When Do I Need A Special Education Lawyer?

Published on April 27, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

When I give presentations to special education groups in Connecticut and elsewhere, I am almost always asked by at least one parent “when do I need a special education lawyer?” 

Deciding to “lawyer up” in your dispute with your school district is never easy. 

Obviously, no parent wants to be in a position where they have to bring in an attorney to their child’s school.  It is hardly a desirable position.  In fact, I say to my clients all the time that my goal for them is that they no longer need me.  So, how do you know when it’s time for legal counsel?

There are some circumstances where I would highly recommend you consult with an attorney who is experienced in representing children with disabilities immediately.  Those include:

  • Any time you learn, whether in writing or otherwise, that your school district’s lawyer will be involved on your child’s case;
  • If you or your school district are contemplating filing a Due Process Hearing request;
  • Your school district has given you a Settlement Agreement to sign in exchange for money or services;
  • A serious disciplinary matter involving your child has arisen, especially a referral to a Manifestation Determination meeting or an Expulsion Hearing;
  • Your child is in his or her senior year of high school or last year of eligibility for services by age, and you do not think they are prepared to graduate or be exited from services;
  • You or your school district believe that your child requires an out of district placement;
  • Any time you are asked to waive a legal right.

In addition to these absolutes, I would recommend at least calling a special education attorney if:

  • You or your school district have requested a Mediation;
  • You are seeing a pattern of disciplinary referrals for your child with special education needs;
  • You have requested that your child be evaluated or reevaluated and your school district has refused your request;
  • Your child requires a psychiatric hospitalization;
  • The IEP is clearly not being implemented.

I can think of dozens more, so if you don’t see your exact situation here, let me just say this:  if your instincts are telling you that you might need a special education attorney, you probably do

Know that most attorneys who represent children with special education needs, both here in Connecticut and in my experience throughout the country, chose to do so because they genuinely care about the rights of children with disabilities.  Many will at least talk to you for a short time without charge to ascertain whether you really do need a lawyer. 

If you can not afford a private attorney, you should check with your state’s legal aid agencies to see if you qualify.  Also, some law schools have clinics for low-income families who might be able to help.

If you have decided that you need to consult with a special education attorney, I highly recommend checking the national Council for Parent Attorneys and Advocates for a list of special education lawyers in your state:  www.COPAA.org.