Parents in Montgomery County are leading efforts to make it easier for Maryland families to dispute a child’s special education plan in legal hearings.
The parents have been lobbying in favor of a bill that would require school systems to defend Individual Education Programs in due process legal disputes, regardless of who initiates the proceedings.
If approved, the legislation would change the current system in Maryland, which states that the person bringing a complaint in special education disputes has the “burden of proof,” or responsibility of convincing a hearing officer whether the IEP developed for a particular child is appropriate.
Advocates say the special education process is overwhelming, expensive, intimidating and legally burdensome.
Maryland state Sen. Karen Montgomery (D-Montgomery) has sponsored Senate Bill 691, which advocates say would give parents a competitive edge in special education disputes.
Montgomery said parents who believe school systems aren’t providing the right education for their special needs children often are at a disadvantage when they seek more services from school districts. School systems have attorneys, special education experts and staff to fight or defend special education disputes. But parents often don’t have the legal expertise or money to go toe-to-toe against the school systems, she said.
“The school system always prevails because when the parents come in they’re kind of blindsided by all the paperwork they should have done and they don’t know,” Montgomery said.
Federal law says students with disabilities are entitled to a “free and appropriate education” funded by the public schools. Parents work with school administrators to develop IEPs for students, which detail the services children are supposed to receive. But when the two sides can’t agree and mediation fails parents can bring the dispute before a judge or legal officer in a due process hearing.
Advocates of the bill were at a subcommittee hearing in Annapolis last week and were scheduled to speak before the Montgomery County Council’s education subcommittee on Monday. . The Montgomery County Board of Education is expected to consider whether to support the proposed legislation at its meeting Tuesday. Parents also have also launched a petition advocating the bill, which nearly 800 have signed.
The Maryland State Department of Education has opposed the bill, with officials saying it would create an adversarial relationship between parents and school officials. William Fields, with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, testified against the bill at a hearing last week.
He said changing the law wouldn’t make it any easier for parents to hire attorneys to contest special education plans for their kids.
“We think it would cut down on the collaborative process,” Fields said.