If you have a child with life-threatening nut allergies, the short answer is yes. Absolutely. You need a nut allergy 504 Plan.
No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of his or her 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 . . .
What does that mean?
If your child has an allergy that would be disruptive to their educational experience should an allergic reaction be triggered, it’s your legal right to seek preventive and protective accommodations at school. Section 504 is an anti-discrimination law and it protects your child’s rights to a safe learning environment. Provided that your child’s school receives any sort of federal funding, the school will be required to seek out equal educational opportunities for students with disabilities. Under Section 504, a disability is defined as anyone who has a physical or mental impairment that limits them in what the Rehabilitation Act refers to as “one or more major life activities”.
The U.S. Department of Education expands on Section 504, with its own Title 34 Part 104. To pull a direct quote from Part 104, “Major life activities means functions such as caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.” If there’s a possibility of anaphylaxis occurring in reaction to your child’s offending allergen, your child’s quality of life is certainly threatened. The U.S. Department of Education offers additional insight in its Protecting Students With Disabilities page, which covers frequently asked questions regarding Section 504.
Section 504 entitles you to seek protective and preventive accommodations. If you contact your school and they tell you a legal document is unnecessary as they’re open to working with you, don’t accept that as an appropriate answer. Don’t let them talk you out of it. Treat your nut allergy 504 Plan like the requirement it is. It’s important and for the benefit of everyone involved.
We can’t offer you legal advice, and we want to make that clear. The following is an easy to digest explanation of 504 Plans, with five things we think every parent should know.
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1. What Is a 504 Plan?
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 guarantees rights to people with disabilities by withholding a set of standards that are co-created in a written document called a 504 Plan. A 504 Plan is a legally binding agreement between you and your child’s school. It outlines the acceptable accommodations you and the school agree to for protecting and preventing your child from exposure to an offending allergen. Section 504 isn’t exclusive to food allergies, and it’s actually a broad anti-discrimination law against all disabilities. Life threatening food allergies qualify as a disability because should a child be exposed to an allergic reaction, that allergic reaction would impact the quality of life in one or more life activities. The actual 504 Plan you create with your child’s school will be specialized and personal. Meaning, there’s no specific form to fill out, and no specific protocol for the school to follow to prevent allergic reactions. There’s no one size fits all plan. You get to make highly specific requests because it’s your plan. It exists to protect your specific child.
There are certain voluntary guidelines created by the CDC to give parents an understanding of how to get started with creating requests. But, the voluntary guidelines are only a starting point. Which is a good thing! Your 504 plan is tailored to your needs and it’s renewed every year so you get to make changes or amendments as time goes on. I definitely suggest reading over the CDC guidelines and then deciding what you’d like to keep or change. Your child’s school will be required to work with you on the desired accommodations you provide to them. If there is a specific policy you want to change, for example, if you wish to end shareable birthday snacks in favor of non-food celebrations, it helps to provide alternative suggestions — i.e. extra recess time or handmade paper cards.
2. Why Do I Need a 504 Plan?
There are many reasons why it’s important to require a legally binding document rather than accept a verbal agreement between you and your child’s school or teacher. For starters, it provides everyone with clarity on what is to be expected, and what isn’t acceptable. Having a legal document is also important because should any pushback arise, having a nut allergy 504 Plan in place gives you the power to enforce due process. You can force your legal rights. If for some reason the school views your child’s accommodations as suggestions instead of legal obligations, you have a piece of paper that says otherwise to back you up. Hopefully, it will never come to that. Hopefully your school will not fight you, your family, or your nut allergy 504 Plan. But if it does, you will be able to refer back to the agreement. And it’s nice to know you have that protection in place.
Having your accommodations set in writing will also minimize possible miscommunication. Teachers and principals will have an agreement to refer back to at any point in time. If a substitute teacher replaces your regular teacher’s class, you can have it in your nut allergy 504 Plan that every substitute teacher is required to look over the nut allergy 504 Plan at the beginning of their work day. It advocates for you as you won’t have to repeat everything over and over and wonder if there’s something you accidentally left out, etc. You can also ask for that substitute teacher to contact you so you can speak with her directly, etc.
3. How Do I Get a 504 Plan?
Someone can make a referral or you can make a self referral (parent or student). You could also send an email to the school administration so you have a copy of your request in writing. If you do decide to send an email I suggest stating your request directly. Request an official nut allergy 504 Plan meeting. Once you have a meeting set up and a date picked out, plan what you want to put into the nut allergy 504 Plan. Try to visualize your child’s typical day and what potential problems could come up in a day to day scenario. Think of everything in the worst possible scenario and then what you would want available in those situations. I know we don’t ever want to think of something bad happening, but thinking about the worst possible scenario and can help it to not happen by everyone following the prevention plan. Come up with suggestions for the accommodations as when in the meeting it will make it easier for everyone to see new possibilities, i.e. if you want to have birthdays completely free from shareable snacks, offer other ideas of ways that classrooms can celebrate — birthday cards made in class, extra recess time, etc.
