In a previous article, I spoke of the law that allows your child to receive special services in his or her school setting due to physical, learning, and/or emotional struggles. In this article, I would like to address the second law that entitles your children to obtain these supportive educational services. This law is called Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It’s the same law that protects employees from discrimination in the work place based on a disability. It enforces ramps in public buildings, elevators in second-story buildings, and accessibility to bathrooms.
A child who qualifies for services under 504 receives what is called a 504 Plan. It’s the responsibility of the school district to identify and evaluate students who, within the intent of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, need special services or programs so that these students can receive the required appropriate education.
In order to be found eligible for a 504 plan, the student must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, including learning; or the student must have a record of such impairment; or is regarded as having such impairment. Students may be eligible for services under the provisions of Section 504 even though they do not require services pursuant to the IDEA.
Each qualified person within the school district who is eligible to receive regular, special education, or related aids or services (regardless of the nature or severity of the condition necessitating such services), shall receive free appropriate education in the district. In other words, these services should not cost the family a dime. They are put in place to give children the support they need in order to perform at their optimal academic level.
Think of the student who has Attention Deficit Disorder, Inattentive Type. This student is highly distractible, struggles with focusing on tasks and completing those tasks, is often forgetful, and cannot seem to pay close attention to detail. All of these symptoms are part of this child’s disability. Should this child be punished for having these symptoms? Should this child be punished for having this disability? What about the child who has a hearing impairment? Should that child be punished for his disability? Unfortunately, without the use of the aids or accommodations discussed above, this is exactly what happens.
Accommodations are put into place to allow the student to reach his optimal learning ability. For example, for the hearing impaired student, sitting in the back of the class may not be helpful and could be hurtful in the learning process. The 504 plan could assure that this student sits in the front of each of his classes and has teachers who not only lecture, but write information that they speak about on the board or provide handouts of material. ADD students may also receive handouts or notes from other students to assure that they did not miss the vital part of the lecture that will appear on next week’s test.
Any student who needs a 504 plan may be referred by a parent, teacher, or other certificated school employee to the special services committee (SSC) for identification and evaluation of the student’s individual education needs. The SSC will be composed of persons knowledgeable about the student, the student’s school history, the student’s individual needs, the meaning of evaluation data, and the placement options. The SSC will consider the referral and based upon a review of the student’s existing records (including academic, social, and behavioral), make a decision as to whether an evaluation under this procedure is appropriate. If a request for evaluation is denied, the SSC will inform the parents or guardian of this decision and of their procedural rights, including the right to an impartial hearing and review. No final determination of whether the student will or will not be identified as a handicapped individual within the meaning of Section 504 will be made by the SSC without first inviting the parent or guardian of the student to participate in a meeting concerning such determination.
If a student is determined eligible for a 504 plan, the SSC becomes responsible for determining what special services are needed. The parents or guardian are invited to participate in SSC meetings where services for the student will be determined, and shall be given an opportunity to examine all relevant records. The SSC will develop a written plan describing the student’s needs. The plan will specify how the regular or special education and related aids and services will be provided, and by whom.
Having a 504 plan does not mean that the student will automatically begin special education. In fact, the student should be placed in a regular educational environment with the use of the supplementary aids and services first, unless the district demonstrates that such placement cannot be achieved satisfactorily. The 504 plan student should always be educated with those who do not have 504 plans to the maximum extent appropriate to the individual needs of the student. In other words, if special education services are necessary, then the student should receive them. If they are not necessary, then they should not.
The team may also determine that no special education or related services are appropriate. If so, the record of the SSC proceedings will reflect the identification of the student as a handicapped person with 504 eligibility and will state the basis for the decision that no special services are presently needed. In all cases, review of the student’s progress and needs should occur annually. However, if changes need to be made sooner, a meeting can be called by the SSC or by the parent or guardian.
In summary, the 504 plan enables children with a disability (learning, physical, or emotional) to be eligible for accommodations for that disability in their educational setting so they are on an equal playing field with everyone else. A disability should not cause a student to have less of a chance to do well than non-disabled students at the school. If you think that your child suffers from such a disability and that it’s affecting his or her school performance, contact your school principal and request a 504 plan meeting. Make sure to request this in writing and cc the letter to the superintendent of your school district. I always encourage parents to hand deliver the letter to the principal. You should receive a response with a meeting date and time within fifteen business days. If you do not receive a response, contact them again and let them know that they are out of compliance with the law. Upon hearing this, they usually respond within twenty-four hours. If they do not, you can always contact an educational attorney.
Related Story: Your Children’s Educational Rights