What is a 504 Plan?
A major provision of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. § 794) requires school districts to provide all students, regardless of disability, with a "free appropriate public education." This provision, found in section 504, applies to any condition - physical, mental, or emotional - that might interfere with a student's ability to receive an education in a public school classroom, subject to external review.
504 Plans, named for that section of the Act, are comprehensive plans created collaboratively by parents, nurses, and other interested parties to address the student's individual needs.
How Can a 504 Plan Help Students Manage Food Allergies in Schools?
Severe food allergies are one of the conditions that may fall under the Rehabilitation Act. Among the issues 504 Plans for students with severe food allergies may address are where life-saving anaphylaxis medications will be stored, where students will eat lunches and snacks, whether allergens will be permitted on the school campus, and if so, where, and how teachers, nurses, and other school personnel will be trained to recognize food allergy symptoms.
504 Plans may also provide a framework for parents to discuss self-care responsibilities with their children, and for parents to clearly discuss with school staff what their children can and cannot do for themselves with respect to keeping safe from allergens in a school setting.
Are All Students with Food Allergies Eligible For 504 Plans?
Likely not. In order to be considered eligible for a 504 Plan, a student must have a condition that "substantially limits one or more major life activities," which are then defined further within the law. In order to determine eligibility, students are evaluated by the school district prior to creating the 504 Plan (if students are denied 504 Plan protection, parents have the option to appeal the ruling).
The factors the school district considers in evaluating the student includes the severity of the condition and the student's ability to provide self-care. Thus, a kindergarten student with an anaphylactic peanut allergy who cannot yet read would almost certainly be considered eligible under the terms of the law; a high school student of normal intelligence with a milk allergy whose major symptom is rhinitis likely would not.
In addition to the Rehabilitation Act, several other laws protect students with food allergies. These include the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The ADA, in particular, may establish some measure of legal protection for students in private schools and day care centers (the Rehabilitation Act applies specifically to public schools).
Several states have also passed laws that allow students to carry injectible epinephrine at school and Good Samaritan laws that can shield from legal liability school personnel who administer epinephrine to anyone they believe in good faith to be having a severe allergic reaction. (You can learn more about these and other legal developments relevant to the schooling of allergic children through the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network's Advocacy in Schools page.)
Public controversy about peanut bans at schools notwithstanding, legal protections for severe food allergies in schools have been consistently enforced. As the number of students with severe food allergies rises, more and more school districts are reviewing allergy policies, or creating new ones.
Why go to the trouble of creating a 504 Plan when you could just sit down with your child's teacher and principal before the school year starts and come to an informal agreement? Well, the major difference between a 504 Plan and this sort of casual discussion with teachers and administrators at the beginning of each school year is that a 504 Plan is a legal document. If the plan is not enforced, parents have legal recourse to the United States Office of Civil Rights or to the local courts, depending on the jurisdiction. (As always, an attorney is the best source of answers for specific legal questions.)
If your school is reluctant to make changes that you feel are necessary for your child's safety, going through the outside evaluation process and getting a 504 Plan may be the best way to protect your child in the classroom. Even if your relationship with your school has been cordial, having a formal, legally enforceable plan may prevent your relationship with the school from becoming adversarial because expectations for all parties - parents, children, classmates, food services workers, nurses, and administration - should be clear after the 504 is completed.
Ultimately, however, 504 Plans are completely optional. Whether you believe your child will benefit from having one is a call that only you can make.