Kathryn was a successful student from a middle-class family. However, when she was 15 years old, her mother noticed changes. Kathryn was lying, her grades had fallen, and she seemed more agitated. After intercepting suspicious text messages between Kathryn and her new group of friends, her mother became concerned and administered a drug test. This was the beginning of an eight-year struggle with substance dependency, treatment, multiple relapses, and ultimately, Kathryn’s suicide.

While the story has a tragic ending, it is a reminder that students struggling with substance abuse issues give school leaders an opportunity to provide meaningful interventions and supports. While most disciplinary codes enable schools to punish students using illegal substances, school leaders also have a legal and ethical responsibility to assist these students.

Substance Abuse and Dependency

When students are teenagers, they are more likely to experiment with substances and are more susceptible to developing substance use disorders. By the time students are in 12th grade, 70 percent have tried alcohol, 50 percent have used an illegal drug, and 20 percent have taken a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Although substances affect individuals differently, chronic substance use can alter the brain and result in substance dependency or addiction. Even if usage does not result in dependency, substance abuse poses significant risks for teens, including academic failure, mental health problems, and risk of death by overdose. Only 10 percent of teenagers who need treatment for a substance use disorder receive intervention, according to NIDA.

Section 504 and the ADA

To respond effectively, school leaders must understand how Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide legal protections for some students with chemical dependencies. These federal laws prohibit schools from discriminating against 1) a student who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; 2) a student who has a history or record of such an impairment; 3) a student who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. Therefore, in situations when students’ substance abuse limits a major life activity-such as attending school or learning-these students may be defined as having a disability and be entitled to legal protection. While Section 504 applies only to schools receiving federal financial assistance, the ADA applies to both public and private schools.

Section 504 and the ADA apply to students differently based on whether they are using alcohol or drugs. Students who are currently using illegal drugs are not covered-even if a drug dependency is negatively impacting the students’ education; however, students currently using alcohol may be protected.  

Students who are in recovery from past drug dependency and are no longer using drugs may be eligible under Section 504 and the ADA. It is illegal for districts to discriminate against students based on their previous drug usage. School leaders should also ensure Section 504 evaluations are completed for students who may need them.

Despite these legal protections, districts are permitted under Section 504 to discipline students with disabilities for using or possessing illegal drugs or alcohol to the same extent as students without disabilities. 

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Also in play is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA ensures that students with a disability are provided a free education that is tailored to their individual needs. IDEA-​eligible students who also have substance abuse issues may request that the district pay for treatment.

In P.K. v. Bedford Central School District, a federal district court determined that a district was not obligated to pay for a residential treatment program for a student with emotional disturbances. The plaintiffs argued that the student’s substance abuse and disability were intertwined. They contended that the district’s in-district placement denied the student a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) as required by IDEA. Yet, the court disagreed, noting that nothing in IDEA suggests that Congress intended for districts to bear the significant treatment costs for students with disabilities who also have substance abuse issues. 

Conversely, if districts fail to provide appropriate educational services to students with disabilities with substance issues, then districts may be ordered to pay for residential treatment. In New Paltz Central School District v. St. Pierre (2004), a student’s academic performance drastically declined and he began using drugs. A school psychologist recommended that he attend a residential treatment boarding school; yet, the district refused to pay the tuition. While at the private placement, the boy was classified as emotionally disturbed. Once he graduated, his mother sought reimbursement. The district refused, arguing that the treatment facility was not the appropriate placement for the boy due to his emotional disturbance. Yet, a federal district court disagreed, finding that the district’s delay in identifying the student’s disability was a FAPE violation. And the treatment facility was an appropriate placement because it provided therapeutic and academic services.

Ethical Obligations

Students with substance abuse issues often require more support than schools can offer. School leaders, therefore, should:

  • Connect with community organizations offering interventions that the schools cannot.
  • Identify nearby recovery schools designed to provide both treatment and education.
  • Ask substance abuse counselors to deliver professional development to school staff.
  • Help students get treatment even when the school is not legally obligated to provide or pay for it.

Parents and students often struggle with the stigma attached to substance dependency. When they disclose issues, it is incumbent on leaders to listen with compassion and provide the needed support to this at-risk population.

 Janet R. Decker, PhD, JD, is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership and Urban Educational Leadership programs at Indiana University. Teresa A. Brown, EdS, is a doctoral student at Indiana University and assistant superintendent for school improvement at the Indiana Department of Education. Suzanne E. Eckes, PhD, JD, is a professor at Indiana University, who has been published widely on school legal matters, including co-editing The Principal’s Legal Handbook.