504 Plans: Students Need More Access to Accommodations

The 504 plan was created to assist students with disabilities identified under the law, and ensure their academic success. Essentially, that means a student has a diagnosed disability or mental illness and needs accommodations. But what about the students who are struggling with their mental health without a diagnosis? 

These plans aim to help students who cannot keep up with the curriculum by providing some additional support. A variety of options are available based on the individual’s needs. For instance, those with anxiety can receive a flash pass that allows them to show the teacher the slip and go straight to counseling. However, the issue is that even students without a diagnosed anxiety disorder deal with panic attacks. Before I was diagnosed I would just go to the bathroom and deal with it. Now I can have a space to calm down, and can even speak to a counselor.

It goes without saying that anxiety disorders make school especially difficult for students. The amount of teachers who force presentations onto students is ridiculous. I vaguely recall stuttering my way through a Spanish presentation then going to the bathroom to cry because I hated it that much. If I had had a 504, or even an understanding teacher, that could have been avoided. And even if my teacher was understanding, the idea of starting that conversation would have terrified freshman me. 

Mental health also plays a huge role in test taking. It’s entirely common to blank out during a math test that you studied really hard for when you are dealing with anxiety. With some 504s, students can have additional time and a private work space. 

“Prior to getting a 504, whenever I would go to teachers for extra time on assignments, they would just assume I was lying about struggling with my mental health,” says senior Victoria Caplan. “Making these plans more accessible can help students who aren’t willing to defend themselves in these situations due to anxiety.”

Before I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I would just deal with the highs and lows of mania and have no idea what was going on. Many parents, like minorities in particular, are less likely to “believe” in mental illness, let alone admit that their child might have one. My parents just thought I was crazy. Getting diagnosed with a mental illness is not only incredibly expensive, but incredibly time consuming. A psychologist first has to meet with you to discuss your symptoms, then friends and family members must confirm what you say. This is a very long back and forth process. Those with higher income parents are more likely to be diagnosed, and therefore have higher access to accommodations. 

Despite that, these plans fall under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, later followed up by the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are county wide rules that MCPS is required to follow, so it makes sense that these plans are selective. However, prior to receiving my 504, I was given “informal accommodations.” These included extended time on work and a flash pass to counseling. Even though I didn’t officially have a 504 yet, I still had access to the help I needed. 

If students could have an interview with their counselor at the beginning of the year to discuss their individual needs, then this issue could be solved. While most teachers are fairly understanding about mental health in school, there are always those who refuse to give extensions or allow a trip to counseling. Oftentimes, teenagers end up going to mental health facilities and psych wards before they get diagnosed with a mental illness. Blake has an amazing counseling department; access to accommodations for students does not seem out of reach. 

Even a google form rating how well you are able to accomplish tasks in school could be beneficial. Ideally, it would list several examples of how anxiety can impact school. For instance, a student could check off “I forgot what I learned while taking a test” or “I face high levels of anxiety when test taking.” And yes, it is entirely possible that people will abuse these forms, so teachers can confirm whether or not the student is being entirely honest based on test scores and class work completion. 

It’s ridiculous not to give struggling students some extra time on assignments just because they don’t have a diagnosis. The conversation surrounding mental health in this country has just begun. There are so many changes that can be easily made to help students during these difficult times. Virtually nothing stands in the way of making these small changes that add up to progress.