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What You Need to Know Before Filing a Complaint
by Pat Howey, Advocate

I rarely file complaints and even more rarely advise parents to file complaints.

Why? Because in most cases, there is no real legitimate remedy, even when the school is found to be in violation.

picture of gavel and court papersCountless 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 paper.

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 IEP meeting.

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.

If 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 and remedies.

Meet Pat Howey

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:

Understanding the Playing Field: Power Struggles, Meetings, Follow Up Letters
Advocacy 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 disabilities. Learn more.

"Changing the World -- One Child at at Time."

Contact Information
Pat Howey
Special Education Consulting
POB 117
West Point, Indiana 47992-0117
Website: patriciahowey.com
Email: specialedconsulting@gmail.com

Revised 10/26/16

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