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Overview of Dispute Resolution Procedures for Families in Preschool and School-Age Special Education Programs


Well-meaning and good intentioned people can disagree on what educational program is appropriate for a student on the autism spectrum. Parents, who may be driven solely by their child's own needs, often advocate for more and better services. But federal law guarantees "appropriate services" for students with disabilities, not the "best" services available. Schools, unfortunately, may be conscious of staff and funding constraints. Often these competing interests can lead to disagreements. Courts have defined an "appropriate program" as one which is designed to result in "meaningful benefit" or "significant learning."

There are generally two types of disagreements within the special education system: (1) disagreements over eligibility (for example, your child is found not to need specialized services); and (2) disagreements about the Individualized Education Program (IEP). Disagreements about the IEP can be about the actual IEP being offered (for example, the type of services, how often a service is to be delivered, or where the services take place, often referred to as the Least Restrictive Environment) or can relate to how the services are being delivered once an IEP has been agreed upon (for example, your child is not receiving the services set forth in the IEP or the services being delivered are not effective for your child to make progress toward IEP goals).

The best first option for any disagreement is usually to request a meeting to attempt to resolve the disagreement. You may do so in person or by phone, but it is best to follow up your request with a written letter or email. Some disagreements arise out of misunderstandings and can be easily resolved through a face-to-face meeting between the parents and school personnel. If an agreement is reached through an informal meeting or conversation, make sure the team updates the Evaluation Report (ER) and/or IEP to reflect any changes. This ensures that the agreement becomes legally enforceable.

In Pennsylvania, families may take part in an Evaluative Conciliation Conference (ECC). An ECC helps each side of a disagreement assess the strength of its case before moving forward with other forms of dispute resolution.

If an informal meeting (or in Pennsylvania, an ECC) does not solve the problem, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides parents with three dispute resolution options.

  1. Request Mediation: Mediation is an informal option that uses a neutral third party to help resolve disputes. Both sides – the family and the school district – attend a meeting conducted by a trained mediator. The mediator helps the two sides agree on some or all of the issues. In Pennsylvania, attorneys cannot attend mediation although parents can bring another advisor, such as an advocate.
  2. File a State Complaint: A parent or someone acting on behalf of a parent (or group of parents) can file a complaint with the state if he or she believes that a child's rights have been violated. The complaint must give relevant facts to describe the situation and suggest a proposed resolution of the problem, which may include compensatory services or monetary reimbursement. The complaint must be filed within two years of the alleged violations. After a complaint is filed, it must be resolved within 60 days. If the subject matter of the complaint is also the subject of a Due Process Complaint, the state complaint will be put on hold until the Due Process Complaint is resolved.
  3. File for a Due Process Hearing: A Due Process Hearing is a formal legal proceeding, very similar to a trial, in which both sides of a dispute present testimony and evidence and can ask questions of the other side's witnesses.

Your school district must provide you with a copy of a "Procedural Safeguards" document, which outlines parent rights and instructions to follow when disagreements arise. The Procedural Safeguards document must include information pertaining to parents' rights to independent educational evaluations, prior written notice, parental consent, access to educational records, the complaint process, the availability of mediation, a child's placement during resolution of complaints, private school placement, and appeals. You should receive this document from your school at least once a year and again if you file for a due process hearing.

It is important to note that, regardless of how you choose to try to resolve your special education dispute, you need to be prepared. You will need to present evidence that your child's rights under IDEA have been violated. Many times, this means that you may need to get someone else to provide an expert opinion about your child. For example, if you are challenging a finding that your child does not qualify for special education services, you may want to obtain an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) of your child to show that your child has a disability and is in need of specialized services. Other times, you may need to find an expert to give evidence that the program set up in your child's IEP is inappropriate, or you may need to have documented evidence that your child has not been receiving the services required by the IEP.

Before beginning any dispute resolution procedure, you may want to consult with a special education attorney. Many attorneys provide an initial free consultation, which you can use to determine the strength of your position and your available remedies.

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The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.