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DC Appleseed Center
Press release on special education report
September 11, 2003




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Complete Appleseed/Rudnick special education report

Piper Rudnick LLP

September 11, 2003
Contacts: Sheldon Krantz 
Piper Rudnick LLP 

Walter Smith 
DC Appleseed 


Fixing Special Education in the District

Analysis by Independent Organizations Identifies Key Reforms for Immediate Implementation
Offer to Partner with DCPS to Be Accepted

Washington, D. C. - A report to be released tomorrow makes important recommendations for reducing the number and cost of disputes between parents of special education students and the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). The reduced costs will allow funding to be redirected to services in the classroom. The report, A Time for Action: The Need to Repair the System for Resolving Special Education Disputes in the District of Columbia, is a joint undertaking of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and Piper Rudnick LLP.

The District currently leads the nation in the percentage of special education complaints and hearings. Costs related to these disputes equal about $13 million a year, the report concludes, and great inefficiencies in responding to parents' legitimate demands mean that $137 million -- over half the District's special education budget -- goes to fund private school tuitions for children many of whose needs could be met more efficiently and cost-effectively in their local public schools.

Unlike most other jurisdictions, which use alternative dispute resolution techniques such as mediation to make disputes less adversarial, less time-consuming and, therefore, less costly, disputes both large and small between parents and DCPS go through a protracted hearing process that wastes money and fosters a climate of distrust between parents and DCPS personnel. Recent efforts by DCPS to improve special education services have been hampered by the enormous time and expense devoted to processing the excessive numbers of disputes between parents and DCPS.

To help resolve this problem, DC Appleseed and Piper Rudnick undertook a study of the DCPS special education dispute resolution system with the full support and cooperation of DCPS. The 14month study involved more than 100 interviews with parents, DCPS personnel, and attorneys involved in the dispute resolution process; a review of relevant legislation and literature; an analysis of practices in other jurisdictions; and a review of relevant data.

The report offers five categories of recommendations:

  • Clarifying lines of authority for special education responsibilities and making DCPS personnel accountable for their assignments.
  • Developing effective procedures and communicating those procedures to parents in order to reduce mistrust and hostility between parents and schools.
  • Acknowledging that attorneys' manipulation of the system can best be addressed by improving services and procedures rather than blaming attorneys.
  • Taking immediate steps to resolve special education disputes as early as possible.
  • Improving the administration of due process hearings.

The executive summary provides further details on these recommendations and can be viewed at www.dcappleseed.org/news.htm.

During the course of the study, it became clear that the lack of quality special education services is the primary cause of the problem. "The first step absolutely must be ensuring that each local school has adequate assessment and placement services available," said Sheldon Krantz, Pro Bono Partner at Piper Rudnick. "Until these fundamental services are in place, no reform of the special education system can be completely successful. Implementing these changes rests in the hands of the educational professionals at DCPS and the funding authority. However, we have also identified the administrative and legal glitches that divert funds and energy from meeting the children's educational needs. It's in this area that we can, and are offering to, help."

DC Appleseed and Piper Rudnick look forward to working with DCPS to implement their recommendations. This includes helping with developing early dispute resolution models through pilot programs at selected schools; establishing an independent mediator and facilitator program; and implementing a system that ensures that Hearing Officer Decisions and Court Orders are complied with.

"Too many parents in the District see retaining legal counsel and requesting a formal hearing as their only option to obtain appropriate services for their children," said Walter Smith, Executive Director of DC Appleseed. "We believe that we can help implement reform that will change that culture and create a more responsive system, one that resolves disputes earlier and eliminates the need for a due process hearing in most cases."

Neither DC Appleseed nor Piper Rudnick will receive any funds from DCPS or any other city agency for their work on this project. DC Appleseed operates with support from independent donors and foundations, and Piper Rudnick is participating on a pro bono basis. Piper Rudnick lawyers devoted more than 2,000 pro bono hours to the project - a value of approximately $700,000. In addition to DC Appleseed and Piper Rudnick, the project team included participants from the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, Georgetown Law Center and Children's Medical Center, and the Center for Negotiations and Conflict Management at the University of Baltimore.

About DC Appleseed

The DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Inc. is an independent nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to making the District of Columbia and the National Capital Area a better place to live and work. With the help of volunteer professionals and community leaders, DC Appleseed researches and analyzes serious local issues, develops and publishes recommendations for systemic reform, and advocates for appropriate solutions. An effective voice for the public interest, DC Appleseed has successfully addressed a wide range of issues from developing a workable system of governance for the public schools, to improving the District's stormwater management.

About Piper Rudnick

Piper Rudnick is a business law firm of over 925 lawyers with offices in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Edison, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Reston, Tampa, and Washington. Based on the 28 highlyranked lawyers in the firm, Piper Rudnick was ranked 15th in the nation in spring 2003 by Chambers USA: America's Leading Business Lawyers 2003-2004. We bring together a cross-section of practice areas, including nationally known Litigation and Government Affairs practices, one of the nation's largest Real Estate groups, a diverse Business and Technology practice and a prominent International practice.

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