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States Vary in Proportion of Students With Disability-Related '504' Plans

Almost 5 percent of students in New Hampshire have disabilities that are covered solely by "Section 504," which offers protection to students who have a "physical or mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities." These disabilities might include conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, food allergies, depression, or mobility impairments.

In contrast, in New Mexico and Wisconsin, less than half a percent of students have such plans. 

These findings come from a recent analysis of Section 504 enrollment conducted by the Advocacy Institute of data from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection. That data collection covers the 2011-12 school year, and about 16,500 school districts, 96,500 schools, and 49 million students were included. 

The Advocacy Institute analysis found that students covered under Section 504 plans are far more likely to be white and male compared to the general student population, which echoes previous research done on the Section 504 population.  For every other racial or ethnic group except for white students, the proportion of students with 504 plans is less than their representation among the student population as a whole.

In contrast, white students represent about 52 percent of the overall student population, but 65 percent of students with 504 plans.

The Differences Between Section 504 and the IDEA

Section 504 is short for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which spells out particular accommodations that must be made for children who have certain disabling conditions. That law is different from the better-known Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was signed into law in 1975. 

For example, Section 504 and IDEA define "disability" differently. IDEA has 13 disability categories, while Section 504's definition is much more broad. About 12 percent of students nationwide are covered by the IDEA (and thus also receive Section 504 protections,) but only about 1.5 percent of students nationwide are covered solely by Section 504. 

Another difference between the two laws: The federal government provides some money to school districts to educate children in special education, along with a specific legal framework for doing so. Accommodations for Section 504 students are a mandate to school districts, but that comes with no specific federal funding.

Section 504 eligibility seems to be a potential minefield for schools, writes Perry Zirkel, a professor of special education at Lehigh University. He outlined his  "top five Section 504 errors" in a newsletter for the Education Law Association. Examples include giving students a Section 504 plan as a "consolation prize" if they aren't found to be eligible for IDEA, or requiring parents to pay for a medical diagnosis of ADHD before finding a student eligible for a Section 504 plan. (The office for civil rights has found that a medical diagnosis of ADHD is not necessary for students to receive and acccommodation, but if the district does require such a diagnosis, it should be at no cost to families.)

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