“A 504 plan is essentially a code to even the playing fields,” said M-A’s school psychologist, Jennifer Hettel. A 504 plan helps students by providing them with the support they need given their unique circumstance. It is a way for schools to provide equal educational opportunities to all students.
Former President Richard Nixon established the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 to help students discriminated against for their disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifically helps those with physical and mental disabilities, but can only be enforced in public schools and CollegeBoard exams.
Hettel said, “I filed a 504 every single day last year. Within the first couple of weeks, kids were falling apart.” According to a study done by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March of 2022, “In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%.” However, the pandemic also encouraged an increased focus on mental health awareness. Senior Sophie LeVasseur said, “I feel like the school definitely realized COVID negatively impacted people’s mental health, social skills, and planning skills.”
Since distance learning, M-A families have started to understand the advantages of having a 504 plan, despite there being students who do not currently use it regularly. Senior Faith Cropper said, “I think that as 504 plans become more common, more people think that they need one even if they don’t. Also, some people might want one because they think it’s unfair for certain people to have it, but they don’t realize that the aid we receive only evens the playing fields.” Hettel stated, “Only about 20% of students with a 504 really utilize it.” She believed the numbers have increased because many parents have developed a more open mindset and now view 504 plans as a resource that benefits students. She said, “If the students use their 504 plan, great! If they don’t, then it just exists.”
Part of the requirement to receive a 504 plan is a doctor’s diagnosis, or an evaluation, of a learning disability and obvious signs of falling behind in academics due to their specific diagnosis and unique circumstances. In order to receive a diagnosis, there must be efficient evidence. For Hettel, she may evaluate a student by introducing a variety of assessments, including processing speed assessments and rating scales. She also said, “I can do interviews with teachers or parents to collect data at the school site to verify that there’s an issue.” Some students apply for a 504 plan with a preexisting evaluation. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, “The cost of the assessments typically range between $500 to $2,500.” Hettel said, “I have students who come in with a $3,000 evaluation, and we can’t say no to them because if I want to say no to a $3,000 or $5,000 evaluation, I would have to conduct the same evaluation.”
Because of the high expenditures of professional evaluations, many students may be unable to receive a doctor’s diagnosis for a 504 plan due to financial reasons. Hettel said, “Oftentimes, students who don’t have the resources or means still have disabling conditions, and we see it.” In those cases, she will reach out to teachers and family members to assess the student for a 504. To combat the possibility of discrimination, Hettel is allowed to perform her own diagnosis for free if a student is visibly struggling in their classes. “I think students also compare themselves to their peers. So the testing I’ve done has really shown just some visual processing deficits that have always been there, but were just undiagnosed.”
However, this does not mean that every student who shows signs of struggling academics is guaranteed a 504. “It’s my obligation to help the student using the evidence I’m given. If I find nothing, then I find nothing,” Hettel said. She explained, “These plans can be intricate. For example, someone could have ADHD or a learning disability but they don’t necessarily need services.”
Many students apply for a 504 plan in their first years of high school. According to Hettel, “many students apply for a 504 during their sophomore year when there’s a lot of rigor. That’s when underlying conditions that have always been there really manifest themselves into ADHD, processing speed, and other learning disabilities that were easily managed when you were in a more guided environment.” Junior Derick Kennedy said, “I went through all of freshman year not knowing about my disabilities, but I found myself struggling. Once I took a test to figure out what was wrong, it was much easier to get help.”
While some learning disabilities become apparent when there is a shift in academic rigor entering high school, many students request a 504 at an earlier age. Junior Grace Quiros said, “I’ve had a 504 since I was in elementary school. It started when I could not concentrate in class properly, and it got me in a lot of trouble when I was younger. I finally got tested and started going to get extra help and a lot more support in school, which was very beneficial.”
There are different types of 504 plans for a variety of needs. “In order to be qualified for one there needs to be a disabling medical condition,” said Hettel. For example, someone with a broken arm may be unable to write for a test. This type of disability is an example of a temporary medical condition, which permits a 504 for a limited period of time. Hettel continued, “There are also medical conditions like diabetes, people who are hard of hearing, or vision issues who also qualify for a 504. These examples would have 504 plans because they need their papers enlarged, they need access to FM systems, or when there’s something auditorily related in a Spanish exam, they can have multiple attempts to hear.” Similarly, diabetic students may be excused to leave and eat at any given time. Still, Hettel said, “My most common referral is for a slow reader or for mental health.” These mental health issues include ADHD, anxiety, and depression.
Cropper said, “I find my extended time most beneficial, especially on my tests. Also, I could play audio sounds as many times as I need in my language classes.” For LeVasseur, “One benefit of a 504 plan is that it decreases the stress that comes with assignments because due dates will make it difficult to get the work done because then all I can think about is the due date.”
M-A encourages students to seek the help they need by using its resources and programs. Kennedy said, “When I open up to teachers about my 504 plan, they are very understanding and they give me the tools to succeed.” LeVasseur recommends, “If you have a reason to need the 504 plan, definitely go and talk to someone about it.” If a 504 plan applies to you, you can find Ms. Hettel in the Zen Den located in B-22.
According to the Center of American Progress, data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Education suggested, “The average rate for 504 plans was 5.8% for schools in the top 1% of medium household income and only 1.5% for schools in the bottom 1% of household income, compared with the national average of 2.7%.” Many students who are underprivileged face difficulties receiving the help they need. This makes it crucial for M-A to encourage the promotion of accessible evaluations so that every student has a fair chance to succeed in their educational goals.
The pandemic garnered worldwide support for those who struggled with distance learning, continuing the improvement of school mental health programs. “Overall I think it’s good that our school has more awareness and having a learning disability is not looked down upon,” said Cropper. It is now more likely that the majority of citizens are no longer suppressing their awareness of the crisis of mental health. A poll conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) and CNN revealed that “Nine out of 10 adults said they believed that there’s a mental health crisis in the US today.” For our M-A community, LeVasseur said, “I feel like mental health and learning disability awareness has gotten a lot better in the past few years.”