Frequent discipline may be a sign that kids with disabilities are not receiving a free appropriate public education, according to new federal guidance reminding schools of their obligations to provide behavior supports.

In a 16-page letter sent this month just before classes begin in many school districts, the U.S. Department of Education signaled its concern over data that shows students with disabilities are disciplined far more often than their typically-developing peers.

“Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their (individualized education programs),” wrote Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary of special education and rehabilitative services, and Ruth Ryder, acting director of the Office of Special Education Programs.

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“We are issuing this guidance to clarify that the failure to consider and provide for needed behavioral supports through the IEP process is likely to result in a child not receiving a meaningful educational benefit or FAPE,” the letter states.

The most recent figures indicate that during the 2013-2014 school year, students with disabilities were twice as likely to be suspended. In many cases, the department said suspensions may have been in response to minor issues that could be mitigated through proper supports.

IEP teams have a responsibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to consider the use of behavior interventions and supports for children with disabilities. If there are repeated behavior problems at school, the team should reconvene to determine if behavior supports need to be adjusted, the guidance indicates.

Strategies to address such issues may include life skills or social skills training or meeting with a behavior coach, among other tactics, the Education Department said. In addition, it helps to have a school-wide plan for promoting positive behavior and school personnel might need specific training to implement the behavior supports identified in a particular child’s IEP.

It could be a denial of FAPE if the IEP team does not consider behavior interventions after a child has displayed such issues, if inappropriate interventions are used or if such supports are not implemented properly due to lack of teacher training or other reasons, according to the letter.

“All students, including those with disabilities, should have the supports and equitable educational opportunities they need to be successful in school,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. “This guidance will help schools create a safe, supportive learning environment for those students who need additional behavioral supports and services to help them thrive.”