oversight

Special Education: Numbers of Formal Disputes Are Generally Low and States Are Using Mediation and Other Strategies to Resolve Conflicts

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-09-09.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                 United States General Accounting Office

GAO              Report to the Ranking Minority
                 Member, Committee on Health,
                 Education, Labor and Pensions,
                 U.S. Senate

September 2003
                 SPECIAL
                 EDUCATION
                 Numbers of Formal
                 Disputes Are
                 Generally Low and
                 States Are Using
                 Mediation and Other
                 Strategies to Resolve
                 Conflicts




GAO-03-897
                                                September 2003


                                                SPECIAL EDUCATION

                                                Numbers of Formal Disputes Are
Highlights of GAO-03-897, a report to the       Generally Low and States Are Using
Ranking Minority Member, Committee on
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions,          Mediation and Other Strategies to
U.S. Senate
                                                Resolve Conflicts


In the 2001-02 school year, about               Officials in four states told GAO that disagreements usually arose between
6.5 million children aged 3 through             parents and school districts over fundamental issues of identifying students’
21 received special education                   need for special education, developing and implementing their individualized
services under the Individuals with             education programs, and determining the appropriate education setting.
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
On occasion, parents and schools
disagree about what kinds of
                                                While national data on disputes are limited and inexact, the available
special services, if any, are needed            information showed that formal dispute resolution activity, as measured by
for children and how they should                the number of due process hearings, state complaints, and mediations, was
be provided. Conflicts between                  generally low. According to the National Association of State Directors of
school officials and families                   Special Education, while requests for hearings increased from 7,532 to
sometimes become costly, both                   11,068 over a 5-year period, the number of due process hearings held
financially and in terms of the harm            decreased from 3,555 to 3,020; much of the 5-year decline occurred in New
done to relationships.                          York. Additionally, most due process hearings were concentrated in five
                                                states—California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—and
As requested, GAO determined the                the District of Columbia.
kinds of issues that result in formal
                                                Numbers of Due Process Hearings Requested and Held Nationwide from 1996 through 2000
disputes, the extent to which the
three formal mechanisms (due
process hearings, mediations, and
state complaints) are employed for
resolution, the role of mediation
and other alternative dispute
resolution strategies in selected
locations, and whether local
education agencies received
adequate and timely complaint
notifications from states. To
address these objectives, GAO
reviewed available national data
and conducted site visits to state
and local education agencies in
four states--California,
Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas.

                                                Overall, dispute resolution activity was generally low relative to the number
                                                of students with disabilities. About 5 due process hearings were held per
                                                10,000 students with disabilities. National studies also reported no more than
                                                an estimated 7 mediations per 10,000 students and about 10 state complaints
                                                per 10,000 students.

                                                States GAO visited emphasized mediation in resolving disputes and made it
                                                more available than federal law required. Some locations had developed
                                                additional strategies for early resolution of disagreements between parents
                                                and school districts. Finally, school district officials in the four states said
www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-897.
                                                they had few problems with state complaint notifications, and problems
To view the full product, including the scope   encountered had little impact on the timeliness of the complaint process:
and methodology, click on the link above.       state and local education officials appeared to be working together to
For more information, contact Marnie Shaul at
(202) 512-7215 or shaulm@gao.gov.
                                                overcome them.
Contents


Letter                                                                                      1
               Results in Brief                                                             2
               Background                                                                   4
               In Selected Locations, Disputes between Schools and Families
                  Were Usually over Student Identifications, Education Programs,
                  and Placements                                                          10
               Available Data Indicate That Dispute Resolution Activity Was
                  Generally Low; Due Process Hearings Were Concentrated in a
                  Few Locations                                                           12
               States We Visited Were Emphasizing Mediation, and Some
                  Locations Used Additional Strategies                                    16
               State Notification Problems Were Generally Minor and Had Little
                  Effect on Timeliness                                                    21
               Concluding Observations                                                    22
               Agency Comments                                                            22

Appendix I     Scope and Methodology                                                      24



Appendix II    Levels of Dispute Resolution Activity in the Four
               Urban and Four Rural School Districts Visited                              28



Appendix III   Comments from the Department of Education                                  29



Appendix IV    GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments                                     31
               GAO Contacts                                                               31
               Staff Acknowledgments                                                      31


Tables
               Table 1: Key Differences in Formal Dispute Resolution
                        Mechanisms                                                          7
               Table 2: Dispute Resolution Activity in California, Massachusetts,
                        Ohio, and Texas, Fiscal Years 2000-02                             17




               Page i                                GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
          Table 3: Dispute Resolution Activity in Urban and Rural School
                   Districts over a 3-Year Period, Fiscal Years 2000-02                             28


Figures
          Figure 1: Numbers of Due Process Hearings Requested and Held
                   Nationwide from 1996 through 2000                                                13
          Figure 2: Numbers of Due Process Hearings Held in 5 States and
                   the District of Columbia Compared to the Rest of the
                   United States, 1996-2000                                                         14




          Abbreviations

          CADRE             Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in
                            Special Education
          IDEA              Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
          IEP               individualized education program
          LEA               local education agency
          NASDSE            National Association of State Directors of Special
                            Education
          OSEP              Office of Special Education Programs
          SEA               state education agency
          SEEP              Special Education Expenditure Project
          SLIIDEA           Study of State and Local Implementation and Impact
                            of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act


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          United States. It may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety without further
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          other material, permission from the copyright holder may be necessary if you wish to
          reproduce this material separately.




          Page ii                                      GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
United States General Accounting Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   September 9, 2003

                                   The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy
                                   Ranking Minority Member
                                   Committee on Health, Education,
                                    Labor and Pensions
                                   United States Senate

                                   Dear Senator Kennedy:

                                   In the 2001-02 school year, about 6.5 million children aged 3 through
                                   21 received special education services under the Individuals with
                                   Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at a federal cost of approximately
                                   $8 billion and more than $48 billion in state costs.1 On occasion, parents
                                   and schools disagree about what kinds of special services, if any, are
                                   needed for children and how they should be provided. Disagreements
                                   between school officials and families that cannot be resolved quickly
                                   sometimes become formal disputes that can be costly, both financially and
                                   in terms of the harm done to relationships. In May 2003, the Special
                                   Education Expenditure Project (SEEP) reported that school districts
                                   spent at least $90 million on resolving such disputes in the 1999-2000
                                   school year.

                                   School districts and families have at least three formal mechanisms for
                                   resolving disputes: state complaint procedures, due process hearings, and
                                   mediation.2 A state complaint procedure is a review by the state education
                                   agency (SEA) to determine whether a state or a local school district has
                                   violated IDEA. A due process hearing is an administrative agency process,
                                   in which an impartial hearing officer receives evidence, provides for the
                                   examination and cross-examination of witnesses by each party, and then
                                   issues a report of findings of fact and decisions. To provide an alternative
                                   mechanism for resolving conflicts in a way that may be less costly and less



                                   1
                                   Source of cost data: Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Individuals
                                   with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Current Funding Trends, RS21447, updated
                                   March 3, 2003.
                                   2
                                    Parties that are not satisfied with a due process hearing decision may bring a civil action in
                                   federal or state court but such actions are uncommon and were not included in our review.
                                   In the 1998-99 school year, an estimated 301 civil actions were initiated nationwide.



