted (if one has not been conducted previously).

The purpose of an FBA is to determine why a student engages in challenging behaviors by examining situations and events in the current environment that trigger those behaviors (antecedents) and/or support them (consequences).  The underlying assumption of functional behavioral assessment is that challenging behavior occurs because it produces an outcome or serves a function (e.g., student obtains something positive, escapes or avoids something aversive, obtains sensory input).

After a student's behavior is assessed, the results of the FBA are used to design and implement a positive behavior intervention plan (PBIP) that addresses the function of the behavior.  If a behavior plan was already in place, it must be reviewed and modified, as necessary, to address the behavior of concern (i.e., violation of student code of conduct).   

IDEA '97 also included another instance in which a functional behavioral assessment and corresponding behavior intervention plan are required.  According to IDEA '97, whenever a child's behavior impedes his or her own learning or that of others, school personnel need to consider using positive behavior interventions, supports, and other strategies to address that behavior.  Thus, when a student's problem behavior does not respond to standard, effective practices that are used with all students, or when school personnel cannot provide data to explain why the inappropriate behavior is occurring, IDEA '97 requires that a functional behavioral assessment be conducted and a corresponding behavior intervention plan developed.  Of note is that FBAs and  PBIPs are appropriate not only for students with disabilities but also for students with behavioral problems who do not have disabilities, or students not already receiving special education services under IDEA.

The IDEA '97 requirement that schools incorporate functional behavioral assessment and positive behavior intervention plans to address the problem behaviors of students with disabilities was crucial for students with OCD.  Traditionally, positive and negatives consequences have been used as a first-line intervention to "fix" problematic behavior -- the responsibility for change lies within the child.  (Please refer to "An Important Note About Using Traditional Behavioral Behavior Modification Principles" under the "Healthful Support Strategies" segment of the OCD Education Station for important information about using behavior modification with students who have OCD.)  By contrast, FBAs and PBIPs place emphasis upon first determining why students with disabilities engage in certain behaviors.  A plan then can be developed to address why the behavior is occurring and provide the necessary behavioral supports and interventions that will lead to acceptable behavior -- the responsibility for change lies within the educational system.  With this approach, school personnel can be proactive by identifying and modifying factors (whenever possible) that may contribute to problematic behavior before it occurs, rather than reactive by applying consequences after the problem behavior occurs.

Because environmental factors frequently trigger or increase the frequency of OCD-related behaviors, an FBA may provide school personnel important information for designing accommodations, supports, and behavioral interventions to address or prevent challenging behaviors.  It is highly recommended that individuals doing FBAs and PBIPs for students with OCD obtain a copy of A Workbook for Conducting a Functional Behavioral Assessment and Writing a Positive Behavior Intervention Plan for a Student with Tourette Syndrome written by Susan Conners and Kathy Giordano (2005), available for a nominal fee here.  This workbook is designed specifically for students with neurobiological disorders such as Tourette Syndrome, OCD, AD/HD, and learning disabilities, and contains some modifications to the traditional FBA process.

Summary of 504 vs. IDEA

Section 504 provides a quicker and more flexible means for supporting students with OCD. Section 504 may also be considered by parents who do not want their child to be singled out as “different” or labeled as needing special education.  Students sometimes fear social alienation, as well, if it becomes evident to others that they need special education and related services.  However, IDEA provides for more rights and safeguards for students with OCD and their parents than Section 504.  Therefore, if a student is struggling with academic, social, behavioral and/or emotional problems because of OCD, obtaining special education and related services for the student under IDEA may be preferable.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1976

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records.  It applies to all schools that receive funds under a program of the U.S. Department of Education.  

FERPA gives parents certain rights, which transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level (known as an "eligible student").  Following are those rights:

(1) Parents and eligible students have the right to inspect and review the student's educational records.  School personnel are required to explain or help parents and eligible students understand what is included or noted in the records.

(2) Parents and eligible students have the right to request that a school amend records they believe are inaccurate or misleading.  If the school disagrees, a hearing is held.  If, after the hearing, the school still decides not to correct the record, the parent or eligible student has the right to include a statement with the record explaining his or her view about the contested information.

(3) Parents and eligible students must provide written permission for the release of any information from a student's education record, except under certain conditions (e.g., releasing information to a school to which a student is transferring, accrediting organizations, and school officials with a legitimate educational interest).  In addition, when requesting release of the records, the school must tell parents and eligible students which records are involved, why they have been requested, and who will receive them.

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