• Section 504 Overview

       Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights law to protect disabled workers (1973) and students (1974) from discrimination. The school District has a Child Find responsibility for each student they suspect may have a disability. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces Section 504 compliance and Congress bases future receipt of federal funds on the school District meeting all compliance requirements.    Students served under Section 504 receive assistance with accessing the classroom environment such that they receive educational benefit. Section 504 protections do not involve modification of the academic curriculum. Under Section 504, students are held responsible for meeting the requirements of Florida’s state standards. In the case where a student qualifies for IDEIA services, the parent may not refuse those services in preference for a Section 504 plan for that impairment. That is, the refusal of IDEIA services is the refusal of Section 504 as well.

       Students who have impairments are not automatically eligible for a Section 504 Plan; eligibility is determined on a case by case basis. If a student is functioning at the average or above average level compared to peers, eligibility determination should be carefully considered. In order to qualify, students must demonstrate a documented physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity in one or more areas, such as caring for self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, reading, concentrating, thinking, sleeping (ex. apnea, narcolepsy), eating, lifting, bending, communicating, and the operation of a major bodily function such as the immune system, normal cell growth (ex. cancer, sickle cell, etc.), digestive, bowel, and bladder functions. In addition, a substantial limitation must be demonstrated in the school setting. For example, students with diabetes have been determined to be significantly impaired due to the daily actions and/or assistance required in the classroom to support their healthy functioning. Mitigating measures no longer negate Section 504 eligibility, except in the area of eyewear.

       Section 504 is not a type of program delivery; rather, it affords civil rights protection. Ensuring students achieve at their potential is not the purpose of this federal mandate. Rather, student participation and progress is compared to the average student in the typical/standard class setting. Average academic performance within the competitive or gifted class settings is not considered a disabling condition under Section 504. Under Section 504, “evaluation” does not refer exclusively to a comprehensive psychoeducational assessment. Instead, evaluation can refer to the consideration of multiple sources of information which may include student grades, medical records, behavior rating scale data, observation data, attendance data, teacher records, standardized test scores, and disciplinary records. Eligibility decisions are based on the preponderance of supporting documentation rather than a single source of information.

    How are students identified as having a disability?

    A parent, teacher, or other member of the school staff may raise a concern about a student’s unique need for special help. Parents, teachers, and other staff members will meet to discuss all relevant information about the student. The parents’ participation in this meeting is critical and helps to establish an accurate picture of the student’s needs. At the meeting, the team will consider whether the student has a disability that substantially limits a major life activity. (See definitions in question #1.) If the team needs more information, they will request the parent’s consent to evaluate the student. If the team determines that the student does have a disability, they will then identify what types of support, or accommodations, are appropriate to meet the student’s needs. The accommodations will be described in a document referred to as the Section 504 accommodation plan.

    What should parents or teachers do if they become dissatisfied with the plan?

    Ongoing communication between parents and teachers will help avoid disagreements related to the student’s accommodation plan. When parents’ or teachers’ concerns are not addressed to their satisfaction, they should contact the school principal or the designated staff member responsible for Section 504. If the plan is not appropriate, it should be revised following the same procedures used to develop the original plan. Because situations change and students’ needs change, flexibility in this process will help everyone meet the students’ needs.

    Are students with disabilities disciplined differently than are their nondisabled peers?

    While all students are expected to follow classroom and school rules, a student with a disability may need a specialized behavior plan or accommodations to support his or her appropriate behavior during all school activities. Students with disabilities are not exempt from consequences for violations of the code of student conduct. In cases of severe violations of the district’s code of student conduct, disciplinary interventions are frequently based on approved school board policies and require specific consequences. However, if it is determined that the behavior was a manifestation of the student’s disability, the consequence outlined in the student code of conduct may be deemed inappropriate and consideration should be given to revising the student’s individual behavior plan. Revisions may include strategies and supports that will reduce the likelihood that inappropriate behavior occurs in the future and encourage more socially acceptable behaviors within the school setting. Students who are eligible under IDEA cannot be denied FAPE as a result of discipline. Although Section 504 does not specifically address discipline, best practice would suggest that districts use the policies and procedures outlined in the IDEA when making decisions about disciplinary consequences for a student eligible for a Section 504 accommodation plan. 9. What are the major differences between IDEA and Section 504? Both IDEA and Section 504 guarantee students with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education. However, there are major differences between them, specifically in the criteria used to determine eligibility and the definition of a free and appropriate public education. IDEA provides more specific categories of disabilities, including mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments, visual impairments (including blindness), emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, and specific learning disabilities. For a student to receive exceptional student education services under IDEA, the student’s educational performance must be adversely affected by the disability and he or she must be in need of special education services (i.e., specialized instruction). Students with a disability who meet specific IDEA requirements are also protected under Section 504. Finally, IDEA applies only to individuals from birth through age 21. Section 504 is not limited to specific disability categories and does not require evidence that the disability adversely affects the student’s educational performance, however the definition states that in order to be eligible for an accommodation plan, the student must “have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Major life activities under Section 504, include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Students ineligible for services provided under IDEA may be eligible for accommodations under Section 504. Finally, Section 504 covers individuals of all ages.

    Whom do I contact for information on Section 504?

    Contact your child’s school counselor for more information on Section 504.