                                   Page 1                                         GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                   adversarial, the 1997 amendments to IDEA required that states offer
                   voluntary mediation when a request for a due process hearing is filed.
                   Mediation is a negotiating process that employs an impartial mediator to
                   help the parties in conflict resolve their disputes with a mutually accepted
                   written agreement. While school districts and families are not required to
                   choose this option, the legislation strongly encouraged states to promote
                   the use of mediation to resolve disagreements.

                   This report responds to your request that we determine (1) the kinds of
                   issues that result in formal disputes, (2) the extent to which the three
                   formal mechanisms are employed for resolution, (3) the role of mediation
                   and other alternative dispute resolution strategies in selected locations,
                   and (4) whether local education agencies received adequate and timely
                   complaint notifications from states. To identify what kinds of issues result
                   in formal disputes between parents and school districts, we made site
                   visits to SEAs and local education agencies (LEA) in California,
                   Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas. We selected these states, in part, because
                   they varied in their volume of formal dispute activity and were
                   geographically diverse. To determine the extent to which various dispute
                   resolution mechanisms were employed, we reviewed data from four
                   nationwide studies.3 These studies employed somewhat different measures
                   for due process and mediations, which contributed to the variation in the
                   findings reported. We collected information from each of the four states
                   we visited, and also interviewed state education officials, educators in
                   local school districts, and parent resource and advocacy groups. We also
                   met with SEA officials and other experts in Iowa to obtain information
                   about their mediation system and other alternative dispute resolution
                   strategies.4 To determine whether LEAs have received timely notifications
                   from states that a complaint has been filed, we interviewed educators in
                   one urban and one rural school district in each of the four states we
                   visited. Appendix I contains a more detailed description of our
                   methodology.


                   The four states we visited reported that disputes between school districts
Results in Brief   and families have often centered on fundamental issues of identifying


                   3
                    These studies covered various periods of time from 1991 to 2000. See app. I for a listing
                   and brief discussion of these studies.
                   4
                    Iowa was recommended to us because it was viewed as using innovative dispute
                   resolution practices.




                   Page 2                                         GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
students’ need for special education, the development and implementation
of their individualized education programs (IEP), and the educational
setting in which they were placed. For example, school officials and
parents sometimes disagreed about what setting would afford the
appropriate educational placement for a student—a regular classroom, a
special needs classroom, or a specialized school. Such conflicts can lead
to formal disputes. Officials in six of the eight school districts we visited
mentioned that disputes had resulted from decisions over students’
educational placements.

While data are limited and inexact, four national studies indicate that the
use of the three formal dispute resolution mechanisms has been generally
low relative to the number of children with disabilities. Due process
hearings, the most resource-intense dispute mechanism, were the least
used nationwide. Using data from the National Association of State
Directors of Special Education, we calculated that nationwide, in
2000, about 5 due process hearings were held per 10,000 students with
disabilities. According to the these data, over three-quarters of the due
process hearings had been held in five states— California, Maryland, New
Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—and the District of Columbia.
Mediation activity was also low. Another national study reported in
2003 that the median number of mediations for states was 4 for every
10,000 students with disabilities in school year 1999-2000. In May
2003, SEEP estimated that 4,266 mediation cases occurred during the
1998-99 school year, which we calculated as a rate of about 7 mediations
per 10,000 students with disabilities. Also, using the latter study, we
calculated that about 10 state complaints were filed for every
10,000 students with disabilities in the 1998-99 school year.

Officials in all four states we visited were emphasizing the use of
mediation to resolve disputes between families and school districts, and
some states had developed additional approaches for early resolution.
State officials told us they found that mediation was successful in
resolving disputes, strengthening relationships between families and
educators, saving financial resources, and reaching resolution more
quickly. The University of the Pacific reported that 93 percent of the
mediation cases in California resulted in agreements between families and
schools during the 2001-02 fiscal year; the cost of a mediator was about
one-tenth that of a hearing officer. In addition, there were a variety of
alternative strategies in place in several states and localities to resolve
disputes earlier and with less acrimony. For example, Iowa exceeded
IDEA requirements by allowing parties to request a pre-appeal conference
to mediate disputes prior to filing for a due process hearing. This


Page 3                                 GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
             conference was used five times more often by families and educators than
             mediation in conjunction with a filing for a due process hearing. Ohio, on
             the other hand, developed a parent mentor program in which parents of
             students with disabilities were hired to provide training and information
             about special education to educators and other parents of children with
             disabilities and to attend IEP meetings at parent or staff request. Data for
             measuring the cost-effectiveness of this and other such programs,
             however, were limited.

             Officials in the eight local school districts we interviewed said they had
             few problems responding to state complaint notifications in a timely way;
             and those problems were generally minor, causing modest delays. For
             example, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said that complaint
             notifications sometimes lacked supporting information, such as copies of
             the specific IEP in question or relevant mediation agreements or
             evaluations. In some cases, the notifications did not identify a child’s
             school or date of birth. These shortcomings, officials indicated, generally
             caused only a few days’ delay in responding appropriately to the state.


             In 1975, a new federal law, now called IDEA, established a federal
Background   commitment to identify children with disabilities and provide special
             education and related services such as speech and language services,
             psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, and
             transportation.5 The cornerstone principle of IDEA is the right of children
             with disabilities to have a free appropriate public education. Under the
             law, school districts must provide special education and related services
             without charge to parents and the services must meet the standards of the
             SEA. The services for and placement of each child must be based on the
             child’s unique needs, not on his/her disability. IDEA also stipulates that
             children with disabilities are to be educated in the “least restrictive
             environment,” that is, the law requires that children with disabilities are
             educated with children who are nondisabled to the maximum extent
             appropriate.




             5
               IDEA contains four parts (A through D) and this report primarily focuses on part B of the
             legislation. Part B contains provisions relating to the education of children ages 3 through
             21 and includes the funding formula, use of funds, provisions relating to evaluations,
             eligibility determinations, individualized education programs, educational placements, and
             detailed requirements for procedural safeguards.




             Page 4                                        GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
About 13 percent of students in federally supported programs, or about
6.5 million children, receive special education services under IDEA. These
students have a wide variety of needs that range from mild to severe.
Children with speech or language impairments, specific learning
disabilities, emotional disturbance, hearing impairments (including
deafness), visual impairments (including blindness), orthopedic
impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, or
mental retardation, and who need special education and related services
are eligible under IDEA.

School districts are responsible for identifying students who may have a
disability and evaluating them in all areas related to the suspected
disability.6 The evaluation process is intended to provide information
needed to determine if the student is eligible as defined under IDEA. The
IEP team decides on, among other things, special education and related
services that will be provided for the child and on the frequency, location,
and duration of the services to be provided.7

The law requires two steps for an IEP: (1) a meeting by the IEP team to
agree about an educational program for a child with a disability and
(2) preparing a written record of the decisions reached at the meeting.
Development of the IEP is designed to facilitate communication between
parents and school personnel and provide an opportunity for resolving any
differences concerning the special education needs of a child. The IEP
also documents a commitment of resources for providing special
education and related services, and schools are responsible for ensuring
that the child’s IEP is carried out as it was written.


