The written state complaint process — one of the dispute resolution options available to families of children with disabilities — contains serious flaws, leading to some states producing less favorable outcomes for families, according to a report by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
States with the most favorable outcomes for parents and advocates who filed complaints included Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska for the 2019-20 school year. States with the least favorable outcomes for parents and advocates that year were Louisiana, North Dakota, Iowa, Nevada and West Virginia.
The report also identified some positive findings, for example that just over 90% of investigations nationally were completed within the required 60-day time limit in 2019-20.
Parents interviewed for the report said they faced a number of challenges using the dispute resolution process, such as language barriers, fear of retaliation, and legal and hidden costs, including the need to take time off from work. Many parents also said an imbalance of power put them at a disadvantage in conflicts with their school district.
“We were surprised and alarmed that so many parents reported that they feared retaliation by their schools for exercising their legal rights," said Chris Roe, COPAA’s state policy director and a key contributor to the report, in a statement. Roe is also the parent of two students with disabilities receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"Parents who are advocating for their child to receive a free and appropriate education should not be afraid to speak up or have to worry about whether their school will retaliate against them when they are just trying to do what is best for their child,” Roe said.
The IDEA allows parents and advocates to use various dispute resolution options when they disagree with school district decisions about services for their child. According to the Center for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education, due process complaints topped the dispute resolution activity in the 2020-21 school year with 23,567 filings. That same year, parents and advocates filed 4,186 written state complaints.
For written state complaints, states conduct investigations. For due process complaints, parents present their case to an administrative hearing officer.
COPAA's report said that of all the dispute resolution options, written state complaints are often seen as the most accessible and user-friendly for parents, because the need for lawyers is minimal and complaints can be filed on behalf of many students if there are concerns about systemic problems. None of the options require parents to retain attorneys.
About 40% of complaints in 2019-2020 resulted in findings of noncompliance against school systems, just as in the three year period from 2017 to 2020. The rates varied among states, however, from 83% in Alaska to 0% in North Dakota and Iowa in 2019-20, according to the report.
Additionally, the COPAA report cited 2019 findings from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that showed a lower percentage of written state complaints investigated in districts with a high population of Black and Hispanic students. But where states did investigate and issue a report, GAO found district noncompliance at much higher rates in very low-income districts and in districts with high populations of Black and Hispanic students.
COPAA makes several recommendations to the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, states, school districts and parents, including:
States should annually identify key issues and systemic concerns discovered through written state complaints and share that information with the public.
States should publish investigation results.
States need to ensure parents are included in meaningful ways when states monitor districts for noncompliance in special education.
Districts should share with school board members, school administrators and district leaders key issues and systemic problems raised through written state complaints.
Districts must be proactive in their communication and transparently with diverse groups of parents about their dispute resolution rights and assist them in accessing those options.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the states with the most favorable outcomes for parents and advocates who filed written state complaints. The story has been updated.