Fairfax Co. schools, Virginia education officials hit with class action suit over disability hearings

Fairfax County Public Schools and the Virginia Department of Education have been hit with a federal class-action lawsuit claiming families of disabled children who challenge schools’ decisions about specialized education plans don’t get a fair shake.

The lawsuit, filed by Trevor and Vivian Chaplick, the parents of a disabled child, names as defendants Fairfax County School Board; Michelle Reid, superintendent of the school system; the Virginia Department of Education and Jillian Balow, superintendent of public instruction at VDOE.

The suit was filed Wednesday in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees a free appropriate public education to disabled children, and also gives parents the right to challenge schools’ decisions about education provided to their children in a due process hearing before an impartial hearing officer.

But the lawsuit says families in Northern Virginia who challenge schools’ decisions face a “near-insurmountable hurdle” in getting a fair hearing, because the state’s “carefully curated system of crony hearing officers” are biased toward schools.

The lawsuit includes previously unreported data showing that parents in Northern Virginia who seek a hearing challenging a school’s decision on educational decisions for disabled students prevail less than 1% of the time, and that several of the nearly two dozen hearing officers who issue rulings had never ruled in favor of a family.

The suit claims the state’s practices violate the IDEA law, as well as constitutional rights to due process, and seeks a decision that forces changes to Virginia’s policies.

The Chaplick’s son, who is now 19, is profoundly disabled according to the suit, and was placed in a special education building in an FCPS school. After he struggled to make progress academically and behaviorally, his parents sought his residential educational placement at a special school in Winchester, according to the lawsuit.

However, FCPS rejected the parents’ request. Later, the Chaplick’s appeal before a hearing officer was also rejected.

The lawsuit claims the data it obtained through FOIA requests show, “Parents and disabled students in Virginia almost always lose, especially in Northern Virginia.”

For example, in the 11 years between 2010 and July 2021, there were 395 cases brought by parents challenging a school’s decision under the IDEA law. In just three cases — less than 1% of all cases — the hearing officer ruled in favor of the parents who brought the challenge.

Statewide, over the same time period, there were 847 cases brought under the IDEA law and just 13 rulings — 1.5% — in favor of parents, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said studies have shown that, nationally, parents prevail in about 30% of cases brought under the IDEA law.

The lawsuit claims the state’s department of education and local school systems work together to maintain a “carefully curated” group of just 22 hearing officers who take cases, and “who nearly always rule in favor of school districts and against parents.”

Of the 22 hearing officers who issued rulings between 2010 and 2021, 14 of them never ruled fully in favor of a disabled student or family in a due process hearing, according to the lawsuit.

While a significant number of cases filed by parents never make it to a hearing and are withdrawn by parents, the suit says, “it is likely that many parents gave up, rather than face significant legal bills, with very little chance of success. Unfortunately, such parental deterrence is the intended consequence of Virginia’s carefully curated system of crony hearing officers.”

In a statement, Trevor Chaplick said the suit aims to “shine a light on and reveal the deeply troubling ruling record of Virginia hearing officers against parents of disabled children in IDEA due process cases. We believe this is a scandal that has existed for at least twenty years.”

The Civil Right Clinic of Georgetown Law School and law firms Susman Godfrey LLP and Merritt Law PLLC are all part of the legal team representing the Chaplicks.

In an email, Charles Pyle, a VDOE spokesman, said the department is aware of the filing but does not comment on pending litigation.

“The department is committed to ensuring that students with disabilities receive all services and supports that they are entitled to under federal and state law,” Pyle said.

WTOP has requested comment from FCPS.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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