By Gina Mennett Lee, M.Ed.
Recently this topic came up in several forums I’m involved in so I thought it was important to discuss. There is a very difficult balancing act that must be done when advocating for your child. We want educators to understand the seriousness of our child’s condition and the need to keep him/her safe and included, but we need to do it in such a way as to not alienate the very people we rely on. This situation can be further complicated if there is a lack of knowledge about the seriousness of food allergies within the school district, and/or a lack of willingness on the part of the school system to accommodate our child.
Here are my top 10 tips for surviving a 504 meeting, but they can be applied to almost any meeting. Please keep in mind that these recommendations are based on my experience as a mother to a child with disabilities and my experience as a regular and special education teacher.:
- Say “thank you”. First, I believe that one must enter all meetings, formal or informal, with the assumption that the educators are there because they care about our children. I always start every meeting with a “thank you” to the staff members for taking time to be there and for caring for my child. This also gives me a chance to speak before having to “advocate”. It helps to calm the nerves and the set the stage for a positive dialogue.
- Be informed of your child’s rights and understand them. The more informed you are, the more confident you will feel in the meeting. Check your town and state policies regarding food allergies. Most are available online on the state and district websites. Download copies of these, bring them to the meeting and be able to quote from them, if needed. Also, understand the national laws regarding children with disabilities, specifically Section 504. (According to the Office of Civil Rights, “Section 504 provides: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .”The Section 504 regulations require a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to each qualified student with a disability who is in the school district’s jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability. Under Section 504, FAPE consists of the provision of regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met.) Click on these links for an overview of Section 504, a Fact Sheet, a sample of parental rights.
- Know what your child needs. Go into the meeting knowing what you want from the school in order to meet your child’s needs and why. Be able to back up each request with specific reasons why it is necessary. Provide documentation or examples when possible. For example, if you want your child to have his/her Epipen with him/her at all times, have a letter from your child’s doctor specifically stating this along with a brief description of your child’s allergies and past reactions. Give an example of how not having his Epipen with him at school would put him at risk. (i.e. If a reaction were to occur during recess there would not be enough time to notify the nurse and get the Epipen to your child.)
- Do your homework. Know what accommodations are being done for other children with your child’s disability in your town and in other states. You can find out this information by joining local support groups and/or an online community such as our facebook page, or the Kids With Food Allergies Support Forum. Sometimes school personnel will say an accommodation cannot be made. It’s helpful at these times to be able to cite specific examples of places where this accommodation is being made. (Please note that schools cannot state that an accommodation is not currently being made for other children as justification that it cannot be made for your child. 504 plans should be individualized to meet the specific needs of your child. )
- If you disagree, say so (nicely). You are the expert when it comes to your child. Don’t be afraid to say what you think your child needs. You have a voice in the process. Many parents feel that they are there only to listen to what the school says they can or will do for their child, but you are there to discuss what your child needs and the school must respond to these needs.
- Bring a list of questions that you want answered to the meeting. Ask that these questions be addressed and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions if you need more information. Know who to address your questions to. If you want to know if it’s difficult to monitor all the children at lunch, ask the teacher on duty, not the principal. If you are not able to discuss all of your concerns ask for more time, even if it means scheduling another meeting.
- Never sign anything at the meeting. No matter how great the meeting goes, never sign any paperwork there. I made this mistake once only to realize later that an accommodation we had discussed was missing from the notes. Bring the papers home and read it a day or two later when you have a clear head. If something is missing, ask the 504 Coordinator to add it before signing the document. Please note that signing the document is not the end of the process. You have a right at any time to request to reconvene the team meeting and to discuss changing the document, if necessary. (Typically, at the beginning of the meeting, everyone that attends the meeting signs their name as proof that they were present. It’s ok to sign this part of the document, but read it first.)
- Take detailed notes. This can be difficult to do when you are at a meeting where the stakes are so high. If possible, I recommend you bring a friend or relative to the meeting just for this purpose. Ask him or her to just listen and take notes. This accomplishes three goals. One, you will have an accurate account of the meeting. Two, the school personnel will know that you are informed enough about the process to realize that notes are important. Three, you have another person in the room to give you support.
- Know your next step. If the meeting doesn’t go as planned, know what your next step is. (See the links in #2.)
- A great plan is nothing if it isn’t clearly communicated to the responsible parties and implemented. Before school starts each year, I request a meeting with the principal, the classroom teacher(s), and the nurse to go over the 504 plan and to discuss how it will be implemented. I also am a room parent, and a member of the PTA. I volunteer in the school often. I have built relationships this way. People know me and trust me. They come to me if they have any questions or concerns. By being in the building, you can also check to make sure accommodations are being made. Teachers, principals, nurses, etc… have many responsibilities during the day, when you are present it is a visual reminder of their responsibility to your child.
Keep your eyes on the prize: This is a lesson I continue to learn. There will be good days and bad days. There will be setbacks and disappointments. Our prize is knowing that when our child enters that school building that they are part of a caring community where they will be safe and included. We need to be actively engaged in that community to make it happen.
The greatest gift to me comes when I drop my daughter off at school each day. She waves to me and says, “Ok, Mom, you can go now.” When I hear this, I know that she feels safe enough to let me go. When she feels safe and I know the people who care for her are educated and prepared, then, and only then, can I walk out that door.