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Understanding Section 504


Bring Clarity to Section 504

For many educators, understanding Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 remains difficult and raises several questions, such as:

  • What is the practical intent of this law?
  • Are Section 504 accommodation plans simply “light” IEPs? How can this law ― passed in the waning days of the Vietnam War ― apply to public school students and employees today, when the original meaning of the law was to protect disabled veterans returning from the conflict?
  • Is a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) related to Section 504?
  • Are the rights of special education and Section 504-eligible students different?
  • How is Section 504 different from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), when these laws use the same terms, but appear to impose different requirements on schools?
  • How is a Section 504 plan different from an IEP?
  • Do they have different goals, different criteria?
  • How do you decide which is appropriate in a given situation?
  • Are your 504 eligibility determinations and plans compliant? How can you be sure?

John Comegno, education attorney, provides answers to these questions and other concepts of Section 504 in a series of videos below. Watch now.

A Brief History of Section 504

Understanding how disability laws in the United States, like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, evolved helps you understand what Section 504 is and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s not.

The story of Section 504 begins in 1954, in Topeka, Kansas, with the groundbreaking and pivotal lawsuit Brown versus Board of Education. Before 1954, discrimination based on a variety of distinguishing characteristics and demographic identifiers was legal and permissible.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that it was unconstitutional for school districts to provide differing qualities of education based on race or skin color. So-called “separate but equal” classrooms and schools were determined to be not equal at all, and deemed unconstitutional.

Brown didn’t focus on disability. The issue wasn’t dyslexia, autism, cognitive impairment, emotional disturbance, or social maladjustment ― terms that are commonly heard in special education today. Brown v. Board of Education didn’t address ADHD, diabetes, concussion, or any type of medical issues or, the educationally diagnosed difficulties that are seen in 504 today. But what’s important to understand is that the Supreme Court determined that students must be treated equally. Differing treatment was not permissible, not on any basis: all students in the U.S. were entitled to an equal and fair public education.

Brown v. Board of Education addressed the issue of “separate but not equal,” and while it was pivotal, essential and a landmark decision, discrimination on many bases continued through the 1960s and 1970s. Statistics in the early 1970s indicated that over a million students with disabilities were not educated at all, and many were institutionalized, isolated, put in state homes and other government-funded facilities.

A Shift in the Tides for Disabled Persons in the U.S.

The tides did eventually begin to shift and there was an evolution in civil rights awareness through the 1960s, with the movement finally giving voice, acknowledgment and legal standing to disabled persons. However, it took time. Disabled individuals remained unprotected by law, despite efforts in the Civil Rights Actions of the 1960s. In 1964, Senator Hubert Humphrey ― who had a grandchild diagnosed with Down Syndrome ― made an effort to include the disabled population in the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Unfortunately, his efforts failed. As a result, the lack of protections persisted, as did the isolation and marginalization of the disabled.

In 1975, the first legislation to address disabled persons with regard to the provision of service or employment in public entities was finally enacted. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (it took two years to be fully enacted), requires affirmative action by the federal government and its contractors, and explicitly prohibits discrimination based on disability. “Public entities” include schools, as well as other agencies.

While the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is an unfamiliar title to many people, it continues to serve as critical legislation in public schools as well as for hundreds of federal agencies and their contractors. The legislation is more commonly known as Section 504…

Since the great majority of states do not provide Section 504 regulations, and the federal law itself does not establish clear process rules, educators today are left grappling with the practical implementation of this near 50-year-old law without clarity.

But as a disability accommodation “gatekeeper” in your school, how do you decide which accommodation vehicle to use ― IEP or Section 504 plan ― without clarity? How do you identify and follow 504-related best practices to help you determine eligibility?

Gaining a better understanding of the background of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and how that history can inform your planning for students today, can help.

What is Section 504’s Goal?

A common misunderstanding of Section 504 is that the law intends to expand rights of public school students. That, in some way similar to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA), Section 504 students receive additional process and instructional rights, which make their daily education something different or something “more” than general education students. Educators need to understand that Section 504 students are general education students, and that, differently than the IDEIA, which aims to create specific, individualized learning experiences for special education students, Section 504 simply aims to ensure access to the same general education for eligible students that all public-school students are entitled to receive.

Section 504 vs. Special Education

It’s important to understand how we apply the Section 504 eligibility criteria, and how the criteria differ from the special education formula. Do we find eligibility simply when a student produces a doctor’s note? Understanding the intention of Section 504 and how it’s different from special education is crucial in compliance today. When we speak to 504’s direction, we ought to be mindful that, similar to our best practices in IDEIA which focus on individual need, process and progress, 504 also focuses on individual need ― there has to be a need. Section 504 eligibility and accommodation isn’t driven solely by a medical diagnosis.

An Important Takeaway to Help You Manage Section 504 Requirements

Practical implementation for Section 504 responsibilities is difficult because the law does not provide process rules. Unlike the process established under the IDEIA, Section 504 prohibits discrimination, but does not explain how. The law provides no definition of the decision-making body or notice and consent rules; it doesn’t identify who or how data should be collected, or set a review time period or process.

