Recent New Jersey administrative decisions reveal just how difficult it can be to act without an attorney, or “pro se” in a special education due process hearing. In fact, most parents who filed a hearing request without an attorney this fall were swiftly dismissed. While not all families can afford legal assistance, requesting a hearing without a lawyer presents many challenges for both sides.
In D.F. on behalf of K.C. v. Black Horse Pike Regional Board of Education (October 11, 2018), an administrative law judge dismissed a pro se parent’s claim because he failed to complete the hearing request properly. In M.J. on behalf of N.J. v. Trenton Board of Education (September 13, 2018), the pro se parent’s claim was dismissed, in part, because he “failed to state what services his son was to receive pursuant to any educational plan or IEP… .” Again, in B.R. on behalf of C.R. v. Mount Olive Township Board of Education (September 4, 2018), the parent’s claims were dismissed because she failed to satisfy complicated legal criteria.
In each case, perhaps an advocate, attorney, or even a different approach to dispute resolution, could have produced a better result for the student.
Consider just a few of the challenges pro se parents face:
- A request for a due process hearing must contain very specific information such as a detailed description of the problem, relevant facts and a proposed solution. If not completed properly, the claim will be dismissed.
- It may be unclear whether you should request emergent relief (also known as an “expedited hearing”) or not. Making the wrong choice can lead to dismissal.
- Attending the hearing may be difficult or impossible if you work. New Jersey special education due process hearings are conducted much like other legal proceedings, with unpredictable schedules that may drag-out over weeks and sometimes lengthy testimony.
- Documents must be presented for the legal record. In the months and years prior to a case, correspondence and dates become very important. This information must be copied and presented to the judge carefully. Moreover, how this information is presented (an area of legal expertise) often determine the legal outcome.
- Neither the Office for Special Education Programs nor the assigned administrative law judge will help a pro se parent draft their request. The judge will not modify or reduce legal requirements where a parent faces difficulty explaining the facts or responding to legal motions made by the school district. In the D.F. case mentioned above, the hearing officer said the parent, “has not sufficiently outlined the facts that relate to the problem that [parent] hopes to see resolved. In addition, [parent] has not produced any supporting documentation.”
- School districts will almost always have an attorney seeking to dismiss the parent’s claims.
- The case may involve complex or unresolved legal issues that need to be researched and argued.
Clearly, both parents and schools should consider these and other factors before requesting a hearing without legal support.
The special education team at Posternock Apell, PC believes a great advocate will always focus on what’s best for the child. We may encourage the parties to consider other options before requesting a formal hearing such as a facilitated IEP meeting, mediation or filing a state complaint. Often, these avenues lead to a better result for all involved.
Initial consultations are free. Please contact us at (856) 209-0221 for more information about our range of supports, including in-depth, non-attorney special education consultation, training and legal representation.