Section 504: A Plan for Equity, Access and Accommodations

A Brief Overview

  • Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
  • Section 504 prohibits discrimination based on disability in any program or activity that receives federal funding. All Washington state public schools must comply with this federal law.
  • Every student with a disability is protected from discrimination under this law, including each student with a 504 Plan and each student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  • Eligibility for Section 504 support at school is determined through evaluation. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides fact sheets in multiple languages that describe the evaluation process and state requirements.
  • Civil rights complaint options are described at the end of this article.

Full Article

A student with a disability is protected by multiple federal laws. One of them is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which is upheld by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act and provides key protections against disability discrimination.

To uphold a student’s civil rights under Section 504, schools provide accommodations and support to ensure that a student with a disability has what they need to access the opportunities provided to all students. That support is the essence of equity. Ensuring equity for students with disabilities is part of a school’s responsibility.

Students are protected in their access to academics, social engagement, extracurriculars, sports, events, and more—everything that is part of the school experience and school-sponsored activities.

Every student with a disability is protected from discrimination under this law, including each student with a 504 Plan and each student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Section 504 protects a person with disabilities throughout life and covers individuals in any public facility or program. A person can have a 504 Plan to support them in a vocational program, higher education, or in any location or service that receives federal funds.

All people with recognized disabilities also have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Within a school, business, or other organization, the person responsible for upholding civil rights under these two laws might hold a title such as Section 504/ADA Compliance Officer.

TIP: If you have concern about civil rights being upheld within any organization, ask to speak with the person responsible for Section 504/ADA compliance. Ask for policies, practices, and complaint options in writing.

What counts as a disability under Section 504?

Section 504 does not specifically name disability conditions and life impacts in order to capture known and unknown conditions that could affect a person’s life in unique ways. In school, determination is made through evaluations that ask these questions:

  1. Does the student have an impairment?
  2. Does the impairment substantially limit one or more major life activities?

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides fact sheets in multiple languages that describe the evaluation process and state requirements. Included is this information about what Section 504 means for students:

“Major life activities are activities that are important to most people’s daily lives. Caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, eating, sleeping, standing, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking, and communicating are some examples of major life activities.

“Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as functions of the digestive, bowel, bladder, brain, circulatory, reproductive, neurological, or respiratory systems.

“Substantially limits should also be interpreted broadly. A student’s impairment does not need to prevent, or severely or significantly restrict, a major life activity to be substantially limiting.”

Pyramid of Rights: Students at the top have all these protections! 
Special Education Rights are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Eligible students are served with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Civil Rights are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students with disabilities impacting a “major life activity” receive accommodations and individualized support as part of their IEP (if eligible) or through a Section 504 Plan.
General Education Rights are protected by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). All children in the United States have the right to access free public education through age 21 or until they earn a high school diploma.

Does the student need a medical diagnosis?

A school cannot require a parent to provide a medical diagnosis to evaluate a student. However, a diagnosis can provide helpful information. The school could request a medical evaluation, at no cost to the parent, if medical information would support decision-making.

Note that a medical diagnosis does not automatically mean a student needs a 504 Plan. Doctors cannot prescribe a 504 plan—only the 504 team can make that decision. However, the 504 team must consider all information provided as part of its evaluation process.

Evaluations must disregard mitigating measures

A mitigating measure is a coping strategy that a person with a disability uses to eliminate or reduce the effects of an impairment. For example, a person who is deaf might read lips. A person with attention challenges might take medication. A person with dyslexia may read using audible books.

Because a person has adapted to their disability does not mean they give up the right to appropriate, individualized support. In its guidance, OSPI states:

“Mitigating measures cannot be considered when evaluating whether or not a student has a substantially limiting impairment.”

A school also cannot determine a student ineligible based on a condition that comes and goes. A student with a fluid illness (for example: bipolar disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, or a gastrointestinal condition) may be eligible for Section 504 protections even though on some school days they function without any evidence of impairment. OSPI states:

“An impairment that is episodic or in remission remains a disability if, when in an active phase, this impairment substantially limits a major life activity.”

504 or IEP?

Eligibility for school-based services is determined through evaluation. Federal law that protects students in special education process is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

IDEA includes Child Find protections that require schools to evaluate a student if there is a reasonable suspicion that disability is impacting educational access. A student is evaluated in all areas of suspected disability to determine eligibility for services. If the student is found eligible, the evaluation provides key information about service needs.

Here’s what might happen after a student is evaluated:

  • A student is eligible for Section 504 protections but not an IEP. Data from the evaluation is used to build a Section 504 Plan for supporting the student with individualized accommodations and other needed supports.
  • A student is eligible for an IEP. The special education program includes goals that track progress toward learning in areas of specially designed instruction (SDI). Accommodations and supports that are protected by Section 504 are built into the IEP.
  • The school determines that the student does not have a disability or that a disability does not substantially limit educational activities. The student will not receive school-based services through an individualized plan or program.

