The 504 Plan – Is it Necessary?

There are many schools and school districts that have guidelines or policies for severely allergic children. Some states have mandated these policies; other states have provided guidelines for schools to follow. If you’re interested in this type of legislation, please click here. There is a Federal law – the Americans with Disabilities Act – that can provide coverage for your child with life threatening food allergies regardless of where you live in the USA. Every entity that receives public funding (therefore generally not private schools) must adhere to the ADA.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America states,  “The ADA borrows from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment and education in agencies, programs and services that receive federal money. The ADA extends many of the rights and duties of Section 504 to public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, stores, doctors’ offices, museums, private schools and child care programs. They must be readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities. No one can be excluded or denied services just because he/she is disabled or based on ignorance, attitudes or stereotypes.”

The Section 504 Plan in an educational setting stipulates the accommodations your child with food allergies will need in order to safely attend school and participate in activities. This plan will generally be created with a group of administrators and you, the parents, in attendance. Many school districts have 504 administrators who oversee such plans. The school principal, school counselor, teacher and parents are also frequently participants.

This plan is legally binding. Beyond that, having a written plan of accommodations ensures that there is no confusion as to the exact steps that need to be taken to keep your child safe and included in as many school activities as possible.

Some schools will be apprehensive to create a 504 Plan for a food allergic child and will want to only agree to a Health Care Plan. Our experience was that our son was too often asked to not participate in school activities, whether it was in the classroom or a field trip, because of his food allergies when he started elementary school. We wanted to ensure his inclusion in all safe activities, or for the teacher to find an adequate substitute for the entire class. A 504 Plan ensures that a child with a disability is included in the activities as much as possible, whereas a Health Care Plan didn’t cover the exclusion issue. We therefore asked for both a 504 Plan and a Health Care Plan.

You will want to have the 504 Plan in place BEFORE the school year starts. Ensure that every teacher who will teach your child has read this plan, and is aware of the specific accommodations.

We rewrite the 504 Plan on an annual basis in the spring. This allows next year’s teacher(s) to be brought into the meeting. We review what went well during the school year, what problems we had and what needs to be changed in the 504 Plan for the upcoming school year. Our son always participates in these meetings.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2008 to include eating as a major life activity. Therefore, obtaining a 504 Plan for your food allergic child should no longer be as difficult to obtain. You can read the new amendment to this Act here.

Does every child with food allergies need a 504 Plan?    No, not in my opinion.

In our school district of 23,000+ students, there are approximately 600 with life threatening food allergies (indicated by having a prescription for an EpiPen). Only 10 of these students have a 504 Plan. Why is that? Our school district has a policy and procedures for dealing with students with severe food allergies. Additionally, the district has guidelines for the parents, student, teacher, school nurse, administration, transportation and cafeteria to follow. Most students will have all their needs met with these layers of protection. However, for students who have a history of severe reactions and/or contact and inhalant reactions, and/or have severe peanut or tree nut allergies (indicating more likely to experience anaphylaxis), in addition to eczema and/or asthma – an added layer of awareness is necessary. Those are the students who have 504 Plans.

I recognize that our school district is certainly not the “norm.” If your school district does not have any guidelines, policy or procedures for students with food allergies, then you will likely not only want, but need a 504 Plan to ensure your child is included in all activities with the highest level of safety.

In Morgan’s Corner below, Morgan explains his experience with 504 Plan specifics. We feel it is very important to include him in all 504 discussions so that he knows the ‘safe adults’ in the school building. He also knows what is expected to keep him safe, and that has been extremely important in situations where the 504 Plan was not followed – accidentally.

We have never had to involve a lawyer to get our school to provide a 504 Plan. Our allergist listed out what accommodations would be necessary for Morgan to attend school in a letter, and the school district agreed that a 504 Plan was necessary. When there has been an issue about the plan not being followed, we’ve had an immediate meeting with the Principal to discuss what actions should have been taken. The plan has been updated or reiterated, and thankfully no serious allergic reactions have been the result of the error. The 504 Plan has allowed us to separate out the emergency actions, which are iterated in the Health Care Plan – with the accommodations which are listed in the 504 Plan.

We’ve found benefit in having both, and Morgan continues to have both in high school.

Morgan’s Corner: The Importance and ‘Evolution’ of a 504 Plan and Meetings

As school starts, accommodations start entering our minds. Dealing with school and all the food related issues can seem complicated and challenging, but it’s not!

Section 504 of the American Disabilities Act allows people with a disability that can impend on a learning environment (in our case, food allergies) have a plan for accommodations- a ’504 Plan’. It is not the same as a Health Care Plan – I do have both.

I have had my 504 Plan since Kindergarten. It has helped me stay safe in school- from having staff and kids wash their hands to having a peanut-free zone during lunch. My 504 Plan has helped me stay safe and healthy throughout all of my school years.

A 504 Plan allows you (or your child) to have accommodations in school. This ranges from everything- I’ve had no pet policies, training of the staff on EpiPens, and no-nut zones at lunch and in my classroom(s). Of course, I’ve had help along the way to create guidelines and keep me safe at school.

Over the years, my 504 meetings have changed dramatically. A 504 Meeting is an annual meeting that occurs with your counselor or other staff member (such as your principal), yourself and/or your child. It is required by Section 504, as every year you can revise accommodations placed in your 504 Plan. I’ve always participated in my 504 Meetings, ever since Kindergarten. Back then, I would sit there and listen, and my mom primarily led the meetings.

As I grew older, I started to participate more- adding comments, responding to questions, etc. In 8th grade, I led my first 504 Meeting.

In my case, I have two ’504 Meetings’- one at the beginning and end of the school year. At the end of the year, I go over (with my mom) the accommodations laid out in my 504 plan with my counselor. We take out some policies, revise some, sometimes even add more- it all depends on what was needed in the past school year and our vision for the future. The one at the beginning of the school year is the more ‘important’ one- I meet with my teachers for the next year, train them on the EpiPen, and discuss policies of food in the classroom.

In 9th grade, all but one of my teachers applied a ‘no-food’ policy- which worked out just fine. Certainly, there were incidents where people brought in food, but for the most part, it didn’t happen. Most of the food brought in anyways was safe for me to be around. Even in the classroom where food was allowed (but not my allergens) worked out fine. Most of my classmates are very aware, so it usually always works out fine.

Over the years, my 504 Plan has been a very important part of my school life. It allowed accommodations to make me feel safe in school. Over the years, it has allowed my self-advocacy to arise, yet still assist me in food-related issues, especially in high school.

Morgan

 

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