When to Hire an Education Lawyer

Children are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). When you feel that your child is not getting the services they need, and you are not being heard by the IEP team, it’s time to seek help from an education lawyer. Protecting your child’s right to FAPE can be exhausting and confusing. Having a team around you lets you just be a parent.

As any parent whose child has a 504 plan or an IEP knows, sometimes the special education process can be frustrating, if not infuriating. Parents struggle to maintain positive relationships with school staff while also ensuring that their children are getting their needs met. Some school IEP “teams” are effective professionals with the child’s best interest at heart. If you have one of those, count your lucky stars and bake them some cookies! However, even these types of teams sometimes face limitations, like lack of staff, or pressure from the district.

During times (like COVID) when school was disrupted, there are all kinds of complicated and issues that arise that are new to everyone. Dealing with the fallout of virtual school, or even an extended absence due to illness may be a reason you’d want a team to ensure your child’s needs are met.

There may be times when you need some help. Consider hiring a special education attorney when:

  • The IEP team refuses to evaluate your child for a disability, or staff outside the IEP process tell you your child doesn’t need to be evaluated. Trust your gut if you think your child needs an evaluation. An education attorney can help you sort through the evaluation process– Should you use the school team? Should you have a private evaluation? Which type of evaluator do you need? A special education attorney knows the answers to these questions, and also how to address refusals to evaluate.
  • Your child is denied eligibility for special education or a 504 plan. If you know your child needs special education services, but your school says no, its time to consult with a special education attorney, who can help you sort through the eligibility guidelines and next steps towards getting your child what they need.
  • IEP Team says “we don’t do that.” Remember, this is an INDIVIDUAL education plan. In this case, an education attorney may be able to “remind” the school district of their responsibilities.
  • IEP Team says they don’t have the resources or funding to give your child what she needs. This is another case where an attorney with expertise in special education may be needed to address the things your school is telling you that are illegal.
  • Your child has an IEP but is not making progress in YOUR opinion, even if the school says they are. For example, a child with a learning disability is not making reading progress, or a child who needs social support isn’t getting services to address this issue or doesn’t seem to be improving. As education attorneys, we often help families sort through what is actually measurable progress and what is just a subjective opinion, and we also help families add professionals to their teams to get objective data if necessary.
  • Teachers cannot explain when, where, and and what intervention is happening, and who is delivering it.
  • The IEP is not being followed or the 504 plan is not being followed.
  • Your child is suspended or expelled, ESPECIALLY if you believe the behavior was related to the disability in some way. In this case, you need an education attorney with expertise in school discipline immediately. Especially at the high school level, this can have lasting consequences to your child.
  • You are considering filing a state complaint under IDEA, or you are considering filing for due process. While there are some situations where parents absolutely can file a state complaint (with the Maryland State Department of Education) on their own, you might want some limited advice (just a short consultation) to get started. When you are considering filing for mediation or due process, remember, this is a legal proceeding and you need a specialized, experienced education attorney.

Keep in mind that as you move through the special education process, and especially if there are active disagreements, the school team has access to, or is actively consulting with, the school system’s education attorney. If you are considering steps that will get their education lawyer, compliance or legal office involved. (like contacting the director of special education or superintendent, filing for due process, or filing a complaint under IDEA), you should also have this benefit, since you can be sure that their lawyer will be reviewing everything you say or write.

How to hire a special education lawyer

If you decide to hire an education attorney to help you through this process, be sure you are consulting with someone who practices special education law exclusively, or at least primarily. There are certainly general practice attorneys who will be happy to get involved, but special education law is a highly specialized practice, and interacting with school systems is more effectively done by someone who is familiar with the players in your district. Ask any lawyer you are considering hiring what percentage of their practice is special education, how many special education cases they have handled, and what their familiarity is with your district. Also consider asking the attorney whether they only handle “full service” cases or whether they will work with you in a “limited scope” arrangement, which is a good way to control costs and get just the help you need.


Leave a Reply