Having returned from presenting at the hearing officer training, I wanted to share my thoughts. There are a lot of new hearing officers, and the overwhelming majority (all but 3) are attorneys. There is a diversity of gender, races, ages and abilities. They are all bright and inquisitive and seem to be well versed in IDEA 2004. The new hearing officers are grappling with the various issues that the new law has brought about and the current uncertainty of the law without new Federal and State regulations.
The common concern among all of the hearing officers was a focus on the child. I believe that each in his or her own way views him/herself as a person who is dedicated to the child's welfare within the bounds of the law. Of course, there is a lot of room to disagree over what is appropriate for the child. The general feeling, moreover, was that due process issues that are petty or overly technical in nature are not compelling. It must be the focus of due process to show the connection between the harm to the child or the educational loss and the issues presented. Parents, advocates and parent attorneys must avoid being seen as playing a game of "gotcha" with the school or being viewed as uncooperative at the expense of the child. Acting in a way that allows our cases to be cast in this light will be very unproductive and will likely lead to a losing outcome. We need to stay child focused, remain clear on the harm or loss to the child, and avoid an appearance of pettiness. While these observations may appear to be common sense, in the heat of the moment and in the wake of strong emotions, such strategic thinking can allude us.
There were certainly some hearing officers who worried me. Some seemed to regard school district's with way too much deference, which is a major concern for me as a parent's attorney. I can state candidly, however, that at the training, all of the hearing officers were listening and trying to hear both parent and school district perspectives.