6
 Parents may also obtain an independent educational evaluation of their child at any time
at their own expense. The results of this evaluation must be considered in any decision in
providing a free appropriate public education for that child, and may also be presented, if
needed, as evidence at a due process hearing.
7
 IDEA requires that an IEP team include (1) the child’s parents; (2) at least one regular
education teacher of the child, if the child is, or may be participating in the regular
education environment; (3) at least one special education teacher, or if appropriate, at least
one provider of the child’s special education; (4) a representative of the public agency
qualified to provide, or supervise, special education and who is knowledgeable about the
general curriculum and the resources available from the public agency; (5) an individual
who can interpret the instructional implications of educational results; (6) at the discretion
of the parent or the agency, other individuals with knowledge or expertise about the child;
and (7) the child, if appropriate. Public agencies include SEAs, LEAs, Departments of
Mental Health and Welfare, state schools for children with deafness or children with
blindness, and any other political subdivisions of the state that are responsible for
providing education to children with disabilities.




Page 5                                         GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
Disagreements over eligibility determinations about a child and over an
IEP can be contentious and occasionally result in disputes.8 Many
disagreements between families and local schools are resolved informally,
during initial or follow-up IEP meetings at the local schools, or in other
venues such as conferences with principals or other administrators. On
occasion, however, parties have been unable to resolve their differences.
In these instances, under IDEA, procedural safeguards9 afford parents
recourse when they disagree with school district decisions about their
children.

Disagreements can be formally resolved through state complaint
procedures, through a due process hearing, or through mediation. A state
complaint is initiated through a signed written complaint that includes a
statement that a public agency has violated a requirement of IDEA and the
facts on which the statement is based. If the complaint is against a school
district, the SEA typically informs the school district of the complaint by
formal notification, requests documentation from the local education
officials, and, when necessary, conducts an on-site investigation. The SEA
must issue a written decision to the complainant that addresses each
allegation in the complaint and contains findings of fact and conclusions,
and the reason for the SEA’s final decision. If violations are found, the
decision specifies the corrective actions to achieve compliance. A due
process hearing is an administrative agency process initiated by a written
request by one of the aggrieved parties to either the SEA or the LEA,
depending on the state’s process. An impartial hearing officer listens to
witnesses, examines evidence, and issues a written decision. In the
decision, the hearing officer determines whether violations occurred and
issues remedies. Mediation is a voluntary process whereby parents and



8
 In the states and localities we visited, some educators and advocates alike provided a
variety of reasons that parents may not take formal actions to resolve issues with schools.
These reasons included the lack of information about how to file formal complaints, a
perception that the available remedies were ineffective, and a parent’s reluctance to have
conflict with school officials.
9
  The procedural safeguards afforded parents include the right to written prior notice
whenever the education agency proposes to initiate or change, or refuses to initiate or
change, the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the
provision of a free appropriate public education to the child; the right to provide consent to
an evaluation to determine whether the child has a disability as defined under the law
before the evaluation is conducted; and the right to an impartial due process hearing when
the parent has presented a complaint related to the identification, evaluation, or
educational placement of the child or the provision of a free appropriate public education
to the child.




Page 6                                         GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
school districts agree to meet with an impartial third party in an informal
setting to reach a resolution that is mutually agreeable. Agreements are
mutually designed, agreed to, and implemented by the parties. While the
processes used for resolving disputes vary,10 other important key
differences exist among these three mechanisms as well. Table 1 identifies
some of the key differences in formal dispute resolution mechanisms
offered by SEAs.

Table 1: Key Differences in Formal Dispute Resolution Mechanisms

                                                                    Due process
                              State complaint                       hearing                           Mediation
    Who can request Any organization or                             A parent, public                  A parent, public
                    individual                                      agency, or the child              agency, or the child
                                                                    (at age of majority)              (at age of majority)
    Who decides               State education agency Impartial hearing                                Mutually between the
                              officials              officer                                          parties
    Federally                 60 calendar days                      45 calendar days                  None prescribed but
    prescribed                                                                                        generally less than
    timeline                                                                                          30 days
    Relative financial No cost to parents or                        Generally expensive               Generally much less
    cost to LEAs and LEAs                                           for LEAs and for                  expensive than due
    parents                                                         parents if they hire              process hearingsb
                                                                                 a
                                                                    an attorney
    Relative financial Generally much less                          Generally expensive               Generally much less
    cost to SEAs       expensive than due                           for SEAs, primarily               expensive than due
                       process hearings,                            for the cost of a                 process hearings,
                       primarily consists of                        hearing officer                   primarily for the cost
                       staff cost to resolve the                                                      of a mediator
                       complaint
Source: Information on who can request the three mechanisms was obtained from 34 C.F.R., Ch. III, sections 300.662, 300.507, and
300.517; who decides the three mechanisms was obtained from 34 C.F.R., Ch. III, sections 300.661, 300.508, and 300.506; federally
prescribed timelines for complaints and due process hearings were obtained from 34 C.F.R., Ch. III, sections 300.661 and 300.511,
information about the timeline for mediation was obtained from state education officials in the states visited; and information about
relative financial cost were obtained from state and local education officials in the states visited.
a
If parents prevail, they may be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees.
b
 Attorneys are more often used during due process hearings, but, in most states, parties are allowed
legal representation during mediation. However, the parents would typically be responsible for their
attorney’s fees during mediation.




10
  There are variations in how certain procedures may be carried out. For example, in some
LEAs, parents may file complaints either to the school district or with the state. Also, SEAs
varied in employing hearing officers and mediators; some SEAs contracted out for these
positions and other states had a cadre of full-time employees in an administrative unit not
involved in the education or care of the child.




Page 7                                                              GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
Parents and other parties can generally choose which mechanism to use to
resolve their dispute. Parents have the right to request a due process
hearing at any time over any issue related to the identification, evaluation,
or educational placement or the provision of a free appropriate public
education to the student. They may also file both due process requests and
written state complaints simultaneously, but the SEA must set aside any
part of the state complaint that is addressed in the due process hearing
until the conclusion of the hearing. Any issue in the complaint not
addressed in the due process hearing must be resolved within the time
frames and procedures consistent with the state complaint requirements.
Finally, although either parents or school districts can file a request for a
due process hearing, this mechanism is potentially very costly to both
parties, in terms of financial expenses and relationships. While school
districts and parents are responsible for their own attorney’s fees and
other associated expenses, the hearing officer is paid for by the state.11

According to the National Association of State Directors of Special
Education (NASDSE), due process systems are structured similarly across
the states with one major distinction—about two-thirds of the states use a
one-tier system in which the hearing is held only at the state level. About
one-third of the states use a two-tier system in which a hearing occurs at a
local level, usually the school or district with the right to appeal to a state-
level hearing officer or panel.12 Even though the 1997 amendments to IDEA
required states to make mediation available as a voluntary alternative to
parents or school districts when they request a due process hearing, most
states had mediation systems in place much earlier. In September
1994, NASDSE reported that Connecticut and Massachusetts were the first
states (in 1975) to implement formal mediation systems. By 1985, 15 more
states had implemented mediation, and over the next decade 22 additional
states had mediation systems.

Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is responsible
for overall administration and allocation of federal funds for states’
implementation of IDEA programs. In addition, OSEP is charged with



11
  In cases where families prevail in due process hearings, they may be entitled to attorney’s
fees. In some states, the hearing officer can make the determination of reasonable
attorney’s fees and order the school district to pay. In other states, parents must seek
attorney’s fees in a district court.
12
 Eileen Ahearn, Due Process Hearings: 2001 Update (Project Forum, NASDSE), April
2002.




