Spring is field trip season for many school districts. Whether it’s the annual overnight pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., or a day trip closer to home, it’s important to make sure you are thinking about the unique needs of students with disabilities who will be participating in those trips.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794) protects students with disabilities from discrimination in schools and gives these students the right to access the educational programming offered by the school district. This requirement encompasses field trips sponsored by the school district.
Very often, a child with a disability will need additional supports or accommodations in order to participate in field trips with their peers. The most important step a school can take to include students with disabilities and avoid costly complaints or litigation is to plan ahead on what supports the child will need and how they will be provided. If the child has an individualized education program (IEP), the IEP team, which includes the parent or guardian, should meet to discuss the child’s participation in the trip and identify how the district will provide for any supports or accommodations the child may need. Other students may have a Section 504 plan, and the district can convene what is often described as a “504 team” to have these discussions. Whatever the venue, it is important to involve the child’s parent or guardian and, when appropriate, the child themselves in discussions about what accommodations and supports they may need. It is also important to document what supports will be provided.
The exact supports and accommodations provided to a child will depend on the child’s unique circumstances and the details of the trip. If the child has an IEP or 504 plan in place, the services and accommodations described in those documents are often a good starting point for determining the supports the child may need on the trip, though sometimes additional modifications or accommodations might be necessary. Some accommodations that might be considered include
- A personal aide or increased staffing for supervision purposes;
- Specialized debriefing for the child on the itinerary and behavioral expectations;
- A medication plan or health plan to ensure the child receives needed medication;
- Access to a nurse to provide nursing services;
- Transportation that is accessible for the child’s wheelchair or specialized transportation;
- A behavior plan specifically tailored to the trip.
The district generally should not require a parent to attend the trip as a precondition for the child’s participation, though the parent may be invited to attend if they wish. The district needs to ensure that it has appropriate personnel and planning in place to enable the child to attend with or without the parent. A district should never point to cost as a reason for excluding a child with a disability.
Districts should also take care to avoid having individual administrators make unilateral decisions or generalizations about students with a specific type of disability and their fitness for a trip. Any decision made needs to be individualized to the specific child.
Health and safety concerns
District personnel may have legitimate concerns about some individual students attending a field trip safely. If the student’s participation is likely to pose a significant health and safety risk to the student themselves or others, and there is no way to ameliorate this risk, exclusion from the activity may be appropriate. However, staff should start with the assumption that the child will attend the trip with supports in place and consider possibilities for accommodations before making the decision to exclude. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) determinations on these types of issues have turned on the specific facts of the circumstances, so consultation with board counsel with specific concerns is advisable.