Discipline & Legal Rights of Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities have legally protected rights. Those rights include services that address all of their needs and discipline protection. Read on to learn more or click a link below to find behavioral support resources for special education!

What are the legal rights of students with disabilities in regards to behavior and discipline?

Students with disabilities have many rights, but here we are focusing on their right to receive meaningful socioemotional supports– and to not be punished, expelled, or suspended for their disabilities.

Students have a right to a comprehensive assessment. A comprehensive assessment means an assessment in all areas of need. For a child with socioemotional challenges that might mean that they need:

  • An FBA (Functional Behavior Assessment) to understand their behaviors. An FBA leads to a BIP (Behavior Intervention Plan) and is a formal assessment, requiring parental consent. Typically, FBAs are done in the case of suspension or expulsion worthy behaviors as that is where they are discussed in federal law. They can and should, however, also be done preventatively. They involve intensive data collection to understand what a student is doing and what function the behavior is serving.
  • Related service assessments to see if they have other needs that require support.
    • Occupational therapists work on self-regulation and can perform targeted assessments to understand whether a student is having challenges with sensory integration or self-regulation.
    • Speech and language therapists work on social skills and can determine whether a student’s difficulties are related to language based deficits (note that their services focus on language– do a consultation with them to see if an assessment is warranted). 
    • Mental health therapists can be part of an IEP as well. These are licensed therapists, not counselors or school psychologists, and typically provide services through a county mental health agency. They do formal assessments, which require parental consent.
    • Many districts have other behavior related services as well such as a behavior support consultant. These also often require formal assessments.
  • Assessments in ALL areas of their need. All students with any challenges at all related to emotions, social skills, or behaviors need to have those looked at, whether formally (FBA) or informally (by a psychologist or teacher) during the assessment process.

Here are the relevant parts of the law:

(4) The child is assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities;


Special education is NOT just about academics. Once students qualify, they have a right to services in all areas of need. This can include:

  • A behavior support plan (BSP) or behavior intervention plan (BIP, from a formal assessment) that outlines specific triggers, interventions, and supports for a student
  • Socioemotional IEP goals with clear targets and supports
  • Support services such as:
    • School counseling or meeting with the school psychologist. Note that these typically do NOT require formal assessments and should be available to all students
    • Therapy as needed. Note that this CAN BE part of an IEP. It is painful, paperwork intensive, and time consuming but this is a service students can receive.
    • Occupational therapy, SLPs, etc.
    • Additional staffing (I am talking about one-on-ones here– note that I often find them pretty useless for behavior as they are rarely highly trained and so am putting this lower on my list)

Here is what the federal law says:

300.324 Development, review, and revision of IEP.

(a) Development of IEP—
(1) General. In developing each child’s IEP, the IEP Team must consider—
(i) In the case of a child whose behavior impedes the child’s learning or that of others, consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior;

In addition to services, students are entitled to supports. In the IEPs, these are often included either under a BSP/BIP or in the accommodations and modifications section. These should be designed collaboratively by the full IEP team, including parents and related services provider– not just made by the teacher! These might include:

  • Breaks: These have to be defined. Does that mean a quiet area in the classroom? A pass to run laps? A break in the counselors office?
  • Behavior charts: These are reward systems for positive behaviors. Note that these are challenging to implement because teachers are busy and forgetful so you need to really think about what is realistic during the design process.

While there are many more, the biggest thing here is that whatever goes into the IEP, the student has the legal right to in ALL settings. One teacher CANNOT opt out. That’s an administrator’s headache not your, but any supports must be available in all settings, not just your classroom. The law is on your side here. 


You cannot endlessly suspend or arbitrarily expel a student with an IEP.

Here is the relevant segment of the federal law— which applies to every single special education program in the United States. The highlights are:

  • Students with disabilities can only be suspended for a maximum of ten days during an entire school year.
  • If schools want to suspend a student for more than ten days (total, not in a row) or to expel a student, they have to hold a manifest determination. During they meeting they have to determine whether the behavior is the result of the student’s disability or a failure to implement the IEP. If it is either, the onus is on the school. They can’t just expel or suspend the student for ever– they can discuss as a team how to better support a student (which might include a new placement) but not just get rid of them. Note that their are weapons, injury, and drugs exceptions to this.