What to include in a state complaint for IEP dispute resolution

At a glance

  • A state complaint is one way to handle a dispute with a school about special education.

  • You may want to talk to a lawyer first — a state complaint can take a lot of time and effort.

  • A state complaint must say that the school broke the law and how.

If you have a dispute with a school about your child’s services, there are a few ways to resolve it. One way is a state complaint. This is basically a letter to your state’s department of education saying you believe the school broke the law.

A state complaint can take a lot of time and effort. Before starting one, it’s a good idea to talk with a lawyer. If you’re ready to go forward, read on for what to include in a state complaint.

Basic requirements for a state complaint

When you write a state complaint, there are some basic requirements. There’s a time limit — you have to complain about something that happened within the past year. In addition, your complaint has to have the following.

That’s all you need if you’re complaining about something affecting all kids. (A good example is if the school says it won’t provide services to any child.) When your complaint is about your child’s specific situation, you must also include:

  • Your child’s name and address

  • The name of your child’s school

  • A description of the “nature of the problem”

  • A proposed solution

Under IDEA, the school district must give you a model complaint form to use and an explanation of your and your child’s rights (called a Procedural Safeguards Notice). You can also just write a letter. Here’s a sample that will help.

What to include to make the complaint strong

Once you have the basics, it’s time to think about how to make your complaint strong. Every child’s situation is different. It’s important to be specific about anything that shows the school broke the law. Consider including the following:

  • Specific examples about how your child struggles. This means any poor grades, bad test results or behavior reports. If your child is passing, point out the extra help you gave your child. Medical reports about your child’s learning or thinking difference are also helpful.

  • How you’ve interacted with the school. This includes a history of your efforts to work with the school; the dates you asked for evaluations or services; any notices from the school; any reports or evaluations; and any current program or services.

  • Evidence showing the school broke the law. This is the heart of a state complaint. Keep in mind that what you heard secondhand is not evidence. But letters from the school are evidence. Evaluations, notices, and school policies are evidence. What a school employee told you directly is evidence. Use your evidence to give facts showing in what way the school violated IDEA.

How to file your state complaint

You file your complaint with your state’s department of education. You must also send a copy to your school district. Each state handles the process in its own way. You’ll need to check your state’s rules. The nonprofit Advocacy Institute has links to each state’s information page. The institute also has a library of actual complaints and decisions.

A state complaint is just one way to resolve a dispute under IDEA. You can file a request for due process. (If you file a state complaint at the same time, the state must put aside any part of your complaint that’s being addressed in the .) You also can consider less formal options, such as negotiation and mediation.

Learn more by exploring different ways to resolve a disagreement with a school about special education. When you understand the law and know your options, you can make the best decision for your child.

Key takeaways

  • A state complaint has some basic requirements that must be followed.

  • To make your complaint strong, include specific facts and evidence of how the school broke the law.

  • Be sure to check your state’s rules on filing a state complaint.


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