Ruling Boosts Role of Special-Ed. Hearing Officers

By Debra Viadero — January 15, 1992 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The opinions of hearing officers who rule in special-education disputes between schools and parents should be given great weight, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Dec. 19 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit applies only to five states--Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Legal experts said it would make it harder in those states to reverse the decisions of the hearing officers who initially rule on special-education disputes.

Usually appointed by a state department of education or a court, hearing officers represent the first layer of appeals for parents challenging their children’s special-education placements.

The qualifications of those hearing officers vary widely among states, however, according to a report by the National Council on Disability.

Special-education lawyers said the ruling should lead to a greater emphasis on the need for well-trained hearing officers, while also spurring school districts to prepare adequately for the initial hearing in a case.

“Some of our school systems have traditionally tried to handle the initial hearing with fewer resources,” said Grady Carlson, the lawyer for the school district in the case, Doyle v. Arlington County School Board.

The case involved an Arlington, Va., girl with a severe learning disability whose parents want the local district to pay for her placement in a special private school.

After hearing testimony from both sides in the case, a hearing officer ruled in favor of the parents.

The district then appealed to a higher- level hearing officer, who overruled the decision without gathering new evidence. While agreeing with the facts in the case, the second hearing officer questioned the impartiality of one of the private- school teachers who had testified earlier.

‘Far From Accepted Norm’

A federal district court, taking the case on appeal from the parents, accepted the findings of the second-level hearing officer without gathering additional evidence and ruled in favor of the district.

In remanding the case to the district court, Circuit Judge H. Emory Widener said second-level hearing officers and judges who hear special-education disputes must justify reversing a lower decision with compelling evidence that the earlier testimony was incorrect. In this case, the judge wrote, the district court’s decision to discredit the teacher’s testimony without hearing from the teacher was “far from the accepted norm of a fact-finding process designed to discover the truth.”

Lawyers said the ruling contrasts with other circuit-court rulings on the issue, opening up the possibility the U.S. Supreme Court may be asked to resolve the matter at some point.

In another special-education ruling last month, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit said districts must consider a “full range” of ways to accommodate disabled students in the regular classroom.

The Dec. 26 ruling came in a Georgia case involving an 11-year-old girl with Downs syndrome whose parents want her to be educated in the regular classroom. A three-judge panel of the court said Rome City school officials had failed to consider more than three options for the girl: the regular classroom with no special services, regular classes with some speech therapy, or special-education classes.

The judges said officials could have considered more speech therapy or restructuring the class, among other options.

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 1992 edition of Education Week as Ruling Boosts Role of Special-Ed. Hearing Officers


Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Nearly a Million Kids Vaccinated in Week 1, White House Says
Experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to sustain the initial momentum.
4 min read
Leo Hahn, 11, gets the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Last week, U.S. health officials gave the final signoff to Pfizer's kid-size COVID-19 shot, a milestone that opened a major expansion of the nation's vaccination campaign to children as young as 5. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Education How Schools Are Getting Kids the COVID Shot, and Why Some Aren’t
Some district leaders say offering vaccine clinics, with the involvement of trusted school staff, is key to helping overcome hesitancy.
5 min read
A girl walks outside of a mobile vaccine unit after getting the first dose of her COVID-19 vaccine, outside P.S. 277, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
Education Biden Administration Urges Schools to Provide COVID-19 Shots, Information for Kids
The Biden administration is encouraging local school districts to host vaccine clinics for kids and information on benefits of the shots.
2 min read
President Joe Biden, and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Biden is spending the weekend at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)