Sometimes parents disagree with the school’s determination. Families have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at school district expense if they disagree with the methods, findings, or conclusions from a district evaluation. PAVE provides an article that describes that process and provides a sample letter for requesting an IEE.

Case example from federal court

A 2018 federal court ruling regarding a student with Crohn’s disease highlights one complaint process. Parents provided the school with information about their child’s diagnosis and requested an evaluation for services. Their request was denied. The Third Circuit Court found the school in violation of the student’s right to appropriate evaluation under the Child Find Mandate. The court also found that the school should have provided special education services, not only accommodations with a Section 504 Plan:

“In seeing Crohn’s as something requiring only a Section 504 accommodation, not IDEA special education, [the district] treated the disease as something discrete and isolated rather than the defining condition of [this student’s] life.” 

Crohn’s Disease is one example of a specific medical condition that might require a unique support plan. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation provides relevant information about Section 504 rights and suggestions for accommodations.

TIP: If someone you support has a unique medical condition and there is an agency with wisdom about that condition, it’s worth asking whether there are specific recommendations that could be customized for a student’s Section 504 Plan or IEP. For example, the American Diabetes Association provides a sample Section 504 Plan to make sure the school is prepared to support the student’s routine and emergency diabetes care.

FAPE rights under Section 504

The right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is protected by Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities education Act (IDEA). PAVE provides a video training with more information about FAPE and Student Rights, IEP, Section 504 and More.

The most common way schools protect Section 504 FAPE rights is through accommodations. A student might have specifically designed help to accomplish their schoolwork, manage their emotions, use school equipment, or something else. The sky is the limit, and Section 504 is intentionally broad to capture a huge range of possible disability conditions that require vastly different types and levels of support.

Here are a two specific topic areas to consider when a student is protected by Section 504:

Section 504 complaint options

Some families are anxious about questioning actions taken by the school. Parents have protections under the law. The Office for Civil Rights maintains specific guidelines that prohibit retaliation against people who assert their rights through a complaint process.

A civil rights complaint can be filed at the local, state, or federal level. Here are resources related to those three options:

  • Local: OSPI maintains a list of school officials responsible for upholding student civil rights. Families can reach out to those personnel to request a complaint form for filing a civil rights complaint within their district.
  • State: OSPI provides a website page with direct links to step-by-step instructions for filing a civil rights complaint with the state Equity and Civil Rights Office, or the Human Rights Commission.
  • Federal: The U.S. Department of Education provides guidance about filing a federal complaint. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is another option for dispute resolution related to civil rights.

Bullying at School: Resources and the Rights of Students with Special Needs

A Brief Overview

  • OCR provides a fact sheet for parents about school legal obligations to address bullying. The fact sheet is available in Spanish.
  • According to OCR, students who are victims of bullying shall not be further victimized by the school’s response: “Any remedy should not burden the student who has been bullied.”
  • Families can ask the school for a form to file a “HIB Complaint.” HIB stands for Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying.
  • OCR investigates complaints of disability discrimination at schools. OCR’s Complaint Assessment System provides a place to choose a language before filing a complaint. Contact OCR at 800-421-3481 (TDD: 800-877-8339).
  • Bullying protections apply to all students with disabilities, regardless of whether they are served through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan.
  • Failure to stop bullies and support a victimized student with disabilities is considered a denial of the student’s right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The U.S. Department of Education provides a Dear Colleague letter with guidance about bullying as a FAPE violation.
  • Find additional guidance at StopBullying.gov, which offers suggestions for parents and what teens can do.

Full Article

Students with disabilities who are bullied at school have legal protections, and schools have added responsibilities to ensure their safety and well-being. When acts of bullying involve discrimination based on disability, race, sex, or religion, federal agencies classify those acts as harassment.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) list the following as harassing behaviors:

  • Unwelcome conduct, such as verbal abuse, name calling, epithets, or slurs
  • Graphic or written statements
  • Threats
  • Physical assault
  • Other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating

The PACER Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center, founded in 2006, provides this OCR and DOJ information and further explains that “bullying may also be considered harassment when the conduct is sufficiently serious that it interferes with (or limits) a student’s ability to participate in (or benefit from) the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school, and it is based on a student’s disability.”

PACER Center provides letter templates to help parents write to the school and reminds families: “Data is important. Remember, if it is not in writing, it does not exist. Please be sure to keep a copy of the letter(s) for your records. These records can help parents keep a concise, accurate timeline of events. These sample letters are general in nature in order to serve all potential users.”

What does a school have to do when a child with a disability is bullied?

