Section 504 (part 3): Impartial Hearing
By Jessica Jansepar Ross, Esq.
Now that we have discussed when complaints to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) are appropriate and the basics for filing these complaints, in the last part of our Section 504 series, we will look at internal procedures for addressing Section 504-related disputes within a school district or charter.
In relevant part, schools are required to have two procedures for addressing Section 504-related issues: a grievance procedure and an impartial hearing (or due process) procedure. Note that these are two separate procedures: schools cannot require a parent to file a grievance and allow the school to conduct an investigation prior to requesting a due process hearing, or vice versa.
The Section 504 regulations and OCR guidance do not provide a lot of details about what specific procedures are required, other than that certain minimum requirements must be met. These minimum requirements for Section 504 due process hearings and internal grievance procedures are discussed in detail below.
Due Process Hearings
Parents can request a Section 504 due process hearing if they disagree about any decisions concerning identification, evaluation, placement, or the appropriateness of their child’s educational services. Examples might include disputes over whether further evaluation is needed to develop a sufficient 504 plan, or if the child’s behavioral plan is sufficient to meet his or her educational needs. The school may also request a 504 due process hearing in certain instances, such as if it wishes to override a parent’s decision to deny consent for an evaluation to determine whether a child needs a 504 plan.
As we have discussed, school districts are required to develop procedures for conducting impartial 504 due process hearings where 1) parents have an opportunity to review records; 2) parents are permitted to participate (with or without an attorney, at parent’s expense); and 3) there is an opportunity for review of the hearing officer’s decision. School districts must also provide notice to parents about these rights. School districts can adopt the same hearing procedures as provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but aren’t required to do so.
According to a Dear Colleague letter from OCR entitled Letter to Anonymous, when evaluating whether school districts have met their procedural obligations, OCR applies “fundamental principles of fairness” and also refers to the IDEA procedures for guidance. Based on this, OCR has determined that school board members, district employees, and people who contract with the district to provide services to students with disabilities are not appropriate impartial hearing officers for due process hearings under Section 504. Similarly, in at least one case, OCR found that procedures for appealing an impartial hearing officer’s decision violated Section 504 where they allowed for the decision to be overturned by the school board, which was not an impartial entity.
If you are considering requesting a Section 504 due process hearing, you should review your school district’s Section 504 due process hearing procedures. These may be available on its website, or you could request the procedures from the school district or charter. Also note that mediation is not a required procedure, though school districts may choose to offer it as a method of resolving disputes.
Internal Grievance Procedure
Rather than (or in addition to) filing a complaint with OCR regarding disability discrimination under Section 504, parents may file a complaint with the school district requesting an internal investigation. Situations where you might decide to file an internal grievance include instances of different treatment due to disability, disability-related harassment or bullying, lack of accessible facilities, or to address policies or practices that negatively impact students with disabilities. According to OCR guidance, when evaluating the sufficiency of a district’s internal investigation, OCR considers the extent to which:
- The complaint was resolved in a “prompt and equitable manner”;
- Parents were provided with notice;
- The investigation was adequate, reliable, and impartial;
- The timeframes for investigation were “reasonably prompt”;
- Notice of the outcome of the investigation was provided to the parties;
- Assurances were made that violations would be addressed and steps were taken to prevent similar problems in the future.
If you disagree with the process used or the outcome of the internal investigation, you may file a complaint with OCR within 60 days of the completion of the investigation. If you try to file complaints with both the school district and OCR at the same time, OCR might close your complaint and advise you to file again if dissatisfied with your school’s internal investigation within 60 days after the internal investigation has ended.
You also have the option to file a complaint with OCR within 60 days following a school’s internal impartial due process hearing, though appealing the decision or filing a lawsuit in federal court may be a better option, depending on your reasons for disagreeing with the hearing. We recommend consulting with a private attorney regarding your individual circumstances and the best methods for addressing your child’s needs.
If you believe that a school’s internal investigation was inadequate, be prepared to give specific examples to OCR. This could include pointing out that the investigator never interviewed your child about an incident or talked to the witnesses that you recommended, that the investigation took an unreasonable amount of time (and why it was unreasonable), or that you were not told the outcome of the investigation other than that the problem was solved. Be as specific as you can (and refer back to Part 2 for additional tips on filing a complaint).
Tomorrow’s Tip of the Day: Remedies
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 U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Protecting Students with Disabilities: Frequently Asked Questions About Section 504 and the Education of Children with Disabilities, question 26, available at https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html .
 34 C.F.R. § 104.36.
 Letter to Anonymous, 18 IDELR 230 (OCR 1991).
 See, e.g., Forest Hills (OH) Local Sch. Dist., 58 IDELR 114 (OCR 2011).
 U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, OCR Complaint Processing Procedures, available at https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/complaints-how.html .