Top 16 Answers: What is a 504 Plan and Do I Need One?

 
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When you have a child with severe food allergies, heading back to school means so much more than just buying a new backpack. It means taking every step to keep your child safe, and that might include getting a 504 plan. To help you get started, we talked to a food allergy mom who is uniquely qualified.

Debby Beerman, an attorney and mother of three food allergic children, walked into her first 504 meeting armed with legal documentation, printouts of policies and a secret weapon — her mother. For more than two decades, Madge Beerman worked as a special education case manager and counselor in the Chicago Public Schools system and sat in on every 504 meeting for her school, listening to countless discussions between parents and administrators about students’ disabilities. Now retired, her mother runs her own consulting business as a special education advocate for students with disabilities. Like her mother, Debby is a mom on a mission to keep kids safe in the classroom and help others with the 504 process. Follow @dibeerman on the Spokin app!

So what exactly is a 504? Who needs one… and why? Get answers to commonly asked questions below. 



1. What is a 504 plan?

The 504 plan is a contract between the school district and your family. This legally-binding written document tells school employees - from the classroom teacher to the lunchroom aide - how to keep your child safe on the way to school, in the classroom or during school activities. Putting it all in writing holds the school and its employees accountable.

The name refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the federal law that protects students with disabilities. Section 504 states: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 706(8) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” This means that any school that receives federal funding must honor these plans and offer “reasonable accommodations” to qualified students.


2. Should every child with food allergies have a 504?

If your child has a food allergy that may cause severe, life-threatening reactions, you should work with the school to develop a 504 plan. Unlike with Individualized Health Care Plans or Emergency Action Plans, school employees who fail to follow the 504 plan are in violation of federal law, which carries potential liability for the school district.


3. What are the steps to getting a 504?

Every 504 plan is unique and school districts handle them differently, but there are a few common threads.

1. Do you qualify? A student qualifies under 504 if he or she has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. Talk to your allergist about the severity of your child's allergies and if they need a 504. For allergies that are less severe, an Emergency Action Plan or an Individual Health Care Plan might be a better option.
2. Set up a meeting. Before the school year begins, email to request a meeting with the 504 coordinator in your school district and copy the school principal. Click here to find the 504 coordinator in your district. Make sure to communicate via email in order to have a documented record to refer back to if necessary. Also, document all phone calls including details such as date, time, with whom you spoke and the content of the conversation. 
3. Do your homework. Before the meeting, look at sample 504 plans and know your state and school policies regarding food allergies. The DOE provides this guide for parents and educators seeking a 504. Make a list of the accommodations you want for your child. Ask your allergist for a copy of your child's Emergency Action Plan, as well as any other specific instructions for everyday or emergency management of your child's food allergies.
4. Create your 504. At the meeting, discuss your child's allergies and needs to create an accommodation plan that will keep them safe in every school situation. If your child is old enough to participate, invite him or her to the meeting and encourage self-advocacy. If your child is too young or cannot attend, consider bringing in photos of your child to make the meeting more personal.
5. Check in. After you agree on the plan and it is distributed to anyone who might care for your child at school, keep communication open in case it needs to be revised throughout the school year. Make sure you receive a copy of your 504 rights, a document usually created by your school district and/or the State Board of Education that includes steps for resolutions, should they become necessary.


4. Who should be in the room?

This will depend on the school district and the age of your child. One of the child’s legal guardians should be present, but it is also helpful to bring a close friend or family member who can offer support and take notes about what is discussed. The school nurse and the classroom teacher should always be in attendance. Sometimes the principal, a counselor or a lunchroom monitor/aide will be asked to attend the meeting. Be sure to ask who will distribute copies of the 504 to other teachers such as P.E., art, music or anyone else who will be  working with your child throughout the day.


5. What is included in a 504 plan?

A 504 plan provides a list of specific instructions about any special accommodations your child may need to keep them safe in any school situation, such as requiring a disposable tray in the cafeteria or an aide on the school bus. The 504 plan should also name the school employees who will provide each service and the person responsible for making sure the plan is distributed and implemented. Here is a list of goals that food allergy parents typically want to accomplish with a 504 plan:

  • A safe classroom, free of allergens to encourage a stress-free learning environment

  • Allergy awareness taught and enforced amongst all school employees and classmates

  • Allergen-free treats/snacks at school, provided by the teacher or other parents with a letter home to your child's classmates at the beginning of the year

  • Instructions on when and who will administer what medication in the event of an allergic reaction

  • A safe, inclusive lunchroom environment

  • Directions on who will be responsible for carrying and administering your child's medication during field trips

  • Noting where the medication will be kept in the school

See a sample of Debby's 504 accommodation requests:


6. Who should get a copy of the 504?

Every school employee listed in the accommodation plan should have a copy of the 504 and know his or her responsibilities. 


