WHAT IS SECTION 504?
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights act prohibiting discrimination based on disability. It was enacted to eliminate barriers that exclude persons with disabilities. In the Voorhees Township School District, all staff and administrators have the responsibility of ensuring that all students with disabilities are identified, evaluated and provided with needed accommodations and services, resulting in a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
Section 504 is not a special education statute, although it addresses the provision of education to qualified individuals with disabilities. Public school districts are required to provide a free appropriate public education to all qualified students with disabilities. This must include an education designed to provide educational benefit despite the child’s disability.
Courts have interpreted “educational benefit” to mean progress through the curriculum. The necessary services and accommodations are part of the student’s public education and are therefore provided at no cost to the parents.
DEFINITION OF A DISABILITY
Section 504 defines “disability” as a physical or mental condition which substantially limits or impairs a major life activity such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, focusing, concentrating, or learning (this is not an exhaustive list). Section 504 does not specifically list or define all the possible qualifying disabilities like IDEA does.
PHYSICAL OR MENTAL IMPAIRMENTS
Under Section 504, the term "physical or mental impairments" means (a) any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genitourinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin and endocrine.
Certain conditions are not considered impairments under Section 504 and the ADA: substance abuse disorders resulting from the current use of illegal drugs, kleptomania, pyromania, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity issues not resulting from physical impairment, and other sexual disorders. An episodic impairment or impairment in remission may be a disability if it substantially limits a major life activity when active. (ADA Amendments Act 2008).
The definition of a disabled person specifies that only physical and mental disabilities are included. Thus, environmental, cultural, and economic disadvantage are not themselves covered. Examples of environmental, cultural or economic factors include divorce, transiency, death of a family member, military deployments, lack of motivation, homelessness, poverty, attendance problems, and ELL (learning English as a second language) status.
A substantial limitation is a restriction as to the condition, manner, or duration under which an individual can perform a major life activity as compared to an average person in the general population. It would be an error to measure substantial limitation in reference to the child’s potential and/or the student’s immediate classmates. Instead, the reference should be to the performance of children at the same age or grade in the general population.
Temporary and non-chronic impairments of short duration with little or no residual effects are not typically substantially limiting. Conditions such as the common cold, seasonal influenza, a sprained joint, minor and non-chronic gastrointestinal disorder, and broken bones that are expected to heal completely are examples of conditions that are not impairments under Section 504.
MAJOR LIFE ACTIVITIES
According to the ADA Amendments Act 2008, major life activities under Section 504 include, but are not limited to:
- caring for oneself
- performing manual tasks
Districts must make Section 504 eligibility determinations based upon the student’s disability, as it would present itself without mitigating measures. A mitigating measure is something a student can use without any assistance from the school (i.e. – eyeglasses). Determining that a student is not Section 504-eligible because of the corrective effects of mitigating measures is prohibited, except for the use of corrective lenses or ordinary contact lenses. Mitigating measures include:
- Medical supplies, equipment, or appliances
- Low-vision devices (which do not include ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses)
- Prosthetics, including limbs and devices
- Hearing aids and cochlear implants or other implantable hearing devices
- Mobility devices
- Oxygen therapy equipment and supplies
- The use of assistive technology
- Reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aids or services
- learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications
In other words, impairment may be a disability within the meaning of Section 504 even if there is no current substantial limitation of a major life activity because of the use of mitigating measures.
WHEN IS A SECTION 504 PLAN NOT APPROPRIATE
Below are some examples of instances in which a Section 504 plan would not be appropriate:
- A student has a disability, but is functioning well and making academic progress without accommodations. This might include a student whose parent feels could be making A’s rather than C’s; or a student who only experiences difficulty in one subject area and the team determines the difficulty is not a function of the disability.
- When a plan is created solely to support a request for extended time on standardized tests such as STAR and/or PARCC.
- An individual does not fall within the definition as someone regarded as having a disability if the physical or mental impairment is transitory (that is, having an actual or expected duration of six months or less) and minor. For example, if a person has a broken leg but is expected to fully recover within six weeks, and the injury is considered minor, that person is not regarded as a person with a disability even if others treat the person as if he or she has a disability.
- When a student is eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) but the parents prefer Section 504 services. Students in Voorhees Township School District who meet the eligibility criteria for special education under IDEA will be offered an IEP and not a Section 504 Accommodation Plan.
FREE APPROPRIATE PUBLIC EDUCATION
Section 504 requires school districts to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to eligible students with disabilities who are enrolled in the school district and who have physical or mental impairment(s) that substantially limit(s) one or more major life activities. This means that the district is required to provide regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the individual education needs of the student with disabilities as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities. The FAPE requirement for services means that evaluations, accommodations and educational and related services are to be provided without cost to the student with disabilities and their parents or guardians.
