Newsroom > Publications > August E-Newsletter >> 504 Plans vs. Individualized Education Plans (IEP)
504 Plans vs. Individualized Education Plans (IEP)
Taking a closer look at the options available to families with children who have special needs
by David McLoon, Esq., General Counsel, Franciscan Hospital for Children
It’s about that time of year again, back-to-school season has officially begun! Let’s pretend for a minute and fast forward a few months…
You’ve just finished your quarterly parent/teacher conference at your child’s school and have heard the word “struggling” one too many times. School has always seemed to be a challenge, and based on your observations and the feedback you’ve received you now suspect that your child may need additional help with academics. Reaching that conclusion can be difficult, but now that you’ve made the commitment to seek additional supports, what can you do to put them in place?
Parents working to best support a child with a physical or mental impairment will inevitably hear the phrases 504 Plan and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) tossed around. Let’s take a closer look at these two options and how they differ.
The “504” in a 504 Plan refers to section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibits discrimination based on disability. A 504 plan is designed to help parents of students with physical or mental impairments work with educators to design accommodations that ensure that their child can access the curriculum at school.
Some examples of accommodations in 504 plans include:
- Preferential Seating
Ex. My child is unable to hear out his/her right ear and as a result needs to sit on the right side of the classroom to maximize hearing potential.
- Adjusted Schedules
Ex. My child needs to leave class a couple of minutes early to get to next class because she/he has difficulty with crowds or confusing situations.
- Key/Access to Elevator
Ex. My child has been recovering from a serious injury and is unable to use the stairs. If an elevator does not exist, their classes need to take place on one floor.
- Extended Time on Tests/Assignments
Ex. My child has a learning disability that requires him/her to be given additional time during testing and/or other assignments.
- Verbal, Visual, Technology or Other Aids
Ex. My child has a learning or physical disability that requires that someone take their notes during class time.
A Section 504 plan allows for students to be educated in regular classrooms with modifications made regarding services, accommodations or educational aids as needed. Parental approval and involvement is required for a 504 plan, and participation is important for academic success.
It is important to note that there is very little accountability when it comes to monitoring a 504 plan. This is one of the major differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP. Section 504 plans are monitored by classroom teachers, but are not required necessarily to meet specific goals or benchmarks, and there is no effective mechanism for any external review of a Section 504 Plan by a regulatory authority.
Individual Education Plan (IEP)
When a child is identified as possibly having a recognized disability and needing special education and related services, another option is to take steps to evaluate the child and determine their eligibility for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an IEP is weighted on the side of the pupil/family and is truly an individualized document designed specifically for the student.
Let’s look at the general IEP process.
The first step in the process is for the parent to make a written request to have the child evaluated and to sign consent to the evaluation. This is sometimes referred to as a “core evaluation”. The school system has 30 working days after receipt of the signed consent form to conduct the necessary testing, which should assess all areas of the perceived disability.
Within 45 school working days after receipt of a parent's written consent to an initial evaluation, the school district shall: provide the evaluation and convene a meeting, often referred to as a “Team meeting”, to review the evaluation data and determine whether the student requires special education. If the child is determined to be eligible the school district must, within the same 45 day period, develop an IEP in accordance with state and federal laws; and provide the parents with two copies of the proposed IEP and proposed placement. The Team meeting should include parents, teachers, school staff and often the student in order to fairly determine whether the child has a qualifying disability and, if so, to create an effective and individualized plan that closely considers the student’s unique needs. This is an important advocacy opportunity for parents.
The IEP process has two distinct components: defining goals and objectives, and determining placement details. The goals and objectives component focuses on a student’s present level of performance and a statement of measurable goals. This includes benchmarks or short-term objectives, defining any program modifications or additional accommodations, as well as details (i.e. length and frequency) on specific therapies or services to be provided. The second component refers to the environment in which the child’s IEP will be implemented. Traditionally, an IEP is usually written for one year but may be for a shorter period of time.
A child’s guardian is able to accept all, accept some, or reject any aspects of an IEP and can request that changes are made. Similarly, once an IEP is implemented, a child’s guardian (or any member of the child’s IEP team) may request that the team reconvene to rework the plan, review therapies, discuss a different placement, etc. Annual reviews of the IEP are required to ensure that the student is meeting goals and/or making progress on specified goals and benchmarks.
The IEP process is regulated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Bureau of Special Education Appeals. A parent has recourse to review or appeal where a school system does not properly follow the IEP process or timelines, where there is a dispute over eligibility, or where there is a dispute as to what services are necessary to accommodate the child’s disability and provide access to the curriculum. In this regard, a parent has many more options for review and enforcement of an IEP than exist for a Section 504 Plan.
Considering your child’s special education options can be overwhelming and confusing. Below are some links to additional helpful resources:
A Parent’s Guide to Special Education – Federation for Children with Special Needs
IEP & 504 Plan - National Center for Learning Disabilities
IEP Documents & Forms – Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
For more information about the educational programs located on-site at Franciscan Hospital for Children, please click here or contact Jonathan Parkhurst at (617) 254-3800 or mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org