Perhaps most surprising, the law does not use the words “Section 504 Plan” even once. Because of this lack of specific guidelines, your school should rely heavily on strong internal procedures and understand and apply best practices. Arm your district staff with the relevant and current information they need to ensure access for our disabled students. In this way, our colleagues remain compliant, and together we avoid risk.

[Video Series] Core Concepts of Section 504

In this 7-part video series, education law attorney John Comegno of the Comegno Law Group demystifies 504 by walking you through the seven core concepts of successful 504 implementation and compliance that can limit your potential liability.

Learn how to address individual need, plug that need into a compliant process and make sure 504-eligible students are making progress.

Episode 1: Introduction to Core Concepts of Section 504

Do you know your history when it comes to Section 504?

In this episode, we dive into the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to discuss how and why they came about, what was intended in passing them, and what was not intended, from a legal perspective.

We review how the Americans with Disabilities Act tracks Section 504 — and show how several important cases and events have influenced this legislation over time.

Questions answered in this episode:

  1. What’s the goal of a 504 plan?
  2. Is compliance with 504 the same as compliance with the ADA?
  3. How do you decide if you should use a 504 plan or an IEP to address a student’s disability?





Episode 2: Understanding the Section 504 Eligibility Criteria

To make informed Section 504-eligibility decisions, based on specific criteria, you need to gather high-quality 504 eligibility data.

In this video, find out which data you’ll need to make compliant 504 decisions. Learn what constitutes a physical impairment and a mental impairment — and what is meant by the term “major life activity” when determining student or staff eligibility.

Learn how important cases have shaped these criteria and definitions over time.

Questions answered in this episode:

  1. How do you follow a compliant process when determining 504 eligibility?
  2. What is meant by the term “major life activity” when determining 504 eligibility?
  3. How do learning disabilities like dyslexia factor into 504 eligibility decisions?







Episode 3: Unraveling the Key Concept of “Otherwise Qualified” and Its Implications

When it comes to compliance with Section 504 and the ADA, the term “otherwise qualified” has been historically challenging for education organizations to define and defend. What does it mean exactly?

In this video, update your knowledge of otherwise qualified and see why it’s such a hot topic in the landscape of litigation for education organizations.

Questions answered in this episode:

  1. What does “otherwise qualified” mean? Is it a pre-cursor to considering 504 eligibility?
  2. How can you know if a student is “otherwise qualified” to learn in the classroom?
  3. Does Section 504 require you to ignore some types of misconduct? What about bullying?





Episode 4: Are We Just Talking About Medical Diagnosis? Using Data in Section 504 Decision-Making

What does “substantially limit” mean? Is the law just talking about the need for a medical diagnosis when determining 504 eligibility?

In this video, learn the legal definition and implications of “substantially limit” as it relates to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Explore which specific data points you need to consider when determining whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity.

Shed light on the use of practical data in your Section 504 decision-making.

Questions answered in this episode:

  1. Which data do you need to make compliant 504 eligibility decisions – and where can you find it?
  2. How do you gauge the substantial limitation of the mental health impairment?
  3. What kind of 504 process standards are legally risky?





Episode 5: When Are 504 Plans for Students Exiting Special Education Appropriate?

This video helps you understand when it makes sense to consider a 504 plan for a student who isn’t eligible for special education. We review eligibility criteria for IEPs and 504 plans to help you make this determination and understand the legal differences between the two classifications.

Learn which data should inform a compliant decision-making process.

Questions answered in this episode:

  1. What data should the 504 committee or evaluator consider?
  2. How can you ensure 504 accommodations provide equitable instructional access?
  3. Are you blurring process lines between IEP and 504? How does blurring those lines open you up to legal claims and compliance violations?





Episode 6: What About Behaviors? Do Our 504 Students Receive “Extra” Due Process?

It’s time to get your Section 504 legal questions answered!

In this video, learn common questions that often come up around a district’s due process as it relates to behavior intervention plans and behavior management plans for students that fall under Section 504.

Find out what the decision-making process for disciplining a 504-eligible student looks like from a legal perspective, and where it can become risky for schools. Also learn where data and form integrity come into play when managing compliance and plan implementation.

Questions answered in this episode:

  1. How should the impact of a disability inform your decisions about disciplining 504-eligible students?
  2. Can you hold 504-eligible students accountable to your general education codes of conduct?
  3. How specific does your discipline data need to be to keep you compliant with 504?





Episode 7: Best Practices in Drafting Section 504 Plans: The Need for Consistency

Section 504 doesn’t say what a 504 plan should include. It doesn’t even mention that you need a plan. Yet here you are, needing to develop plans that that protect your students from disability-based discrimination.

In this video, learn the latest best practices for 504 plans and procedural safeguards, accommodation review and parental consent. See how building an internal 504-decision-making process can help your district stay in compliance with 504 law.

Questions answered in this episode:

  1. What do compliant 504 plans look like? What information should they include?
  2. Who should be part of 504 decisions?
  3. What kind of 504 data should you consider?





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John B. Comegno II

John Comegno is Founder and President of the Comegno Law Group, P.C., and is recognized nationally as a leading School Law practitioner, representing public and independent schools, Educational Services Commissions, Special Service School Districts, and third-party education vendors. A nationally-recognized lecturer on School Law who has lectured to thousands of educational professionals across the United States, John regularly presents to conventions, professional groups, associations, public and independent schools, and other audiences