The purpose of Section 504 is to eliminate discrimination on the basis of disability in any program or activity provided by school districts and other educational providers that receive federal financial assistance. No qualified student with a disability may, solely on the basis of a disability, be excluded from a district’s programs and activities. Stated another way, the purpose of Section 504 is to ensure that students who are Section 504 eligible have educational opportunities equivalent to those of their nondisabled peers. School districts are required to provide appropriate general education or appropriate special education and related aides and services. This means that school districts may be required to provide accommodations to ensure that equal educational opportunities are available to eligible students with disabilities.
Under Child Find requirements, districts are required to identify, locate and evaluate qualified disabled students residing within district boundaries. Additionally, public schools are required under this statute to provide a free, appropriate public education, or FAPE, to individuals who qualify as persons disabled under Section 504. FAPE, under Section 504 regulations, consists of a program of general and/or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet the education needs of a disabled student as adequately as the educational needs of a nondisabled student. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is charged with enforcing this statute.
To become eligible for services and protection against discrimination on the basis of disability under Section 504, a student must be determined, as a result of an evaluation, to have a “physical or mental impairment” that “substantially limits one or more major life activities” [29 USC 705(20)(B)]. In addition, a student is protected from discrimination on the basis of disability under Section 504 if a school district treats the student as if he or she has such an impairment, even if he or she no longer has such an impairment or never had one in the first place.
Major life activities include functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning and working. This list is not exhaustive. Other functions can be major life activities for the purposes of Section 504. In the Amendments Act, Congress provided additional examples of general activities that are major life activities, including eating, sleeping, standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating.
Students may qualify for Section 504 services based on a temporary disability (e.g., injuries suffered from an auto accident). Whether the student qualifies would be determined through consideration of the severity of the disability and/or injuries and the expected length of the disability. If the temporary disability substantially limits at least one major life activity for a period of time that would significantly disrupt the student’s education, then in all likelihood the student is covered for the duration of the disability. In the Amendments Act, Congress clarified that an individual is not “regarded as” an individual with a disability if the impairment is transitory and minor. A transitory impairment is an impairment with an actual or expected duration of six (6) months or less.
Districts are required to annually “undertake to identify and locate” students with disabilities who are not receiving an appropriate education. This obligation is more or less identical to the IDEA child find requirement. IDEA child find activities will satisfy the Section 504 requirement.
Child find begins with the child. Health records will be shared with a Section 504 Committee on a “need to know” basis. The fact that a student utilizes medication does not trigger the school’s duty to evaluate unless the student also needs services from the school (§194,35(a), supra), or the parent has requested the evaluation. If a parent requests that student health records be reviewed for potential Section 504 qualifications, or if a student demonstrates that he or she may not be receiving an appropriate education due to a health concern, the campus nurse will provide student health information to the Section 504 Committee.
In an effort to meet the needs of struggling students as early as possible, and to reduce over-identification and misidentification of students in both Section 504 and special education, the district uses an early intervention process referred to as RTI (Response to Intervention). This campus-based process is designed to assist students struggling for any number of reasons (family issues, lack of motivation, poverty, etc.) and in any number of ways (academically, socially, behaviorally) by providing differentiated instruction appropriate to the student’s needs, as well as additional regular education programs, services and opportunities that may vary from campus to campus. Data from these efforts is shared with the parent and will become part of any Section 504 or special education evaluation. These efforts are available to all students, including students with disabilities. When school staff has reason to suspect that a student receiving regular education interventions may also have a physical or mental impairment, the school should consider a referral to Section 504, particularly if the student is not improving with interventions. Staff can examine whether there are reasonable grounds to suspect disability as part of assessing a student’s response to interventions.