Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) is a federal civil rights law. It is designed to eliminate disability discrimination in programs and activities that receive federal funds. Since all public school districts receive federal funds, all public school districts must comply with Section 504. Under Section 504, denying a disabled student a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) is disability discrimination.
What is the difference between Section 504 and Special Education?
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal civil rights law which prohibits discrimination against students based on disability. Section 504 ensures that students with disabilities have equal access to educational programs, services, and activities. Special education is governed by the IDEA.
Accommodations and/or related aids and services provided under Section 504 are included in a Section 504 Plan. Special Education is different from Section 504 because special education requires school districts to provide eligible students with specially designed instruction in accordance with an IEP. Students eligible for special education, however, are still protected from discrimination under Section 504 and have appropriate accommodations and/or related aides and services included as part of their IEP.
What is the Section 504 Process?
Parents, the student, or school district staff may request evaluation. If you request an evaluation, do so in writing to the school’s Section 504 coordinator or counselor. The purpose of the evaluation is to determine whether your child has a disability that substantially limits one or more major life functions, which may need accommodation. The school district may either proceed with the evaluation or refuse the request to evaluate. If the school refuses to evaluate, it must provide parents with notice of the procedural safeguard rights so parents know their opportunities to appeal the decision or proceed with an independent evaluation. Parental permission is required before an initial (first) evaluation can be conducted.
A team of qualified professionals will determine through evaluation whether the student is eligible for Section 504 services and consider the placement and service options. Parents are not specifically required to be members of the team, but as people knowledgeable about the child, the federal Office of Civil Rights has stated that the school should provide them with the opportunity to participate in team meetings and decisions. If the student is not eligible, parents must be provided with an explanation. Parents can appeal the decision through a hearing in the district.
If the student is eligible, the team will next decide on the child’s accommodations or services (referred to as the 504 Plan). The student must receive education comparable to that provided to non-disabled students. Some accommodations are physical, such as removal of physical barriers, rest periods, or visual aids. Some accommodations are instructional and may be provided through specialized instruction and/or related aids and services.
Periodic evaluation is not defined in federal regulations, so the SBLSD uses special education timelines (from Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA) as one way of meeting this requirement. Under IDEA, reevaluations must be conducted at least once every three years. Although there is no “expiration date” for a 504 plan, periodic reevaluation ensures that the student’s needs are being adequately addressed. Reevaluations must occur before any significant change in placement, including suspensions beyond 10 days.