Page 8                                         GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
assessing the impact and effectiveness of state and local efforts to provide
a free appropriate public education to children and youth with disabilities.
OSEP has contracted for two major research studies that focus, in part, on
dispute resolution activities. One of these, conducted by Abt Associates,
the Study of State and Local Implementation and Impact of the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act (SLIIDEA) will include nationwide data
over a 5-year period (2000-04); a report on selected findings was published
in January 2003. The second study, SEEP, is being conducted by the
American Institutes for Research. In May 2003, this project reported on
procedural safeguards and related expenditures for dispute resolution
from survey data of a nationwide sample of LEAs. Since states are not
required to collect or report data on dispute resolution activity, these
studies, along with two studies by NASDSE, provide the most recently
available information on the prevalence of formal dispute activity.13
However, each of these studies has limitations, which are discussed in
appendix I.

Under IDEA, Education also provides funds to grantees for parent centers.
The parent training and information centers and community parent
resource centers provide a variety of services, including helping families
obtain appropriate education and services for their children with
disabilities, training and information for parents and professionals,
connecting children with disabilities to community resources that can
address their needs, and resolving problems between families and schools
or other agencies. Each state has at least 1 parent center and, currently,
there are 105 parent centers in the United States. According to the
Technical Assistance Alliance for Parent Centers, the national




13
 OSEP plans to obtain consistent information, through performance reporting, from states.
Part of this reporting system is expected to include data on numbers of complaints, due
process hearings, and mediations. Initial state reports of this information are proposed to
be due by March 31, 2004.




Page 9                                        GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                         coordinating office, parent centers provided assistance to nearly 1 million
                         parents and professionals during the 2001-02 school year.14


                         Formal disputes between schools and families in the 4 states we visited
In Selected Locations,   ranged from identifying a student’s disabilities to developing and
Disputes between         implementing the IEP and the student’s placement. Officials in these states
                         told us that disputes frequently arose between families and school districts
Schools and Families     over (1) identifications, that is, whether children were eligible for IDEA
Were Usually over        services and how their eligibility determinations were made; (2) the types
                         of special education and related services, if any, they needed; (3) whether
Student                  schools carried out the education programs as written; and (4) whether
Identifications,         schools could provide an appropriate educational environment for certain
Education Programs,      students.15

and Placements           SEA and LEA officials told us that schools and parents occasionally
                         disagreed about whether or not a child needed special education services.
                         On the one hand, a school may want to evaluate a child because it believes
                         he or she may have a disability and, in this case, the school must evaluate
                         the child at no cost to the family. A parent may also ask for the child to be
                         evaluated, but if the school does not think the child has a disability it may
                         refuse to evaluate him or her. Parents who disagree must take appropriate
                         steps to challenge the school’s decision. Conversely, for a variety of
                         reasons, parents may not want the child to receive special education
                         services. For example, the family may disagree with the school’s decision



                         14
                           OSEP also funded a 5-year national center on dispute resolution, the Consortium for
                         Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE), for the purpose of
                         providing information and assistance to state agencies on implementation of the mediation
                         requirements under the 1997 amendments to IDEA. In addition, CADRE supports parents,
                         educators, and administrators to benefit from the full continuum of dispute resolution
                         options that can prevent and resolve conflicts. The national center works with its core
                         partners, including NASDSE; the Academy for Educational Development/National
                         Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities, and the Technical Assistance
                         Alliance for Parent Centers (The Alliance). CADRE is a project of Direction Service, Inc.,
                         located in Eugene, Oregon.
                         15
                           In the states we visited, SEA officials told us disagreements that involved potential
                         technical violations of federal or state law or regulations were generally pursued through
                         the state complaint procedures, while disagreements involving judgment such as student
                         identification and educational placements were generally resolved through due process
                         hearings or mediations. An OSEP memorandum, dated July 17, 2000, Subject: Complaint
                         Resolution Procedures under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Part
                         B), directs states to make their complaint procedures available for resolving any complaint,
                         including (1) those that raise systemic issues and (2) individual child complaints.




                         Page 10                                       GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
about whether or not the child has a disability, or the parent may be
concerned about the possibility of negative perceptions about special
education identification. Officials in five of the eight school districts we
visited mentioned that disputes occurred because parents wanted or did
not want their children identified for special education.

Another issue that existed in some school districts was over the
availability of related services, such as speech and language services and
occupational therapy. Disputes sometimes occurred as a result of
problems in providing related services, including the types, amounts,
methods, or the failure to provide services. Speech and language services,
for example, were mentioned as a recurring problem in some areas
because of the shortage of specialists available to provide these services.
Officials in six of the eight school districts we visited identified having
disagreements with parents regarding the provision of speech and
language services.

SEA and LEA officials also identified a number of issues related to the IEP
that caused disagreements between parents and school districts. For
example, we were told that disagreements had occurred because parents
believed the school had not implemented the IEP as agreed upon.
Moreover, parents and schools also disagreed about whether the school
had chosen the appropriate instructional methods for a child. For
example, parents may want a child with autism to receive an intensive
behavioral interventions program that consists of one-on-one instruction
with a trained therapist. Because this type of instruction could be very
costly to the LEA, school officials told us they would like the flexibility to
consider a less expensive but suitable alternative approach as part of the
student’s IEP. Officials in five of the eight school districts we visited
mentioned that disputes with parents resulted from the instructional
methods chosen or preferred by the school, particularly for students with
autism.

We also found that school officials and parents sometimes disagreed about
whether a placement was the appropriate and least restrictive
environment for a child. For instance, some educators have contended
that a child should attend classes primarily for students with disabilities,
while parents believed their children would perform better in a regular
classroom. Some disputes about placement also resulted from the parents’
desire to have their children taught outside the public school system.
Because serving a child outside the school district can be very expensive,
school districts preferred, whenever feasible, to keep a child within the



Page 11                                GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                             district. Officials in six local school districts we visited mentioned that
                             disputes had occurred over decisions about a child’s educational setting.


                             While national data on disputes are limited and inexact, the reported
Available Data               available information indicates that formal dispute resolution activity, as
Indicate That Dispute        measured by the number of due process hearings, state complaints, and
                             mediations, was generally low. According to a 2002 NASDSE report, the
Resolution Activity          nationwide number of due process hearings held—the most expensive
Was Generally Low;           form of the three dispute resolution mechanisms—was generally low for a
                             5-year period that ended in 2000, with most hearings occurring in a few
Due Process Hearings         locations.16 Finally, based on national data from three studies, the rates of
Were Concentrated in         mediations and state complaints were also low, but somewhat higher than
a Few Locations              due process hearings.


The Number of Due            While the total number of due process hearings held nationally was low
Process Hearings Held        over a 5-year period from 1996-2000, most hearings were concentrated in a
Nationwide Was Low and       few locations. In April 2002, NASDSE reported that, over the 5-year period,
                             requests for hearings steadily increased from 7,532 to 11,068.17 Because
Most Occurred in a Few       requests for due process hearings are frequently withdrawn or the parties
States and the District of   resolve their issues through other means, most requests do not lead to
Columbia                     formal hearings. NASDSE reported that the number of due process
                             hearings held was low and had decreased from 3,555 to 3,020.18’19 We
                             calculated that due process hearings occurred at a low rate of about


                             16
                                  Similar state level data on mediations and complaints were unavailable.
                             17
                              These totals do not include data from New York state, which were not reported to
                             NASDSE.
                             18
                              These totals do not include state level appeals in two-tier states. Over the same 5-year
                             period (1996 through 2000), 1,355 hearings were held in states that offered this review
                             process. The number of hearings declined from 288 to 254 (12 percent) over the last 3
                             years.
                             19
                               In May 2003, SEEP reported that an estimated 6,763 due process cases were initiated
                             during the 1998-99 school year. The number of due process hearings reported in this study
                             was greater than that in NASDSE’s report because the SEEP survey did not distinguish
                             between due process hearings requested and due process hearings held but included both
                             in their count of due process cases. Moreover, the data in SEEP may include dispute
                             resolution activity in addition to the procedural safeguards under IDEA, such as those
                             provided for by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits
                             discrimination based on disability, as well as other activities made available by states.
                             Consequently, the number of due process hearings in the SEEP report would be expected
                             to be higher than in NASDSE’s.




