Resolving Special Education Disputes:  A Brief Overview

Parents and school districts often disagree regarding a child’s special education.

  • You may believe their child needs more or different services, such as the provision of a 1:1 aide or speech and language therapy;
  • You may believe the school district’s assessments are insufficiently comprehensive or inaccurate;
  • You may want your loved one mainstreamed in the general education environment with their non disabled peers;  
  • The school district may have failed to provide needed services that are included in your child’s IEP.
  • There may be a whole host of other reasons for the dispute.

Ways to resolve special education disputes

Special education disputes regarding IEPs are commonly resolved in a variety of ways such as:

  • Contacting your child’s teacher or other school staff and expressing your concerns;
  • Contacting the director of special education for the school district or the superintendent to voice your concerns about your child’s education;
  • Attending an IEP meeting;
  • Filing a due process complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings or a compliance complaint with the California Department of Education.

Resolving conflicts with school districts through due process

Due process ensures that you have a way to assert your rights and those of your child regarding special education through formal legal means. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), our federal special education law, a party has the right to file a request for a due process hearing about any matter relating to the following:

  • The identification, 
  • Evaluation, 
  • Educational placement of a child, 
  • Or the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for a child.

Requests for special education due process

To request a hearing, you or your attorney will submit a complaint to the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), which provides resolution services and conducts hearings free of charge for parents of children with special needs. A copy of your complaint will  be sent to your child’s school district. 

The complaint will include basic information about you and your child and the school and school district in which your child is enrolled. The complaint will also include facts related to the dispute with the school district and your proposed resolutions to the dispute. 

The resolution session

Within fifteen days of the school district receiving a copy of the complaint, a resolution session must be held unless both parties agree to waive it. The resolution session gives you and the school district the opportunity to work together to resolve the dispute. The resolution session is less formal than a hearing, may result in early resolution of the dispute, and may help repair relationships and open lines of communication between you and the school district.


Mediation is a voluntary confidential process during which the parties, facilitated by a mediator, work to resolve the dispute. The mediator is a neutral third party who helps the parties communicate their concerns to each other. Many mediators are administrative law judges who are especially knowledgeable about special education laws and due process. 

The focus of the mediation is in working to arrive at a solution to the dispute that is agreeable to both parties. Many special education matters are settled through mediation. 

In settling a dispute with a school district, careful attention must be paid to the wording of any settlement agreement to make sure that your child’s interests are honored and your rights are protected.

Prehearing conference

A prehearing conference is a telephone conference between the administrative law judge who will preside over the matter at hearing, the school district’s attorney, and you or your attorney. 

Among other matters, you or your attorney will discuss with the judge and the attorney for the school district the following:

  • Remaining issues,
  • Proposed resolutions,
  • Witnesses who may testify, 
  • Documentary evidence,
  • How exhibits will be marked, 
  • Any legal motions that your attorney or the school district’s attorney may have filed, 
  • Whether an interpreter or special accommodations are needed,
  • How many days the hearing may last.

Special education hearing

An administrative law judge will conduct the hearing, which will focus on the issues contained in the due process complaint. During the hearing, both you and the school district will have the opportunity to present your cases through relevant evidence and testimony. 

Following the due process hearing, the parties may submit closing arguments, which summarize the law and the facts that support each party’s position. After the parties submit their closing arguments, the administrative law judge will issue a written decision. If you disagree with the decision, you have the right to appeal the decision in federal or state court.

Education Attorney Molly Watson

We serve special needs children and their families in disputes with school distraction in California.

Call us today for help: 530-273-2740

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