Education Law

Education law has become increasingly complex in the last two decades. With reduced budgets and politicized tax bases, the tension between parents and school districts has increased. Pingelton Law Firm represents clients in two different types of education law: Special Education (IDEA); and General Education.

Special Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 USC § 1400 et seq is one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of educating special needs children. It guarantees every disabled student the right to a free appropriate public education. (This is known well to IDEA parents as “FAPE.”) Whether your child falls on the mild end of the autism spectrum; or endures through profound disabilities, the IDEA mandates that all public schools provide a free education, including related services necessary to ensure appropriate educational benefit. And if a school district cannot do that, it must pay for a private provider to do it for your child. Special education lawyer Dan Pingelton will help you obtain all relief available under this powerful federal law.

Since 1975, when the IDEA was born, school districts have been faced with critical decisions to provide a robust education to special needs students. Watchful parents pressed for more expensive services. School districts responded with a notable range of professionalism: Some were very good; some just awful. Over the years, a considerable amount of litigation and appellate court cases created a legal sub-specialty of special education law.

Dan Pingelton was on the cutting edge of this law, having served as one of the earliest administrative hearing officers for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Special Education (DESE). He was the first DESE hearing officer to have one of his decisions published in what was then known as the Education for the Handicapped Law Reporter (EHLR – now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Law Report, or IDELR). Over his 18-year tenure as a hearing officer, Dan Pingelton adjudicated numerous disputes between school districts and parents. Many of these cases involved multiple-day hearings and lengthy written decisions grapping with voluminous records and complex federal law. Of the few decisions that were appealed, the courts affirmed every one. As an expert in special education law, Dan Pingelton applied the rules fairly. He would even construe certain issues contrary to the belief of DESE bureaucrats if the law required it.

Nowadays, the Missouri Administrative Hearing Commission handles these special education hearings. Dan Pingelton, as a special education lawyer, now uses his extensive knowledge of this sub-specialty to help IDEA parents and their children throughout Missouri. He is familiar with many professionals involved in this technical area, having worked with most of them during his years as a hearing officer. He understands what the law can and cannot do for parents; and he knows what a school district can and cannot get away with as it tries to save money. Most school districts are smart. They hire excellent attorneys to minimize their exposure under the IDEA. But they’re not perfect; and they make more mistakes than many parents ever realize.

Most IDEA parents have become well versed in the rights afforded children. DESE has good on-line resources to help parents. And truthfully, DESE is not a shill for local school districts. DESE has on many occasions called local school districts to account for IDEA violations and related problems. DESE is often the first place many parents look for help. But if a parent’s problem isn’t addressed there; or if a parent still wonders if something is wrong with their child’s educational program, call Pingelton Law Firm to review your special education law matter. We’ll analyze your situation (including your child’s IEP), to determine whether a more throughout examination is warranted.

Many problems between parents and a school district can be resolved through dialogue, exchange of information and a few negotiation conferences. For those few cases that must move into contested hearings, including what is known as “due process,” Dan Pingelton will bring to bear the unique skill set necessary to prevail and compel your school district to comply with the IDEA. He has been practicing special education law for almost thirty years. Since 1986, the IDEA has allowed for attorney fees to be awarded to prevailing parents, further strengthening this powerful federal law. School districts will do everything they can to avoid losing one of these fights, because the cost of losing a case like this can easily reach six figures. If a school district isn’t paying attention to you, come to your next meeting with education lawyer Dan Pingelton. Their attitude will change.

Section 504

While the IDEA focuses on providing special education to disabled students, Section 504 forbids school districts from discriminating against disabled people. Many parents have both an IEP as well as a Section 504 plan for their child. These laws, as well as the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, all combine to provide a wide range of protection for students and parents.

Broadly speaking, the IDEA guarantees disabled students a beneficial education, lays out a roadmap for school districts to follow, and gives parents rights to empower their child along the way. Section 504 and the ADA forbid schools from discriminating against any disabled person. The IDEA is focused more on the unique characteristics of each student; while Section 504 and the ADA compare services between disabled and nondisabled students.

Education lawyer Dan Pingelton will examine your child’s Section 504 plan to ensure it complies with federal law. He often recommends changes to incorporate accommodations and services that many parents did not realize were available for their children. Many Section 504 problems are handled in Missouri either by DESE or the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education. We can help coordinate that for you; and we can use those resources should a due process hearing be necessary in your IDEA matter.

