This article first appeared on the website of Protect Allergic Kids.
Parents who have children with food allergies commonly raise the question of whether their child’s rights and safety is protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The short answer is “Yes.” The longer answer is that it depends on the situation. Ideally, the parents and the school can work things out on their own. However, if the school receives federal funding and is uncooperative, parents can use Section 504 to apply some pressure.
In this article, I explain the purpose of Section 504 and show how it applies to food allergies. I then lead you through the process of assessing the situation and then show you how to use Section 504, when necessary, to convince your child’s school to provide the necessary modifications required under the law.
Note: Schools must comply with Section 504 as a prerequisite for receiving federal funds. Failure to provide an appropriate public education is a violation of a student’s civil rights and can jeopardize the school’s federal funding.
Understanding Section 504
Section 504 is a civil rights law with a twofold purpose: ” . . . to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in education or employment in any program or institution receiving federal funds, and to ensure that students with handicaps or disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education.” Public schools and private preschools and day care centers that receive federal funds must comply with this law and its regulations to qualify for financial assistance.
The purpose of Section 504 as it relates to students with food allergies is to ensure that your child’s education is not negatively affected by your child’s food allergy. Some parents believe that it gives their child the right to have individual instruction, modified lesson plans, and so on, but for students with food allergies, such modifications are rarely necessary and may even negatively affect the child’s social life.
Assessing your situation
Before you spend too much time filling out the Section 504 paperwork or too much money hiring an attorney, assess the situation to determine whether Section 504 modifications are necessary or desirable. The first step is to examine the school’s food allergy policy. The school already has an effective food allergy policy in place. You may be able to achieve all of your goals by working within the current system.
Checking your school’s food allergy policy
If your school does not have a food allergy policy in place, you may want to work with the principal, teachers, other parents who have children with food allergies, your pediatrician, and your allergist to draw up a suitable plan. The school’s food allergy policy should cover the following:
- Where medications are stored
- Where each student’s emergency healthcare form is filed
- Who is trained to deal with emergency reactions and how they will be trained
- How substitute teachers will be trained to identify and treat reactions
- Where students eat lunch and snacks
- Who provides snacks
- Whether the classroom can be made allergen free
- Cafeteria procedures, including food preparation and the cleaning of tables
- Hand-washing policies for students
- Food policy on buses (can students eat on buses)
- Field trip planning, including who is in charge of the medications
- After school activities—how are teachers and coaches trained to deal with food allergies and how they gain access to medications when necessary
As long as your school provides a safe environment for your child and does not prohibit your child from joining in most school-related activities or extracurricular activities, a 504 plan is probably not necessary. Section 504 may come into play in situations in which your child could not participate in a classroom activity or go on a particular field trip due to the food allergy.
The law provides that students with disabilities must be educated with non-disabled students, and students with disabilities must receive the same or equal access to educational opportunities or extracurricular activities that are provided to students without disabilities. Students cannot be excluded from going on field trips, eating in the cafeteria, or participating in class projects because of their food allergies, although in some instances you may decide that some activities are not worth the risk.
Teaming up with your child’s school
Once positive change that we have seen due to the rising prevalence of food allergies is that schools are becoming more aware of and experienced in dealing with food allergies. Many schools now have effective food allergy policies in place and do a good job of keeping food out of the classrooms.
As a parent, you can play a valuable role in keeping your child safe by teaming up with the school and with the teacher and staff who care for your child. Schedule a meeting just prior to the beginning of school with the principal, school nurse, your child’s teachers, and other caregivers and review safety measures with them. Everyone needs to know how to help your child avoid accidental exposure to problem foods, how to spot symptoms of a reaction, where medications are stored and how to administer them, and what to do in the event of a sever reaction.
You should have an emergency action plan on file for your child that answers the following questions:
- What are the potential symptoms of a reaction?
- Where should the student go for help?
- Which medications should be administered and in what dosage?
- Who should accompany the child?
- Who is to stay with the other students?
- What should be done if the student is in the lunch room, classroom, or gym?
- Who’s responsible for calling the nurse?
- If the nurse is not present, who’s next in line for action?
- When should the person in charge call 911?
Using Section 504 to obtain modifications
If your child’s school fails to cooperate with your reasonable requests, then you may need to force compliance. The first step is to contact your school system’s Superintendent and request a meeting with your child’s 504 Plan Coordinator. Let the person know what’s going on and try to work out a solution that provides your child with the necessary modifications.
If you’ve done everything you can and the school remains unresponsive to your requests, call the United States Health and Human Services Department at 1-800-368-1019, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.hhs.gov/ocr to file a complaint online.
Tip: For more information about 504 plans, including a Question and Answer section and links to additional useful websites, visit the Council for Educators for Students with Disabilities, Inc. Web site at www.504idea.org.
Dr. Robert A. Wood is Professor of Pediatrics and International Health and Chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland and author of the recently published Food Allergies For Dummies (John Wiley & Sons).