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Key Differences Between Section 504 Plans and IEPs: Implications on Attendance, Discipline, & Policies!

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In their own ways, both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are designed to make sure students with disabilities have equitable access to public education. Because of their similarities, it’s important to examine these policies side-by-side.
While one is civil rights law, and the other is special education legislation, both have similar aims and important distinctions in areas like eligibility, attendance, discipline guidelines, and more. Keep reading to see a few of those differences outlined below!

The Basics

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a federal law that protects students from discrimination based on a disability. Section 504 plans are developed to outline and secure services and accommodations for these students. In our Understanding 504 series, we learned about the origins of Section 504, including the ways it seeks to ensure access to an equal and fair public education for students with disabilities and support their academic success.
These goals are clear within IDEA as well, but the special education policy takes them a step further. Through Individual Education Programs (IEPs), IDEA ensures students with disabilities have specific and measured education plans and goals to enrich their general education. Unlike Section 504 plans, IEPs are legal documents outlining the specific services eligible students are entitled to receive at school when their disability interferes with their major life activities.

Navigating Attendance Issues in Students with Disabilities

Attendance is one area where it’s important administrators know the right procedures. You may be surprised (or not!) to find out that poor attendance can be rooted in a student’s disability.
Yes, poor attendance in school can be associated with students’ disabilities, including those outlined in a 504 or an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Disabilities can influence attendance in various ways:

  • Medical Issues: Some students may have medical conditions or physical disabilities that require frequent hospitalizations, doctor’s visits, or just days at home to rest and recover. This can contribute to a significant number of absences.
  • Emotional and Mental Health Issues: Students with emotional or mental health disabilities, such an anxiety disorders or depression, might struggle with regular school attendance. Their conditions might make it difficult for them to cope with the social and academic pressures of school.
  • Learning Difficulties: Students with specific learning disabilities might struggle academically, leading to frustration, low self-esteem, and a sense of failure, which may result in truancy or avoidance of school to escape the situations that make them uncomfortable.
  • Sensory Overload: Some students, such as those with Autism Spectrum Disorders or Sensory Processing Disorder, may find the school environment overwhelming and stressful, which can lead to increased absences.
  • Executive Functioning Issues: Students with disabilities that affect executive functioning, like ADHD, may struggle with organization and time management, resulting in tardiness or missing school.

For these students, having an IEP or 504 plan can be critical. These plans are designed to provide accommodations and supports that help address the student’s specific needs and can include strategies to improve and manage school attendance.
The accommodations provided in Section 504 plans can also be designed to help students with their attendance, such as flexible scheduling, homebound instruction, inclusion of counseling, parental support, transportation support, or coordinating with medical professionals to ensure the student’s health needs are met while maintaining educational progress. If these interventions do not work, this would be a good example of an instance where an IDEA referral may be needed to better support that student. This progression is common; students are moved from more generalized Section 504 support to a more specific IEP as their needs become clear.
Rules around attendance in your school or district may need to be modified for students that have Section 504 or IEP plans if their poor attendance is found to be rooted in their disability. Especially since it may be discriminatory to discipline the student according to general attendance policies, new solutions would be needed.
However, it’s also important to remember that correlation does not always mean causation. Just because a student with a disability has poor attendance does not mean that the disability is the sole or even the primary cause of the attendance problem. Other factors like home environment, school climate, and individual personality traits can also play a significant role.

Discipline Under Section 504 and IDEA

Discipline and Special Education is another area where the right procedures are critical to student success and state and federal compliance. If you’ve spent time in K-12 schools, you likely already know there is often an intersection of Special Education and Discipline. Disabilities can definitely influence school discipline and behavior, although it’s important to be careful not to automatically attribute all behavioral issues to a disability. Here are some ways student behavior may be impacted by a student’s disability:

  • Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: Some students have disabilities that specifically impact their behavior. For example, students with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or Conduct Disorder (CD) may exhibit disruptive, defiant, or aggressive behaviors.
    Impulsivity and Hyperactivity: Students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) might struggle with impulsivity, hyperactivity, or inattention, which can sometimes lead to disciplinary issues if not properly managed.
  • Communication Disorders: Students with speech and language impairments might struggle to communicate effectively, which can lead to frustration and potentially challenging behavior.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): Students with ASD might have difficulties with social interactions and communication, which could be interpreted as misbehavior. They may also have a hard time coping with changes in routine or sensory overload, leading to outbursts or other challenging behaviors.
  • Learning Disabilities: Students with learning disabilities might exhibit behavior problems out of frustration or as a way to avoid tasks that are difficult for them.
  • Mental Health Issues: Students with conditions like anxiety or depression might exhibit behaviors such as withdrawal, inattentiveness, or acting out, which could potentially lead to disciplinary issues.

In many cases, these behaviors are not intentional acts of defiance, but rather manifestations of the student’s disability. This is why it’s critical for educators to be aware of a student’s disabilities and to have strategies in place to address behavioral issues appropriately.
One major goal of both Section 504 and IEP plans is to protect students against discrimination, and discipline is an area where the lines may seem blurry. Like with attendance, disciplinary policies must be modified and non-discriminatory when they are being applied to students with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that when a student’s behavior impedes their learning or that of others, the IEP team must consider the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, to address that behavior. Also, students with disabilities have specific protections when it comes to discipline. If a student’s behavior is determined to be a manifestation of their disability, they cannot be removed from their current educational placement due to disciplinary infractions unless the infraction involves drugs, weapons, or serious bodily harm.
Despite this, it’s also important to remember that not all misbehavior in children with disabilities is caused by their disability. Just like any other children, children with disabilities can also exhibit typical misbehaviors. It’s important to discern the difference in order to implement the appropriate intervention.

Department of Education Policy Updates:
The US Department of Education is already concerned that students with disabilities, especially students of color, receive a disproportionate and inappropriate amount of discipline due to bias, when they should be directed towards services and support that will improve their educational experiences and behavior. Check out their new FACT SHEET!

These are only a few of the important nuances that separate Section 504 plans and IEPs. Both provide tremendous support to students with disabilities in complex ways, and there is definitely more to uncover. If you want to dive deeper and learn how Frontline can help your district navigate Section 504, take a look at this resource.