                             Page 12                                          GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
5 per 10,000 students with disabilities in 2000. (See fig. 1 for the number of
hearings requested and held nationwide from 1996 through 2000.)20

Figure 1: Numbers of Due Process Hearings Requested and Held Nationwide from
1996 through 2000




Note: This figure does not include data on hearings held at tier 2.


However, while the number of due process hearings held nationwide
decreased over the 5-year period, much of the decline occurred in New
York, which experienced a substantial reduction in due process hearings
held. Over the 5-year period, the number of due process hearings held in
New York declined from 1,600 to 1,052. In addition, according to the
NASDSE study, most due process hearings were held in a few locations.
Nearly 80 percent of all hearings were held in 5 states—California,
Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—and the District of




20
 SLIIDEA reported that the median number of due process hearings for states was 2.3 per
10,000 students with disabilities in the 1999-2000 school year.




Page 13                                              GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
Columbia.21 The rates of due process hearings per 10,000 students in these
states ranged from 3 in California to 24 in New York; in the District of
Columbia the rate was 336 due process hearings per 10,000. See figure
2 for the total numbers of due process hearings held in the 5 states and the
District of Columbia compared with the rest of the nation over a 5-year
period.

Figure 2: Numbers of Due Process Hearings Held in 5 States and the District of
Columbia Compared to the Rest of the United States, 1996-2000




21
  Two states received grants from Education that were used for programs related to dispute
resolution, one of which focused on building dispute resolution skills in parents, educators,
and other child-serving providers. In 2001, Pennsylvania received about $558,000 to expand
a pilot training program to provide stakeholders with the tools to resolve their disputes in a
more timely and effective manner, thereby obviating the need for more formal means of
dispute resolution. According to a state education official, as of May 2003, approximately
150 people have received the 1-day training program. In 2002, New York state received
$604,000 to use for the development and implementation of a Web based system that will
allow educators and families access to information about dispute resolution activity. The
state plans to have the information system operational by June 2004.




Page 14                                        GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                          Using data from its nationwide sample survey of the 1998-99 school year,
                          SEEP reported that the prevalence of dispute activity among school
                          districts varied by certain demographic characteristics. For example, the
                          percentage of urban school districts that reported having at least 1 due
                          process case—request or hearing—for the year was significantly higher
                          than either suburban or rural districts (an estimated 50 percent,
                          20 percent, and 9 percent, respectively). Similarly, large school districts
                          reported significantly more due process cases, compared with smaller
                          districts. However, when the study made adjustments for the number of
                          students served by examining the rate of due process cases per
                          10,000 special education students, no statistically significant differences
                          were found in rates for either urbanicity or size. SEEP also analyzed due
                          process data by district income levels and found a significant difference—
                          an estimated 52 percent of the highest income school districts reported at
                          least 1 due process case, 13 times the percentage of lowest income
                          districts (4 percent).22


Rates of Mediations and   According to limited national data available from three studies, the rates of
State Complaints Were     mediations and complaints per 10,000 students with disabilities were
Also Low                  generally low, but somewhat higher than the rates of due process hearings.
                          SLIIDEA reported that in the 1999-2000 school year more formal disputes
                          between parents and schools were resolved through mediation than due
                          process hearings.23 Based on survey results from all 50 states and the
                          District of Columbia, this study reported that the median number of
                          mediations for states was 4 for every 10,000 students with disabilities. The
                          study also reported that 87 percent of the school districts surveyed said
                          they did not have any mediation cases in the 1999-2000 school year.

                          Two other studies also reported low numbers nationally of mediation
                          cases and complaints. In May 2003, the SEEP study reported that
                          4,266 mediation cases were held during the 1998-99 school year, from
                          which we calculated a rate of about 7 per 10,000 students. In February
                          2003, a NASDSE study reported that 6,094 complaints were filed



                          22
                           NASDSE’s study, Dispute Resolution Procedures, Data Collection, and Caseloads, also
                          reported that a significant relationship existed between median household incomes and the
                          number of disputes. Households with higher median incomes were more likely than
                          households with lower median incomes to have filed a state complaint or requested
                          mediation or a due process hearing.
                          23
                               In the SLIIDEA report, the term parent refers to parent or guardian.




                          Page 15                                           GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                            nationwide during the 2000 school year or 2000 calendar year.24 Similar
                            results were found in the SEEP study, which reported that 6,360 state
                            complaints were filed during the 1998-99 school year. Given that roughly
                            6 million students with disabilities were served in these school years, we
                            calculated that about 10 complaints were filed for every 10,000 students
                            with disabilities.25 SEEP’s survey also revealed that an estimated
                            62 percent of districts reported having no cases involving complaints, due
                            process hearings requested or held, or mediations during the school year.
                            (See app. II for information on the levels of formal dispute resolution
                            activity in the urban and rural school districts we visited.)


                            In the 4 states in our review, and in Iowa, where we examined alternative
States We Visited           dispute resolution strategies, officials told us they emphasized mediation
Were Emphasizing            in resolving disputes, and some locations had developed additional
                            strategies for early resolution of disagreements between families and
Mediation, and Some         school districts. Officials saw mediation as a major resource for achieving
Locations Used              agreements, strengthening relationships, resolving disputes more quickly,
                            and reducing cost. The states we visited had implemented formal
Additional Strategies       mediation by 1990 and, in varying degrees, exceeded minimum federal
                            requirements by not tying it to a request for a due process hearing. In
                            addition, 3 states we visited had established additional early dispute
                            resolution strategies that were less formal and less adversarial.


States Encouraged the Use   All 4 of the states we visited encouraged mediation as the mechanism for
of Mediation to Resolve     resolving disputes between schools and parents. All 4 states reported that
Disagreements               parents and school districts could request mediation at anytime for any
                            issue related to the identification, IEP development and implementation,
                            placement, or the free appropriate public education of a student; but the


                            24
                              Forty-nine states provided data on the number of complaints. In this study, it was
                            reported that state agencies used different procedures for gathering and recording
                            information on dispute resolution activity, consequently, there was a lack of consistency in
                            the data provided by states. Also, two SEAs—Iowa and Maine—were able to track disputes
                            across the complaint, mediation, and due process hearing systems to determine the
                            number of families using more than one mechanism for the same issue. The lack of
                            integrated database systems results in an unknown number of disputes being counted more
                            than once.
                            25
                             The margin of error for the calculated rate of 7 mediations per 10,000 students is (+/- 5
                            mediations per 10,000) at the 95 percent confidence level. The margin of error for the
                            calculated rate of 10 complaints per 10,000 students is (+/- 4 complaints per 10,000) at the
                            95 percent confidence level.




                            Page 16                                        GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
degree to which it was specifically offered and used varied. In 2 of the
states we visited, California and Massachusetts, mediation was used more
frequently in dispute resolution in fiscal year 2002 than complaints and
due process hearings combined. Mediation was used less often than state
complaint procedures in Ohio and Texas, but both states had taken steps
to expand their mediation programs. Table 2 provides the numbers of
mediation cases over a 3-year period compared with complaints and due
process hearings in the 4 states we visited.

