A Parent and Educator Guide to Free Appropriate Public Education
This guide describes the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as it applies to a public school district’s duty to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities. This guide is designed to assist parents and educators to understand what Section 504 is, what it requires in terms of FAPE, and how it should be implemented.
What is Section 504?
Section 504 is a federal civil rights law that is designed to eliminate disability discrimination in programs and activities that receive federal funds. Since all public school districts receive federal funds, all public school districts must comply with Section 504. Under Section 504, denying a disabled student a free appropriate public education constitutes disability discrimination.
Who is a Disabled Student Under Section 504?
A school-aged student is a disabled student under Section 504 if the student:
- Has a physical or mental impairment
Physical or mental impairment means any physiological or psychological disorder or condition. The definition of physical or mental impairment under Section 504 is broad, includes students with life threatening health conditions (conditions that will put a student in danger of death during the school day if a medication or treatment order and a nursing plan are not in place), and is not limited to any specific diseases or categories of medical conditions.
- That substantially limits
Substantially limits means significantly restricts as to the condition, manner or duration under which a student can perform a major life activity as compared to how a non-disabled age/grade peer can perform the same activity. As a general rule, a student with a physical or mental impairment who is able to participate in and benefit from a district’s education program (e.g., attend school, achieve passing grades, advance from grade to grade, and meet age/grade appropriate standards of personal independence and social responsibility) without the provision of special education or related aids or services, is not a disabled student under Section 504.
- One or more major life activities
Major life activities include but are not limited to the following: walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, attending school, caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, and behavior.
What is a Free Appropriate Public Education Under Section 504?
A free appropriate public education is an education that is designed to meet a disabled student’s individual educational needs and is based upon procedures that satisfy Section 504’s identification, evaluation, placement, and due process requirements. An appropriate education can consist of education in regular classes, education in regular classes with related aids or services, special education, or a combination of such services. The definition of related aids and services under Section 504 is broad and includes any service that a student needs to participate in and benefit from a district’s education program. Related aids and services include but are not limited to the following: school health services; counseling; environmental, instructional and behavioral accommodations; and transportation.
What Does “Appropriate” Mean?
“Appropriate” means designed to meet the individual educational needs of a disabled student as adequately as the needs of non-disabled students are met. It does not mean that a district must maximize a disabled student’s potential or provide “the best” education program that it can design for a disabled student. It means that a district must provide sufficient individualized services to enable a disabled student to receive educational benefit (i.e., not maximum benefit, not minimal benefit, some benefit).
Who Can Refer a Student for a Section 504 Evaluation?
Any person can refer a student for evaluation under Section 504. Parents, guardians, and school staff should refer a student for evaluation if they know or suspect that, due to a physical or mental impairment, a student needs special education or related aids or services to participate in or benefit from a district’s education program.
What Should a District Do When it Receives a Section 504 Referral?
After receiving a Section 504 referral, a district should decide whether to evaluate the student and must notify the student’s parent or guardian of its decision. As a general rule, a district should evaluate a referred student if the district knows or suspects that the student, because of a disability, is not attending school, achieving passing grades, advancing from grade to grade, meeting age/grade appropriate standards of personal independence or social responsibility, or otherwise needs special education or related aids or services to participate in or benefit from the district’s education program.
What is an Evaluation Under Section 504?
Evaluations under Section 504 are individually designed. A Section 504 evaluation may be broad (including aptitude and achievement data, medical and psychological data, social and cultural information, and more) or narrow (medical data). A Section 504 evaluation may be conducted by a district or conducted by an outside agency and reviewed by a district. It is the responsibility of a district to determine the scope of each student’s Section 504 evaluation. As a general rule, the scope of a student’s Section 504 evaluation should be broad enough to enable the district to determine whether a student is disabled under Section 504 and, if so, what educational and related aids and services the student needs to receive a FAPE.
What Placement Procedures Does Section 504 Require?
Placement under Section 504 means services – the educational and related aids and services that a student needs to receive FAPE. Placement decisions under Section 504 must be documented, based upon a student’s evaluated needs, and made by persons knowledgeable about the student, the meaning of the student’s evaluation data, and placement options. In addition, placement decisions must ensure that disabled students are educated in the least restrictive appropriate placement.
