Navigating the Special Education Process from Student Study Team Meetings to IEPs and 504 Plans

As a parent, it can be scary to have to face the daunting task of asking the school to evaluate your child when you begin to feel that they may be experiencing problems academically, socially or behaviorally in the classroom. But you take that first step and reach out to the school for help. Asking for help is a positive first step. Here’s what you should expect to happen next.

You may be invited to participate in an SST (Student Study Team) Meeting. This may or may not be a good idea. An SST meeting will most likely include the teacher, a resource teacher, an administrator, and of course, the parent. The team will meet to discuss your student’s progress and any gaps or deficits in learning. A decision to move ahead with the student’s educational needs will be made through this process.  

The options are pretty straight forward.  An intervention plan will be developed and implemented to address the needs of the student. Plans vary greatly as they are specifically designed to address the needs of the student. You may decide at this meeting to explore a 504 Plan, an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), a BIP (Behavioral Intervention Plan), or extended psychological and educational testing. Make sure that you take copious notes in case you want to research something later or have further questions.

If, at anytime in the process, you start to feel overwhelmed, seek the help of an education advocate that has experience in working with parents and students to ensure that your child’s needs are being met and that you understand the process and the intervention plan.

A 504 Plan is authorized under the Americans with Disabilities Act, specifically Section 504 which states that a child with a disability has equal ACCESS to an education and that it is comparable to an education provided to those who do not have a disability.”  

While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides the authority and rights through “educational law, a child who receives services under 504 does not benefit from the same mandates as a child who receives special education services under IDEA.”

Here is a real side by side example of what a 504 Plan is versus an IEP*:


A blueprint
or plan
for a child’s
special education
experience at school.
A blueprint or plan for
how the school will provide
support and remove barriers
for a student with
a disability.
What It DoesProvides individualized
special education and
related services to
meet a child’s unique
needs. These services are provided at no cost to families.
Provides services and changes to the learning environment to enable students to learn alongside their peers.

As with an IEP, a 504 plan is provided at no cost to families.
What Law AppliesThe Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

This is a federal special education law for children with disabilities.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This is a federal civil rights law to stop discrimination against people with disabilities.
Who’s EligibleTo get an IEP, there are two requirements:
1. A child has one or more of the 13 disabilities listed in IDEA. The law lists specific challenges, like learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and others.

2. The disability must affect the child’s educational performance and/or ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum. The child must need specialized instruction to make progress in school.
To get a 504 plan, there are two requirements:
1.  A child has any disability. Section 504 covers a wide range of different struggles in school.

2. The disability must interfere with the child’s ability to learn in a general education classroom.

Section 504 has a broader definition of a disability than IDEA. (It says a disability must substantially limit one or more basic life activities. This can include learning, reading, communicating, and thinking.) That’s why a child who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might still be able to get a 504 plan.
Independent Educational EvaluationFamilies can ask the school district to pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) by an outside expert. The district doesn’t have to agree.

Families can always pay for an outside evaluation themselves, but the district may not give it much weight.
Doesn’t allow families to ask for an IEE. As with an IEP evaluation, families can always pay for an outside evaluation themselves.
Who Creates ItThere are strict legal requirements about who participates. An IEP is created by an IEP team that must include:

-The child’s parent or caregiver
-At least one of the child’s general education teachers
At least one special education teacher
-School psychologist or other specialist who can interpret evaluation results
-A district representative with authority over special education services
With a few exceptions, the entire team must be present for IEP meetings.
The rules about who’s on the 504 team are less specific than they are for an IEP.
A 504 plan is created by a team of people who are familiar with the child and who understand the evaluation data and special services options. This might include:

-The child’s parent or caregiver
-General and special education teachers
-The school principal
What’s in ItThe IEP sets learning goals and describes the services the school will provide. It’s a written document.

Here are some of the most important things the IEP must include:
-The child’s present levels of academic and functional performance—how the child is currently doing in school
-Annual education goals for the child and how the school will track progress
-The services the child will get—this may include special education, related, supplementary, and extended school year services
-The timing of services—when they start, how often they occur, and how long they last
-Any accommodations—changes to the child’s learning environment
-Any modifications—changes to what the child is expected to learn or know
-How the child will participate in standardized tests
How the child will be included in general education classes and school activities
There is no standard 504 plan. Unlike an IEP, a 504 plan doesn’t have to be a written document.

A 504 plan generally includes the following:
-Specific accommodations, supports, or services for the child
-Names of who will provide each service
-Name of the person responsible for ensuring the plan is implemented
NoticeWhen the school wants to change a child’s services or placement, it has to tell families in writing before the change. This is called prior written notice. Notice is also required for any IEP meetings and evaluations.

Families also have “stay put” rightsto keep services in place while there’s a disagreement about the IEP.
The school must notify families about an evaluation or a “significant change” in placement. Notice doesn’t have to be in writing, but most schools do so anyway.
ConsentA parent or caregiver must consent in writing for the school to evaluate a child. They must also consent in writing before the school canprovide the services in an IEP.A parent or caregiver’s consent is required for the school district to evaluate a child.
How Often It’s Reviewed and RevisedThe IEP team must review the IEP at least once a year.

The child must be reevaluated every three years to determine whether services are still needed.
The rules vary by state. Generally, a 504 plan is reviewed each year and a reevaluation is done every three years or when needed.
How to Resolve DisputesIDEA gives families several ways to resolve disputes (usually in this order):
-Due process complaint
-Resolution session
-Civil lawsuit
-State complaint
Section 504 gives families several options for resolving disagreements with the school:
-Alternative dispute resolution
-Impartial hearing
-Complaint to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR)
Funding/CostsStudents receive these services at no charge.

States receive additional funding for students with IEPs.
Students receive these services at no charge.

States do not receive extra funding for students with 504 plans. But the federal government can take funding away from programs (including schools) that don’t meet their legal duty to serve kids with disabilities.

IDEA funds can’t be used to serve students with 504 plans.

Resources for understanding Special Education:

Understanding Special Education

*Understanding IEP/504 Plans

Civil Rights Project UCLA

Finally, I found this website to be blunt and true.

6 Reasons to hire a Special Education Advocate:

  • Someone who knows the IEP process better than you, including how to do a thorough record review.
  • A good advocate has connections and knowledge about programs and services in your area that you may not know about.
  • Good advocates will steer you away from Due Process but know their limits. And they’ll know when you have no other choices and will connect you with attorneys.
  • Someone to act as a barrier,  be the proverbial “bad guy” allowing parents to remain more neutral in confrontations.
  • A note taker, bounce around ideas, another set of eyes and ears.
  • Temper the meeting-some staff are more professional with others around.
What do you think?
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Leticia Chavez-Garcia

Leticia Chavez-Garcia

Leticia Chavez-Garcia is a Mother, Grandmother, former Middle School Teacher, former Member of a School Board of Education and an Education Advocate for hundreds of parents and students in the Inland Empire. Having become a mother at 15, Leticia knows what it’s like to be a single mother trying to navigate the education system. Leticia received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Political Science and Public Administration from California Baptist University and a Masters’ Degree in Education Technology from Cal State Fullerton in her 30’s. Leticia has used her knowledge and experience to help hundreds of families as an Education Advocate in the Inland Empire and currently works as an Education Specialist.

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