Gluten-Free Safety at School – Your Child’s 504 Plan

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Updated July 15, 2021

Is your gluten-free child heading to school? You may want to look into a “504 Plan” for them. 

What’s a 504 Plan? 

A 504 Plan refers to Section 504 of the “Rehabilitation Act of 1973,” a federal law designed to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance from any federal agency. In the case of students with disabilities that attend public school in the United States, their rights would be protected by this act because public schools are funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Private schools that receive some federal funding may also be required to comply with Section 504. 

A 504 Plan can address all aspects of your child’s gluten-free needs at school, from having gluten-free snack options at class events, to avoidance of gluten-containing craft projects, to school lunches and food on class trips. 

How Does your Gluten-Free Child Qualify for a 504 Plan? 

Parents or guardians of any child with a disability who attends a school in the U.S.  that receives federal funding may be eligible to submit a 504 Plan for their child to their school. Section 504 is an anti-discrimination statute that requires the needs of students with disabilities to be met as adequately as the needs of non-disabled students are met.  

Section 504 states that: “No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 706(8) of this title, 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…” [29 U.S.C. §794(a), 34 C.F.R. §104.4(a)]. 

Federal law defines an “individual with a disability” as “…any person who: (i) has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity; (ii) has a record of such an impairment; or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment” [34 C.F.R. §104.3(j)(1)]. 

If your child is required to be on a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, they may qualify as having a disability. According to a 2008 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the meaning of “disability” now includes anything that limits a “major life activity,” adding eating to the list of major life activities.  

A child who requires a gluten-free diet — whether due to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity — may be eligible for a 504 Plan, but being granted one is not guaranteed. Each child requesting a plan is considered on a case-by-case basis.  

Simply communicating with a child’s teachers, the school nurse, and even with administrators and food service staff at the school can sometimes be sufficient. If not, a 504 Plan can be the next step. 

Some Possible Provisions of a 504 Plan 

Children’s needs vary, and the approach to accommodating gluten-free students varies from school to school.  

Some possible accommodations for your child could include: 

  • Gluten-free meal options for school-served meals. 

  • Access to a refrigerator, freezer, and microwave to store and prepare gluten-free meals.

  • Gluten-free options at school activities that involve food, including parties and field trips.

  • Ability to go to the bathroom without restrictions or limitations, as needed.

  • Access to gluten-free school art supplies, particularly for younger children who might use certain play doughs, paints, glues, papier-mâché (wheat flour-based), and even dried pasta.

  • Training for school staff about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. 

Consider your own child’s circumstances, and determine the best approach for them. 

Taking Steps Toward a 504 Plan 

Trying to obtain a 504 Plan is part of being an advocate for your child. Here are some steps you can take toward requesting one. 

  1. Do your homework. While the 504 Plan is federal law, each school may take a slightly different approach to determining need and making accommodations. Read up on what is required federally, but also look for more local information. 
     
  2. Get a doctor’s note. Ask your child’s primary physician or gastroenterologist to write a letter explaining the medical need for a gluten-free diet and safely gluten-free environment. This letter should include a formal diagnosis of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. 
     
  3. Contact your child’s school. Ask to be connected with the person at the school who handles 504 Plans. Request a list of requirements and find out what information you’ll need to properly submit your plan request.  
     
  4. Include teachers. Reach out to your child’s teacher or teachers to inform them of your child’s gluten-free status. Make sure they are involved in or informed of the 504 Plan discussions.

  5. Include the school nurse. School nurses can play a major role in the health and well-being of your child while they are at school. If they are not already included in 504 planning, get in touch with them and keep them informed.

  6. Meet about the plan. Getting a 504 Plan in place for your child could require several meetings and correspondence. Take good notes and address any issues or concerns every step of the way.

  7. Get the planand distribute it. Once you are granted a 504 Plan for your child, make sure all stakeholders have a copy and keep several copies on hand.

  8. Follow up. Continue to advocate for your child by making sure there are follow-up meetings or regular correspondence with the 504 Plan coordinator or teachers to ensure compliance. If there are issues with compliance, document everything and submit a letter to the stakeholders to explain what happened so the issue can be prevented in the future. 

What if Your Child’s 504 Plan is Not Being Followed? 

If you’ve been in touch with your 504 Plan team and your child is still getting sick from exposure to gluten at school, you could reach out to your state’s Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) or Community Parent Resource Centers for guidance. On a federal level, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights oversees ADA-related issues. 

Keeping your child safe is your priority. Good communication with your child’s school is key to making sure everyone shares in that goal. 

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