OCR provides a fact sheet for parents about school legal obligations to address bullying. The fact sheet is available in Spanish. Here are a school’s basic responsibilities:

  • Take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the issue and take necessary steps to stop the bullying and prevent it from recurring.
  • Interview targeted students, offending students, and witnesses, and maintain written documentation of the investigation.
  • Remedy the effects of bullying by further supporting a student with services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Plan.
  • Make sure the student who was bullied is helped and not further injured by actions taken in response. For example, the victim should not be suspended. According to OCR: “Any remedy should not burden the student who has been bullied.”

To learn more about student rights related to discipline, see PAVE’s article: What Parents Need to Know when Disability Impacts Behavior and Discipline at School.

What can a parent do?

Every school district has a process for filing a formal complaint related to harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB). A parent or student can say, “I want to file a HIB complaint” and request the proper forms from the school.

Here are options for families:

  • Contact the HIB compliance officer in your school district.
  • Search online or request a HIB complaint form.
  • Request copies of the student handbook and the district’s written HIB policy.
  • If the act included a violation of the law, such as a physical assault, file a police report.
  • Request an emergency meeting of the IEP or Section 504 team to add supports for the student to ensure emotional and physical safety at school.
  • Ask the school district compliance officer for specific details—in writing—about who is responsible to stop the bullying, what will be done, and when. Ask how that officer will provide follow through and confirm accountability schoolwide. Write everything down.
  • Seek help from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The office investigates complaints of disability discrimination at schools. OCR’s Complaint Assessment System provides a place to choose your language before filing a complaint.
  • To learn more about federal civil rights laws or how to file a complaint, contact OCR at 800-421-3481 (TDD: 800-877-8339).

Rules in Washington State

The 2019 Legislature passed Substitute Senate Bill 5698, a Washington State law that prohibits harassment, intimidation, or bullying (HIB) in schools. The law requires school districts to have a formal HIB policy and a person designated to uphold the policy and distribute information among staff, students, and families.

The Washington HIB Prevention and Intervention Toolkit is accessible through the website of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). The toolkit includes guidance for students and families and includes a link to a spreadsheet that lists HIB compliance officers in each school district.

Washington State defines harassment, intimidation, or bullying (RCW 28A.300.285) as any intentional electronic, written, verbal, or physical act that:

  • Physically harms a student or damages the student’s property
  • Has the effect of substantially disrupting a student’s education
  • Is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment
  • Has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school

The Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) offers direct support to students and their families. OEO provides an online intake form and a phone option, with language interpretation available: 1-866-297-2597.

According to OEO, “Bullying and harassment can be a difficult topic for schools, families and students, but not talking about it can make it worse.” OEO provides information and tools to help families figure out who to talk to, how to raise informal and formal complaints, and how to help prevent and respond to bullying or harassment: “If you have questions, or want help understanding or addressing a concern, contact us.”

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU Washington) provides a downloadable guidebook on student rights. A section about harassment states: “Harassment is illegal when it is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or hostile school environment and interferes with your education.”

How common is bullying of students with disabilities?

Data show that students with disabilities are bullied at least twice as frequently as their typical classmates. According to the PACER Center: “Although only ten U.S. studies have been conducted on the connection between bullying and developmental disabilities, all of these studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.”

According to Disability Scoop, about half of individuals with autism, intellectual disabilities, speech impairments and learning disabilities are bullied at school. The rate of bullying for typical students is about 10 percent.

Stopping stigma and ending discrimination require everyone to consider myths about bullying that often make things worse for a person who has been the victim of harassment, intimidation, or bullying. PACER Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center provides a document that describes myths about bullying.

For example, it’s never true that “some people deserve to be bullied.” Here’s a statement to dispel that myth: “No child’s behavior justifies being hurt or harmed in any manner. All children deserve to be treated with respect and consideration.”

It’s also never true that “bullying will make kids tougher.” In fact, “Bullying does not make someone tougher. Research has shown it often has the opposite effect and lowers a child’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Bullying often creates fear and increases anxiety for a child.”

Another myth is that telling a teacher about bullying is “tattling.” Adults can ensure that children understand the difference between tattling and telling: “Tattling is done to get someone in trouble. Telling is done to protect someone.” Keeping secrets about a bully gives the bully more power and hurts everyone.

Federal Guidance

The U.S. Department of Education maintains a website page with access to resources about student rights and anti-bullying protections. The department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) can accept complaints with overlapping civil rights concerns. For example, a complaint about bullying may also include aspects of racism and disability discrimination. OCR points out that bullying concerns that are not appropriately addressed can violate Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):

“Under Section 504 and Title II, schools must address bullying and harassment that are based on a student’s disability and that interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school. Further, if any bullying or harassing behavior interferes with the ability of a student with a disability to access educational services, the situation, if uncorrected, may constitute a FAPE violation. OCR works with other offices in the Department, as well as with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), to address bullying and harassment of students with disabilities.”

Crisis Help

A child’s mental well-being may be impacted by bullying. If a student or family member needs someone to talk to in an emergent moment of crisis, these phone numbers may be helpful:

Additional hotlines and text lines:  Suicide Hotlines.com