Beth Sims, along with Laura Granelli of Jspan Schlesinger present at this year’s 22nd Annual Pre-Convention School Law Seminar: “Special Education Disputes: Litigate or Settle: That is the Question?”
Special education disputes bring a unique set of challenges to school districts. One can hardly think of a more emotionally charged scenario than a legal battle over the educational health and well-being of a disabled child. Due process hearings and subsequent court actions brought under the IDEA and Section 504 can result in immense stress and cost. Moreover, each new year or change to a child’s program or services provides a fresh basis upon which a complaint can be brought. Yet, unlike litigation in many other contexts, even after the dispute is resolved the parties to the hearing — the district and the parent — remain bound to each other, often for several years, as the child completes his/her educational career.
It is, thus, not surprising that settlement can at times provide an attractive alternative to litigating a special education dispute. However, like the disputes themselves, the issues to be considered when evaluating whether to settle a claim are vast and complex. Among them include: (1) the frequency with which the district is likely to be faced with special education disputes; (2) the nature of the process and how long it will take; (3) whether the district has met its obligations to the student and whether it can prove its case; (4) potential monetary and administrative costs; (5) what the terms of the settlement will be and whether it will be confidential as well as enforceable; (6) whether settlement will encourage the parent, as well as other parents, to file more complaints; and (7) the type of dispute being brought.
Part of understanding the intricacies of each of these factors is recognizing the legal nuances involved in each one. When evaluating these factors, districts should remain mindful that special education disputes are very factually dependent and no two cases, like no two districts, are alike. Thus, the application of each of these factors (and perhaps others) will vary, and should always be reviewed with special education counsel to the district.