The U.S. District Court of Northern California upheld the expulsion of a student and dismissed the student’s Section 504 disability discrimination claim where the LEA followed IDEA’s procedures during the manifestation determination review of a high schooler who received Section 504 services for ADHD. (J.M. v. Liberty Union High School District, 70 IDELR 4 (N.D. Cal. 2017).
The student was 16 years old and diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”). Based on an evaluation, the District found the student eligible for a Section 504 plan because of his ADHD. The Section 504 Plan described the impact of the disability on his education was poor attention and distractibility, poor organization skills, and frequent failure to complete and turn in assignments and homework. The Plan required the student to receive various accommodations including class notes, preferential classroom seating, and enrollment in a tutorial support class. One evening outside of school, the student had a verbal altercation with another student while playing an online video game. The next day, the student was involved in a threatening confrontation with that same student on school grounds. The District suspended the student and moved to expel him.
Under Section 504, a district must evaluate a student with a disability before imposing a significant change of placement, including disciplinary removals. Here, the court noted that when the student was involved in a “threatening confrontation” with a classmate, the district held a manifestation determination review in which it concluded that the student’s misconduct did not have “a direct or substantial relationship” to his disability. As a result, the district expelled the student for the rest of the school year.
Alleging that the district applied the incorrect legal standard during the manifestation determination review, the student claimed that the district should have assessed whether his conduct merely “bore a relationship” to his ADHD. The court rejected this argument. It pointed out that while Section 504 does not include guidelines for manifestation determination reviews, a district’s “compliance with the procedural safeguards of the IDEA is one means of meeting [Section 504’s] evaluation requirement.” In this case, the evidence showed that the district appropriately followed its evaluation procedures, which mirrored the procedural safeguards outlined in the IDEA regulations, by assessing whether the student’s misconduct “had a direct and substantial relationship” to his disability.
What This Means For You: The term “manifestation determination” does not appear in the regulatory language of Section 504. Instead, Section 504 requires that a local educational agency (“LEA”) conduct a reevaluation before making any “significant change in placement.” 34 CFR § 104.35(a). The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) interprets Section 504 as requiring a manifestation determination review in connection with disciplinary actions that constitute a significant change in placement. Unlike IDEA, the Section 504 regulations do not specifically establish procedural safeguards that must be provided when a district disciplines a student with a disability. Rather, Section 504 requires LEAs to establish such procedural safeguards. LEAs that comply with the procedural safeguards already required under the IDEA for disciplining students eligible under Section 504 will ensure fulfillment of their obligations established under Section 504.