PARENT REQUEST FOR EVALUATION
Under Section 504, schools are not required to provide evaluations of children based solely upon parental request. Only when school personnel have reason to believe that the child has a disability and may need special instruction, accommodations or related services is an evaluation conducted. If a parent disagrees with the school’s decision not to evaluate a student for Section 504, school personnel will seek assistance from the District Supervisor or Director who will attempt to resolve the issue.
NOTICE OF PARENT/STUDENT RIGHTS
It is the intent of Section 504 to keep parents/guardians fully informed concerning decisions about their child. The Voorhees Township School District provides notice of “Procedural Safeguards” with regards to the identification, evaluation or educational placement of a student suspected of having a disability. Parents should be provided a copy of their rights at the initial meeting to discuss possible referral, evaluation, eligibility or placement under Section 504.
When concerns about a student’s academic, social, or emotional skills are raised, the student’s teacher will discuss those concerns with the school’s RtI team (administration, School Counselor, BSI, ESL, instructional coaches, or other relevant specialists). The team will implement and monitor a standard protocol approach to interventions. If it is determined that these interventions have not been successful, a referral to the 504 team may be initiated.
Certain situations or circumstances may trigger a referral for implementation of interventions. The following circumstances are occasions or events that may trigger such a referral:
- A student returns to school after a critical illness or injury.
- A student exhibits a persistent health problem.
- A mental or physical impairment of any type is suspected.
- A student's academic and/or behavioral performance may indicate the existence of a disability.
If a student has a suspected or diagnosed disability or impairment, a referral can be made for a 504 Plan. This referral can be made by the parent(s) or staff member. Once a referral is made, the parent’s consent is required prior to gathering data necessary to determine a student’s eligibility
Parents will be provided a copy of the “Procedural Safeguards” notice. An evaluation should be sufficiently comprehensive to enable the 504 team to determine the existence of a physical or mental impairment and whether or not the impairment results in a substantial limitation in one or more major life activities.
SOURCES OF ELIGIBILITY DETERMINATION INFORMATION
Prior to making Section 504 eligibility and placement decisions, information from a variety of sources must be considered. An evaluation may include cognitive and achievement tests, teacher recommendations, social or cultural background information, adaptive behavior data, etc. Formal evaluations are required when necessary to determine eligibility and accommodations. Much of the evaluation data considered by the 504 team will come from "informal" sources. Examples of both formal and informal evaluation information include:
- Student work samples
- Behavioral evaluation
- State proficiency assessments
- Psychological evaluation
- Norm-referenced educational assessments
- Curriculum-based assessment
- Structured academic and behavioral interventions
- Social and health history
- Information provided by parent
- Teachers’ anecdotal notes, impressions and charting data
- Report cards
- Scholastic records
- Medical and health evaluations
- Observation data
The 504 team will consider eligibility determination data, both formal and informal, from a variety of sources to determine if the student has a mental or physical impairment that substantially impairs a major life activity.
The student has a substantial limitation if he/she is limited in the performance of one or more major life activities that the average student at the same age or grade in the general population can perform.
The 504 team will complete the 504 eligibility form to assist in determining eligibility. Copies of the eligibility paperwork and “Procedural Safeguards” are provided to the parents/guardians.
ACCOMMODATION PLAN DEVELOPMENT
Section 504 requires an appropriate educational program to be designed to meet the individual educational needs of eligible disabled students. The 504 team, consisting of members knowledgeable about the student, reviews the evaluation data and the placement options. These members are responsible for the development of an accommodation plan.
Accommodations, services, and related aids must focus on the identified substantial limitation(s) in a major life activity. For example, if a student's impairment results in the substantial limitation in the major life activity of reading, then accommodations that address motor limitations, etc., would not be appropriate. Accommodations must be designed to meet individual educational needs of students with disabilities as adequately as the needs of non-disabled students are met.
PLAN AND SERVICES IMPLEMENTATION
The 504 Plan template is used to record accommodations and services. The school counselor will serve as the Section 504 case manager at each school. The Section 504 case manager will provide teachers and other staff responsible for implementing the plan with a copy of the student’s accommodations and services. The Section 504 case manager monitors the implementation of the plan and the progress of the student.
Each student with accommodations and/or services will have the plan reviewed annually. The review may occur more often if the student’s rate of progress changes significantly, if there is noticeable change in behavior, or upon parental request.
The review should address the need for additional evaluation information, whether the student continues to have a qualified disability, and the effectiveness of the accommodations.
TRANSFER STUDENT SECTION 504 ACCOMMODATION PLAN
When a student transfers to the Voorhees Township School District from another school district with an existing Section 504 plan, the 504 team will meet to review the plan. If there are no concerns about the transfer student’s eligibility or the accommodation plan, the plan will be implemented immediately. Conversely, if the 504 team does not agree with the decision and/or plan from the previous school district, the student should be promptly evaluated to determine eligibility and the need for accommodations. In this case, the existing plan will be followed until the reevaluation and eligibility determination are completed.