Student with OCD and Tourette Syndrome Making Good Grades May Still Be Eligible for a 504 Plan

     I am often asked whether a student who has disabilities but is making good grades can be eligible for services under Section 504. In Miller (GA) School District 56 IDELR 53 (OCR 2010) the Office for Civil Rights decided that the fact a student  with  Tourette syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) achieved good grades in honors classes did not mean he was ineligible for a Section 504 plan.

     The student’s parent contacted the Miller County School District’s Special Education Coordinator in the fall of the student’s 9th grade year because he was being sent to the office for his behavior and was missing instructional time. The Coordinator told the parent that the student did not qualify for a 504 Plan because he makes good grades. The Coordinator made the decision without an evaluation team and did not advise the parent of her procedural rights. The next September, in  the student’s 10th Grade year at Miller County High School, the parent again contacted the Coordinator, saying she had done some research and understood that making good grades was not a reason to be ineligible for a Section 504 Plan. The parent also tried to provide doctor’s diagnoses that her son had Tourette syndrome and OCD, but the coordinator did not accept the documentation and said he would get back to her.

     In October, in order to obtain informal interventions for her son, the parent gave copies of her son’s diagnoses to his teachers along with information on how to handle his disabilities. In November the parent again contacted the Coordinator and asked for a behavior plan for the student after he had gotten into some trouble. The Coordinator said he would speak with the student’s teachers to find out what happened. Not hearing anything, the parent again contacted the Coordinator who told her that if her son was making good grades but having problems he did not necessarily qualify for a Section 504 Plan. Finally, the parent filed a complaint with OCR.

     The Office for Civil Rights found that  the school district had violated Section 504. Based on the parent’s verbal requests the district had sufficient reason to suspect the student might be a student with a disability. In rejecting the parent’s referral for 504 eligibility, the district improperly considered only the student’s grades. The OCR findings stated:

“While learning is a frequently impacted major life activity for students, the District should be cognizant that, in the elementary and secondary context, consideration of a student’s success as reflected by good grades, may not, by itself be sufficient to determine whether that student is substantially limited as to learning. Potentially relevant when a district is considering whether learning is substantially limited are factors such as a student’s ability to interact with others, a student’s ability to control his or her behavior, a student’s ability to attend school, and a student’s ability to participate in the educational program.”

     In order to resolve OCR’s finding that it violated Section 504, the district agreed to convene a meeting with individuals knowledgable about the student to determine if he is eligible for services under a 504 Plan. The district also agreed to revise its 504 procedures. In particular the district agreed to ensure that 504 eligibility committees will consider a broad range of major life activities and not only learning. The two key mistakes the school district made were (1) allowing the Coordinator to make a unilateral decision regarding the student’s 504 eligibility rather than convening a team of knowledgable individuals and (2) only considering the student’s grades rather than a variety of factors.

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