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IEPs: Resolving IEP disputes

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You and the school may not always agree on every detail in your child’s IEP. If you’re having trouble working things out, it’s good to know your option for resolving a dispute. 

On this episode of Understood Explains, host Juliana Urtubey will go through your dispute resolution options and how to handle common disagreements. She’ll also share information on advocates and attorneys who can help you in a disagreement. 


[01:39] Dispute resolution options

[05:41] Disagreeing about evaluation results

[08:07] Changing a child’s placement

[09:32] Reducing a child’s services 

[10:40] Special education advocates and attorneys 

[12:09] Key takeaways 

Episode transcript

Juliana: You and the school may not always agree on every detail in your child's IEP. So, if you're having trouble working things out, it's good to know what your options are for resolving a dispute. And I'm going to explain them to you. 

From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "Understood Explains IEPs." On this episode, we're talking about how to resolve IEP disputes. My name is Juliana Urtubey, and I'm your host. I'm the 2021 National Teacher of the Year, and I'm an expert in special education for multilingual learners. As a reminder, all of the episodes this season are available in English y en español. OK, let's get started. 

We're going to start this episode by looking at how parents and schools need to work together to develop a child's IEP or Individualized Education Program. Then, we'll do an overview of all the different ways you can work things out if there's a dispute. And after that, we'll talk about three common situations where disagreements tend to happen and what you can do about it. 

OK, so the big picture here is that you have the right to disagree with the school about any part of your child's IEP. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, is very clear that you're a part of the team that develops the IEP. You have to be invited to all IEP meetings. You have to get looped in before the team can make any changes. And there are key moments where the team cannot move forward unless you give the go ahead.

Special education is set up to encourage families and schools to work together, and when disagreements come up, it doesn't always mean that there has to be a big fight. 

[01:39] Dispute resolution options

The law lays out six options for resolving disputes, and they range from pretty low-key, like requesting another IEP meeting all the way up to filing a civil rights complaint. We're going to look at each of these options starting with the least formal one. And that's good old-fashioned negotiation. This includes having a conversation with the team trying to talk things through. You can do this by asking for another IEP meeting. You can use the meeting to talk about how you want to fix whatever problem you're having with the IEP. It's as simple as that. 

If the issue doesn't get resolved, the next step up is to ask for a mediation meeting. This is where you sit down with a neutral third party called the mediator. This person doesn't take sides or tell anybody what to do. Instead, their job is to try to come up with a solution that works for you and the rest of the IEP team. You can ask for mediation at any time. It's a voluntary process, so you get to choose whether you want to go this route. But I want you to keep in mind that the decisions made during mediation are legally binding. This means once you reach an agreement, you can't back out of it.

Option number three is a due process hearing. This is a formal process that starts with you filing a written complaint. And this complaint has to include why you think the school isn't doing what IDEA says it needs to do. And here are some examples of ways you might think the school violated your child's rights. Like if your child didn't qualify for special education, or if your child qualified but you think the school isn't providing appropriate services, or maybe you think your child isn't being educated in the least restrictive setting. 

And by the way, we're going to get into more detail about each of these examples later in this episode. OK, so you file your due process complaint. The next step is to have a resolution session with the school where both sides try to reach an agreement. But if you can't agree, then there will be a due process hearing. And this looks kind of like a courtroom trial. Evidence is presented. There are witnesses, and there's a hearing officer who acts like a judge and will make a decision on the case. 

Now, as you can probably tell, due process involves a lot of knowledge about the law. You need to know your rights under IDEA. So, if you're thinking of going this route, it's a good idea to speak with a special education advocate or attorney before you file a complaint. 

OK, resolution option number four is a lawsuit. You can file a civil lawsuit, but you can't do this until after you've gone through due process. And it's a really good idea to hire a lawyer if you're going to file a lawsuit. Another way you can resolve an IEP dispute is by filing a state complaint. You write a letter explaining why you think the school violated IDEA, and you send it to your state's Department of Education and ask them to do an investigation. 

You can file this complaint on your own, or you can file it with other parents if you see a situation at school that affects more than just your child. Once a complaint is filed, the state may investigate and decide if the school violated the law. 

The last dispute resolution option I want to mention is filing a civil rights complaint. This option is similar to filing a state complaint, but this one escalates the issue even higher to the federal government. You send the complaint to the U.S. Department of Education, then its office for Civil Rights, or OCR will decide whether to investigate the school. 

OK, so those are the six main options for resolving an IEP dispute. And I get that most of these options sound very formal. But I want to emphasize that the first option, negotiation, includes a bunch of informal strategies that can help you work out a dispute. There's a good Understood article outlining these options, and I'll put a link in the show notes. 

[05:41] Disagreeing about evaluation results

Now that we're done with the overview, I want to talk about three common things that can lead to a dispute between families and schools. And the first one is disagreeing about your child's evaluation results. It can be frustrating to go through a lengthy evaluation process, only to be told that your child doesn't qualify for special education. Or maybe your child qualifies, but the results don't seem to accurately describe your child. 

If you disagree with the results of your child's initial evaluation, you have the right to request what's called an independent educational evaluation, or IEE. The school must consider the results of the IEE, and these results can also be used as evidence if you end up using a formal dispute resolution option, like a due process hearing. 

