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Section 504

Section 504 is part of a federal civil rights law known as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  This law specifically prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities and guarantees them a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).  Discrimination, as defined in Section 504, is the failure to provide students with disabilities the same opportunity to benefit from education programs, services, or activities as provided to their non-disabled peers.  Therefore, schools cannot exclude students with disabilities from facilities, programs, benefits, activities, or services that are provided to students without disabilities. Schools must make sure that all students receive equal access to educational opportunities.

A school-aged student is a disabled student under Section 504 for purposes of FAPE if the student:  

1.     Has a physical or mental impairment

The determination of whether a student has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity must be made on the basis on an individual inquiry.  A physical or mental impairment may be 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; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.   

2.     That substantially limits

A physical or mental impairment substantially limits a major life activity for a student if the impairment substantially limits the student’s ability to perform a major life activity as compared to the student’s non-disabled age/grade peers.  An impairment, however, need not prevent, or significantly or severely restrict, a student in performing a major life activity to be considered substantially limiting.

3.     One of more major life activities 

Major life activities include functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.  Major life activities also include other general activities such as eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating.  In addition, major life activities include major bodily functions such as the functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. 

Who Can Refer a Student for a Section 504 Evaluation?

Any person can refer a student for evaluation under Section 504.   Parents, guardians, and school staff should refer a student for evaluation if they know or suspect that, due to a disability, the student needs special education or related aids or services to participate in or benefit from a district’s education program.

What Should a District Do When it Receives a Section 504 Referral?

After receiving a Section 504 referral, a district should decide whether to evaluate the student and must notify the student’s parent or guardian of its decision. 

What is an Evaluation Under Section 504?

Evaluations under Section 504 are individually designed.  A Section 504 evaluation may be broad (including aptitude and achievement data, medical and psychological data, social and cultural information, and more) or narrow (medical data). 

What Due Process Rights Do Parents and Guardians Have Under Section 504?

Section 504 gives parents and guardians the right to challenge district decisions regarding the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of their child.  Under Section 504, a district must notify a student’s parent or guardian before it takes any action regarding the identification, evaluation, or placement of their child and provide the parent or guardian an opportunity to challenge the action if they disagree.  “Any action” includes a decision not to evaluate a student and denial of placement.  The minimum necessary due process rights include:  prior notice of any action; a right to inspect records; an impartial hearing with a right to representation by counsel; and a review procedure. 

Must Parents or Guardians Consent Prior to Initial Evaluations and Initial Placements Under Section 504?

Yes.  Under Section 504, a district must obtain parent or guardian consent in two circumstances:  before a child’s initial evaluation (the first time a child is evaluated by any district) and before a child’s initial placement (the first time a child is placed on a Section 504 Plan in any district).  If a parent or guardian refuses consent to either initial evaluation or initial placement, a district may, but is not required to, initiate a Section 504 due process hearing to override the refusal to consent.  A district must notify a parent or guardian, but need not obtain consent, before it re-evaluates or significantly changes a student’s placement. 

What is a Section 504 Plan?

A Section 504 plan is a written plan that describes the educational and related aids and services that a district determines a disabled student needs to receive a free appropriate public education.  The content of a Section 504 plan is fluid and may change within a school year or between school years as a student’s needs and services change. 

What is a Section 504 Team?

A Section 504 team makes decisions regarding the evaluation and placement of students under Section 504.  For example, a Section 504 team determines the scope of Section 504 evaluations, decides which students are disabled under Section 504, develops Section 504 plans, and makes “manifestation determinations” for purposes of disciplinary exclusion from school.  

Who Should Be on a Section 504 Team?

The membership of a Section 504 team will vary depending upon the needs of each student.  The composition of a Section 504 team is fluid and may change within a school year or between school years as a student’s needs and services change.  A Section 504 team must include persons who are knowledgeable about the student, the meaning of the student’s current evaluation data, and placement options. 

How is Section 504 Enforced?

The US Department of Education enforces Section 504 through the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).  OCR investigates individual complaints of disability discrimination, including complaints that a district is denying a disabled student a free appropriate public education.  OCR’s focus is on the process a district follows to identify, evaluate, and provide an educational placement to a disabled student, and to provide procedural due process to the student’s parent or guardian.  Except in extraordinary circumstances, OCR will not review the result of individual placement and other educational decisions, as long as a district complies with Section 504’s procedural requirements regarding identification, evaluation, placement, and due process.  The proper forum for pure educational disputes, in which a district has followed the correct process to make an educational decision, but the parents or guardian disagree with the result of the decision, is a Section 504 due process hearing.  

The Bottom Line

Once a district has determined that a student is a disabled student under Section 504 for purposes of a free appropriate public education, the district must provide whatever services it decides the student needs to participate in and benefit from the district’s education program.  As a general rule, a district is under no obligation to provide a service that a student’s parent or guardian or doctor requests unless, in the district’s determination, the student needs the service to participate in and benefit from its education program. 

The person in the Cullman County County School System who is responsible for assuring that the district complies with requirements under Section 504 concerning students with disabilities is Tiffanye D. MitchellSpecial Education Coordinator  Cullman County Schools tdmitchell@ccboe.org or 256-739-0486.