Section 504

During her time at TPHS, Abigail Schmidt (11) has been a vocal proponent of mental health. But after a mental health crisis in October of 2021, Schmidt quickly resumed school despite receiving little support academically.

Only later did Schmidt learn of a formal, school-developed plan that prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities as part of Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as a 504.

“People don’t understand that mental health problems like depression and anxiety as well as common learning disabilities, like dyslexia, also qualify for a 504,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt has had a 504 plan since March of her sophomore year.

“I probably should have had one sooner than I did because … I had a crisis in October [and] I just didn’t know what to do.”

The 504 plans are legally binding documents that lay out specific academic accommodations for qualifying students. Stemming from the 1970s when soldiers came back from the Vietnam War, 504 plans were initially structured to aid soldiers with disabilities who wanted to attend college, such as those who had lost an arm in the war. The need for accommodations to overcome learning impairments gave birth to the 504. In the 50-some years following, 504 plans have morphed to account for learning disabilities and mental health disorders.

Luckily Schmidt was able to obtain such a plan with the help of her therapist, teachers and counselor, though, in her case, the accommodations came later than they should have.

“We do have students that don’t have [sufficient] advocacy,” Assistant Principal Robert Shockney, the 504 coordinator at TPHS said. “Those students are the ones we go find [to help].”

Currently, according to Shockney, about 200 students on the TPHS campus have a 504 plan in place, though the number fluctuates.

“It’s an opportunity for our students to have [equal] access to the school,” Shockney said. “[To have] the same opportunity to get a high school diploma, to get themselves ready for college, a job or career, whatever it might be.”

Whether beginning with concern from a teacher, parent, counselor or the student, there are three usual tiers of intervention. Tier one involves a Student Support Team meeting in which parents, counselors, administrators and students come together to discuss the student’s needs. Tier two involves the administration and processing of a 504 contract, and tier three involves the administration of an Individualized Education Program — specialized educational programs that cater to more specific student learning issues.

“The biggest difference is that 504 plans are really accommodation plans, whereas for IEPs, students require special education services on top of the accommodations,” Tiffany Hazelwood, the SDUHSD Director of School and Student Services said.

Accommodations on 504 plans are varied, from allowing a brisk 5-minute walk around campus with a side of nerve-calming oxygen, a life and sleep-preserving extra day on homework assignments or free reign of the school’s nurse’s office.

For Ani Kradjian (12), her 504 prescribes extra time on tests.

“I get distracted very easily. If I’m confident that something’s the right answer, I have to repeat it in my head and then repeat the number or letter,” Kradjian said. “Like, if the answer is B, then I go, okay, I’m on question 22? The answer is B, the answer is B, the answer is B. I’m so nervous about writing down something different than what I know is right, so the extra time gives me time to work through that process.”

A 504 plan also provides other resources beyond extra time. It is created according to an individual’s needs, according to Shockney.

“The need of that individual might be a teacher that can give them some support with study skills; that might be our [Advancement Via Individual Determination] program. They might need support with organization; that might be [our] Academic Survival courses,” Shockney said. “So there’s different accommodations we can [give] based on the needs of each individual.” An anonymous student source obtained a 504 for the primary purpose of accessing extra time accommodations on standardized testing.

“[My family knew] a psychologist at the University of California San Diego, so I took a test that tested for every mental and learning disability,” the student said. “It’s a seven-hour test and costs around $3,500. And he diagnosed me with mathematical dyslexia, and that’s what earned me my 504 plan.”

Though their initial motive was receiving more time on tests, the student found the 504 assisted them even for their relatively “mild” disability.

“I think if you have a limitation of acquiring knowledge, then you should be able to get extra time,” the student said.

As students receive assistance from their 504s, they have found themselves using them less and less as the plans help them adapt to their situations.

“I used to use [my 504] on every single ten-question quiz, but there have been several instances this year where I’ve maybe used five minutes of the time just to check over my answers,” Kradjian said.

Mental well-being fluctuates, and students have found the 504 alleviates the strain on their mental health, allowing them to gradually phase out accommodations.

“I don’t use [the 504] as much as I did last year just because I’ve figured out how to maintain a balance without it,” Schmidt said. Kradjian wants others to know that a 504 is a tool, not what defines her.

“My result is not me having a 504. My result is I did my best because I was allowed extra accommodations for my situation,” Kradjian said. “I’m still the same person. It’s not like I have 504 written on my forehead, it’s just my way of getting through school.”
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