What Is the Purpose of a 504 Plan?
A 504 Plan is an anti-discrimination measure that schools can use to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to their education and the school environment under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). Section 504 protects qualifying students with disabilities in all programs that receive federal funding, which includes all public schools and the vast majority of private schools in New Jersey. Qualifying students are those who either (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or (2) have a record of such an impairment; or (3) are regarded as having such an impairment. The major life activity impaired by the disability does not need to be learning, although it certainly can be and often is. Other major life activities impacted by disabilities can be walking, breathing, thinking, planning, or eating. Our experienced New Jersey education attorneys can help you navigate this process.
When a student qualifies as a student with a disability under Section 504’s broad definition, school districts are required to provide them with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) alongside their peers without disabilities to the greatest extent possible. Under Section 504, a school district can meet its obligation to provide a FAPE by providing either general education or special education along with related supports and services that are designed to meet the disabled student’s needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students.
The first step in identifying a child as a student with a disability under Section 504 could be a medical diagnosis from a private provider, concerns expressed by parents to a teacher or guidance counselor, or a teacher’s recommendation that a student be evaluated to determine the need for support and accommodations. 504 Plans are based on a disability, so having some form of medical diagnosis or recommendation from a private provider will be helpful in securing a 504 Plan for your child. If the school district evaluates the student, or accepts a private provider’s recommendations to develop a 504 Plan, a team of school personnel and the student’s parents will convene to discuss the student’s needs. Many schools in New Jersey have their Guidance Department handle the administration and implementation of 504 Plans, so a guidance counselor will likely be your point person at the school to address questions and needs as they arise. Although not all families need a lawyer at this stage, having the guidance of an experienced education attorney as early as possible in the process will often help establish a strong educational program.
Within the 504 Plan, specific accommodations, modifications, and related services will be listed as the measures necessary to level the playing field for your child and students without your child’s disability. Most often, this combination of academic accommodations, modifications, and related services are contained in a written document. Although the law does not require the 504 Plan to be written, it usually is, and our education attorneys always recommend that it be. 504 Plans do not include detailed academic goals, measurable objectives, or progress reporting. They are, however, tailored to the specific needs of the individual student.
A 504 Plan in New Jersey should be designed to allow a disabled student to participate fully in the educational environment, just as they would if their disability did not impact a major life activity. Adaptations can include accommodations, modifications, and related services. Although these terms are often used together, they are three distinct types of support. Accommodations are essentially work-arounds, or ways for the student to overcome or cope with their disability. Modifications are changes to what is being taught to the student or what they are expected to accomplish. Related services are services students with disabilities need to access their education. They can include mental health services, occupational, speech, or physical therapy, or assistive technology.
The big takeaway here is that a 504 Plan is meant to address a student’s specific areas of need and ensure equal access to education. It is an individualized plan, and if you believe your child needs a 504 Plan to participate fully in school or extracurricular activities, call our education accommodation attorneys for a consultation.