You Need to Know Before Filing a Complaint
by Pat Howey, Advocate
rarely file complaints and even more rarely advise parents to file
Why? Because in most cases, there is no real legitimate remedy, even when
the school is found to be in violation.
Countless excited parents and advocates have called to tell me that
they "won" a complaint. My usual response is, "What
did you 'get'"?
After a few seconds of silence, they explain that the school was ordered
to change what they were doing and must provide documentation to the
state that they have completed the required changes.
If the complaint involved a violation about a service - such as failure
to provide an extended school year or failure to provide a related
service that is already in the child's IEP -- the state will very
very rarely order the school to provide that service.
Instead, the state will order the school to convene an IEP team meeting
to determine whether its violation caused the child a denial of FAPE.
If the IEP team decides that child was denied FAPE, the team
is ordered to provide an appropriate amount of compensatory education.
So, what have the parents accomplished?
1. The school will clean up its act -- on
In reality, nothing changes because the school now knows what documentation
the state requires. Rarely will any other parent ever "win"
on this issue again because the parent who filed the original complaint
taught the school what it needs to do to clean up its act and cover
up what it is doing in practice. The state looks at the school's documentation,
not at the school's actual practices.
(If it wasn't written down, it didn't happen. If it was written down,
it did happen, even when it didn't.)
2. The parent will "win" another
Because the parent is already entitled to convene an IEP meeting at
almost any time, they have really not "won" anything. The
state has given them what they already have.
3. The school will send more school personnel
to the IEP meeting.
It is likely that the parent has attended
many IEP meetings in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the issue
that caused the parent to file the complaint.
So, what the parent "won" is another case conference or
IEP meeting to which the school will invite even more staff members
-- and the school now knows how to document the meeting.
the parent's complaint was about the school's failure to provide a
related service, rest assured that the service provider will be invited
to the meeting. Before the meeting, he or she will have been instructed
to find reasons why the child no longer needs that service.
Since the child was not deprived of FAPE after all, the school team
will find no need to provide compensatory educational services.
4. The parent is unlikely to win on this
issue at due process.
Most important, if you file a complaint, it is likely that you will
lose the ability to ever bring up that same issue before a
hearing officer in a due process hearing. If you "lose"
the complaint, a hearing officer is likely to defer to the findings
of the complaint investigator.
The moral of this story is this: Before you file a complaint, be very,
very certain that you will NEVER
want to file for a hearing on the same issue.
Give careful thought to what you will "win" if you win your
complaint. If your state offers no real remedy, it may be wise to
consult an attorney before taking any action.
Likewise, advocates should be very, very careful before filing a complaint
on behalf of a parent, as you may be jeopardizing their future rights
Pat Howey is an Indiana advocate
who has helped parents obtain quality special education services
for their children with disabilities since 1986. She also helps
parents resolve special education disputes with their school districts.
(If Pat cannot assist you, she will refer you to attorneys for legal
advice and assistance.)
Pat is active in several advocacy organizations including The
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. She is the author
of many articles, including:
the Playing Field: Power Struggles, Meetings, Follow Up Letters
Strategies: Filing a Complaint with the State
As a member of the Wrightslaw
Speakers Bureau, Pat provides special education legal and advocacy
training for parents, educators, and others who want to ensure that
children receive quality special education services. These programs
are designed to meet the needs of parents, educators, health care
providers, advocates, and attorneys who represent children with
the World -- One Child at at Time."
Special Education Consulting
West Point, Indiana 47992-0117