SECTION 504: Are Your Rights Being Violated?
Sandra Peterson, RN, CSN
You need to know the legal protections in place to protect your child from discrimination at school based on their health status. Asthma, heart conditions, seizure disorder, diabetes, and ADHD are just a few examples of the broad range of illnesses covered under the Section 504 law. Section 504 is often called a civil rights law that covers the rights of individuals with disabilities. It is a part of the federal law known as the Rehabilitation Act enacted in 1973.
A student qualifies as disabled under the legal definition of Section 504 if he or she:
- Has a mental or physical impairment, a record of impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment;
- Is substantially limited in his or her major life activities that include abilities such as (but not limited to) self care, breathing, walking, seeing, performing schoolwork, speaking, and learning.
Section 504 differs from the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) which addresses the needs of learning for disabled students that require specially designed instruction known as special education classes. These students are automatically covered under Section 504.
Section 504 prohibits disability discrimination by any program or activity that receives federal funds, not just school aged children. For example, it covers public schools, colleges, and vocational programs. Private schools are also included if they receive any form of federal funding or benefits from federally funded programs or facilities as in, federal assistance with meal programs for students. Schools must provide appropriate, reasonable accommodations that afford the students with disabilities the same opportunity to succeed in school as they provide to students without disabilities.
For example, a student that has a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and is having problems at school due to their symptoms qualifies to receive special services in school. These symptoms could be an inability to be attentive to instruction or tolerate a classroom environment. If the symptoms are significant enough to negatively impact his or her learning, the student qualifies for services under Section 504.
It is not lawful for the student to be penalized or receive failing grades and disciplinary action when measured against the standards set for their nondisabled peers. The impact of the student’s medical diagnosis must be addressed or the student is being discriminated against for having a medical illness. This would be a violation of the student’s civil rights protected under Section 504, requiring modifications and adaptations be made through the development of a Section 504 Plan for the student.
A 504 Plan is developed at the school through the review of educational records including grades, reports, and a physician’s assessment. The team generally consists of the parent or guardian, school nurse, teachers, and 504 Plan coordinator working with the student. The 504 Plan itself is a legal document and MUST be implemented by the school.
The 504 Plan should include the stated specific accommodations, related services, or supplementary aids needed by the child to benefit from his or her education. The plan should also include educational accommodations that acknowledge the student’s specific needs due to the impact of his/her diagnosis. For example, a student with diabetes who happens to have an episode of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) should be allotted extra time for test taking or for completing assignments without penalty. The 504 Plan educational strategies would also specifically state that the student with asthma, for example, “will be allowed to self-regulate his or her participation in physical activities during gym class without penalty”.
The 504 Plan could also specifically indicate who will be responsible for providing needed accommodations or services. In the student with diabetes, the following duties may be detailed:
- Parent: Supply all prescribed medication needed by the student while at school
- Teacher/Staff: Permit student to eat snacks whenever needed due to low blood glucose
- School Nurse: Follow-up on medical reports and collaborates with treating physician
- Student Will: Be able to identify signs/symptoms of low blood glucose, notify teacher
Of course, each responsible party will have a list of items greater than this example to clearly cover each need that the student could have during the school day. Bear in mind that each state and local school district’s 504 Plan may appear in a different format. As long as the information is there to meet your child’s needs, their rights protected by this federal law!
If you suspect your child has an illness or disability negatively impacting their educational process, contact the 504 Plan Coordinator at your school or district and request a meeting to discuss your child’s need for an evaluation for services under Section 504.