Federal and state laws guarantee a free appropriate public education for eligible students with certain disabilities in the form of special education and related services.  The key federal law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In Massachusetts, formal litigation begins at the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA).  A parent or school files a complaint to get the process started.  The complaint states the facts of the situation and lists requests for legal relief, such as changes to the IEP or placement, compensatory services, reimbursement for a unilateral placement, an evaluation, or other equitable relief.  The case is assigned a hearing officer, who is like a judge.  An evidentiary hearing is scheduled.  This hearing is like a trial.  Whoever filed the complaint has to prove to the hearing officer why the other party did not follow the law and what legal relief should be ordered as a result.  Parents are strongly advised to have an attorney for a BSEA proceeding.

Every state or jurisdiction has an administrative law agency like the BSEA for special education legal disputes.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the United States Department of Education receives and investigates discrimination complaints, including based on disability.  OCR may enter into a resolution or compliance agreement with a school district or seek to take enforcement action.  OCR may also facilitate a resolution between the parties, which can result in an agreement between a family and school district.  An OCR complaint must be filed within 180 days of the event at issue.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has a Problem Resolution System (PRS) that assesses and investigates complaints about school districts not abiding by their legal obligations, including for special education procedures.  PRS issues a Letter of Finding and can require corrective action from the school district, such as updating policies and training staff.  A PRS complaint must be filed within one year of the event at issue.