Table 2: Dispute Resolution Activity in California, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas,
Fiscal Years 2000-02

                                                                                          Fiscal Year
 Type of dispute resolution activity                                          2000                  2001                 2002
 California
 Complaints                                                                     897                1,191                   989
 Due process hearings                                                           180                   242                  316
 Mediations                                                                   1,357                1,511                1,774
 Massachusetts
 Complaints                                                                     300                   367                  524
 Due process hearings                                                             39                    35                   33
 Mediations                                                                     636                   570                  565
 Ohio
 Complaints                                                                     113                   137                  162
 Due process hearings                                                             48                    29                   50
 Mediations                                                                       92                  125                    91
 Texas
 Complaints                                                                     158                   158                  152
 Due process hearings                                                             71                    72                   97
 Mediations                                                                     147                   142                  139
Source: State education agencies in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas; and, for California, we obtained complaint data from the SEA
and due process hearing and mediation data from the Special Education Hearing Office, University of the Pacific.




While mediation was used less often in Ohio and Texas, SEA officials in
both states expected the numbers of mediations to increase with recent
changes in their mediation systems. In Ohio, a state education official told
us and advocates confirmed that concerns about the objectivity of the
mediation process in that state had made parents reluctant to use the state
mediation system. As of June 2003, the Ohio SEA had contracted with four
mediators and was in the process of adding four more across the state, and



Page 17                                                           GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
the state also expected to provide on-going evaluation of the mediation
process. In Texas, state officials told us they expected an increased
reliance on mediation because the SEA had expanded the use of voluntary
mediation as a means to resolve disputes quickly by offering it to parties
involved in state complaints, although states are not required to offer
mediation in conjunction with state complaints.

Officials in all 4 states we visited said mediation offered benefits to all
parties. Three of the 4 states reported that a high percentage of mediations
resulted in agreements. The University of the Pacific reported that
93 percent of mediations in California resulted in agreements between
families and schools during the 2001-02 fiscal year. Similarly,
Massachusetts and Ohio reported success rates of 85 percent and
89 percent, respectively, for the same time period.26 Further, state
education officials told us that mediation helped to foster communications
between schools and parents and strengthen relationships. They also told
us that mediations generally resolved disputes more quickly than state
complaints or due process hearings. According to SEA officials in Ohio,
for example, most mediations occurred within 2 weeks of the request.
Texas state education officials also reported that mediations typically took
place within 30 days upon receipt of the complaint. On the other hand, an
administrator and some advocates told us that mediation agreements were
not always implemented or enforced. However, no data were available on
the extent to which this occurred.

Additionally, 3 of the states reported that mediations were less costly than
due process hearings.27 The Texas SEA estimated that over the past decade
it had saved about $50 million in attorney fees and related due process
hearing expenses by using mediation rather than due process hearings.
The state also reported that it spent an average of $1,000 for a mediator’s
services compared to $9,000 for a hearing officer’s services.28 Similarly, the
University of the Pacific reported in January 2003 that in California, the
average cost to the state for mediation was $1,800, while the average cost
of a due process hearing was $18,600. These data are consistent with
SEEP’s recent nationwide findings that of 4,312 districts reporting on cost-


26
 Texas SEA officials reported that mediations resulted in an agreement in 65 percent of the
cases in 2002.
27
 SEA officials in Massachusetts were unable to provide cost data for hearing officers and
mediators.
28
     These estimates do not include costs, such as attorney fees, paid by the LEA.




Page 18                                          GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                             effectiveness, 96.3 percent of the respondents perceived mediation to be
                             more cost-effective than due process hearings.

                             All 4 of the states we visited had created additional opportunities for
                             offering mediation as a means to resolve disputes.29 In Texas and Ohio,
                             affected parties in a state complaint were immediately offered mediation
                             to resolve their dispute.30 In Massachusetts, it was offered when parents
                             and educators disagreed over a student’s proposed IEP and failed to reach
                             consensus. These cases were automatically referred to the Bureau of
                             Special Education Appeals for resolution, where mediation and due
                             process hearings were offered. In fiscal year 2002, Massachusetts state
                             officials estimated that approximately 10 percent of these IEP-related
                             disputes resulted in mediation; most of the remaining cases were resolved
                             less formally. In California, parties can request “mediation only” without
                             filing a request for due process hearings. In this option, California state
                             law specifically excludes attorneys—for parents or school districts—from
                             participating. Although state and local education officials and advocates
                             viewed the option as a viable and less adversarial alternative for dispute
                             resolution, it was used in California 208 times, compared with
                             1,774 mediations tied to due process hearings in fiscal year 2002.


Some States and Localities   States and localities we visited also used a variety of additional dispute
Had Developed Additional     resolution strategies that showed potential to help resolve disputes early,
Strategies for Early         but limited data were available to assess their effectiveness. Iowa
                             developed and promoted several strategies as part of a continuum of
Dispute Resolution           options for resolving disputes between parents and schools. One of these
                             options, the Parent-Educator Connection, was created to resolve
                             differences between parents and schools at the earliest point. This effort
                             was designed to provide each of the 15 area education agencies with staff
                             who were trained in conflict resolution. These parent-educator
                             coordinators attended meetings, including IEP meetings at either parent or
                             educator request. According to an SEA official, parent-educator


                             29
                              In addition to providing mediation when a request for a due process hearing has been
                             made, many states offer mediation on other occasions. In May 2003, NASDSE reported that
                             based on a survey of all state special education directors, mediation was offered (1)
                             anytime parents or school districts requested it in 43 states, (2) when the SEA learned of a
                             problem even before a formal complaint had been filed in 25 states, and (3) in connection
                             with the filing of a state complaint in 20 states.
                             30
                              In California, parties can also obtain mediation by filing a state complaint, but a state
                             education official told us that this option was rarely used.




                             Page 19                                         GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
coordinators attended 896 meetings during the 2001-02 fiscal year. Another
option focused on increasing the availability of individuals with mediation
skills to resolve more serious conflicts between parents and schools.
These individuals, called resolution facilitators, were often regional
education staff who were trained to assist families and schools in
resolving their differences by discussing the problems and helping the
parties work toward an acceptable agreement before it resulted in a more
formalized dispute that involved the SEA. According to these state
officials, another goal of the program is to teach others, including
administrators, educators, and parents, about mediation, negotiation, and
conflict resolution. In 2001, 238 participants, including 65 parents, received
training, but no data had been collected by the SEA about how often
resolution facilitators were used or about the results of informal mediation
processes that had occurred.

Iowa also promoted the availability of a somewhat more formal mediation
called a pre-appeal conference that was not tied to a request for a due
process hearing. According to state officials, the rationale for establishing
the pre-appeal conference was to allow the parties another opportunity to
resolve their dispute early before it became acrimonious and a formal
request for a due process hearing was filed. Officials told us that the pre-
appeal conference was conducted in a similar manner to mediation, that
is, in connection with a due process hearing. In 2002, the pre-appeal
conference was used five times more often by families and educators than
mediation and usually resulted in an agreement. Iowa advocated and
actively promoted the availability of the pre-appeal conference and
resolution facilitators to educators and parents.