When you’re ready for your appointment and have a list of specific things to ask for, make sure you bring a doctor’s note from your child’s allergist. In order to qualify for a 504 Plan, you will need to show a history of the disability. Have the allergist describe what kind of reaction would occur should your child be exposed to their offending allergen, etc. If you want to request for substitute meals to be provided at lunch by the school, have the doctor clearly state that cross contamination is a concern and that any food prepared for your child needs to not be prepared on any equipment that is shared with the preparation of food containing nuts.
Consider writing your own letter and have them sign it or adapt it to make it their own and print it on their letterhead. But if there is anything specific you want to be noted, having a doctor sign off on it will put a lot of weight behind your request.
4. Do I Still Need a 504 Plan If I Have an IEP?
An IEP (individualized education program) is a legal document outlining the needs for special education instruction or special support. It’s a special education law that is governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If your child has a need for food allergy accommodation and you already have an IEP, you can add in any legal requests for accommodations into your IEP. The accommodations that would be protected under a 504 Plan can also be put inside your IEP. If you’d like, you can actually have both.
If you’re wondering what the difference is, a 504 Plan is a civil rights law and an IEP is a special education law. A 504 Plan was created to make sure individuals are being given proper access, and in the case of schools, proper access to education. An IEP was created to ensure that essential services and special support is granted to disabled persons based on specific educational goals. Qualification for an IEP isn’t as broadly worded as the qualification for a 504 Plan. To qualify for an IEP you need proof of a child needing specialized instruction in school.
If your child has a temporary IEP, a long lasting 504 Plan in addition to the IEP might be the best way to organize your accommodations, but it’s up to you.
Additional Resources Comparing an IEP to a 504 Plan
- If you’re trying to figure out which route would be best for your family, Understood For All has a great article comparison table, outlining the benefits of an IEP vs a 504 Plan.
- University of Washington AccessComputing provides a quick understanding of the differences between an EIP and a 504 Plan.
- The U.S. Department of Education touches on the interrelationship among Section 504, individualized education programs, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
5. Where Can I Find Samples of a 504 Plan?
There is no standard 504 Plan document, however there are some helpful resources to get you started. Should any particular accommodation be necessary for the protection of your child, it’s crucial to raise any and all concerns during your nut allergy 504 Plan meeting. There are a few general guidelines set out by the CDC, and there are also a few sites and blogs that will share personalized 504 Plans or sample plans. Take a look at these sample 504 Plans provided by Kids With Food Allergies to help get you started. Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT) also provides example lists of 504 Plan and EIP accommodations for you and your family to look over and consider implementing for your own 504 Plan.
Everything that you ask for should always keep your personal situation in mind. That’s why these plans are open-ended. What may be good for one person may need to be modified for a different family. You just need to get crystal clear on what is best for you. Consider the difference between a nut free classroom vs a nut free school. To learn more about the differences between a nut free school and a nut aware school read our article Nut Free Vs Nut Aware Schools, comparing the two. In a study by Lisa M. Bartnikas MD et al. — Impact of School Peanut-Free Policies on Epinephrine Administration, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, epinephrine usage was studied in nut free schools and nut aware schools, and the nut aware schools were actually more effective in preventing allergic reactions.
Also consider a plan for substitute teachers. In this informative YouTube video — How to Start a 504 Plan for Food Allergies, Kelly Rudnicki (Food Allergy Mama) discusses her personal journey in creating a 504 Plan for her son. She and a few other parents weigh in on some of the struggles they’ve encountered along their process, especially with substitute teachers. One parent mentions how they went about addressing their concerns in creating a sheet with their child’s name, her picture, bullet points of her allergies, bullet points of symptoms and what to do, where medications were, and a parent contact number. I thought that was a great idea worth sharing. Whatever protocol you want to create for your own plan, put it into writing as a part of your nut allergy 504 Plan.
If you can, try to have your nut allergy 504 Plan meeting before school starts so a letter can be sent out to parents with any critical information. The sooner they get the information the sooner they can help do their part in helping to turn your child’s classroom into a welcoming environment.
Summary for Nut Allergy 504 Plans
Allergies are a disability, not a preference. They can cause serious harm and you don’t need to be apologetic when exercising owed rights. Don’t accept a food care plan in replacement of a legally binding agreement. It’s for the benefit of everyone that all necessary accommodations are laid out in a direct and clear way so everyone can be on the same page. If problems occur, it’s your right to request an attorney.
If you experience pushback, just know you will be breaking waves for the next family who will need accommodations so don’t feel like you are asking for too much. You will be setting the standard protocol for what to do in case of a child having a severe food allergy. And when you’re talking about the safety of your child, nothing can be too much.
Creating a nut allergy 504 Plan won’t be the end conversation, it’s actually just the beginning. But it gives everyone a common ground to start and understand how to move forward. It must be renewed every year, so there will always be room to make improvements and modifications.