The IEP

IDEA parents are pretty well informed about their child’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP). Here is the legal background of the IEP, from one of education lawyer Dan Pingelton’s due process hearings:

The critical importance of a student’s IEP was discussed at length in the seminal case of Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S.176, 102 S. Ct. 3034 (1982). “The IEP, which is prepared at a meeting between a qualified representative of the local educational agency, the child's teacher, the child's parents or guardian, and, where appropriate, the child, consists of a written document containing ‘(A) a statement of the present levels of educational performance of such child, (B) a statement of annual goals, including short-term instructional objectives, (C) a statement of the specific educational services to be provided to such child, and the extent to which such child will be able to participate in regular educational programs, (D) the projected date for initiation and anticipated duration of such services, and (E) appropriate objective criteria and evaluation procedures and schedules for determining, on at least an annual basis, whether instructional objectives are being achieved.’ § 1401(19). Local or regional educational agencies must review, and where appropriate revise, each child's IEP at least annually. § 1414(a)(5). See also § 1413(a)(11).” Id. 458 U.S. at 181, 102 S.Ct. at 3038.

The Court in Rowley explained that FAPE consists of “educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child ‘to benefit’ from the instruction.” Id. 458 U.S. at 188-89, 102 S.Ct. at 3042. “[T]he ‘basic floor of opportunity’ provided by the Act consists of access to specialized instruction and related services which are individually designed to provide educational benefit to the handicapped child.” Id. 458 U.S. at 201, 102 S.Ct. at 3048.

The Court in Rowley also noted the critical importance of guaranteeing parental involvement in the IEP process: “It seems to us no exaggeration to say that Congress placed every bit as much emphasis upon compliance with procedures giving parents and guardians a large measure of participation at every state of the administrative process… as it did upon the measurement of the resulting IEP against a substantive standard.” The Court noted the requirement for “full participation of concerned parties throughout the development of the IEP.” Id. 458 U.S. at 205-06, 102 S.Ct. at 3050.

General Education

While most of education lawyer Dan Pingelton’s work involves the complex sub-specialty of IDEA and Section 504 matters, he has helped parents and teachers in other disputes with Missouri schools. For example, Dan Pingelton has represented teachers at odds with school districts regarding their employment contracts. We have helped students and parents with issues involving illegal searches and seizures, discipline, sexual harassment, bullying, and even First Amendment rights.

Educator Contract Disputes

Professional educators and school districts depend on both specialized contracts and state law to control their employment relationship. Tension sometimes develops when an educator wants or needs to change employment close to critical times for planning a school year. Occasionally, a party will react improperly and violate the contract, state law or both. Education lawyer Dan Pingelton can help you avoid this problem; or will protect your interests should the worst happen and you find yourself involved in litigation, including an action for discipline of your teaching certificate.

For example, we were proud to represent a tenured, highly recognized teacher certified to teach gifted students, grades K-12. After teaching in a school district for nearly ten years, our client was honored to receive an assignment from the Department of Defense to teach children of armed forces members overseas. Because of security clearance timing, the Pentagon instructed our client not to submit her resignation until a date that happened to fall very close to the date that Missouri law required her to inform her employer school district.

Unfortunately, the school district believed our client had violated both her contract and state law. It demanded she pay it thousands of dollars in what is known as “liquidated damages.” Believing (correctly) that the school district was wrong, our client refused. School districts sometimes make cruel mistakes, and in this case the district made a whopper: It requested the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to discipline our client’s teaching certificate.

Education lawyer Dan Pingelton believed that not only was this action illegal, it was also just mean-spirited. We proceeded to defend our client before a hearing by the general counsel for the Missouri State Board of Education. Astonishingly, the Board’s own lawyer got it wrong as well, and advised the Board to suspend our client’s license. Knowing this was legally indefensible, we proceeded into circuit court. There, finally after extensive arguments, the court agreed that our client was legally justified in everything she did. Education lawyer Dan Pingelton knew that from the start. He also knew that besides being legally correct, our client had also behaved morally and fairly. It was truly an honor helping a wonderful educator reclaim her teaching certificate despite erroneous rulings along the way from: (1) her employer school district; (2) her school district’s own lawyers; (3) the general counsel for the Missouri State Board of Education; and (4) the State Board of Education itself (whose membership included several lawyers). Our client’s full teaching certificate was restored and her record cleared. After serving her country for several years she returned to the States and continued teaching. She is the kind of teacher we all loved. She is the kind of teacher we all want our children to have. She was the kind of client we at Pingelton Law Firm really enjoyed representing, using our specialized knowledge of education law.

Here are excerpts from a legal filing in court, demonstrating part of how we won this case: Conclusions of Law.

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