Section 504 Option Versus Eligibility and Classification under the IDEA

Once your child has been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder and perhaps a co-morbid condition such as ADHD or OCD and/or learning disabilities of any kind, your child can become eligible for accommodations in the academic environment. He or she is protected by two federal laws: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and the more powerful statute enacted in 1975 and reauthorized in 1997 known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Section 504 mandates that individuals with impairments that substantially limit a major life activity, such as learning, are entitled to academic adjustments and auxiliary aids and services, so that courses, examinations, and services will be accessible to them. Parents often ask why they should certify their child under the IDEA instead of under Section 504.

A Section 504 is intended primarily for use in the mainstream classroom. If a child needs minor accommodations such as a bathroom pass because he or she has frequent urination as a result of a drug such as lithium, or needs seating close to the teacher so that he or she can pay better attention, then accommodations under Section 504 may be adequate.

However, bipolar disorder is by nature an episodic illness which may become acute at times. A student with this illness typically needs more services outside the classroom and may need accommodations such as time spent in a resource room, an aide, or a later start to the school day (these accommodations will be explained in the pages below). These more flexible, all-encompassing accommodations are rarely available unless the student has an Individual Education Plan provided by an IDEA classification. (The IDEA provides federal funds to elementary and secondary schools for public education, whereas no such funding supports a Section 504.)

In other words, accommodations under a Section 504 may work as an emergency measure while the IEP process is being conducted (to help ease the stress on the child) but they are probably not adequate for the majority of children with bipolar disorder throughout the span of their time spent in school.

Under IDEA, schools are responsible for identifying and evaluating students with disabilities who may need special education and services. This federal law also requires schools to continue providing services for the student as long as they are needed through their K-12 schooling and up to age 22. The services are provided through a plan or blueprint called an Individualized Education Program—the IEP.

Before the IEP can take place, however, the student must be tested and found eligible for services. For your child to qualify for special education under IDEA, it is not enough that he has one of these disabilities. There must also be evidence that your child’s disability adversely affects his educational performance.

There are 13 categories under IDEA which entitle a child to services and accommodations throughout the school day. The two that most often apply to a child with a bipolar disorder are “other health impaired” (OHI), or “seriously emotionally disturbed” (SED). The SED classification may be referred to in some states as “emotionally disordered” (ED), behaviorally disturbed (BD), or some variant of these.

The phrase “severely emotionally disturbed” may sound exceedingly ominous to parents, but in some states an ED label may make it easier to access better services such as out of district placements or a therapeutic day school or residential school if this becomes necessary. If parents do accept this label, they must be certain that the ED classification (and the IEP team) does not place the child in an inappropriate placement with students who have more delinquent behaviors.

Since every state has different laws and ways of classifying students, it may be best to speak with an educational consultant or educational attorney before setting out on this journey.

Initiating the IEP Process

A child cannot receive services until a full evaluation is completed and the child has qualified as disabled under the IDEA. A parent should request an evaluation in writing after having first talked with the special education director and guidance counsellor to find out how their system initiates the process. In many states, the parents are asked to sign a consent form which makes their child a “focus of concern.” Once the process begins the child will be observed in the classroom, and a number of standardized tests that assess IQ, academic strengths and weaknesses, and language and communication abilities will be administered. Various psychological assessment tests may be administered as well. Additionally, an observation by a qualified person (such as the school psychologist) must be made as part of the assessment to qualify and place a student in an ED program.

All the testing will be done by the school system at no expense to the parents. However, parents may bring their own independent assessments to the meeting. Doing so allows a parent to handpick an experienced tester who will do more in-depth testing and supply a very specific report. Since the IEP is the critical document from which all services and progress benchmarks flow, the quality and comprehensiveness of the baseline assessments cannot be underestimated. The professional most qualified to provide this kind of focused assessment is a neuropsychologist—for all the reasons we are about to discuss.