What is Section 504, and what does it mean for schools and our children?

Section 504 is a commonly misunderstood, and at times, improperly implemented federal law that impacts our preschool through 12th grade educational systems.  It has been around for nearly 50 years, and although more clarity has been provided through recently-enacted policies and laws and ongoing feedback from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), aspects of the law and its implementation remain ambiguous for school districts, parents, and students. This can be due to the overarching breadth of the law and a genuine lack of understanding.

Section 504 is an anti-discrimination law that originated when the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, often referred to as the Rehab Act, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in programs conducted by federal agencies, in federal employment, and in the employment practices of federal contractors. The Rehab Act was the first civil rights legislation in the United States designed to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination based on their disability status. The American with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the ADA Amendment Act of 2008 provide additional protections and rights to individuals with disabilities.

Section 504 is the portion of the Rehab Act that pertains to schools who receive federal funding and provides opportunities for children and adults with disabilities in education, employment, and various other settings.  Its purpose is to ensure all eligible persons are provided reasonable and equitable accommodations so they have access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). The OCR is responsible for ensuring schools are compliant with Section 504 and students have access to the accommodations for which they are eligible.

Every school system who receives federal funding should have a person designated as the 504 coordinator. The coordinator’s responsibility is to ensure the district has policies and procedures in place to facilitate the process. Students who have a mental or physical impairment that substantially impact a major life function are identified and provided access to accommodations which help to “level the educational playing field.”  Each federally funded school district is responsible for ensuring it is compliant with Section 504. Districts need to identify potential students who may be eligible; establish teams of educators to carry out evaluation meetings, make determinations of eligibility, and create 504 plans for students who are eligible; and ensure those plans are implemented with fidelity. Common misunderstandings of the Section 504 include: it is a part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which is our nation’s federal special education law, schools and teachers have the ability to determine what parts of the law they will follow, those in the medical field make the final decisions about which accommodations will be used, and that the 504 plan is a static document.

The 504 process is intensive and was designed to ensure all students have access to FAPE, but it should not be a complex one.  The law’s intent is to provide eligible students with accommodations needed to level the playing field, but it is not intended to provide advantages for students.  The law can be misunderstood and misapplied, but we must ensure that does not happen. If you would like additional information or further insight into Section 504, please contact Dr. William Soesbe who serves as the 504 Coordinator for Central Rivers Area Education Agency.