Resolving Special Education Disputes:

A Brief Overview

Parents, such as you, 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

You may possibly attempt to resolve your special education dispute with the school district in a one of the following ways:


  • You may contact your child's teacher or other school staff and express your concerns;

  • You may contact the director of special education for the school district or the superintendent to voice your concerns about your child's education;

  • You may attend an IEP meeting;

  • Your attorney may file a due process complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings or a compliance complaint with the California Department of Education;

  • Your attorney may file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights;

  • Your attorney may file a complaint in state court or federal district court.

In most instances, you are not required to engage in any of the informal activities listed above to resolve your dispute before your attorney files a complaint on your behalf. It is recommended that before you take action, you discuss with an attorney how best to resolve your dispute. 

Resolving conflicts with school districts through due process

Sometimes parents and school districts are unable to resolve their disputes through informal means or through the IEP 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.

It is recommended that parents be represented by a competent special education attorney

Although it may sound relatively easy to file a complaint against a school district,  parents need to keep in mind the risks involved in representing themselves or in being represented by an inexperienced attorney.

  • Without the representation of an experienced special education attorney, you are likely to have trouble analyzing the facts of your dispute with your child's school, knowing relevant law, applying the relevant facts to the law, and identifying the relevant legal issues in your case;

  • In other words, if you write a complaint without competent legal representation, your complaint is likely to be poorly drafted. It may even be dismissed;

  • You will most likely be going up against an attorney who is an expert in special education law. In many cases, you may be going up against more than one school district attorney. The attorney(s) may take advantage of you if you are unrepresented by an attorney or if your attorney lacks expertise in special education matters;

  • Many law firms that represent school districts are large. In addition to having many attorneys on staff, these law firms have support staff such as paralegals who draft legal documents that you may not understand;

  • The attorney for the school district may file various motions against you. A competent special education attorney representing you can respond appropriately;

  • Without competent representation, you may end up waiving several important rights when you agree to a settlement drafted by the school district's attorney and you may not get the supports your child needs;

  • You are more likely to lose at hearing if you represent yourself or are represented by an attorney inexperienced in special education matters.

Requests for special education due process

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

Informal dispute resolution after
filing for due process

After filing for due process, your attorney may work with the school district attorney to resolve the dispute informally. This relatively informal resolution process may take place by email or phone. 

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. Resolution sessions are often brief. Sometimes the parties participate telephonically. Despite the name, almost none of my cases resolve at the resolution meeting. 


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, usually an administrative law judge, who is an expert in special education law. 

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.

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The information on the Caledattorney website is general information for California residents only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice or relied on for any individual case or situation.  We serve clients throughout California and  Northern California including Fresno, San Jose, PlacervilleStockton, Redding, Chico, Auburn, Grass Valley, Sacramento, Truckee, Marysville, Redding, San Francisco, Truckee, Elk Grove, Yuba City, EurekaSanta Rosa, Vacaville and Fairfield.

Molly Watson is available to meet with parents by Skype or FaceTime.


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