What does a 504 plan look like in North Carolina?
The simple answer is that it seems the same in all 50 states because 504 Plan North Carolina accommodations are federally mandated and codified in federal statutes, specifically the Rehabilitation Act Section 504. That’s where the name of the 504 Plan comes from. This federal law specifies that any student with a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity is to be provided accommodations within the educational setting to protect them from discrimination due to their disability.
To qualify for 504 plans, a student has to have a diagnosis. It is where you want to start when you are going through the process of a 504 plan. It can happen with a therapist, a primary care provider, a pediatrician, or a specialized physician. So first, the parent or guardian must take their child to get this diagnosis. Afterward, or you may already be aware of the diagnosis, it needs to be looked at in the activities and processes throughout the school day and environment to see for any substantial impairments.
The thing they want to remember with 504 plans is that they cover everything throughout the school day. So, this isn’t just the general education teacher giving instruction. It could be a cafeteria or special classes with physical education or music. It could be a transition even in the hallway going from one class to another, in bathrooms, and on buses. Anything throughout the day that would substantially limit that student’s major life activities.
So, we’ve gone through and discussed who would qualify. They must have that physical or mental impairment that substantially impairs them throughout the school day, not just with instruction within that environment. And if you feel like that’s the case, then what would happen is that you would formally request, in writing, that the school evaluate this student for a 504 plan accommodation. Their evaluation team would meet and look at the diagnosis and the data throughout the school.
It might be observations from educators, staff or administration, or counselors in the school setting. And they would say, yes, there’s a substantial impairment. Therefore, we will draft a 504 plan to protect this student from discrimination because of their disability. At this point, they will decide what accommodations are needed. An important thing to remember is that a 504 plan is different from an IEP.
Sometimes, people confuse each other. They overlap occasionally, but an IEP deals explicitly with special education, while a 504 plan does not. If a child needs to be taken out for specialized instruction at a different level than their peers, then an IEP and those accommodations would be better. A 504 means that they can learn at this level but need accommodations.
We can talk about that. I always point out to parents and guardians that you need to get to the root of what’s causing the impairment. For example, anxiety could be a mental impairment that substantially limits the child’s ability to complete an exam. But it’s important, whenever you’re drafting those accommodations, to know what’s causing anxiety exactly. Is it reading the exam? The length? Is it in the room with their peers? Are they overstimulated because of the things in the room?
Once you find the root of that, you can write the accommodation. What would that look like? You would want to be specific. The child would receive double or triple the time their peers complete the exam or assignment. If they need to be in a quiet area, they could be given a different location to complete their exam. Those are just straightforward examples of accommodations for exams within the education classroom.
Now, let’s say a child has a physical impairment. Potentially, they could be in a wheelchair, so they would need accommodations to ensure a clear path to enter and exit the room. They may have to have an aide sitting with them, so they would need accommodation to have an aide sitting next to them. It is one thing I have seen from parents and in dealing with clients. It’s important to note in the accommodations that the aide needs to be near the student.
Sometimes it’ll say it needs to be in the classroom, but “classroom” could mean many different things. They could be helping the teacher, or they could be helping other students. And if their purpose is to assist the child with the accommodations, they need to sit near them or directly beside them.
Also, in accommodations, you want to think outside the classroom. So, in transitions between classes. They may have some processing disorder or need prompts for transitions. So, five minutes or 15 minutes before the class transitions, you need to give a prompt to that student so that they’re aware of it. Or do they need a buddy system? So, there could be a peer or an aide that would walk them from class to class. All those things would be appropriate.
The most significant area forgotten in 504 plan accommodations is the cafeteria, especially for someone who can be overstimulated. It would be best if you remembered that cafeterias are extremely smelly from the food, and they are loud. There are lots of students, staff, and many moving things. And so many students can be highly overstimulated, which can lead to behavioral problems you want to protect your child from.
Accommodations could be that they would be able to eat lunch before everybody, or they were allowed to eat it in a different area. Staff would be near them if they felt uncomfortable and needed to remove themselves from that environment. So again, a 504 plan helps a student throughout the school day. It is not just taking exams. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions.
Another misconception is that 504 plans are just suggestions, which is false. You can think of it as a contract mandated by federal law that the school must comply with. So you can hold the school accountable. 504 plans are enforced through the Office of Civil Rights, a federal administrative agency. And you can file a complaint against the school if they’re not complying with the 504 plan. Again, as you can see, 504 plans are federally mandated, so they’re not going to change from state to state.
So, if you’re in North Carolina, they will have the exact requirements of any other 50 states. The thing to remember is that states can sometimes potentially have additional requirements for accommodations, but they can never change what the federal requirements are.
504 plans are great for students learning at the same level as their peers. They need accommodations in specific parts of the environment or how they complete their exams. But if you feel like the child is academically not where they need to be for cognitive reasons. Potentially they need special education services, need to be pulled out for reading instruction, math, science—things like that. They may need more of an IEP.