What Due Process Rights Do Parents and Guardians Have Under Section 504?
Section 504 gives parents and guardians the right to challenge district decisions regarding the identification, evaluation and educational placement of their child. Under Section 504, a district must notify a student’s parent or guardian before it takes any action regarding the identification, evaluation, or placement of their child and provide the parent or guardian an opportunity to challenge the action if they disagree. “Any action” includes a decision not to evaluate a student and denial of placement. The minimum necessary due process rights include: prior notice of any action; a right to inspect records; an impartial hearing with a right to representation by counsel; and a review procedure.
Must Parents or Guardians Consent Prior to Initial Evaluations and Initial Placements Under Section 504?
Yes. Under Section 504, a district must obtain parent or guardian consent in two circumstances: before a child’s initial evaluation (the first time a child is evaluated by any district) and before a child’s initial placement (the first time a child is placed on a Section 504 Plan in any district). If a parent or guardian refuses consent to either initial evaluation or initial placement, a district may, but is not required to, initiate a Section 504 due process hearing to override the refusal to consent. A district must notify a parent or guardian, but need not obtain consent, before it re-evaluates or significantly changes a student’s placement.
What is a Section 504 Plan?
A Section 504 plan is a written plan that describes the educational and related aids and services that a district determines a student needs to receive a FAPE. The content of a Section 504 Plan is fluid and may change within a school year or between school years as a student’s needs and services change. For a student whose only disability is a life threatening health condition, an individual health plan or nursing care plan may serve as the student’s Section 504 plan. A district must provide the services identified in a student’s Section 504 plan.
What Is a Section 504 Team?
A Section 504 team makes decisions regarding the evaluation and placement of students under Section 504. For example, a Section 504 team determines the scope of Section 504 evaluations, decides which students are disabled under Section 504, develops Section 504 Plans, and makes “manifestation determinations” for purposes of disciplinary exclusion from school. A district may have a district-level Section 504 team that makes district-level Section 504 decisions, building-level Section 504 teams that make building-level Section 504 decisions, or a combination of both district-level and building-level Section 504 teams.
Who Should Be on a Section 504 Team?
The membership of a Section 504 team will vary depending upon the needs of each student. For example, a nurse may be on the Section 504 team of a student with a life threatening health condition, and a psychologist may be on the Section 504 team of a student with a behavioral disorder. The composition of a Section 504 team is fluid and may change within a school year or between school years as a student’s needs and services change. A Section 504 team must consist of at least two people and must include persons knowledgeable about the student, the meaning of the student’s current evaluation data, and placement options.
How is Section 504 Enforced?
The U.S. Department of Education enforces Section 504 through the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). OCR investigates individual complaints of disability discrimination, including complaints that a district is denying a disabled student FAPE. OCR also provides training and technical assistance to state education agencies, educational service districts, schools districts, and parents. OCR’s focus is on the process a district follows to identify, evaluate, and provide an educational placement to a disabled student, and to provide procedural due process to the student’s parent or guardian. Except in extraordinary circumstances, OCR will not review the result of individual placement and other educational decisions, as long as a district complies with Section 504’s procedural requirements regarding identification, evaluation, placement, and due process. The proper forum for pure educational disputes, in which a district has followed the correct process to make an educational decision but the parents or guardian disagree with the result of the decision, is a Section 504 due process hearing.
Who Conducts a Section 504 Due Process Hearing?
A district should select a hearing officer who is impartial (e.g., has no professional or personal interest that would bias his or her judgment of the case) and has some training in Section 504 and how it applies to FAPE. A list of possible hearing officers may be obtained from Camas School District, 360-833-5400.
The Bottom Line
Once a district has determined that a student is disabled under Section 504, the district must provide whatever services it decides the student needs to participate in and benefit from the district’s education program. As a general rule, a district is under no obligation to provide a service that a student’s parent or guardian or doctor requests unless, in the district’s determination, the student needs the service.