IBA: The Basics of Education Law for Lawyers

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By Catherine Michael, J.D.Chair of the Education Law Division of Hollingsworth & Zivitz, P.C.

In an increasingly complex world full of legal intricacies and overlapping requirements, the sphere of Education Law has become a jungle filled with a multitude of federal and state laws, regulations, case law decisions, and executive orders. It is a practice area that requires a thorough knowledge of the law for both those representing schools and parents.

Federal law plays a major role in education cases today. These laws include: No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, FERPA, HIPPA, and the ADA. In addition to the requirements found in the federal system, Indiana must develop, maintain and operate its own school system. In Indiana, our rules provide for school structure and guidance. An entire article of the Indiana Code, Article 7, is dedicated exclusively to laying the framework for Special Education in public schools.

For education attorneys in Indiana who represent parents, the practice frequently involves Article 7 Special Education Due Process Hearings, Section 504 Due Process Hearings, and school disciplinary issues. Both IDEA and Article 7 of the Indiana Code require all public and charter schools in the State to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student with a disability who is qualified for special education. This IEP must be specific to the child and provide specially designed instruction. This “Specially designed instruction” must address the content, methodology or delivery of instruction, specific to the child’s unique needs resulting from the disability, while ensuring the child’s access to the general curriculum so that he or she can meet the educational standards that apply to all children. 34 CFR 300.39 (b)(3).

Unlike No Child Left Behind, there are no reporting requirements or state review as to a school’s compliance with the special education laws specific to individual children and their programs. Article 7 and IDEA require the parents to enforce the law if violations occur. This is done by instituting an “Education Due Process Hearing” thru the Indiana Department of Education. For example, if a school has not provided programming, or has failed to address an area of need for the child, the burden is on the parents to seek review.

For students with disabilities like autism or an anxiety disorder, the needs are not merely academic. The specialized and unique needs of a student with a disability encompass more than a mastery of academic subjects such as reading and math. These extend to include emotional and psychological needs, life skills, and social training. See County of San Diego v. California Special Educ. Hearing Office, 24 IDELR 756 (9th Cir. 1996).

What can often lead to litigation is that the law does not spell out to a clear and definitive degree what is “appropriate,” since it is meant to be specific to each individual child. “The contours of an appropriate education must be decided on a case-by-case basis, in light of an individualized consideration of the unique needs of each eligible student.” Board of Educ. of the Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 553 IDELR 656 (U.S. 1982). This leaves practitioners relying extensively on federal case law for similar cases and expert testimony regarding the specific needs of that individual child.

Article 7 Special Education Due process hearings are hearings structured very similar to that of a trial. They can last three days or three weeks, depending on the number of witnesses and issues. Appeals of the hearing officer’s decision proceed directly into federal court.

Another focus of education attorneys representing parents is that of injury in school. Due to tort reform rules and the fact that a school is considered a public entity, the damages in school cases are capped and often there are many federal issues. There is also the need to exhaust administrative remedies in actions where one or more of the remedies may be a different education placement or need, such as a residential facility or private placement.

While this is a complex field, it is a very fulfilling one for many education focused attorneys. Practitioners for both schools and parents have the rewarding job of working to ensure that children are being educated appropriately and their needs are being met.•

Association Note: In the fall 2011, the IndyBar Pro Bono Standing Committee will be restoring its School Education Advocacy program. IndyBar teaming up with the Foster Youth Education Initiative to provide volunteer assistance to youth in need of a variety of educational services. IndyBar members interested in advocating for children with special needs, please watch Indiana Lawyer,, and weekly e-bulletins for more information about early fall training sessions.


  • education law
    am question is have spec need child that goes to merrivllve school district he has 28 day that he missed from school some staff have dfr to come home while present do have case.

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  1. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  2. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  3. Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh who is helping Sister Fuller with this Con Artist Kevin Bart McCarthy scares Sister Joseph Therese, Patricia Ann Fuller very much that McCarthy will try and hurt Patricia Ann Fuller and Paul Hartman of Burbank, Oh or any member of his family. Sister is very, very scared, (YES, I AM) This McCarthy guy is a real, real CON MAN and crook. I try to totall flatter Kevin Bart McCARTHY to keep him from hurting my best friends in this world which are Carolyn Rose and Paul Hartman. I Live in total fear of this man Kevin Bart McCarthy and try to praise him as a good man to keep us ALL from his bad deeds. This man could easy have some one cause us a very bad disability. You have to PRAISAE in order TO PROTECT yourself. He lies and makes up stories about people and then tries to steal if THEY OWN THRU THE COURTS A SPECIAL DEVOTION TO PROTECT, EX> Our Lady of America DEVOTION. EVERYONE who reads this, PLEASE BE CAREFUL of Kevin Bart McCarthy of Indianapolis, IN My Phone No. IS 419-435-3838.

  4. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.

  5. I had a hospital and dcs caseworker falsify reports that my child was born with drugs in her system. I filed a complaint with the Indiana department of health....and they found that the hospital falsified drug screens in their investigation. Then I filed a complaint with human health services in Washington DC...dcs drug Testing is unregulated and is indicating false positives...they are currently being investigated by human health services. Then I located an attorney and signed contracts one month ago to sue dcs and Anderson community hospital. Once the suit is filed I am taking out a loan against the suit and paying a law firm to file a writ of mandamus challenging the courts jurisdiction to invoke chins case against me. I also forwarded evidence to a u.s. senator who contacted hhs to push an investigation faster. Once the lawsuit is filed local news stations will be running coverage on the situation. Easy day....people will be losing their jobs soon...and judge pancol...who has attempted to cover up what has happened will also be in trouble. The drug testing is a kids for cash and federal funding situation.