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Section 504: What Does It Mean

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What is Section 504

Section 504 is a federal law that protects students with disabilities from being discriminated against at school.  It requires the school to give your child the same opportunities as students without disabilities who go to school.  The school does this through a "reasonable accommodation or modification."  

A "reasonable accomodation" is:

  • physical modifications to the school that are necessary for your child to enjoy full use of the school building
    • Example: an elevator, a wheelchair ramp, handrails, motorized doors
  • a change in rules, policies, procedures, etc. when needed to allow your child to use or enjoy school, including extracurricular activites, to the same extent as students who do not have disabilities
    • Example: allowing your child with diabetes to have a snack in the classroom, allowing your child with ADHD to stand up when needed during class

Section 504 is not about getting special education services for your child.  Learn more about Special Education.

Does Section 504 apply to my child's school?

If your child's school district gets any kind of federal financial assistance,  Section 504 applies.  This means that if your school district gets the breakfast or lunch program, Title 1 money, or special education money, Section 504 applies.

Does my child qualify for Section 504?

To be eligible for Section 504, your child must be a "qualified disabled person."  This means your child must have "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity."  Examples of a "major life activity" are walking, learning, hearing, seeing, concentrating, thinking, etc.

There are 3 definitions of disability for Section 504:

  • your child is diagnosed with a physical or mental disability
  • your child has a record (or history) of a disability, or
  • your child does not have a disability but the school thinks your child does

Having a disability is not enough to qualify for 504 services.  The disability must interfere with your child's ability to learn or access school programs.  Your child does not have to receive "special education" services (like resource room) to qualify under Section 504.  For example:

  • If your child has asthma and cannot run, she needs an alternative gym program
  • If your child is in a wheelchair and cannot get upstairs for class, the class must be held on the first floor
  • If your child has ADHD and needs a behavior plan, the school must make one

What does Section 504 do?

Section 504 entitles your child to a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) by giving your child a reasonable accommodation or modification.

The definition of "appropriate" under Section 504 is different than under IDEA.  Under Section 504, "appropriate" means an education that is comparable to (or similar to) the education that students without disabilites receive in your school district. The quality of services your child gets must be equal to those services students without disabilities get in your school.  Your child's teacher must be trained in how to teach a disabled student and must have appropriate materials and equipment for your child to use.  Section 504 applies to academic, non-academic and extracurricular activities, including sports. 

Students qualifying under 504 should be with students without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate.  This means that your child should not be sent to a particular school that only has students with a disability or certain diagnosis.  Instead, the school district needs to look at your child's individual needs and make a decision as to what is appropriate.

What does "free" mean?

Services under 504 should be at no cost to you.

One big exception is if students without disabilities have to pay for some services, you have to pay for the same services.  For example, if there is a field trip that students must pay $20 for, you will also have to pay $20 for your child to go. 

How does Section 504 work?

Each school district must have a 504 policy or plan. The plan should be in writing. The plan should explain how Section 504 works for that school district.

Generally, as a parent, you can make a referral in writing to the 504 contact person at your child's school district.  Contact the school administration to find out who that person is.  School staff can also make a referral under Section 504.

Your child must be evaluated.  Each school district should have procedures and standards for how evaluations are conducted.

Next, the school should hold a 504 meeting. You must get notice of the meeting, but the school does not have to give you notice in writing. You can review your child's school records. There are no mandatory members of a 504 team.  Sometimes, the 504 team is the same as an IEP Team under IDEA, but it does not have to be. The 504 team must include people who know your child, can explain the evaluations and know about placement options.  The 504 team should decide if your child is a "qualified disabled person."  If she is, a 504 plan must be developed.  The 504 plan does not have to be in writing, but you can and should ask for it to be put in writing.

If the school wants to change your child's program, it only has to give you notice if there is going to be "a significant change" in your child's placement.  This means small changes in your child's program do not require the school to notify you.  Section 504 does not require your consent.

How is Section 504 different from IDEA?

A student can be eligible under 504 but not IDEA, or a student can be eligible for both 504 and IDEA.  If your child really needs special education services, she should be classified under IDEA. Do not agree to a 504 plan only for your child if your child meets IDEA criteria.  You should advocate for proper identification under IDEA if your child qualifies.  Do not settle for 504.  IDEA is a stronger law with more services and more protections for your child. Read more about IDEA.

What if my child is suspended from school?

Students with disabilities have the same due process protections as students without disabilities when it comes to suspensions and expulsions.   So the schools have to follow the correct procedures. But students with disabilities under Section 504 have extra protections in disciplinary actions. 10 is the magic number.

Once your child has been removed from school for more than 10 school days, there needs to be a meeting. The meeting will decide if your child's behavior is related to his disability. This is called a manifestation.  If there is a manifestation (meaning there is a connection), your child cannot be disciplined. This keeps your child from being punished because of his disability. If there is no manifestation (there is no connection between behavior and disability), then your child can be treated like any other student. This means he can be recommended for expulsion. As a student receiving modifications under Section 504, the school does not have to give your child services while he is suspended or expelled if there is no manifestation.

Please note: This is not true for students identified under IDEA.

What can I do if the school is not following Section 504?

You have a right to file a grievance if the school district has more than 15 employees.  The district must have:

  • someone who is responsible for making sure the school follows the rules of Section 504, and
  • give you a copy of the school's grievance procedures

You are entitled to a due process hearing if you disagree with the identification, evaluation or placement for your child. You are entitled to have an attorney at the hearing.  The school makes the rules for how the hearing is conducted.  The hearing officer cannot work for the school. You also have a right to go to Court.  One of the remedies you can ask for is monetary damages.

Maine's Department of Education does not have the authority to monitor or investigate complaints about Section 504.  Instead, Section 504 is enforced by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.  There is a time limit.  You must file your complaint within 180 days (6 months) of the alleged violation. The regional office for Maine is in Boston. You can file an online complaint (in English, or in one of 19 other languages) or contact them at:  

United States Department of Education
Office for Civil Rights
8th Floor; 5 Post Office Square
Boston, MA 02109-3921

Telephone: (617) 289-0111
Fax: (617) 289-0150
TTY/TDD: 877-521-2172

Last update: May 2013