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U.S. Department of Education to Amend Section 504 Regulations

Education Higher Education

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced its intent to amend the regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to “strengthen and protect rights for students with disabilities.” While the ADA Amendments of 2008 broadened the definition of disability under Section 504, the regulations have not been altered since 1977.  The DOE has not directly revealed the particular changes it may be contemplating,  however its references to mental health issues and school discipline hint that these issues may be among those addressed through the regulatory changes. As part of its effort to amend the regulations, the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) in the Department of Education will be soliciting public comments. Instructions for filing public comments as part of the development of the proposed amendments are available here. The Department of Education will also hold listening sessions in the coming months.

The DOE’s announcement highlighted the importance of addressing mental health needs, hinting that this may be an area of focus in the proposed regulatory changes. The DOE noted that May is Mental Health Awareness Month and connected this regulatory amendment effort with President Biden’s broader strategy to address the national mental health crisis.  In addition to considering public comment when determining the proposed amendments, the Department also intends to rely on prior feedback received in response to an earlier request for information regarding the nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline, hinting at another area that could be addressed through these regulatory changes. Additional possible regulatory changes could include aligning the regulations with the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 and its conforming amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that affected the meaning of disability under Section 504, issues related to compensatory education as recently addressed by OCR, as well as other updates aimed at protecting “strengthening and protecting rights for students with disabilities.”

The DOE did not yet announce a timeline for making these regulatory changes. We will continue to monitor this effort and provide updates as they come available. In the meantime, contact the authors of this Alert or any Franczek attorney for questions regarding implementation of Section 504 and its current regulations.