7. Are after-school activities covered in the 504 plan?

It depends — if an after-school program is operated and funded by the school district and held on school property, it will likely be covered by the 504. However, just because a program is located at the school does not guarantee 504 protection. In cases where the program is not covered, consider creating an Individualized Health Care Plan for your child that mirrors the 504 plan.


8. What if the school says my child doesn’t need one?

Some schools may default to an Individualized Health Care Plan (IHCP) for students with mild to moderate food allergies, but if your child qualifies for a 504 plan, it is your legal right to request one. Don’t be discouraged if the district says that no other children with life-threatening food allergies have one. It’s your choice.


9. Can you incorporate language about “inclusion,” meaning the child should not feel isolated because of his or her food allergies?

Since the 504 is very brief, this may be best addressed in your personal requests or through your doctor’s letter to the school. A doctor can speak to your child’s emotional and mental health, and you can use this expert opinion to start a conversation about inclusion during your 504 meeting. You can also request that a social worker be present at your meeting.


10. Do you need a new plan every year?

Yes, the 504 plan expires after one year, so you will meet with your child's team at least once a year to review the plan, share any medical updates and review procedures. As your child matures, he or she may not need the same protections as younger students. Similarly, if your child's allergies become more severe, you and your doctor may request stricter procedures in the classroom and lunchroom. In this case, you can request a 504 meeting during the school year to make necessary changes.


11. Are private schools required to offer and honor 504 plans?

Private schools that don’t receive federal funding are not required to offer accommodations under Section 504. Parents can still advocate for their children by meeting with their child’s team (the principal, classroom teacher, school nurse, counselors) and coming up with a plan. Before the meeting, flag any language in the school’s handbook about protecting students’ safety, review the state’s food allergy guidelines, and ask your child’s allergist to write a letter outlining procedures and processes that should be put in place. Click here for more information about federal funding for private schools or contact your school administration.


12. Should I get a 504 for daycare or preschool?

The 504 plan only covers kindergarten through 12th grade. Before enrolling your child in a daycare or preschool, be sure to ask a lot of questions and find out what food allergy policies are already in place. You may be able to duplicate the 504 format and create a non-binding version for their reference. However, if your child's daycare or preschool receives federal funding, you will most likely be able to receive a 504.


13. Do I need a 504 if the school has a food allergy policy in place?

If you want a legally-binding document that offers additional and specific protection for your child, then a 504 plan is recommended.


14. How is a 504 different from an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and an Individualized Health Care Plan (IHCP)?

The IEP is used when a child has a disability that affects his or her learning. For example, if a student needs speech therapy, special education or a resource teacher, it is written into an IEP. Accommodations that are typically included in a 504 can be rolled into an IEP, which cuts down on paperwork for the school district. You don’t necessarily need both, however, some districts prefer writing both an IEP and a 504 plan, which is not exactly necessary, but is acceptable.

An IHCP outlines what the school will do to accommodate the needs of a student with a food allergy and, just like a 504, includes an Emergency Action Plan. Food allergic children that don’t qualify for a 504 plan should have an IHCP, although it’s not legally binding.


15. Can you include accommodations for other disabilities like ADHD or autism in the same 504 plan?

If your child has a disability that affects his or her learning in addition to severe food allergies, that would all be addressed in an IEP.  Some parents request a 504 plan in addition to an IEP, but it’s not necessary.


16. What do you do if your child's school violates the plan?

Speak up and raise your concerns if your child’s plan isn’t being followed. Each school or district has a 504 coordinator on staff, and that’s the first person you should contact.

If communication between you and school administrators starts to break down, stay respectful but firm. Document all your conversations in emails and keep a record in case you need to request a hearing or file a complaint. In some cases, you may want to hire an advocate or attorney that specializes in education law.

If you feel like you’re not being heard or your child is at risk, file a complaint with the school district section 504 coordinator who can investigate the infractions. If you need to escalate matters further, contact your State Board of Education and/or your regional Office for Civil Rights via the U.S. Department of Education.  
Address: U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C. 20202-1100
Phone: (800) 421-3481 Website: www.ed.gov/ocr E-mail: ocr@ed.gov


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