Monday, May 13, 2013

Special Education Due Process Hearings Part 3: What Happens at the Hearing?

Special education due process hearings are formal administrative hearings, and have many features similar to that of trial proceedings. In Iowa and the majority of states that have one-tiered due process systems, an administrative law judge (ALJ) presides over the hearing. There is no jury. Although the law allows parents to represent themselves in due process proceedings, given the legal nature of the proceedings, most are represented by attorneys.

The parent(s) and public agencies whose names appear in the caption at the top of the due process complaint are called the "parties." If the parent files the complaint, then he or she is called the "complainant" and the school district, area education agency, and any other public education agency named are the "respondents." The complainant is the party who must carry the burden of proof on one or more issues of the case in order to prevail.

Prior to the hearing, the IDEA provides parents with the right to decide whether or not the hearing will be open to the public.

The hearing begins when the ALJ enters the hearing room and announces that the hearing is in session. It’s important to remember that whenever the ALJ enters or exits the hearing room, the parties, their attorneys, and all persons attending the hearing must rise and remain quietly standing until the ALJ is seated or has departed the room.

Due process hearings are stenographically recorded by a court reporter so that there is an official transcript of the testimony given during the proceedings. In order for the court reporter to make an accurate record of the proceedings, it is important that all witnesses and attorneys speak clearly, refrain from interrupting, and avoid using nonverbal responses instead of "yes" and "no."

After the ALJ has convened the hearing, he or she will give the complainant’s attorney an opportunity to give an opening statement. An opening statement generally includes an overview of the evidence that is expected to be presented. After the complainant’s attorney has finished, the ALJ will provide the same opportunity to the attorney or attorneys for the Respondents. In some cases, the ALJ will allow the respondents’ attorney to delay the opening statement until after the complainant’s attorney has finished presenting evidence, and it is the respondents’ turn to present their evidence.

After the opening statements, the ALJ directs the complainant’s attorney to present his or her client’s case. The complainant’s attorney can only raise the issues that were stated in the due process complaint filed with the state department of education, unless the other party agrees otherwise. During the hearing, each party has the opportunity to present their views using witnesses, testimony, documents, and legal arguments that each believes is important for the ALJ to consider in order to decide the issues in the case. Parties generally present evidence by calling witnesses and asking questions.

In presenting evidence, each party must abide by the state’s Rules of Evidence which govern what evidence is admissible, and how it is presented. If the attorney for one of the parties believes the other party is not following the rules, he or she may raise an objection. The ALJ will then either sustain or overrule the objection, or defer a ruling until a later time.

The complainant’s attorney examines (i.e., questions) his or her witnesses and evidence first. After he or she has examined a witness, the respondents’ attorney has the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses. When the complainant’s attorney has finished putting on witnesses, then it is the respondents’ attorney’s turn to present their case. As before, after the respondents’ attorney has finished examining his or her witnesses, the Complainant’s attorney has the right to cross-examine them.

Once the parties have completed examining the witnesses, the ALJ provides each party’s attorney with an opportunity to make closing arguments. Closing arguments must be based upon the evidence produced in trial. At the close of the hearing, the ALJ may ask the attorneys to submit post-hearing briefs which set out the facts and points of law of their clients’ cases. After the hearing, at no cost to the parent, the parent’s attorney receives a transcript of the hearing.

The ALJ’s written decision of the ALJ is later issued and copies are immediately sent to the parties. The ALJ must make a decision on substantive grounds based on a determination of whether the child received a free appropriate public education (FAPE). In matters alleging a procedural violation, an ALJ may find that a child did not receive a FAPE only if the procedural inadequacies:

1. Impeded the child’s right to a FAPE;
2. Significantly impeded the parent’s opportunity to participate in the decision-making process regarding the provision of a FAPE to the child; or
3. Caused a deprivation of educational benefit.

The next in this series of articles will address matter of what a parent may do if he or she disagrees with the ALJ’s decision.

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