This plan, usually a written document, is named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which states: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Food allergies may be considered a disability under the act, since they can impair “major life activities” (for example, eating and breathing).
A student’s plan is developed at a 504 meeting by a team that usually includes the parents, the school’s 504 coordinator, and other members with knowledge of the student, his or her disability and/or the school setting. As a food allergy consultant, I am often brought into 504 meetings to help mediate once the relationship between the school and the family has become fractured. Typically, by the time I become involved, trust has been broken and mistakes have been made by both parties.
Below, I outline the top mistakes I see parents make and, importantly, what you can do to avoid them, and come out with a workable and effective 504 Plan for your child.
1. Not working to maintain a respectful relationship with the school
The focus of each and every correspondence you have with the school should strike a balance between advocating for your child, while striving to build a positive working relationship. This doesn’t require a friendship, but you always need to remain respectful. It’s extremely helpful to remember that most people who work in education truly care about children – and that you need them in order to keep your child safe and included during the school day.
I begin each meeting by saying: “Thank you all for being here. I appreciate your time and I know we all want to create a plan that keeps my child safe and included while at school.” This sets the stage for a productive dialogue.
2. Entering the meeting unprepared
You must do your homework. Understand the 504 process. Know your child’s rights, the CDC’s guidelines for managing food allergies at school, as well as state and local policy.
Remember, you are not at the meeting simply to listen to what the school has to offer your child. You are there to be an active participant. You are the expert on your child and an equal member of the team. Create a list of concerns that you would like to have addressed at the meeting. Know which concerns are the most important, and the points where there may be room for compromise.
Think of what your child needs from the time he leaves your home in the morning until the end of the school day. Be ready to discuss topics such as: lunchroom seating, food in the classroom, and the location of your child’s epinephrine. Don’t forget to include school-sponsored programs outside of the school day and issues such as the substitute teacher protocols. Be prepared to back up your concerns with facts and information to support your child’s needs. Be sure to include any documentation or recommendations from your child’s allergist.
3. Not keeping good records
Start a file with all the information that pertains to your child. Include meeting notices, notice of parental rights, copies of emails, meeting notes and (once completed) the 504 Plan. Create a paper trail of all correspondence. Take notes at the 504 meeting detailing who was present, what was said, and who said it.
If you discuss your child’s 504 plan with anyone outside of the meeting, send a follow-up email. For instance:
“Dear Principal, Thank you for taking the time to discuss my child today. As discussed …. I look forward to meeting with you next week to discuss this further.”
Taking notes and putting correspondence in writing accomplishes multiple goals. One, it sends a message to the school that you take this process seriously and that you are documenting it. Two, if you ever need to go to mediation or file a complaint, you have documentation to support your claims. Three, it’s easy to forget what was promised in a meeting or in a conversation. If you have notes, it helps everyone to remember and forces all parties to be accountable.
4. Addressing questions to the wrong person
At the meeting, make sure to direct questions to the appropriate person. If you have a question about what type of accommodation would work well in the classroom, direct it to the classroom teacher. If you have a question about school policy, direct it to the principal, and so on.
For example, when my daughter entered kindergarten, I was very concerned about who would be monitoring her during lunch. Rather than asking the nurse or principal, I asked the classroom teacher.
I said: “Would the teachers in the lunchroom be able to monitor my daughter and respond if she were to have a reaction?”
The teacher replied: “No, we are too busy monitoring the children’s behavior. We might not recognize her having a reaction because there are only two of us watching five classes.”
As a result, an aide was added to my daughter’s lunch wave specifically to address this concern. If I had asked the principal, he may not have been aware that monitoring a child with food allergies would be too difficult for the teachers.
5. Going it alone
It can be intimidating going into a 504 meeting. Always have someone there to be your ally. This could be a spouse, a friend or a family member. This person doesn’t need to speak. I recommend asking this person to sit beside you and take notes. If your ally intends to actively participate, make sure you discuss your thoughts with each other before the meeting, so that you are on the same page and your message to the school is consistent.
6. Insisting on too long or too detailed 504 plans
It’s important to understand that many people may be involved in implementing the 504 Plan, from teachers to educational assistants, bus drivers, coaches and lunch aides. It is important that the 504 Plan be easy to understand.
One parent I worked with had such a detailed explanation of how she wanted the teachers to inject the epinephrine that the teachers would have had difficulty remembering it. This could potentially cause a delay in her child getting the medicine if it was required. I had to remind her that in an emergency situation, what is most important is that the Emergency Action Plan be followed.
Everything else is secondary. You don’t want teachers worrying about which leg is preferred by the child, or where to place the child’s arm, unless it is a medical necessity. A 504 Plan is only effective if the people carrying it out understand what needs to be done.
7. Spending too much time arguing one point
I have observed meetings lasting hours because there is a disagreement on one point. While that one point can be very important, sometimes both sides need time to regroup and to brainstorm other alternatives. It’s OK to say, “I can see that we disagree. Let’s move on to another subject and agree to meet at a later date to discuss this further.”
This accomplishes multiple goals. It diffuses what can be a very tense meeting, and allows you the time to discuss other topics. It provides the school an opportunity to find a way to implement what you are asking. Lastly, it gives you a chance to listen to the school’s concerns and to gather information and resources to support your point of view.
Keep in mind that this is a process. You will most likely be working with the same group of people for years to come and you need their support. Be flexible when possible. As with any relationship, there are bound to be setbacks and mistakes, but if you keep an open and positive relationship with the school, you can keep the focus on the most important objective: meeting the needs of your child.
Gina Mennett Lee, M.Ed., is a food allergy educator and consultant. Her website is FoodAllergyConsulting.com. Her book, the Preschool Food Allergy Handbook, is available at Amazon.com.