The Bulletin

Parents file class-action suit against Virginia Department of Education, Fairfax School Board over disability hearings

By: - September 21, 2022 8:00 pm

United States District Court Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond, Va. Parker Michels-Boyce for The Virginia Mercury

A federal class-action suit has been filed against the Virginia Department of Education and Fairfax County School Board claiming they are violating the rights of disabled students under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The plaintiffs in the case — the parents of an anonymous Fairfax County student and their nonprofit, Hear Our Voices, an organization focused on supporting disabled and special needs students — argue that VDOE and the Fairfax school board “have actively cultivated an unfair and biased” hearing system to oversee challenges to local decisions about disabled students. 

The parents claim that state hearing officers, who are responsible for holding impartial hearings to resolve disagreements over issues related to special education services, have ruled disproportionately against parents for two decades. 

Between 2010 and 2021, Virginia parents who initiated a due process hearing “received a favorable hearing” in only 13 of 847 cases, the lawsuit says.

“Moreover, during the last twenty years approximately two thirds of the hearing officers have never ruled in favor of parents, not even once,” the plaintiffs wrote. “Even worse, in Northern Virginia, 83% of hearing officers never once ruled in favor of parents over the eleven-plus years from 2010 to July 2021.” 

The low success rate for parental challenges in Virginia “is a glaring outlier compared to other states,” where studies have found rulings in favor of parents hovering around 30%, the lawsuit says. 

Charles Pyle, a spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Education, said in an email that the department does not comment on pending litigation, but is “committed to ensuring that students with disabilities receive all services and supports that they are entitled to under federal and state law.”

Fairfax County Public Schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trevor Chaplick, the father of the Fairfax student, said the lawsuit was brought forward to reveal the “deeply troubling ruling record” of Virginia’s hearing officers against parents of disabled children.

“The parents of disabled and special needs children deserve a better fate from the Virginia public school system,” said Chaplick in a statement. 

The Chaplicks allege that the Department of Education developed a roster of “school-friendly” hearing officers, allowed local education agencies to communicate improperly with hearing officers, hired officers who were biased due to financial interests and declined to certify new officers for more than a decade.

The Civil Rights Clinic of Georgetown Law School, the law firm of Susman Godfrey, LLP, and Merritt Law, PLLC, are representing the family. The case is being heard in the Alexandria Division of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“Children with disabilities and their families deserve ‘a life like yours,'” said Aderson Francois, director for the Georgetown Civil Rights Clinic, in a statement. “This lawsuit is the first step in making sure that the commonwealth of Virginia provides these children with an education that meets their needs.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.