Navigating Special Education Disputes: Attorneys Advise How Parents and Districts Can Work Together to Serve Students

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Relationships between school districts and the parents of special needs students are notoriously adversarial, and lawyers sometimes get involved in the disputes that arise. Given the increase in students diagnosed with disabilities and the costs involved in serving them, district leaders who want to provide the proper instruction and care, and avoid costly litigation, must stay abreast of the law.

About 1 in 6 students are now diagnosed with a developmental disability, according to a 2011 study in the journal Pediatrics--a 17 percent increase between 1997 and 2008. And prevalence of autism increased nearly 290 percent during that time, the study found.

Some parents may bring lawsuits against districts, alleging that the school is not providing the proper services for their child under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Conflict often arises over implementing a student's individualized education program (IEP), which defines the learning objectives for a child with disabilities, says Julie Weatherly, a founder of the Weatherly Law Firm in Atlanta, which works with school districts on special education compliance.

"Parents want the best of the best, and expect that the child will maximize his or her potential in school," Weatherly says. "But sometimes, the expectations on the part of litigious parents are beyond what the law would require."

Less money, fewer resources?

IDEA guarantees a free and appropriate public school education for children with special needs, and mandates that these students receive specially-designed instruction and related services. With the increase in students diagnosed with disabilities, districts must spend more money to provide services such as occupational therapy and speech language pathology--a difficult task with reduced staff and budget cuts.

"We've hired another attorney in my practice because more parents are contacting us, I think, because of budget issues," says Wayne Steedman, partner and president of Callegary & Steedman law firm in Baltimore, which represents children with disabilities. "The sequester has impacted school budgets, so more and more districts are either trying to cut or deny services or refuse to identify a child with disabilities."

When parents disagree with schools, they can file for a due process hearing-a court procedure where a hearing officer decides, based on the law, how to deal with the issue being disputed. The number of special education due process hearing requests continues to increase in the five most populous U.S. states, according to an April report from the School Superintendents Association.

An analysis by the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution (CADRE) found that during the 2005-2006 school year, over 19,000 due process hearings were requested, and nearly 5,400 went to a fully adjudicated hearing, compared to only 1,574 adjudicated hearings in 1992, according to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Districts nationwide spend over $90 million per year in conflict resolution, and most of that money is spent on special education cases. However, there is no evidence that students who go through court proceedings perform better academically after the costly hearings, the report found.

Having a facilitator involved in developing IEPs for students with disabilities is one way the School Superintendents Association proposes reducing special education litigation. A facilitator could help settle any disagreements that may arise between parents and school officials. Due process complaints have declined nationally since 2005 as districts increasingly use approaches such as facilitated IEP meetings to solve problems that arise, CADRE found.

Laws get more specific

In some areas, laws are changing to make the role of districts and parents of special needs students more clear. …