Your Guide to State Complaints

By Diane Willcutts, Education Advocate

Filing a state complaint is an often overlooked strategy used by parents to resolve special education disputes • Here a professional advocate explains the benefits of this option and why it’s worth considering for handling disputes with your child’s school

I’m frequently asked by parents about how to handle situations where they believe their child is not receiving appropriate services from the school system. For example, “What do I do if the school district is not following my child’s IEP?” Or “What if I requested that the district pay for an independent educational evaluation, and the district did nothing?” Depending on the circumstances, I often suggest filing a state complaint—something that few families even know is an option.

When districts violate a child’s rights under IDEA, state complaints are sometimes the best recourse. Unlike due process hearings, parents are often able to successfully manage this process on their own. Following are guidelines aimed at helping you decide if a state complaint is an appropriate option for your child’s situation.

1. What are the differences between a state complaint and a due process hearing?

It depends on your state. But generally…

    • A state complaint is relatively simple, requiring little more effort than drafting a letter to your state’s Department of Education (DOE) in which you describe the IDEA violation, provide the facts that support the allegations, and propose a resolution. (See No. 5, below for specific details.)
    • The State DOE then investigates your complaint and issues a decision within 60 calendar days.
    • A state complaint can be filed by any person or organization, not just parents.
    • More often than not, state complaints succeed. Nationally, districts are found in violation of the law about 65% of the time.
    • State complaints must be filed within one year of the time parents knew or should have known about the alleged violation.
    • A due process hearing, looks a lot like a court hearing. Think Law and Order, with judges/hearing officers, attorneys, witnesses, exhibits, etc.
    • After a parent files for due process, IDEA mandates that the hearing officer issue a written decision within 75 days. But in real life, this is often extended by months. Or longer.
    • Unlike state complaints, only parents, students, or a district can file for a hearing. That’s it.
    • For parents with attorneys, the success rate in hearings is around 40 to 50% nationally (lower than state complaints). The success rate of unrepresented parents is much lower (less than 5% in some states).
    • For hearings, generally alleged violations must have occurred within the past two years of the time the parents knew or should have known of the problem.

Caveat: the above is an over-simplification, and corrective actions” that the state complaint investigator may order for the district may (or may not) be very different than what a hearing officer would order. 

2. What kind of state complaint has the best chance of success?

State complaints are great for black-and-white issues. For example, did the district provide a service in the IEP?  Yes or no?; did the district miss the deadline for completing the initial evaluation?  Yes or no?

However,  when filing a state complaint about a timeline issue, I generally recommend focusing on violations that impact the child’s program or the parents’ ability to participate in the IEP process. If the district missed a non-critical deadline by two or three days, I would not recommend filing a state complaint over that issue.

3. If a district won’t remove a troublesome school staff member from my IEP meetings, am I likely to be able to resolve this through a state complaint?

Usually no. For example, “the administrator always uses a condescending tone” is not an IDEA violation.

On the other hand, if the administrator has a habit of ending IEP meetings abruptly to silence parents, saying things such as, “We are NOT going to talk about transportation, I am ending this meeting NOW,” that could arguably be a violation of IDEA, as parents need to be able to participate as equal members of their children’s IEP teams in making decisions about the IEP.

 4. What must be included in a state complaint?

    • A statement that a public agency has violated a requirement of the IDEA.
    • The facts upon which this is based. (It helps to bullet these.)
    • The signature and contact information for the complainant.
    • If alleging violations with respect to a specific child: the name and address of the child, the name of the school the child attends.
    • A description of the nature of the problem of the child, including facts relating to the problem.
    • A proposed resolution to the extent known to the person filing.
    • Note that the complaint must be sent to the school district (or whatever public agency is the subject of the complaint) at the same time the complaint is sent to the state.

5. If I have records that support my allegations (emails, IEPs, evaluations, recordings, etc.), should I provide these to the state with my complaint?

YES! This will help the investigator substantiate your complaint.

6. If I don’t like the findings, can I appeal the state complaint decision?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on your state.

For more information, see the Advocacy Institutes IDEA State Complaint Resource Center website, which includes federal documents explaining more about state complaints along with a section of sample complaints and complaint decisions.

Diane Willcutts is an Education Advocate with Education Advocacy, LLC, an organization that works with families of children with disabilities throughout Connecticut.

Related Smart Topics