Federal education officials are warning school districts to think twice before forcing parents into potentially long and costly due process proceedings.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, families may pursue due process or file a state complaint if they don’t believe their child has been provided appropriate school services.

However, in a “Dear Colleague” letter to education leaders across the country, officials at the U.S. Department of Education said this month that they are concerned that some school districts are moving to file for due process over issues that parents have already chosen to address via state complaints.

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Such circumstances can put parents in a tough spot, the guidance notes, because states are required to wait for a due process hearing to conclude before they can take up any portion of a state complaint that is also the subject of a due process proceeding.

“It appears that in some instances, public agencies may have filed due process complaints against parents in an effort to prevent the state complaint process from moving forward,” reads the letter from Sue Swenson, acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, and Melody Musgrove, director of the Office of Special Education Programs.

“This type of action … may unreasonably limit parents’ dispute resolution options, and force parents either to participate in a potentially more adversarial, lengthy and costly due process complaint and hearing, or to fail to participate in the due process complaint and hearing and thereby risk the hearing official’s ruling in favor of the public agency,” the guidance states.

The Education Department told stakeholders that it “strongly believes” that it’s best for school districts to honor the choices of parents in selecting a forum for resolving special education disputes.

Pushing parents who have already filed a state complaint into due process harms the “cooperative process” and is “contrary to congressional intent,” according to the letter from Swenson and Musgrove which urges schools to pursue mediation or other informal steps of resolving issues before turning to due process.