WHAT IS SECTION 504?
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a Federal Law implemented to protect the rights of those with disabilities when participating in programs that receive federal funding. This does include those attending public school.
WHAT IS FAPE?
FAPE is Free and Appropriate Public Education. All children have the right to FAPE regardless of their disability type or disability severity.
WHAT DOES A SECTION 504 PLAN PROVIDE?
A section 504 plan provides "reasonable" accommodations and or services for a child with a disability so they can access and participate in school. The accommodations should eliminate the barriers for them to fully participate. A school is required by law to provide these reasonable accommodations based on a student's specific situation and disability. You may want to access the Section 504 Resource Guide put together by the Department of Education to learn more about 504 Plans.
HOW DOES A CHILD QUALIFY FOR A SECTION 504 PLAN?
A child with a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity is grounds for Section 504. A major life activity is defined as caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, performing manual tasks, and learning. There are many conditions that meet these criteria however Section 504 does not have a list of disabilities provided. They just need to substantially limit a major life activity. Common disabilities that I see for 504 Plan eligibility include ADHD, anxiety and dyslexia.
WHAT DOES A SECTION 504 PLAN LOOK LIKE?
There is no set form or format for a 504 Plan. Each school may have their own template. The plan should include a list of detailed accommodations that will help support the student at school to better allow them to fully participate and access their education.
Common accommodations may include:
- preferential seating so a student is less distracted or closer to the teacher for guidance
- shortened homework or classroom assignments
- larger projects and assignments broken down into smallar parts
- written instructions
- guided note
There are endless accommodations that can be provided and what is offered should be completely based on your child's individual needs and situation.
WHAT IF THE ACCOMMODATIONS ARE NOT HELPING OR WORKING FOR MY CHILD?
If you find that your child is still not able to progress in the general education setting with the use of accommodations, then you need to take action. There are two reasons it could not be effective. First, the accommodations are not appropriate or effective for your child. Second, your child may need more than just accommodations.
If you strongly feel your child needs more than what a Section 504 Plan can provide, you should seek an IEP. An IEP is an Individual Education Program which is specifically designed based on a student's unique situation. It includes special education services and specialized instruction or supports in addition to accommodations to help a child progress. If you feel an IEP is needed, you can submit a request for an IEP evaluation in writing along with documentation to support your request. Send it to the Special Education Director of your school. By law they must respond to your request. This will start the process.
WHEN 504 ACCOMODATIONS ARE NOT PROVIDED:
If you suspect the school is not implementing the accommodations as written in the 504 Plan, then start collecting evidence. When accommodations are not implemented by the school, it is considered a Federal Civil Rights violation. If this is the case, you can take action by filing complaints through the Federal OCR (Office of Civil Rights). You can submit your complaint 0nline and provide evidence HERE. Please note you can only file OCR complaints on incidents that occurred within the last 180 days.
I do like to caution parents about filing complaints as a first line of defense. Often times when complaints are filed and formal actions by parents are taken it can negatively impact the relationship between the parents and the school district. Whenever possible, I advise parents to let the school know there are some legal violations that are concerning but they want to work with the school to get them corrected as soon as possible. Sometimes that is not enough, and a formal complaint must be filed.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FILE A FEDERAL OCR COMPLAINT?
When a detailed thorough complaint is filed with the OCR, the OCR will contact you and do an initial phone call to verify some information. After that call they will evaluate what you have provided and determine if there are grounds for an investigation of the school by the OCR. If you agreed to participate in mediation when you submitted your complaint, mediation will happen before an investigation is initiated. If mediation fails and there are grounds for an investigation, the OCR will start the investigation process. Once investigated, if the school is found at fault resolution will be determined by the OCR. That can include many of the resolution requests you made when filing your original complaint.
WHAT HAPPENS IF THERE IS MEDIATION?
If you have agreed to participate in mediation that will occur before an investigation occurs. In the mediation a lawyer from the OCR along with the relevant school administration staff and a school lawyer will participate. You can participate on the call alone or with an advocate or lawyer. Mediation can take a few hours depending on what you have asked for in your complaint as a resolution. If resolution is not made during mediation, the investigation will begin by the OCR. The investigation process can take a few months.
The OCR will conduct an investigation of the school including verifying and seeking more information about the allegations made in the complaint. This can include questioning school staff and asking for evidence from the school.
OUTCOMES OF AN OCR COMPLAINT:
If the OCR determines your complaint is valid, they can impose resolutions you asked for in your complaint. This can include a variety of different actions. Each case is completely different.
Unfortunately, these issues of ineffective 504 Plans or schools not abiding by the 504 documents are very common. These are some of the most common phone calls I get from parents. I work with families to help improve the 504 and make sure the 504 plan has appropriate accommodations.
If the accommodations are not enough to help a student succeed, I develop a strategy to pursue an IEP for the student and work with parents through the entire process. If the school is simply not following the Section 504 Plan, I can file the appropriate federal complaints to help correct the situation. Just know that filing complaints is not a quick resolution. It can take months. Hopefully as school will see the error of its ways when you discuss the violations with them and make corrections on their own to avoid an investigation. Sometimes that doesn't happen, and a complaint or legal action is necessary.
None of this is easy so don't feel like you are failing as a parent. I never thought I would need to study law just to get my son a Free and Appropriate Public Education, but I did. It's my goal to help parents with the process and give them the tools, resources and knowledge they need to eventually advocate on their own. Don't give up. Get started learning the process today so your child gets what they need and are entitled to by law!