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Service complaints in Hawaii are among the highest

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Hawaii has long had one of the highest rates in the nation for special-education due-process claims — filed by parents who have unresolved complaints about the special-education services their child is offered.

From 1991 to 2005, Hawaii ranked third in the nation for per-capita due-process filings.

Since then the situation has worsened.

Last school year, amid teacher furlough days and a new law that capped free public education in Hawaii at 20 years old (lowered from 21), the number of due-process claims involving special-education services rose 25 percent, compared with the year before, to 148 filings. Before the 2009-10 school year, the number of filings hovered around 120 for several years. The number of hearing requests peaked at 250 in 2004-05.

Advocates and educators say there are probably several reasons for the large number of due-process filings through the last decade. In part the high numbers are believed to be a remnant from the days of the Felix consent decree. Though it bolstered services for special-education youth, it also generated lots of feelings of mistrust, skepticism and anger among parents.

Hearing requests steadily rose after the Felix case was filed in 1994, from 16 in 1995 to 76 in 1999.

"The challenge we’re always going to have in special education is the desires of the parents and the challenges the department has in trying to meet those needs," said state Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee. "This is the system we have, and parents have the right to challenge."

Advocates also point out that parents prevail in about half of due-process claims, which suggests there remain problems — and gaps — in the services special-needs children are provided in public schools. Nationally the vast majority of decisions are made in favor of school districts.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents have the right to pursue legal action if they do not agree with the services their special-needs child is receiving. In Hawaii, special-education due-process claims are filed with the administrative hearings office at the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. Parents can also file lawsuits arguing the Education Department is not offering a free appropriate public education, as required by IDEA.

The Special Education Advisory Council has long also been concerned about the high rate of due-process cases in Hawaii, and is pushing for more mediation and facilitation work to head off due-process claims.

"The No. 1 preventative technique for due process (filings) is listening," said Susan Rocco, coordinator for the Special Parent Information Network, an advocacy and education group funded by the Education Department. "Parents don’t feel that they’re listened to. Everybody gets defensive."

In a report released in October on due-process filings during the 2008-09 school year, the council found:

» Honolulu and Windward districts had the most filings per capita.

» About half of filings were decided in hearings, while 43 percent were settled.

» Of those decided in hearings, parents prevailed in about 43 percent of cases. In the previous six years, the split was about 50-50.

The report also found that a large number of hearings needed lengthy extensions. IDEA requires due-process claims be decided within 75 days. But the law also allows for extensions, and in 2008-09 most cases were decided in 91 to 120 days. A handful were still continuing after a year.

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