Broadly speaking, families get IEEs if they think the school didn't test the right things, didn't test in the right ways, or aren't interpreting the results correctly. And let me give you a couple of examples. Let's say you requested an evaluation for anxiety and trouble staying focused, but your child was only tested for academic challenges. 

Or maybe your child was only evaluated in English and not in their home language. Whatever the reason, you have the right to get an IEE. You'll most likely have to pay for it, but there are some situations where the school may be required to cover that cost. I'll put a link in the show notes if you want to learn more about IEEs, including how you can request one at public expense. 

Another way an evaluation dispute can come up is if the school says your child no longer qualifies for an IEP. You might hear the team refer to this as "exiting special education," and it can happen after your child is reevaluated for special education, which happens at least once every three years. 

Now, I know many parents worry about their child's IEP being taken away too soon, but I want you to try to be objective and remember this can be a good thing. If your child has made a lot of progress and is meeting grade-level standards, that's a reason to celebrate. I also want to mention that many kids switch from an IEP to a 504 plan, which can offer a lot of the same supports. But if you think your child still needs an IEP, you may want to go get a private evaluation or consider using your dispute resolution options. 

[08:07] Changing a child’s placement

Another common source of IEP disputes is when the school wants to change your child's placement. This is the term for where your child will be taught. Examples include general education classrooms and self-contained classrooms where all the kids have IEPs. 

If the school wants to change your child's placement, there are two key rights for you to know about. First, your child has the right to be educated in the least restrictive environment. And your child also has the right to stay put while you and the school work out the disagreement. It's important to note the school cannot change your child's placement without telling you ahead of time and giving you a chance to discuss it at an IEP meeting. 

I want to pause here for a moment and talk about bias. Research shows that students who are Black or Hispanic are more likely to be placed in self-contained classrooms than white students. So, parents and guardians of Black and Hispanic kids need to be extra aware and know your rights. In particular, I want you to listen to the previous episode about IEPs and behavioral supports. 

I also want to mention that placement changes tend to happen slowly. So, chances are the team will tell you well in advance, so you'll have opportunities to ask questions and weigh in. 

[09:32] Reducing a child’s services 

OK, there's one more common reason that families in schools get into disputes, and it's reducing or denying services. Understood has a good article on ten common but incorrect reasons schools may give to try to cut or deny services. I'll put a link in the show notes so you can check it out. The article gives you sample responses you can say to the IEP team. 

For example, if the team says "We don't have enough funding for that," you can respond with, "The U.S. Department of Education says that even if the school has budget concerns, that doesn't change its legal obligations to my child." This is an example of how knowing your rights can help you negotiate with the school.

Another strategy is to wait to sign the IEP. The team cannot move forward without you. You can ask for more time to gather more data to help you make a decision. And speaking of data, use it to help you negotiate. When you present test scores and other data, it's harder for the school to say no. 

[10:40] Special education advocates and attorneys 

OK, so we've talked about different options for resolving IEP disputes. And we've talked about common situations where families may disagree with the school. As you think about your options, you might wonder, "Do I need to hire somebody to help me? Do I need a special education advocate?" or "Do I need an attorney?" 

Advocates and attorneys can do a lot of the same things. Both can negotiate with the school on your behalf. Both can write letters on your behalf or help you write them, and both can advise you on strategies for working with the school. 

But there are some big differences. One example is training. Attorneys have a law degree, but advocates may not have any formal training. They tend to be parents with kids who've been through the special education process. Or maybe they know how to navigate the system because they used to work at a school. 

Another difference may be in how the school reacts. Some schools are open to working with advocates and having them participate in meetings, but many schools are wary of attorneys. So, if you bring an attorney to a meeting, expect the school might want to bring its attorney, too. 

If you're trying to find an advocate or lawyer, you may want to start by reaching out to the special education parent group in your school district. Understood also has a list of questions to ask before hiring an advocate or an attorney. I'll link to it in the show notes. 

[12:09] Key takeaways 

OK, before we go, let's sum up with some key takeaways. 

You have six main options for resolving an IEP dispute: negotiation, mediation, a due process hearing, a lawsuit, a state complaint, and a federal civil rights complaint. If you disagree with the school about your child's evaluation results, you may want to get an independent education evaluation. If you disagree about your child's services, you can ask for another IEP meeting and use informal negotiation strategies before you consider a more formal route. 

If you disagree about a change in your child's placement, you may want to use your stay put rights while you work out the dispute with the school. And last but not least, special education advocates and attorneys can do some of the same things, but be sure to research which one is most appropriate for your situation. 

All right. That's it for this episode of "Understood Explains." I hope you'll join us next time when we'll talk about IEPs and multilingual learners. 

You've been listening to "Understood Explains IEPs". This season was developed in partnership with UnidosUS, which is the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. Gracias, Unidos! 

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we've mentioned in the episode. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at


Understood Explains IEPs was produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, with editing support by Daniella Tello-Garzon. 

Video was produced by Calvin Knie and Christoph Manuel, with support from Denver Milord.

Mixing and music by Justin D. Wright.

Ilana Millner was our production director. Margie DeSantis provided editorial support, and Whitney Reynolds was our web producer. 

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Special thanks to the team of expert advisors who helped shape this season: Shivohn Garcia, Claudia Rinaldi, and Julian Saavedra.


  • Juliana Urtubey, NBCT, MA

    is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year. As a special educator, she believes all kids have a right to be included and celebrated in what she calls a “joyous and just education.”

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