In Ohio, the state funded a pilot parent mentor program whereby parents
of students with disabilities were hired to help school districts and other
families by providing training, support, and information services. One of
their most important duties was to attend IEP meetings and other
meetings at parent or school staff request. While no data were available on
the cost-effectiveness of this program in resolving disputes at the local
level, the state increased funding for the program and expanded the
number of parent mentors from 10 pilot sites in 1990 to 70 project sites
that afford 96 parent mentors for approximately one-third of Ohio’s school
districts.31 During the 2001-02 school year, parent mentors attended



31
  According to an Ohio parent center official, 10 of these projects are funded by federal
funds through IDEA.




Page 20                                        GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                       2,685 IEP meetings and had contact with 12,538 families of the
                       239,000 students with disabilities in Ohio.

                       California has an alternative dispute resolution grant program that
                       provided limited funding in 2001 to 18 of the 119 regional education
                       agencies within the state to establish strategies to prevent or address
                       disagreements. Each region, typically consisting of more than one school
                       district, selected several strategies and developed its own program for
                       dispute resolution. One of these strategies, called facilitated IEPs, was
                       used by 12 regions and involved one school district borrowing an expert
                       trained in mediation from another school district to facilitate the IEP
                       meeting. To become facilitators, staff participated in 4-day training
                       programs that emphasized facilitation skills within an IEP process. The
                       training was intended to provide facilitators with the tools to conduct IEP
                       meetings in a way that enabled the team to (1) focus the IEP content and
                       process on students’ needs, (2) use a collaborative process, (3) build and
                       improve relationships, and (4) reach consensus. An overall goal of this
                       alternative grant program was to reduce the numbers of due process
                       hearings requested in certain areas of the state. While there were no
                       impact data for this program or any of the other strategies, 12 of the
                       regions that participated showed an overall decrease of 42 percent in
                       requests for due process hearings from 2001 to 2002.


                       In general, officials in the school districts we visited told us they had few
State Notification     problems with responding to state complaint notifications. The problems
Problems Were          they encountered had little impact on the timeliness of the complaint
                       process; state and local education officials appeared to be working
Generally Minor and    together to overcome them.
Had Little Effect on
                       According to the local school district officials we interviewed, complaint
Timeliness             notifications generally provided sufficient information to allow them to
                       respond within the states’ required time frames. Both the state and local
                       officials told us the amount of time local school districts were given to
                       respond to the notification letter ranged from 3 to 10 days. To allow them
                       to respond to complaints, the notification letter typically (1) identifies the
                       student, (2) identifies the student’s school, (3) describes the nature of the
                       complaint, and (4) specifies the relevant documents needed for the state to
                       resolve a complaint and conduct an independent on-site investigation, if
                       determined necessary.

                       Los Angeles Unified School District officials said they experienced a few
                       problems with notifications because on occasion, the state did not include


                       Page 21                                GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                  the supporting documentation for the complaint, such as a copy of the
                  relevant IEP or evaluation along with the notification letter. Also, these
                  school district officials told us that the notification sometimes did not
                  include the name of the school or the child’s date of birth, which initially
                  made it difficult to identify the student. While these problems may have
                  resulted in several days’ delay, Los Angeles Unified School District
                  officials said that some of these administrative issues will be resolved
                  once the district has implemented its Web based IEP system, which it
                  expects to complete in January 2004. According to an SEA official, the
                  state was generally flexible and allowed the school district additional time
                  to provide the requested documents.

                  In addition, officials of the Austin (Texas) Independent School District and
                  Hamilton (Ohio) Local School District told us the state notification
                  included a summary of the parents’ allegations. However, they were
                  sometimes unable to discern the nature of the parents’ complaint from this
                  account. To better understand the nature of the parents’ complaint, Austin
                  school district officials formally requested a copy of the parent’s signed
                  letter from the SEA. According to SEA officials, Texas had recently begun
                  to include a copy of the parents’ letter as part of the notification.


                  Overall, the numbers of formal disputes between parents and school
Concluding        districts were generally low compared to the 6.5 million students between
Observations      3 and 21 years old served during the 2001-02 school year, but the
                  thousands of disputes that occur threaten relationships and can result in
                  great expense. The concentration of due process hearings in a few
                  localities suggests that many factors may well be at play, including local
                  attitudes about conflict, when parents or others dispute a school district’s
                  decisions. The states we visited viewed mediation as a valuable tool for
                  parents and schools to resolve many disputes before they become
                  acrimonious. The fact that the states we visited were emphasizing
                  mediation and made it more widely available than IDEA requires—along
                  with other options for early dispute resolution—may hold promise for
                  reducing contentious and expensive forms of dispute resolution, such as
                  due process hearings.


                  We provided a copy of this report to Education for its review and
Agency Comments   comment. Agency comments are reprinted in appendix III. Education
                  agreed with our findings and stated that the report would be of great
                  interest and highly relevant to the present congressional consideration of
                  IDEA. Education said that it will assess the administration of dispute


                  Page 22                               GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
resolution procedures in the six high incidence jurisdictions identified in
our report through a combination of monitoring and technical assistance.
Education also provided technical comments, which we incorporated as
appropriate.

Copies of this report are being sent to the Secretary of Education,
appropriate congressional committees, and interested parties. Copies will
be made available to others upon request. The report is also available on
GAO’s Web site at http://www.gao.gov.

Please contact me on (202) 512-7215 if you have any questions about this
report. Other GAO contacts and staff acknowledgments are listed in
appendix IV.

Sincerely yours,




Marnie S. Shaul
Director, Education, Workforce,
 and Income Security Issues




Page 23                               GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
             Appendix I: Scope and Methodology
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology


             In conducting our review, we obtained and analyzed information from the
             Department of Education, state education agencies (SEA), local school
             districts, and the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific.
             We visited 5 states, and in 4 of these states we interviewed staff from SEAs
             and local education agencies (LEA), including one urban and one rural
             school district in each state—for a total of eight school districts. At the
             district level, we performed our fieldwork at the Los Angeles Unified and
             Salinas Union High School Districts in California, Boston Public and
             Southbridge School Districts in Massachusetts, Cleveland Municipal and
             Hamilton Local School Districts in Ohio, and Austin Independent and
             Goliad Independent School Districts in Texas.

             In selecting the states for our fieldwork, we considered states that
             (1) varied in volume of formal dispute resolution activity, (2) used one- or
             two-tier due process hearing systems, (3) had developed alternative
             dispute resolution strategies, (4) were visited by the Department of
             Education’s Office of Special Education Programs over the past few years,
             (5) included large urban school districts, and (6) were geographically
             diverse. We met with SEA officials in Iowa because the state was
             identified by experts in the area for having innovative strategies in
             alternative dispute resolution. In addition, we met with representatives of
             other professional organizations, including the National Association of
             State Directors of Special Education and the Consortium for Appropriate
             Dispute Resolution in Special Education. We also interviewed members of
             parent resource and advocacy groups (federally funded and other
             nonprofits) in each of the states visited; these organizations employed
             parents of children with disabilities and we obtained their views.

