The Student Study Team (SST) process is a regular education function. It is a method of reviewing individual student concerns and planning alternative instructional strategies to be implemented in the regular classroom. It is a formalized structure for a group of educators, administrators, and other staff to meet regularly to address concerns about individual students or groups of students.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ("Section 504") is Congress’ directive to schools receiving any federal funding to eliminate discrimination based on disability from all aspects of school operation. It states, “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability …, 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….” Because the Santa Clara Unified School District is a recipient of federal funding, it is required to provide eligible disabled students with equal access (both physical and academic) to services, programs, and activities offered by its schools. School districts are mandated to participate in child find activities and generally comply with the Section 504 child find requirement through their IDEA child find programs.
Section 504 is a civil rights statute and not a special education statute. At each school, the responsibility for ensuring Section 504 compliance rests with the District, the school’s Section 504 Site Chairperson and the principal or assistant principal.
There are two main purposes to Section 504. The first purpose of Section 504 is to protect students from discrimination under federal law. Section 504 assures access to educational services and the learning process that is equal to that given to students who do not have disabilities. All students who have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, have a record of such an impairment, or are regarded as having such an impairment, are protected from discrimination under Section 504.
The second purpose of Section 504 is to provide a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to those students who (1) actually have a physical or mental impairment, (2) that substantially limits, (3) one or more major life activities. The provision of FAPE is accomplished through the creation and implementation of Section 504 Service Plan. Only those students who satisfy all three of these criteria are eligible for, and are provided, regular or special education and related aids and services under Section 504 (in the form of a Section 504 Service Plan).
The Section 504 Service Plan Evaluation Process
The District shall evaluate a student who, because of a disability or suspected disability, needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services before taking any action with respect to the initial placement of the student in regular or special education and any subsequent significant change in placement.
The 504 Team
The Section 504 Service Plan team is made up of a group of individuals, including persons knowledgeable about the student, the meaning of the evaluation data being reviewed, and placement options. The Section 504 Service Plan team will generally include the parent/guardian and at least one of the student’s general education teachers; and, may include: other teachers, individuals who can interpret the instructional implications of the assessment results, SST members, counselors, related service providers, the student, other school staff and administrators, and individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the student.
At the Section 504 Service Plan initial team meeting, the team will decide whether the student is eligible for a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under Section 504 by deciding whether the student has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. If the team determines that the student is eligible to receive a FAPE under Section 504, the team will develop a Section 504 Service Plan.
Federal Criteria for Section 504 Eligibility
A student shall be eligible for a Section 504 Service Plan if they satisfy all of the following criteria:
(1) Physical or Mental Impairment
A student must actually have a mental or physical impairment. A physical or mental impairment means: any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems: neurological; musculoskeletal; special sense organs; respiratory, including speech organs; cardiovascular; reproductive; digestive; genito-urinary; hemic and lymphatic; skin; and endocrine; or any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional, and specific learning disabilities. An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active. The law does not limit eligibility to specific diseases or categories of medical conditions.
(2) Substantially Limits
The student’s physical or mental impairment must substantially limit one or more major life activities. Section 504 does not specifically define the term “substantially limits.” It is subject to interpretation on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, an impairment that substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability. An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.
Whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures such as: medication, medical supplies, equipment, or appliances, low-vision devices (which do not include ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), prosthetics including limbs and devices, hearing aids and cochlear implants or other implantable hearing devices, mobility devices, or oxygen therapy equipment and supplies; use of assistive technology; reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aids or services; or learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications. Thus, the ameliorative effects of the mitigating measures of ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses shall be considered in determining whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
(3) Major Life Activities
Major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. A major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. Learning, reading, concentration, thinking, and communication are typically, but not always, the major life activities utilized to determine Section 504 eligibility in the schools.
If any of the three criteria is not met, then a Section 504 Service Plan will not be developed for the student. Keep in mind that while a Section 504 Service Plan might not be appropriate, other kinds of accommodation plans may be appropriate.
If a student is determined to be eligible under Section 504, an accommodation plan must be developed and implemented. The district and school must provide what the student needs to access programs and services comparable to that of non-Section 504 students. Accommodations generally involve adjustments made by classroom teachers and other school staff to enable the 504-eligible student to benefit from their educational program. Accommodations are based on and designed to individual student needs and disabilities. Specific standardized test accommodations should be detailed and implemented in the classroom on a regular basis.
Review of Student Progress
Services must be documented and reviewed by staff, parents/guardians and persons knowledgeable about the student. Once eligibility has been established and the 504 team is in agreement with accommodations for the student, copies of the document should be
1) placed in the student’s cum file,
2) documented in the student data system and
3) distributed to all staff serving the student.
All staff serving the student should be notified of the student’s eligibility and their role in providing accommodations. The Section 504 Service Plan should then be reviewed on, at least, an annual basis, at which time the parent/guardian should receive a copy of the District's notice of parent/guardian rights and procedural safeguards. At the beginning of each school year, it is important to distribute the Section 504 plan to appropriate new staff responsible for its implementation. Doing so early will not only ensure compliance with Section 504, but will also facilitate the work and responsibilities of the site coordinator. A re-evaluation of the student should occur at least every three years, or before any significant change in placement, including exiting the student from a Section 504 Service Plan. The re-evaluation of a student’s needs for ongoing accommodations may require formal assessment and/or update of the medical condition for which eligibility was met.