Section 504, School Field Trips, and Students with Disabilities

Share this on:

In a previous post, Opening the School Door to Section 504, I discussed the Section 504 and ADA requirements to provide services to children with disabilities. If you are not familiar with how section 504 applies to public elementary and secondary schools, you might check out that article before continuing with this article.

 Sub part D of the Section 504 regulations prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities. This means that public schools must provide services to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities as adequately as the schools meet the needs of students without disabilities. Thus, Section 504 focuses on ensuring equal access for students with disabilities to the program offered by the public school. Under 34 CFR 104.34 of the 504 regulations, equal access includes serving students with disabilities in settings (academic and nonacademic) with students without disabilities. Equal access to the school program includes equal access to filed trips.

Unfortunately, sometimes schools overlook including students with disabilities in field trips or assume that because the student has a disability,  the student is automatically excluded from participating. That is not the case. In fact, Section 504 requires that the school district presume that a student with a disability will participate in a field trip. If  the school believes the student should be excluded from the field trip, it must make that determination on an individual basis. Moreover, the school district has the burden of demonstrating that the student should not participate. (Montebello (CA) Unified School District, 20 IDELR 388 (OCR 1993).

In order to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the school program, Section 504 requires that schools provide accommodations. So, if a student with a disability needed an accommodation or related aids and services to participate in the field trip, those services must be provided.

For example, in Quaker Valley (PA) Sch. Dist., 39 IDELR 235 (OCR 1986), a girl with a neurodegenerative disorder that affected her motor, sensory, perceptual, and language functioning was denied the opportunity to go on field trips and participate in a swimming program. Due to “safety concerns”, the school principal had unilaterally made the decision to exclude her from six field trips with her third grade class, including a trip to a television station. She was the only student excluded from the field trips. In school the girl was provided with accommodations, such as an escort to assist her when walking and holding her hand. But no consideration was given to providing similar accommodations on the field trips or in the swimming program. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) determined that the “safety” considerations were not justified and that the girl should have been provided with accommodations to ensure her participation in the field trips and the swimming program. Additionally, OCR determined the school district violated Section 504 because it did not notify the girl’s parents of the upcoming field trips, while the other children’s’ parents were notified.

On the other hand, OCR has found that there are times when schools, after individual consideration, may exclude a student from a field trip if the student’s participation presents an unacceptable risk to the student’s health or safety. But the school must be able to justify that determination. In North Hunterdon (MD) Pub. Sch. Sys., 25 IDELR 165 (OCR 1996), OCR determined that the school district was justified in excluding a student from a field trip when the student had several seizures on the same day as the field trip.

Finally, schools cannot require that parents of students with disabilities accompany their children on field trips, if parents of students without disabilities are not required to accompany their children. In Rim of the World (CA) Unified Sch. Dist., 38 IDELR 101 (OCR 2002), a student’s Braille assistant was told that the student could not participate in a field trip unless accompanied by a family member. This violated Section 504, because the parents of students without disabilities were not asked to accompany their children.

Field trips are a very important part of the school experience. Section 504 requires that schools presume students with disabilities will participate in field trips along side children without disabilities. If there are concerns that a student’s participation may be unsafe or a risk, the school should consider providing accommodations and related services to support the student’s participation. If the school still believes the student’s participation to be unsafe, the decision to exclude the student must be made on an individual basis and the school district has the burden of demonstrating that the student should not participate.