             To identify what kinds of issues resulted in formal disputes between
             parents and school districts, we interviewed state and local education
             officials, parent resource and advocacy groups, and obtained data during
             our site visits to California, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas. To determine
             how much formal dispute resolution activity occurred, we collected and
             reported data from each of the 4 states and reviewed and reported the
             results of four nationwide surveys, each affected by different data and
             research limitations:

             •   Dispute Resolution Procedures, Data Collection, and Caseloads
                 Study. This study was conducted by the National Association of State
                 Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) of state dispute resolution
                 activities between February and April 1999. All 50 SEAs responded and
                 provided some information on their state dispute resolution systems,
                 including data on complaints, mediations, and due process hearings for


             Page 24                               GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




    the 1999-2000 school year or 2000 calendar year. The study authors
    cautioned that the state data are variable and are gathered and
    recorded using different approaches. Also, to make the data more
    usable, when data were unavailable, the missing data were replaced by
    data from the previous year’s experience or data were calculated and
    derived from the 30 states with complete information.

•   Due Process Hearings: 2001 Update. Annually, Project FORUM at
    NASDSE surveyed special education directors to obtain nationwide
    data on the numbers of due process hearings requested and held over a
    10-year period (1991 through 2000). The most recent survey also
    obtained information on the due process hearing systems used in all
    states and the District of Columbia to determine whether they were
    one- or two-tier hearing systems. The study authors noted that because
    state data vary in the way data are collected and maintained, the data
    were reported as a comparison of annual incidence even though the
    specific year of collection does not cover the same months. Further,
    short-term changes in the reporting of these data might be due to
    factors other than a change in a state’s policy. But, multiyear changes
    in national totals could indicate trends in the due process system.

•   Study of State and Local Implementation and Impact of the
    Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (SLIIDEA). This
    study, funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), is
    collecting data over a 5-year period by means of mailed surveys at the
    state, district, and school levels, and through case studies of the
    implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
    (IDEA) in selected school districts on selected topics. In January
    2003, one report was issued from this study, Final Report on Selected
    Findings, and included data on due process hearings and mediations.
    This report provides data on dispute resolution activity obtained from
    state and district surveys that were administered during the
    1999-2000 school year. The estimates of dispute activity in this study
    were based on a survey of school districts with a response rate of
    31 percent. Abt Associates conducted a nonresponse survey with eight
    of the original survey items primarily by telephone to determine
    potential bias between survey respondents and nonrespondents.
    Because some differences were found, data from the nonresponse
    survey were used to adjust the estimates based on the originally
    interviewed districts. An assumption was made in this analysis that
    nonresponding districts are similar to responding districts in the way
    they would answer the survey items.




Page 25                               GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




•   What Are We Spending on Procedural Safeguards in Special
    Education, 1999-2000? This series of reports is based on descriptive
    information derived from the Special Education Expenditure Project
    (SEEP), a national study funded by OSEP and conducted by the
    American Institutes for Research. This report provides estimates of
    school district expenditures on special education mediation, due
    process, and litigation activities for the 1999-2000 school year; the
    prevalence of dispute activity (state complaints, mediations, due
    process hearings, and litigations) for the 1998-99 school year;
    demographic characteristics of school districts with and without
    dispute activity; and other related information. Data were collected
    from a sample of school districts to generalize to all districts in the
    50 states and the District of Columbia. However, no overall response
    rate was cited in this study. Therefore, the level of nonresponse and its
    effect on data quality are unknown from this survey. Because of the
    survey design, the SEEP data on due process hearings did not
    distinguish between due process hearings requested and due process
    hearings held. Also, the SEEP data may include dispute resolution
    activity in addition to the procedural safeguards under IDEA, such as
    those provided for by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as
    well as other activities made available by states.

Inconsistencies in the way states define and collect data on dispute
resolution activities could affect the validity of the estimates, as well as
make between-state comparisons difficult. No national reporting system
exists to identify and quantify the various causes of special education
disputes or the prevalence of dispute resolution activity among the states.
States have developed their own database systems that have a wide variety
of categories and definitions of disputes with many different allowable
entries. For example, in cases that involved the simultaneous filing of a
state complaint and a request for mediation, some SEAs only record the
procedure that was used to resolve the dispute while other states record
both the filed complaint and request for mediation. As a result, the data
reported in national studies as well as that reported from our site visits are
of varying quality, resulting in inexact numbers of dispute resolution
activity.

To determine what mechanisms (formal and informal) were used to
resolve disagreements, we interviewed state education officials and local
school district administrators and obtained and reviewed documents that
described these mechanisms.




Page 26                                GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




To determine whether LEAs had problems responding to dispute
notifications from states, we interviewed special education administrators
in each of the eight school districts we visited and reviewed SEA
procedures and related documents.

We conducted our work between November 2002 and September 2003 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.




Page 27                              GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                                                                 Appendix II: Levels of Dispute Resolution
Appendix II: Levels of Dispute Resolution                        Activity in the Four Urban and Four Rural
                                                                 School Districts Visited


Activity in the Four Urban and Four Rural
School Districts Visited
                                                                 The school districts we visited varied in their use of the dispute resolution
                                                                 mechanisms, and generally reflected the national trends in that complaints
                                                                 and mediation were used more often than due process hearings to resolve
                                                                 disputes between families and schools. Table 3 summarizes the levels of
                                                                 formal dispute resolution activity over a 3-year period in the eight school
                                                                 districts we visited in California, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas.

Table 3: Dispute Resolution Activity in Urban and Rural School Districts over a 3-Year Period, Fiscal Years 2000-02

                                                                            Number of
                                                                         students with                                       Number of due                                     Total number
                                                                                       a
                                              Geographic                   disabilities          Number of state                  process                 Number of                of formal
 School district                              area                           (2000-01)              complaints                   hearings                 mediations               disputes
 Los Angeles Unified, Calif.                  Urban                                73,936                            466                        57                 1,687                    2,210
 Salinas Union High, Calif.                   Rural                                  1,052                               3                        1                      9                       13
                                                                                             b                                                                            c
 Boston Public, Mass.                         Urban                                12,290                              62                       25                     62                      149
 Southbridge, Mass.                           Rural                                    522b                              2                        0                      9                       11
 Cleveland Municipal, Ohio                    Urban                                12,727                              24                         1                      7                       32
 Hamilton Local, Ohio                         Rural                                     345                              2                        0                      1                           3
 Austin Independent, Tex.                     Urban                                  9,509                              8                         3                    13                        24
 Goliad Independent, Tex.                     Rural                                     208                              0                        3                      0                           3
Source: SEAs in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas; and for California, we obtained complaint data from the SEA, and due process hearing and mediation data from the Special Education Hearing Office,
University of the Pacific.
                                                                 a
                                                                  Based on kindergarten through grade 12 enrollment figures except for Salinas Union High (grades 7
                                                                 through12) and Boston Public (includes pre-kindergarten students).
                                                                 b
                                                                     Estimates based on total enrollment and percentage of students in special education.
                                                                 c
                                                                  The number of mediations for Boston Public Schools is incomplete. The state changed its data
                                                                 system during the 2000 fiscal year and could provide data for only part of the year.




                                                                 Page 28                                                           GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
              Appendix III: Comments from the Department
Appendix III: Comments from the
              of Education



Department of Education




              Page 29                                      GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
Appendix III: Comments from the Department
of Education




Page 30                                      GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
                  Appendix IV: GAO Contacts and Staff
Appendix IV: GAO Contacts and Staff
                  Acknowledgments



Acknowledgments

                  Deborah L. Edwards (202) 512-5416
GAO Contacts      Tim Hall (202) 512-7192



                  The following people also made important contributions to this
Staff             report: Ellen Soltow, Susan Bernstein, Luann Moy, Kris Braaten,
Acknowledgments   Roger Thomas, and Richard Burkard.




(130208)
                  Page 31                               GAO-03-897 Dispute Resolution under IDEA
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